As part of my effort to explore the many ways that digital media can be used to share stories, I have invested considerable time and energy creating small videos that I have posted to my YouTube channel. These videos have ranged from my favorite clip of a humpback whale to Gumby flying my RC plane to time-lapses of space-borne scientific instruments to photo/video montages of my kayaking exploits. But no matter the subject, the fact remains that being able to quickly and repeatedly generate content is the best way to share the story behind the video. In order to accomplish this throughput, I have used Windows Live Movie Maker as my video editor for the past several years. It is an extremely simple, yet robust, free video editor for Microsoft Windows that is analogous and quite comparable to iMovie for Mac computers. But after a while, simply being able to generate content consistently was no longer enough. After spending all of that time creating videos, I realized that there were capabilities that simply did not exist in Movie Maker and so I set about to find a better solution.
In today’s digital environment, high definition video is everywhere and with it are significant challenges to video editing. The recent AVCHD format that is used on my Panasonic TS3 waterproof camera is wonderful for 1920×1080 footage, but it is a bear to simply view it on older computers. As a matter of fact, Apple devices don’t even provide native support for it, so if you try to view it in QuickTime or edit it in iMovie, you are out of luck. I recently purchased a laptop and was sure to get a high powered Core i7 processor with 8GB of memory, since that is pretty much required for being able to edit and save high-def video footage these days. In spite of my desire to find more powerful video editing software, I must confess that Windows Live Movie Maker was able to handle all the high-def footage I could throw at it without any stability or performance issues. However, my survey of commercially available video editors quickly revealed that performance varies significantly among software packages. Among about 8 leading contenders, almost every website stated that Cyberlink PowerDirector had by far the best performance without suffering any stability issues and my own trial version evaluation yielded the same results. There are a number of reasons why its performance is better than its competitors, but the primary reason seems to be that the software has been designed to take advantage of modern computing capabilities such as being a native 64-bit application. On the other hand, Adobe Premiere Elements was just as slow in my tests as other reviewers had predicted, while Sony Vegas Movie Studio Premium was quick enough and reliable except when it reported “low memory” errors when trying to stabilize shaky video.
In addition to requiring the video editing software to perform quickly and reliably when subject to high definition video, I had several other requirements that I needed the new software to meet. My favorite video editing technique presently is the pan/zoom/Ken Burns effect that adds motion to still images. I find that it compels the viewer to follow the photo compared to simply staring at a static image on the screen. This effect is incredibly easy to implement in Movie Maker, but it lacks the ability to manually configure the path direction and timing like more sophisticated programs. Almost all of the software I reviewed was able to use “key frames” to allow the producer to configure the motion exactly as desired, but it was also important that I could quickly drop a bunch of photos into the application and let it sort things out for me the way that Movie Maker does. Once again, PowerDirector offered complete customization and the ability to quickly apply the effect to a batch of photos. Sony’s Vegas Movie Studio Platinum was also able to perform both tasks, but it seemed slightly less flexible than PowerDirector. Adobe Premiere Elements was able to apply the effect with either custom or automatic settings, but it could only be applied to one photo at a time! This was a complete deal breaker to me, since a video could easily have hundreds of photos and there is no way that I would manually apply this effect to each and every image. At the far end of the spectrum, I couldn’t even figure out how to apply this effect in Corel VideoStudio or Avid Studio.
Another important criteria in my selection was multi-track capability that is lacking in simpler programs like Movie Maker and iMovie. Multiple tracks are used to simultaneously operate on several video clips and audio clips rather than dealing with one at a time. Fortunately, all of the prosumer software supported multiple tracks, although there were differences in the maximum number of tracks in each package. The other thing that usually comes with multi-track editing is the use of a time-line that proportionally represented the various video and audio clips in the movie project. Movie Maker and iMovie have abandoned time-lines in favor story-boards that greatly simplify the view of the movie project, but at the cost of also masking the true construction of the project and limiting more sophisticated editing operations. Most of these software packages also provided a story-board view that could be easily toggled back and forth to from the time-line view, so the user can get the best of both worlds.
One of the editing techniques that I wanted to use on several occasions is Picture-in-Picture (PiP), and an interesting aspect of PiP is that it requires a multi-track time-line, since the various videos clips are all being displayed simultaneously. A few years ago, I read a tutorial about how to execute PiP in Adobe Premiere Elements and was completely frightened away from the technique after following the steps in order to absolutely no avail. So when I began to look at these software packages, I was relieved to discover that PiP can be easily implemented in seconds and with incredible accuracy and creative freedom. Once again, my favorite was PowerDirector for easy of execution and performance, but Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum was also really easy after I figured out the tricks. One of the things that I should note about all of these software packages is that the instruction and help was terrible. I thought that it would have been a simple matter to learn how to implement PiP, but help manuals and menus were either poor or non-existent. I guess that is one of the reasons I thought it would be worthwhile to write up some of my experiences; if you have any questions about this, I’d be happy to try to help you.
I had one final requirement for the video editing software. The very fact that most video footage is handheld (or from a kayak or RC plane in my case) means that it is likely to be shaky, but fortunately this can now be mitigated in post-processing by video editors. This is one case where iMovie is able to beat Movie Maker by providing a video stabilizer function. Like I mentioned previously, I wasn’t able to get Sony Vegas to complete this task without throwing an error, but PowerDirector did an amazing job at smoothing out shaky mountain bike footage from my Pole-Pedal-Paddle video and even showed a side-by-side preview of the corrected footage compared to the original footage. I didn’t even bother evaluating this functionality in the other software packages, since at that point, it was obvious that PowerDirector was the software for me.
So I am currently in the process of installing the paid version of PowerDirector and am looking forward to my future video editing projects!
If you want a more thorough description and comparison of these and other video editors for Windows, check out the review at TopTenReviews.