First Look: $100 Video Editing Apps Square Off
Video editing applications can make desktop movie production fun and rewarding--or they can turn it into a job more aggravating than any other computing task you do. I tested shipping versions of Adobe's Premiere Elements 1 and Pinnacle Systems' Studio Plus 9 and found that both do a great job of capturing, editing, and burning movies to disc. Premiere Elements, however, is the clear winner for advanced users and for people who want room to grow.
Adobe's Premiere Elements is a new, $100 application that closely resembles the company's $700 Premiere Pro. Premiere Elements cannot use multiple timelines or nested sequences, batch capturing, surround-sound editing, and some Premiere Pro color correction tools. But like Pro, it can accommodate up to 99 video and audio tracks in the same project file.
Pinnacle Systems' Studio Plus 9 costs $100, too; it differs slightly from Pinnacle's $80 Studio 9. Most notably, the Plus version can handle two video tracks (Studio 9 manages just one), so it can do picture-in-picture and chroma-keying (superimposing a portion of one video on another, the way a weather forecaster does).
Capturing a Feeling
Naturally, both applications capture footage from a MiniDV camcorder; in fact, Adobe cautions that Premiere Elements is meant exclusively for MiniDV footage (usually an AVI file). When I tried importing MPEG files from the Sony DCR-DVD301 camcorder, both applications slowed to an unusable pace and frequently crashed.
Like most video editing applications, Studio Plus automatically splits footage into clips based on the camcorder's embedded time code; you just drag them into the storyboard or timeline (Studio has both). The storyboard lets you arrange clips easily, and you can switch back and forth between it and the timeline. Though Premiere Elements has no storyboard, it can detect scenes and send them directly to the timeline.
Studio Plus adds a SmartMovie function that requires almost no decision making--you just choose a style (for example, "soft and romantic"), enter a title and some closing credits, and hit a button. The result is a movie, complete with transitions and sound effects. It's quick, it's easy, and the results are okay; if you don't like them, you can make changes in the timeline.
If you choose to start from scratch, you'll still find Studio Plus's simple interface easier to figure out than Premiere Elements'. But Premiere Elements ships with more than 300 video and audio effects and transitions, and many give you an incredible range of adjustability. Many are keyframeable, too: You can set the specific video frame where an effect begins to work and another frame where it stops working, and you can specify the level of effect for every frame in between, if you like.
Studio Plus ships with 20 effects and 186 transitions. Many other effects, transitions, and additional features appear within its interface, but with a padlock icon next to them, indicating that you can't use them without buying them first, and that you can't hide them. Effects come in packs costing from $6 to $40. Worse, some locked features (for example, MPEG-4 encoding, used to compress movies for Web sites) don't show the padlock icon, and if you accidentally click one, the application will put a Pinnacle logo over the clip, or you'll have to wait--and steam--while the application opens your Web browser so you can buy it. Pinnacle's approach might have been tolerable if you could easily steer around the locked items, but they're everywhere in the application, and you can't hide them.
Studio Plus's built-in effects have far less adjustability than do those in Elements, and only a couple have even a basic keyframe capability; you must buy one of the extra-cost tools to get better keyframing.
Can I See a Menu?
Premiere Elements has 33 DVD menu templates; the application will automatically generate DVD menu markers, or you can set them manually in the timeline quite easily. You can customize only text, however: You can't modify the backgrounds that come from the templates, and you can't apply movement or audio.
Studio Plus has 45 DVD menu templates, a few of which have audio or motion. If you drag a menu into the storyboard or timeline, the application will ask whether you want it to automatically generate menu markers. Then you have to switch to the Make Movie section of the application to set disc-burning parameters. The process is easy, but not quite as easy as with Elements.
One Thumb Up
Video-editing applications are notoriously finicky, and I ran into all sorts of problems with these two programs. For example, Premiere Elements labored when trying to process DV files until I updated my graphics card driver (then it worked fine). Since it didn't recognize my system's internal Pioneer DVR-108 burner, I had to render the files to a folder and then use a separate DVD burning app (it worked well with a second PC's burner). Studio Plus hung several times during rendering.
But when Premiere Elements works, it's inspiring. Its outstanding interface, huge list of sophisticated effects, and keyframing tools enable you to make amazingly good movies. If you're also in the market for a digital photo editing app, Adobe's bundle combining Premiere Elements with Photoshop Elements for $150 is a bargain.
Studio Plus is a great video editor for beginners, but in its standard configuration, it has far less power than Premiere Elements, and the intrusive reminders to buy components give this application an annoying trialware feel.
Incredible power for the money; good for novices as well as people who expect to upgrade later.