Forget this summer's blockbusters -- the real on-screen action is among video-editing programs. Earlier this year, Adobe released Premiere 6, a greatly improved version of its editing software (4.0 mice; Reviews, May 2001). Apple has just returned fire with Final Cut Pro 2, the first major update of its high-end editing package since the product's release in 1999. Version 2 brings improvements in performance, media management, title creation, and documentation -- it includes the best manual I've ever seen, a biceps-building beast of more than 1,400 pages.
When Final Cut Pro debuted, it blew past the slow and buggy Premiere 5. But Premiere 6 is a solid contender, and deciding on a program to buy means weighing Final Cut Pro 2's faster performance and broader capabilities against Premiere 6's lower cost and superior integration with the rest of the Adobe product line.
Power and Performance
Final Cut Pro 1 offered a refined, responsive user interface and introduced innovations such as windows whose contents update as you move and resize them. Apple didn't tinker with success -- Final Cut Pro 2 looks nearly identical to its predecessor (see "Making the Cut"). It also offers the same versatile editing options: you can edit by dragging video clips to the Timeline or Canvas window, and you can use the mouse or a vast array of keyboard shortcuts to adjust clip lengths and perform other editing tasks.
In the new Cutting Station mode, many of Final Cut Pro's advanced features are hidden. Users working on visually simple projects may prefer this mode, as may newcomers -- but even in this streamlined mode, Final Cut Pro is more complex than Premiere.
Apple has fine-tuned Final Cut Pro to take advantage of the G4 processor's Velocity Engine circuitry and of multiprocessor Macs. Time-consuming tasks, such as rendering transitions and crunching through complex motion-graphics sequences, are dramatically faster. Apple claims performance gains of roughly 30 percent over earlier versions and 70 percent on multiprocessor machines. In my tests, Final Cut Pro rendered significantly faster than Premiere 6. For example, Premiere took 106 seconds to render a 5-second cross dissolve on a 667MHz Power Mac G4; Final Cut Pro took just 21 seconds.
It gets better. Unlike Premiere, Final Cut Pro 2 can work with third-party hardware to render commonly used effects and motion-graphics features in real time. I tested Matrox's $999 RTMac PCI video card and found it an ideal companion to Final Cut Pro 2. Besides offering huge productivity gains with real-time effects, the card has a connector for a second monitor and includes a breakout box for connecting analog video gear.
Better Capturing, Better Management
Final Cut Pro's batch-capture features make it easy to log and capture video from DV and other remote-controllable devices. A new scene-detection function makes it easier to work with lengthy DV sequences: choose a command after capturing a segment of video, and Final Cut Pro divides the clip based on the start and stop codes that DV camcorders generate. It's similar to, though more powerful than, the scene-detection feature in Apple's entry-level iMovie.
Keeping track of the files that make up a large project is difficult, but Final Cut Pro has always had strong project-management features. You can segregate content into multiple folderlike bins , and you can divide a complex project into multiple sequences, each with its own timeline. (Premiere still lacks the latter capability.)
Final Cut Pro's media-management features are even better than before. You can search for media using a wider variety of criteria and then specify that the program do something with the media it finds. For example, you can search for unused media and delete it from your hard drive to reclaim disk space. Taking a page from iMovie, Final Cut Pro 2 even lets you delete unused portions of individual clips.
Audio and Titling Tweaks
Though Final Cut Pro's audio features have been improved, the video-editing professionals I talked to feel that Apple didn't go far enough: the program now offers stereo volume meters but lacks an equivalent to Premiere 6's audio mixer, which lets you adjust and automate audio levels in real time.
On the plus side, Final Cut Pro now lets you adjust the volume levels of multiple tracks simultaneously. And it can export audio tracks in the OMF (Open Media Framework) format for subsequent sweetening using high-end audio tools such as Digidesign's Pro Tools and Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer. Final Cut Pro 2 also includes Peak DV, a scaled-down version of BIAS's digital audio editor.
In Final Cut Pro 1, creating titles was cumbersome; in this version, new titling tools make it easier to create animated titles, such as rolling credits. Final Cut Pro is still limited to working with TrueType fonts, however -- the program doesn't support PostScript fonts. And you can't mix and match fonts within a title. Fortunately, version 2 includes Boris FX's Boris Script LTD, a superb plug-in that lets you create graphically complex titles containing multiple type styles.
Final Cut Pro or Premiere?
Many things separate Final Cut Pro and Premiere, but foremost among them is compositing: the ability to layer multiple video tracks and animate and resize them over time. Final Cut Pro has rich compositing features, whereas Adobe leaves that step to Premiere's sibling, After Effects.
One price of Final Cut Pro's versatility is, well, its price -- $999, versus Premiere's $549. Final Cut Pro also demands at least 192MB of RAM (but prefers 256MB); Premiere 6 runs comfortably on a 128MB machine.
Premiere is also tightly integrated with other Adobe products. For example, it can import Illustrator artwork and provides better support for Photoshop files, and After Effects can directly import Premiere projects. Final Cut Pro, while more powerful than Premiere, is more insular.
So which program should you choose? Premiere 6 on its own is the better bargain, but you can also buy it as part of Adobe's Digital Video Collection -- for $1,199, you get Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop, and Illustrator: an appealing package if you're outfitting a new editing system.
Premiere is also easier to learn and lets you choose from numerous third-party video and audio plug-ins, few of which work with Final Cut Pro. And unlike Final Cut Pro, Premiere is available for Windows, making it a potentially better choice for cross-platform studios.
But for video professionals, Final Cut Pro is the program to buy. It's far better suited to long-form projects, thanks to its superior media-management features and its ability to divide a lengthy project into multiple sequences. Its compositing features aren't as rich as those of After Effects, but many users will be willing to make that sacrifice for the convenience of being able to work in one program.
Final Cut Pro has also become hugely popular among film and TV professionals. In Los Angeles, for example, there's a 600-member Final Cut Pro user's group ( www.lafcpug.org ). Premiere just doesn't enjoy that kind of community among video pros.Making the Cut: Final Cut Pro 2's elegant interface is packed with editing features and keyboard shortcuts.