Synopsis: If you're not ready to take the leap to Final Cut Pro 5 or the Final Cut Studio suite (both of which should be available by the time you read this), Final Cut Express HD is more than just a stopover on the way to bigger and better things. It's an unqualified success on its own terms. Bundled with Soundtrack and LiveType, FCE HD ($299; $99 upgrade from FCE 2) is a significantly better value now than its predecessors, and not just for the HD capability. But if it's HD you want, at an attractive price point, you won't be disappointed.
We've all been to weddings where one side of the church—usually the bride's—is filled almost to capacity while the pews on the other side are little more than half-full. Come to think of it, that was how the church looked on my wedding day, a result not of my wife having more friends than I do but of her family's prominence and deep-seated roots in the small Wisconsin town where we got married, making our day into something of a community event. (At least that's what I tell myself.)
If we were to divide computer users into two pews—and the analogy is apt, since we all know plenty of folks who are as passionate about their operating system as they are about their faith—the Windows side would be standing-room-only, while the Mac side would be almost empty. Of course, the Windows users wouldn't deign to sit on the Mac side, and the Linux and UNIX users wouldn't even bother coming to church.
But if we limit our attendees to videographers, the picture changes. Like any other group of what Apple likes to call "creative professionals," videographers tend to use Macs more than do those boring, uh, non-creative professionals. So when Apple introduces a new product or upgrades an old standby, it's big news. All of which means that the introduction of Final Cut Express HD in January was just that, though not as earth-shaking an announcement as the unveiling of Final Cut Studio at this year's NAB in April (http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9802).
In fact, Final Cut Express HD is essentially the same product as Final Cut Express 2, and begs the same question: since it offers the same user interface as Final Cut Pro HD, and lacks some of that tool's advanced features, isn't the only reason to purchase Express HD the fact that it's $700 cheaper? The answer is yes, although the $1,299 Final Cut Studio—a suite including Final Cut Pro 5, Motion 2, DVD Studio 4, and the all-new Soundtrack Pro—changes the cost equation. So if you've yet to upgrade to an Apple HD product, now's the time to weigh your options and check your budget.
That doesn't mean we can't evaluate Final Cut Express HD on its own terms—as a professional-level nonlinear editor that does HD for $299. And on those terms, it's hard to beat. I've still got the same reservations I had about the original Final Cut Express: it still lacks batch capture capability, and the user interface is nothing like the easy step up from iMovie (which itself now does HD) that Apple would like us to believe. It also lacks a number of filters and transitions, as well as the advanced, three-way color correction found in Final Cut Pro HD.
But Final Cut Express is a significantly better value now than it was before, and not just because of its HD capability. It's now bundled with a full version of Apple Soundtrack, which makes it easy to score semi-original music from pre-recorded loops (see review, http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=8314), and LiveType, which replaces Boris Calligraphy as the title generator and, frankly, blows its predecessor away with better fonts and greater control over them. Without going into detail on either of those tools—and even with the understanding that Soundtrack soon will be replaced by Soundtrack Pro, at least as a standalone product—these add-ons alone justify the $99 upgrade from Final Cut Express 2.
Still, if you're buying FCE HD, you're likely buying it for the HD. The good news is that it handles HDV footage with aplomb. The bad news, at least for us, is that we didn't have an HDV camera in the office for our testing, so we can't report on FCE HD's HDV capture capability. Instead, we used a selection of HDV files supplied by Apple for our testing. All of it was skateboarding footage, much of it was high-action, and aside from the expected increase in render times, it was no different from working with any other FCE-compatible format. (Having a relatively robust computer surely helps; our testbed was a dual-processor 2GHz G5 with 4GB RAM and an ATI Radeon 9800XT graphics card, outfitted with OS X 10.4 Tiger.)
The clips Apple supplied happened to be fairly small—ranging from a one-second, 1440x1080, 8.63MB clip to a 90-second, 1920x1080, 875.9MB behemoth—the final project I ended up creating was a scant three minutes long. Still, that was enough to get a feel for how FCE HD handles HDV, and how HDV affects the FCE workflow as well as whether or not it bogs down the workstation.
To test the latter, I applied filters and effects to several clips within the project and then rendered them all at once (figuring that rendering a 7-second clip wouldn't give me much sense of how the process affected the machine). With color correction applied to two clips and fisheye, 3D, pond ripple, and diffuse applied to four other clips (one effect each)—for a total of 62 seconds of video—rendering took just over four minutes, and slowed any other operations, even checking email, down to a crawl. When rendered individually, the color correction clips moved the quickest (about two seconds per one second of video), while the more elaborate effects unsurprisingly took longer. Thankfully, though, they're the kind of effects that most editors wouldn't often apply to more than a second or two of video, so that performance shouldn't discourage anyone from editing HDV with Final Cut Express.
The next step was to test the difference between rendering effects on 1920x1080 HDV clips versus standard, 720x480 QuickTime DV stream files. (I just converted the HDV clips to QuickTime DV for a, pardon the pun, apples-to-apples comparison.) Needless to say, the 1920x1080 clips took longer, but the degree of difference varied greatly from one effect to another. (Notably, FCE HD needs to render DV stream files even without any effects.) On a particular 15-second clip, one with relatively little motion until the last five seconds, FCE HD rendered color correction changes in 27 seconds on the DV stream and 35 seconds on the HDV clip. The difference was more pronounced on more dramatic effects; a fisheye filter applied to the same footage yielded a 54-second render on the DV stream and 2:54 on the HDV.
Once your project is done, of course, your HDV playback options are limited. You can output back to HDV tape, an option that our lack of an HDV camera prevented me from testing. When I output the three-minute project to uncompressed QuickTime, however, even the juiced-up G5 sputtered when playing back the 12GB file. Results were better in other formats, though encoding to some resulted in a loss of quality that was beyond what I'd consider tolerable for professional video. The AVI clips were particularly bad, with wave-like ripples showing up in what should have been clear blue sky. That's not Final Cut's fault; it's just the vagaries of converting from HDV to other formats.
Closing Thoughts and Topics for Further Research
One issue in the FCE HD/FCP 5 comparison that we'll take up in a later issue is the way the two programs handle HDV material internally. While FCE and iMovie convert the MPEG Transport Streams with their I, B, and P frames to a more manageable I-Frame-only data stream, FCP 5's new native capture utility keeps the MPEG-2 HDV streams in pristine form, just as they're acquired by the HDV camera. Because that means processing three video frames for every conventionally editable frame, it's a much more processor-intensive approach. We'll compare the impact on the G5 processor and workflow in a future article when we have an HDV camcorder handy and the (at press time) unreleased FCP 5 in for review.
But we're here today to assess FCE HD, and the report is a good one. All in all, Final Cut Express HD performed even better than I'd hoped, and I had to remind myself more than once that I was actually working with HDV. So if you're not ready to take the leap to Final Cut Pro 5 or the Final Cut Studio suite (both of which should be available by the time you read this), Final Cut Express HD is more than just a stopover on the way to bigger and better things. It's an unqualified success on its own terms.
• 550MHz Macintosh PowerPC G4 or G5 (550MHz for PowerBook G4; 450MHz for dual-processor PowerMac G4 or G5) with AGP graphics card
• 384MB RAM (512MB required for RT Extreme and Soundtrack)
• HDV requires 1GHz or faster PowerPC G4 or G5 and 1GB RAM
• Mac OS X 10.3.7 or higher
• QuickTime 6.5.2 or later
• 1GB available disk space for hardware installation; 5GB for Soundtrack content; 9GB for LiveType content