Review: Pinnacle Edition 5
Posted Aug 8, 2003

synopsis: Saddled with the most challenging interface of any tool in its class, Pinnacle Edition is off-putting at first, to say the least. But stick with it and you'll reap the rewards—that same interface is extraordinarily flexible, powerful, and inspiring. Overall, workflow is fast and efficient, and the software boasts versatile color correction, great stability, and the most ingenious use of hyperthreaded processing we've seen to date. All hail the new prosumer video editing king, at least for now. Bring on Premiere Pro.

Pinnacle Edition 5 is like a brilliant but bratty teenager. Half the time you want to send the program to its room for silly idiosyncrasies and needless interface faux pas and half the time you want to hug it for its brilliant architecture and unparalleled interface. Frequently, we found ourselves smiling in appreciation of the sheer elegance of this product. Unfortunately, more often, at least initially, we found ourselves shaking our head in frustration.

During our testing, we spent about a week with Edition, editing a 60-minute gymnastics exhibition down to about 17 minutes, in addition to several other projects. Had you asked on Day One, we would have advised to stay away at all costs. Day Three, it was "serious users only." By the end of the week, however, it's "send the kids to camp and the spouse on vacation, then call in sick for a week and dig in." It will take that long to learn the program, but once you get it, you'll be sold for life.

Edition is first in its class of prosumer video editors with built-in DVD authoring, providing authoring capabilities similar to business-oriented DVD tools like Ulead's Workshop, and more extensive than Sonic Foundry's DVD Architect. Between its core editing functionality and its newfound authoring capabilities, Edition is an extraordinarily potent tool.

Pinnacle sells two versions of Edition: a software plus FireWire card configuration for $699; and Edition PRO ($999), which features the software with DV and analog I/O plus a 2D and 3D graphics chip on an AGP board that replaces your graphics card. According to Pinnacle, the PRO version accelerates analog preview, but no other effects. Nonetheless, to ensure apples-to-apples results in time trials with Ulead MediaStudio and Sonic Foundry/Sony Pictures Vegas, we eschewed the PRO version and tested Edition with an NVIDIA NV200 graphics card.

As with the last two software NLEs we reviewed, Vegas and MediaStudio (June and July 2003, respectively), we tested on a Pentium 4 3.06gHz PC with HT Technology and 512MB RAM running Windows XP Professional, capturing to a freshly formatted 120GB 7200RPM Ultra ATA Seagate Barracuda drive. Our source camera was a Sony VX2000 camcorder, connected to an NTSC monitor to test Edition's preview out the FireWire port. A surround sound-capable Sound Blaster Audigy rounded out the relevant equipment list, though Edition has no surround functionality.

Have You Hugged Your GPU Today?
Anyone familiar with video editing knows that "real time" is an extraordinarily slippery term to define, except in its absence. Previous versions of Edition offered no real-time effects, so you had to render completely before even previewing an effect, a severe competitive disadvantage against other software-only products and hardware-assisted, Premiere-based real-time solutions from Pinnacle, Matrox, and Canopus.

Edition 5 offers two classes of "real-time" effects, those rendered by the host CPU (e.g., the Pentium 4 in our system) and those rendered by the GPU, short for graphics processing unit, the chip that drives the graphics card in your system. Real time means "real-time" preview, as opposed to real-time DV output, a feature on many hardware-based editing solutions. As with all editors, it also means "real time so long as your system is fast enough and you don't layer too many effects on the timeline at once."

GPU, CPU, Schme-PU, I don't really care, and neither should you. All software-based video editors claim to have real-time effects, under the right circumstances. What Edition does differently is this: When you apply a real-time effect and preview, Edition will display the preview in real time if possible. In our tests, virtually all single effects displayed at 30fps on the computer monitor according to the meter Edition displays on the bottom of the screen. Had we used the PRO version, these would have previewed in real time on an analog monitor as well.

Stack up enough effects, and Edition degrades gracefully, displaying less than 30fps. In our most stringent test, which involved four picture-in-picture streams displayed in 3D frames, Edition displayed about 24fps; in truth, reasonably similar to numbers posted by MediaStudio and Vegas.

But here's what Edition does differently. After you preview and move on to the next edit, Edition renders the previous edit in the background. On our hyperthreaded Pentium 4 computer, which could dedicate one process to background rendering, and one to foreground editing, we felt no delay or sluggishness while editing.

In the background, however, Edition was busy rendering, fast enough so that when it was time to write to DV tape, all necessary renders were complete. Your mileage may vary, but we're not talking cuts and transitions here, we're talking chroma key, color correction, and image pans. When it was time to push the button, Edition was ready to roll. That's impressive, and as illustrated later, translates to real efficiency gains over competing software-only products. It's also the most purely brilliant use of HT technology to date.

Elegant Interface
In addition, Edition's user interface makes most competitors appear both clunky and dowdy. The tone is a muted khaki green, appealing and easy on the eyes. The four basic windows parallel most other editors, with a timeline, source viewer, preview, and library window containing project assets and effects.

You can easily toggle to an alternative view, which shows the Project window with an open desktop for storyboarding, and an available clip editor to trim your clips. Arrange your clips, right click and they're on the timeline. Edition also provides a range of dual-monitor presets that provide even more flexibility.

All windows are fully embedded, all the time, which eliminates clutter. Effect controls replace the preview and source windows, and are uniform, simplifying operation. You have full control over the icons placed on the interface, allowing one-click access to the editing tools and effects of your choice. You can also map your own keyboard commands with a useful visual keyboard mapper.

All timeline tracks can accept audio, video, or both, and there are no A:B tracks so you can easily place audio and video transitions on any track. You can name all tracks and lock them by pressing the label, which simplifies tasks like insert editing.

You can trim in the source window or on the timeline, aided by real-time preview at both ends of the clip, something not enabled by a surprising number of editors. On the timeline, Edition posts the clip name and duration on the clip itself, simplifying timeline trimming. A dual-view trim window assists precise edits between clips.

In the default configuration, a number of accessible icons speed your editing, like "jump to" commands for edits and markers, one-click dissolve insertion, mark-in and mark-out commands, and an accessible razor blade. You can store frequently used effects and transitions in your project browser, where you can easily apply them to multiple assets.

Each project can have multiple sequences so you can edit different components on different timelines, and then join them for the final production. You can also group multiple assets into one "container" on the timeline to apply one effect uniformly to the group.

Edition saves all edit decisions in real time, so there's no need to save your project. We experienced one crash in all of our testing, near the end of a long, multi-hour project. We rebooted, loaded the sequence, and were up and running (and ecstatic).

Our longest test project involved condensing a 60-minute gymnastics exhibition down to a watchable 17 minutes of video, which took about eight hours of production time, including climbing Edition's learning curve. We probably could duplicate the work in under two hours now that we know the program. The project involved more than 200 discrete edits, and once we got the rhythm, the operation was extremely efficient. Though the sizzle of most editors is the number of real-time effects and the like, the steak is the workflow. With Edition, once you get it, you get it, and there's no turning back.

Not surprisingly, Pinnacle tricked out Edition with two of its strongest tools, Title Deko for titling and Hollywood FX Plus for transitions. Title Deko is showing its age a bit, especially compared to the creativity and precision offered by Premiere 6.5's titling utility. Though functionally similar, the presentation is also different from that used by Pinnacle Studio 8, which is confusing, especially since the Studio version serves as Edition's DVD menu creation interface.

Hollywood FX, however, is a unique offering of hundreds of occasion-specific, customizable 2D and 3D transitions that will benefit any corporate or event videographer. Filming a wedding? You can conclude the ceremony with a transition that inserts the video into a picture book and slowly closes the book.

Shooting a sporting event? There are dozens of sport-specific effects, like a transition that squeezes Video A into a golf ball, places it on a tee and then smacks it down the fairway to reveal clip B. Though these effects may sound kitschy, they add a leavening, professional touch that can't easily be duplicated anywhere else. Also noteworthy is a real-time multi-track audio mixer, though Edition lacks surround capabilities or the ability to create or import AC-3 audio like Vegas.

Well, so far, this has sounded more like a promotional brochure than a review, and you're probably wondering why all the warnings up front. Well, things are about to get, er…complicated.

Formal Testing
We started our formal tests looking at color correction, the unfortunate legacy of poorly white-balanced vacation footage from Zoo Atlanta. With most editors, you run the color-correction filter, wiggle the controls for a while, get your best result, and move on. With Edition, however, you have three completely different controls, each with a different interface, different real-time characteristics, and a different mechanism for applying the results to other clips. We also sneaked a peak at an upcoming "automatic" color-correction filter with a completely different interface.

If your glass is half empty (e.g., us on Day One), your immediate reaction is that this is unnecessarily confusing. Surely, there must be one optimal way to accomplish this task, both from an interface perspective and under the hood. If your glass is half full (e.g. us on Day Seven), it's a cornucopia of choices and styles, ideal to address the "one size does not fit all" color-correction problem.

Even in half-full mode, we're obligated to note that Edition does lack real-time preview out the FireWire card, a feature of both Vegas and MediaStudio, though Edition PRO does give users real-time analog preview. We also preferred Vegas' split-screen view, though the diversity in Edition's toolset definitely provided an advantage: using the "automated" control, with lots of manual assistance, we got the best results yet.

When it came to our chroma key tests, we were glad Edition retained the classic filter, since it outperformed the real-time version significantly, was much easier to use, and had better analysis tools. For example, the classic tool used much less technical jargon, offered edge-softness controls, and provided controls for zooming into and moving around the image, or alternative views like alpha overlay. The real-time tool had neither of the last two, and used totally unfamiliar descriptions.

The only downside to the classic version was a significant wait on rendering, like 4:30 for a 20-second clip. That's on a P4 3.06 with HT technology, so if you've got loads of chroma keying to do, it's a red flag. For occasional bits, however, note that you can view the effect frame-by-frame and continue to edit while it's rendering in the background—you just can't preview the effect in real time.

We're all for freedom of choice, but even a user whose glass is half full will be confused by the four classes of real-time effects (GPU-2D/3D, CPU 2D/3D), plus classic 2D and 3D that all share similar controls for positioning, sizing, rotation, and other 2D effects. There are critical differences between the tools, like the surprisingly functional high-resolution pan-and-scan image interface for producing Ken Burns-like documentary effects (slow-zooming photos and such) that's functionally similar to Canopus' $299 Imaginate product (reviewed March 2003), though slightly less polished. This is only available in the classic 2D filter, not the new real-time GPU or CPU 2D filters.

Pinnacle's response is that advanced users can use these filters to balance GPU and CPU-based effects for nearer-real-time performance. We dabbled in this and quickly concluded that it would take longer to test and balance filters for the best performance than it would just to render and be done with it. Given the design brilliance that created the overall interface, these guys must be able to find a better way to present these tools.

Time Trials

As in past reviews, our one-minute test project involved three video tracks, with color correction and chroma key effects applied to two clips, a spinning EMedia logo and an image pan effect over a moving video. We also inserted a background music track, making three tracks total, and a three-second dissolve between two clips.

First, we rendered in DV and MPEG-2. Then we changed the transition to see how efficiently the editor rendered the change. Finally, to test pure MPEG-2 encoding capabilities, we encoded a 60-second DV file that involved no effect-rendering.

Performance-wise, Edition's background rendering provided a significant advantage over both MediaStudio and Vegas, since our test project—even using the classic chroma key control—was ready to write to tape as soon as we finished. This pre-rendering also helped Edition in first-time encoding-to-MPEG-2 trials, where it trailed MediaStudio Pro only slightly, despite being significantly slower in pure MPEG-2 encoding, as demonstrated in the last test.

After changing our dissolve transition to a wipe, Edition had to re-render the transition, and trailed MediaStudio Pro by a few seconds. However, Pinnacle could learn a lesson from Ulead about producing MPEG-2 files after minor changes, since Edition showed no real efficiency in this regard. We used Vegas 4.c and, as with all the editors, loaded the files from one drive and rendered to another. To save us from a deluge of emails, we rendered Vegas in Good, but not Best rendering mode, which the Vegas faithful assured us delivered more than acceptable quality. We viewed the rendered video to ensure there were no dramatic differences, but did not rate the results.

Authoring and Output

From a DVD authoring perspective, Edition provides all of the functionality of Studio 8, which is quite substantial, including full menu-branching capabilities and baubles like motion menus and buttons. You can also go the template route and let Edition build sequentially navigated menus for you. Both share the inability to produce AC-3 audio files, though Edition can output MPEG audio, which offers similar compression, but compatibility risks with older DVD players. Edition also can accept a layered Photoshop file as a menu, the likely vestige of sister product Pinnacle Impression that we were happy not to test. Edition also improved post-play navigation options, providing almost complete intra-menu flexibility, and can auto-populate menus based upon five different criteria, including markers, scenes, and clips. On Edition PRO, you can preview in real time out to an analog monitor, a definite plus. However, what Studio accomplishes in one neat, visual screen, Edition does with a tabbed, two-window interface that essentially wastes the preview screen, so you can't easily scroll to select your target videos, or see the target frame when you actually reset your thumbnails. Where Studio uses clear language like "Set Chapter Link," Edition obscures with nomenclature like "set absolute target." To move a chapter mark in Studio, you grab it with your pointer and move it. With Edition, you…well, we're not sure—we never figured it out. As mentioned earlier, Edition uses one version of Title Deko for title design and Studio's version for menu creation, which is inelegant, and just plain confusing. With Studio, authoring and editing are merged so gracefully that you can't see the lines between the two, as if the designers truly believed in what they were doing. With Edition, it feels like the designers were forced to sully their editing masterpiece with authoring capabilities, and tacked it on unwillingly. That said, it worked, and worked well, so long as we used templates to build our DVD. Edition successfully rendered and burned our 18-minute test project in 59:36, though it felt like an eternity because Edition doesn't show progress or estimated time-to-completion. The project was definitely worth the wait, however, since the often high-motion gymnastics videos, encoded at an average data rate of 8Mbps in VBR mode, looked fantastic. Of course, this was all reasonably well-lit video shot with a great camera (Sony's VX2000), but we have seldom, if ever, seen higher MPEG-2 quality. Toward the end of our testing, however, we dabbled in custom menu creation, which we found slightly unstable. If you need to build highly custom DVDs, you may want to use Edition for video preparation and another tool like Ulead's DVD Workshop or Pinnacle Studio for authoring. The Bottom Line As perhaps you can tell, we adore this product. However, we got a personal two-hour demo, and probably eight hours of support and hand-holding from product management and tech support. Our first efforts were totally inauspicious; we were unable even to capture a clip without assistance. Though brilliant, the interface is often frustrating, and we frequently missed the availability of menus to provide access to all program commands. For example, several actions were available only through keyboard commands, or by placing a non-standard marker on the interface. If you don't know to look for it, you wouldn't know it's there. Program language is almost deliberately obtuse, like "linear time warp" for changing video speeds, or "discrimination" for color similarity in chroma key. Light green means a track is open, slightly darker green means it's locked (or is it the reverse?). If the Edition engineers built traffic lights, stop, go, and yield would be three shades of green and the roads would not be safe. Perhaps as a result, the product ships with a 900-page plus reference manual and a 170-page "quick start" guide. Kvetching aside, other than problems with custom DVD menu creation, Edition was exceptionally stable during operation, installed on a dirty system and handling some intense editing and testing with only one crash. Even then, our file was safe. Its extraordinarily flexible and powerful interface inspires creativity, while its efficient workflow speeds the process. Of course, the best compliment we can pay to a product is to use it. Though I'll probably stick to Studio for simple editing and authoring, Adobe Premiere 6.5, my high-end mainstay since version 4.2, will likely take a back seat to Edition. All hail the new prosumer video editing king, at least for now. Bring on Premiere Pro.