Review: Adobe Premiere Elements 11 offers an easy, fast, and simple take on video editing
Adobe Premiere Elements 11 is squarely aimed at the upgrading iMovie user who isn’t yet ready for Final Cut Pro X.
On the surface, iMovie '11 and Premiere Elements 11 look, feel, and do pretty much the same things, but this new version adds a lot of small improvements to the mix. Its forte is supporting a wide variety of formats, export options, and easy-to-use effects. Its aim is to help you quickly edit nice-looking family or activity videos with some “shiny” on them, and to get them to play on the various devices where people tend to watch videos today.
I had a perfect test case for running the new Premiere Elements through its paces: video of a family trip this summer to Colorado. Über-camera nerds that we are, I had videos and stills from GoPros, eight different Canon and Nikon video-capable DSLRs, new and older point-and-shoots, and stills and videos from various iPhones.
Premiere Elements 11 handled it all, including the variety of frame sizes and rates, aspect ratios and video formats, and JPEGs and Raw stills. Even better, I was able to import items directly from iPhoto and Aperture libraries, complete with preestablished events and keywords, into the Adobe Elements Organizer, the free helper app that ships with Premiere Elements (as well as with its companion, Photoshop Elements 11). The Organizer, while convenient, is optional—you can pull content directly into Premiere Elements, but you might want to experiment with some of the Organizer's new capabilities, such as searching and sorting according to people and location.
iLife-like, but better
With Premiere Elements 11, it would seem that the developers at Adobe took a hard look at Apple’s iLife suite in general—and iMovie in particular—and asked how they could do it better, the Adobe way. Thus, the packages have a huge amount of overlap in features such as image stabilization, film-look effects, canned templates, and so forth. Although the result is seemingly derivative and uninspired, Adobe has taken these features and made them simpler to use and easier to fine-tune, while at the same time streamlining the editing process and opening a path to more-complex projects.
The program's interface has seen an overhaul between Premiere Elements 10 and 11: Icons and text are bigger, and backgrounds are lighter such that the program is easier to read and look at. Primary tools aren’t hidden in menus but accessible in a row of graphical pop-up buttons along the bottom edge of the application window.
Accommodating the app's varied user base is a useful dual-mode interface. Quick mode offers fewer, simpler choices and controls, and a single video layer; Expert mode reveals more options, choices, power, and complexity. This duality provides a nice bridge for beginning users. The edits and effects span both modes. Overall the interface has an appealing sense of graduated reveal: You start off with simple options and then dig to discover more complexity.
I was able to edit my footage, insert Hollywood-style effects with the program's FilmLooks feature (I used Old Film), add transitions, and get the results I wanted pretty quickly. Expert mode is the better choice for users with more experience and broader vision: There you can access advanced features such as Photoshop-style layer blend modes, the program's 99 video layers, and more.
If my dad were using Premiere Elements, the Quick mode would be a better fit for his experience level. For example, my dad could understand the Smart Fix options and simple buttons such as Auto Color that make his video look better. A histogram would be beyond his current comprehension, but it would be there when he was ready to grow into using it. Another excellent feature is how visually the effects are presented: Nine squares in a grid show the effect applied progressively, but my dad could click More to see a slider for more-precise control.
Additional beginner-friendly features include InstantMovie, which offers assorted templates for weddings, sports, outdoor events, and more to build a framework around your footage. Thanks to InstantMovie, combined with Smart Trim, you can just plop some random shots on a timeline, and the program will build something watchable—perfect for users without the time or skill to construct it themselves. The results look consumer-grade, but Aunt Sally will still like it.
Once you've edited your video, the program provides a wealth of output choices, similar to iMovie but slightly broader. Under the Publish+Share pull-down menu, you'll find options for various discs (Web DVD, DVD, Blu-ray, AVCHD), files for computer playback, devices (iPhone, iPad), and online services (Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube). I really like the clear and simple way the program presents all of this, and how it guides users through the process.
Despite its fine qualities, some things bugged me about Premiere Elements 11. When importing digital assets into the Organizer, even from iPhoto, it makes a separate copy of each image or video to the Adobe folder, taking up disk space. You need to be careful to avoid dumping large libraries into the Organizer. And unlike iLife, Premiere Elements has no iCloud (or iCloud-style) integration. That means no syncing or live updates to your devices.
One important thing to keep in mind is that this is a $100 consumer application, not a "lite" version of the $800 Premiere Pro. Since it doesn't employ GPU (graphics processing unit) acceleration as Premiere Pro CS6 does, it requires a good bit of non-realtime rendering. You'll find no two-way communication with iPhoto (import, and you have a separate copy of your assets), and you can't open a Premiere Elements project in Premiere Pro.
Moreover, some video formats (such as MPEG-4 from my GoPro) require some automated processing to import into Organizer. This procedure takes some time, and likely some disk space, before Elements is ready to work with such footage. There is no batch rendering for output—it's one at a time only. Rendering quality is limited to the original format, which is usually consumer-grade and heavily compressed, so adding an effect can degrade the video quality in the final rendered version when viewed at full size, especially in fast-moving scenes. Changing the preferences to slower/better quality helps, but does not eliminate this problem.
All of these limitations, however, are absolutely acceptable in a consumer program.
In comparing this new version with its obvious inspiration (iMovie), you could sum up Premiere Elements 11 as “about the same, a little bit more, a little prettier, and easier to use.” Next to iMovie, most of Premiere Elements' features are me-too, but Adobe has done an admirable job of making the interface easier to look at and use. If you have iMovie but don’t understand it, Premiere Elements offers an easier point of entry to the world of video editing, but it isn't notably more powerful.
As for the templates, I like iMovie’s better, but I can see how Premiere Elements 11 will be friendlier to beginners and give them room to grow from the Quick mode to the Expert mode. If you want to get more serious about editing and you're willing to invest $100, this new version of Premiere Elements seems capable and reasonably powerful. From here, the next step up would be Final Cut Pro X at three times the price, plus Compressor for another $50, to obtain similar capabilities. For folks like my dad—the target audience for this program—Premiere Elements 11 is a worthy package to buy or to upgrade to, and a worthy option for upgrading from iMovie.