4 video editors: Pro results for ambitious amateurs

Video-editing software now offers features formerly only available to pros. We review four of the top packages (with video examples).

With HD-resolution cameras now standard-issue items in smartphones, 4K-resolution cameras falling into consumers' hands and multi-core processing power standard issue on desktops and laptops, the need for video editing suites with high-end features has moved into the mainstream.

In this roundup, I explore four well-known video editing packages -- Adobe Premiere Pro CS6, Corel VideoStudio Pro X6, CyberLink PowerDirector 11 and Sony Vegas Pro 12 -- that are suitable for the ambitious amateur or for the professional who wants to complete a quick project. These are available both as standalone items and as parts of larger suites or packages, and there's a price range and a feature set for most every budget or need. (Note: Only Adobe offers a version for Mac users.)

What constitutes a "high-end" feature -- or product, or suite -- is at least as much about implementation as whether or not it's included. For example, 4K-resolution video (3840 x 2160 pixels), used by a growing number of consumer-level devices, is supported by all the products in this roundup. However, not all of them support Redcode, the 4K video format generated by Red pro-level cameras. Not a big deal to those editing cellphone footage, but a potential deal-killer if you end up working with such high-tier technology.

To that end, I've looked at each of these products with an eye towards how well they handle top-of-the-line features like 4K support, general usability, value for the money and bonus features. My test system for this roundup was an Intel Core i7-3770K quad-core (eight-thread) system running at 3.5 GHz, with 16GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD system drive and a 2TB secondary drive; NVIDIA loaned me a Quadro 5000 GPU.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6

Adobe Systems

Price: Standalone: $799 or monthly starting at $19.99. Suites: CS6 Production Premium ($1,899); CS6 Master Collection ($2,599); Creative Cloud, ($49.99/mo. w/annual commitment, $74.99/mo. cancel at any time)

OS: Windows 7 and later, Mac OS X v10.6.8 and later

Adobe has done a lot of work with Premiere Pro -- both as a standalone product and as part of the Adobe Creative Suite -- so that video professionals will take it more seriously. With each successive revision Premiere Pro has become more tightly integrated with Photoshop and other Adobe products (and vice versa).

In addition, Premiere Pro CS6 has gained features to keep it competitive with professional-grade editing products. Among the biggest new additions, and one sure to be attractive to high-end camera users, is native support for footage from 4K-resolution camera systems: the Red Epic, the Red Scarlet-X, the ARRI Alexa series and the Canon Cinema EOS C300, among others. A great deal of processing power and throughput is needed to handle these files (a single minute of Redcode footage can eat up 4GB). However, Adobe has made it possible to speed up the process considerably with its accelerated Mercury Playback Engine -- provided you have a graphics card that supports it.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6
A professional-level program for a professional audience, Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 introduces a new pay-as-you-go licensing for both the suite and the standalone program.

The Premiere user interface hasn't been changed a great deal over the previous version, but a few incremental tweaks here and there do make it easier to work with. For example, editing clip boundaries can now be done by dynamically sliding an edit point, typing a number (such as -5 frames from the current point) or by using a side-by-side editing view that shows where one edit ends and another begins, and which can be adjusted by either mouse or keyboard controls. I'm comfortable editing right in the timeline, but veteran editors used to a side-by-side view from other products will like this.

Premiere Pro CS6 introduces a few new plugin effects for processing problematic footage. The Warp Stabilizer, for instance, uses image-synthesis algorithms to correct for camera shake. Previous plugins of this type either zoomed in on the image or left black borders around it as part of the compensation process, but Warp Stabilizer attempts to reconstruct the edges of the image as well. It's best used for individual moments in shots that need it, since it takes a long time to process footage (almost 20 minutes for a single 45-second clip, even on my multi-core system), and can introduce some artifacts of its own, mostly at the edges of the images.

The same goes for the Rolling Shutter Repair plugin, which corrects wobbling or skewing artifacts common to some CMOS-based camera sensors but can introduce other artifacts unless it's used carefully.

One truly useful new feature inspired by Photoshop, Adjustment Layers, lets you apply effects to whole groups of clips at once. You no longer have to add those effects to each clip and tweak them separately, which was clumsy and time-consuming.

Other new pro-level feature tweaks include an easier-to-work-with color-correction plugin (you can also use Adobe SpeedGrade as a more high-end substitute), better handling of multi-camera footage (you're no longer limited to a maximum of four cameras) and pixel-level support for high-resolution screens like the MacBook Pro's Retina Display.

A big selling point for Premiere Pro has been its close integration with the rest of the products in the Creative Suite, especially in terms of workflow. Sequences created in Adobe After Effects, for instance, can be launched from Premiere Pro by simply double-clicking on the sequence in a project timeline or asset list. Changes made to any such object are automatically updated in the Premiere timeline. The same goes for almost every other kind of Adobe file type, such as Photoshop image files.

The single biggest change to both Premiere Pro and Adobe's entire Creative Suite isn't in the software, but the licensing. While you can still purchase the boxed products (Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 retails for $799 and the Adobe Creative Suite 6 Master Collection for $2,599), both the individual programs (including Premiere Pro) and the whole of Creative Suite can now be licensed on a month-to-month basis.

Premiere Pro alone can be rented for $29.99/month or $239.88/year. Creative Cloud, the newly rebranded, pay-as-you-go version of Creative Suite, offers every program in the suite (including Premiere) for $49.99/month if you agree to a one-year commitment, $74.99/month if you want to be able to cancel at any time. Thirty-day trials for individual apps and for the whole suite are also available.

Bottom line

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 is a top-of-the-line, professional-grade product that also commands a professional price. The new pay-as-you-go pricing, though, may open up the product to a new audience.

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Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 allows multiple timeline sequences within a project; there is a revised color-correction plugin; the software corrects shutter-roll problems.

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