Edit Video on Your PC
Digital video tools get more powerful and easier to use every year, and that's especially true when it comes to the video editing software that targets nonprofessional enthusiasts. There are always new formats, new techniques, and new capabilities that trickle down from professional-level software. That's a good thing, because higher-quality video content produced by nonprofessionals is exploding in volume, thanks to phones that record in 4K, DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, drones, and action cams that can capture motion-picture quality video. And, given how cheap storage media is, the only limit on how much you can shoot is how tolerant your subjects are and how much time you have.
Multicam and More
Of course, it's not enough to just shoot hours of great raw video. Great movies (even great home movies) are made in the editing room—or on the laptop, as is often the case these days. But you're covered there, too. Advanced abilities continue to make their way into accessible, affordable, and consumer-friendly video editing software as each new generation of software is released. For example, multicam editing, which lets you switch among camera angles of the same scene shot with multiple video cameras, used to be a feature relegated to pro-level software. Now this and many other advanced effects are available in programs designed for use by non-professional enthusiasts.
Another impressive effect that has made its way into consumer-level video editing software is motion tracking, which lets you attach an object or effect to something moving in your video. You might use it to put a blur over the face of someone you don't want to show up in your video. You specify the target face, and the app takes care of the rest, tracking the face and moving the effect to follow it. This used to be the sole province of special effects software such as Adobe After Effects. Corel VideoStudio was the first of the consumer products to include motion tracking, and it still leads the pack in the depth and usability of its motion-tracking tool, though several others have followed suit.
Support for 4K video source content has become pretty standard in video editing software, but the support varies among the products. For example, some but not all of the applications can import Sony XAVC and XAVC-S formats, which are used by Sony's popular DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, camcorders, and professional video cameras. The same holds true for the relatively new H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard.
Several of the products here (Adobe Premiere Elements is a notable exception) still support 3D video editing if that's your thing, though the this has been replaced by 360-degree VR footage like that shot by the Samsung Gear 360 as the current home-theater fad. As is often the case, our Editors' Choice, CyberLink PowerDirector was the first product in this group to offer support for this new kind of video media.
Video Editing 101
Of course, none of the extras matter if an app can't do the most basic editing tasks. At this point, however, all of the products included here do a good job of letting you join, trim, and split video clips. They also let you make use of special effects such as animated transitions, picture-in-picture (PiP), chroma-key (the technique that lets you place a subject against any background, often known as green screening), and filters that enhance colors or apply creative effects and distortions. They also let you add a multitude of timeline tracks that can accommodate video clips, effects, audio, and text overlays.
Where the Action Is
Many video editing apps now include tools designed to please users of action cameras such as the GoPro Hero4 Silver. For example, several offer automated freeze-frame along with speedup, slowdown, and reverse time effects. CyberLink PowerDirector's Action Camera Center pulls together freeze frame with stabilization, slo-mo, and fish-eye correction, and color correction for underwater footage. Magix Movie Edit Pro 2016 Premium includes the third-party NewBlue ActionCam Package of effects.
Titles That Zing
I've been seeing a lot of attention paid to creating title effects in the applications over the past year. Apple Final Cut Pro X has added 3D title creation, which is pretty spiffy, letting you extrude 2D titles and rotate them on three axes. PowerDirector's Title Designer offers transparency, gradient color, border, blur level, and reflection in titles; and Magix has impressive title templates, complete with animations. Look for an application that lets you edit titles in WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) mode, so that you can type, format, and time it right over the video preview.
Video editing is one of the most computing-intensive activities around, so you'll want the best laptop or desktop you can afford if you're serious about cutting your own movies. Most applications help speed up the editing process by creating a proxy file of lower resolution, so that normal editing and previewing aren't slowed down by the huge full-resolution files. Particularly intensive is the process of rendering your finished product into a standard video file that will by playable on the target device of choice, be that an HDTV, a laptop, or a smartphone. Most of the software can take advantage of your computer's graphics processor to speed this up. Be sure to check the performance section in each review linked here to see how speedy or slow the application is.
Other measures of performance include startup time and simple stability. Again, video editing is a taxing activity for any computer, involving many components. In the past, video editing programs took longer than most other apps to start up, and unexpected shutdowns were unfortunately common, even in top apps from top developers such as Adobe and Apple. In my testing this time around, however, program crashes were few and far between across the board. The stability situation has greatly improved, but the complexity of the process, which increases as more powerful effects are added, means crashes will likely never be fully eliminated.
What About Apple?
Though Mac users don't have the sheer number of software choices available for PCs, Apple fans interested in editing video are well served, by four products in particular. At the entry level, the surprisingly capable and enjoyable-to-use iMovie comes free with every Mac sold since at least 2011. iMovie only offers two video tracks, but does good job with chroma-keying, and its Trailers feature makes it easy to produce slick, Hollywood-style productions.
In the midrange, there's Adobe Premiere Elements, which is cross-platform between Macs and PCs, and offers a lot more features and lots of help with creating effects. Professionals and prosumer have powerful, though pricey options in Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro. Final Cut is a deceptively simple application that resembles iMovie in its interface and ease of use, but it offers massively deep capabilities, and many third-party apps integrate with it for even more power. It also makes excellent use of the Touch Bar on the latest MacBook Pro, as shown in photo above. Premiere Pro uses a more traditional timeline and adds a large ecosystem of companion apps and plug-ins. It also excels in collaboration features.
We still live in the days of talkies, so you want to be able to edit the audio in your digital moves as well as the images. Most of the products included here offer canned background music, and many, such as Pinnacle Studio, can even tailor the soundtrack to the exact length of your movie. All of these programs can separate audio and video tracks, and most can clean up background noise and add environmental audio effects such as concert hall reverb. A couple of the products have recently added an auto-ducking feature, which lowers background music during dialog—a definite pro-level plus.
The Finish Line
The video editing application you choose will depend on your budget, the equipment you're using, and how serious you are. Fortunately, you're spoiled for choice with the products available. Dig into our in-depth reviews of enthusiast-level video editing software reviews linked below to see which is the right one for you.
Featured in This Roundup
Adobe Premiere Pro CC
%displayPrice% at %seller% An expansive professional-level digital video editing program, Premiere Pro CC has everything today's pro video editor needs, particularly when it comes to collaboration. Read the full review
Apple Final Cut Pro X
%displayPrice% at %seller% Apple's professional-level video editing software, Final Cut Pro X, brings a wealth of power in an interface simple for pros and consumers alike. Version 10.3 adds deep integration with the MacBook Pro Touch Bar. Read the full review
Apple iMovie (for Mac OS X)
%displayPrice% at %seller% Apple's entry-level desktop video editing application can turn your footage and photos into impressive productions. And now it supports 4K video. Read the full review
Corel VideoStudio Ultimate X10
%displayPrice% at %seller% Corel continues to offer one of the most feature-packed consumer video editing packages around. Support for 360-degree VR content, masking, and time-remapping debut in the latest version. Read the full review
CyberLink PowerDirector 15 Ultimate
%displayPrice% at %seller% PowerDirector is the fastest and most capable consumer-level video editing software for Windows around, and it's the first to support 360-degree VR footage. Read the full review
Pinnacle Studio 20 Ultimate
%displayPrice% at %seller% Pinnacle Studio 20 is a fast, full-featured, near-professional-level video-editing application with support for 360-degree VR, 3D, and multi-cam. It's highly recommended. Read the full review
Adobe Premiere Elements
%displayPrice% at %seller% Premiere Elements is an easy-to-use video editor with lots of effects and guidance, but it trails some of the competition in speed, flexibility, and support for new content types. Read the full review
Magix Movie Edit Pro 2016 Premium
%displayPrice% at %seller% Magix Movie Edit Pro 2016 Plus is loaded with effects and supports 4K, 360-degree content, and multi-cam editing. The software's render speeds have improved, but it's not as pleasant to use as the best of the video editing competition. Read the full review
Nero Video 2017
%displayPrice% at %seller% For less money than the competition, Nero offers good enthusiast-level video editing capabilities, but the interface is a bit outdated and it trails in support for new formats and techniques. Read the full review
Vegas Movie Studio 14 Platinum
%displayPrice% at %seller% This consumer video editing software can get the job done, but it trails the competition when it comes to usability and support for newer content types. Read the full review