Final Cut Express 2
Software companies nearly always build new versions of software on top of old versions, a practice similar to the way you'd add a second story to a too-small house. But in Final Cut Express 2.0's case, Apple moved to a completely new neighborhood, scrapping Final Cut Express 1.0 ( ; May 2003) and basing its successor on Final Cut Pro 4 ( ; September 2003), which included performance and audio-related improvements, as well as real-time effects previews. Now intermediate DV enthusiasts will benefit directly from these great new features and pay less than a third of Final Cut Pro's price.
Improving from Within
The core characteristics of Final Cut Express 1 remain in version 2: it works only with DV-format footage (as opposed to high-definition or 24-fps input, which Final Cut Pro handles); supports up to 99 video and audio tracks; incorporates some color-correction capabilities and some motion control via keyframes; and offers more-flexible titles, transitions, and effects. It wraps all this in an interface that's nearly identical to what pros use.
But the improvements in Final Cut Express 2 are less about a few new features and more about its strengthened Final Cut Pro 4 foundation. The application is optimized to run on Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) and on G5 processors, which contribute to its most exciting new feature, RT Extreme. In Final Cut Express 1, you had to render (write to disk) many effects and transitions before you could play them back in the Canvas (the window where you play back your assembled movie).
Now you don't have to wait. RT Extreme lets you see most effects and transitions before rendering. It requires a 500MHz G4 processor (550MHz for portables) or higher, or dual-G4 or -G5 processors of any speed. RT Extreme offers multiple performance settings (Safe RT and Unlimited RT, each with High, Medium, and Low video-quality modes) to accommodate a range of Mac speeds, or to let you specify your preferred trade-off between playback speed and video quality.
I tested RT Extreme on a 1.25GHz 15-inch PowerBook G4. As an example, a color adjustment and 3-D rotation applied on a clip overlay played fine, though it dropped quite a few frames. But playback was good enough to give me an idea of how the final rendered version would turn out.
A New Look
Final Cut Express 2 boasts an improved user interface with added features that make editing easier. You can add customizable buttons to windows for quick access to more than 400 commands. To do so, simply drag and drop a command from the Button List, which also features a handy text-search field for easily locating commands.
You can also resize multiple windows by dragging their adjoining edges. However, this feature had an annoying flaw -- it was too easy to resize windows accidentally when I meant to drag a clip's in- or out-points in the Viewer (the main preview window).
You can change the height of individual tracks in the timeline; this comes in especially handy if you like to edit audio tracks in the timeline while displaying their waveforms. The program even gives you timeline controls that let you play only the audio tracks you isolate; you don't have to disable all the other tracks manually to mute them.
An Ear for Quality
Final Cut Express 2 has gained some audio improvements, too. Audio keyframing lets you set volume level and pan values while you're playing back a clip, giving you a rough set of audio edit points to fine-tune later. However, because Final Cut Express makes adjustments in real time, this feature sometimes made me feel as if I were playing some sort of scrolling video game (quick, set the level before the waveform disappears!).
Apple has also implemented its Audio Units (AU) technology in version 2, and it provides 11 AU filters in addition to 16 audio filters from Final Cut Pro. And if you own Apple's Soundtrack application ( ; December 2003), you can set scoring markers to identify music cues in Final Cut Express 2, and then export the markers for use in Soundtrack.
Not Quite Captured
Surprisingly, the only real problem I ran into during testing was with a much-touted new feature: recording over time-code breaks. A time-code break occurs when the camcorder encounters blank tape (say, at the end of the last recorded frame), assumes the tape is new, and resets the counter to zero. This happens frequently after people review what they've recorded.
When you use the Capture Now feature, Final Cut Express 2 is supposed to note the time-code break, create a new clip, and then continue capturing. However, in testing with multiple Macs and camcorders, I encountered instances where Final Cut Express aborted the capture process without capturing footage after the time-code break, or else captured the footage but didn't split it into separate clips. (Apple is aware of these problems and is looking into them.)
Macworld's Buying Advice
Even with the capture gaffe, Final Cut Express 2 gives you the best aspects of a professional video-editing application while leaving out features an intermediate or semiprofessional user doesn't need. If you're looking for more than what iMovie offers, this is a program you can call home.
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