It had to come to this. This article compares seven of the biggest names in video editing to find the best video editing software.

We all know this is going to end in a bloodbath. Look around far and wide, and you won’t find a single comprehensive comparison of every major video editing software. So, I decided to put one together myself. This article is the result of months of hands on experience with each and every one of the applications mentioned here. I’m taking no prisoners. There will be one and only one winner.

NLE seven samurai

First, a note on updates till the end of 2013:

I’m expecting major updates in FCP-X (once the new Mac Pro starts shipping), Premiere Pro, Sony Vegas, etc. If and when they become available, and if the new features are worthy of being added here, I’ll make the necessary modifications and update this ‘shootout’. So, check back in December for the ‘final verdict’.

The philosophy and the goal

There are four words in ‘best video editing software’. We all know there is no absolute ‘best’ for anything, let alone software. So, my first task is to give meaning to the other three words.

What is a video editing software?

When I say ‘video editing software’, I specifically mean a non-linear editing application (NLE). What does that mean? Here are some definitions:

From Webopedia:

In digital video editing, non-linear editing is a method that allows you to access any frame in a digital video clip regardless of sequence in the clip. The freedom to access any frame, and use a cut-and-paste method, similar to the ease of cutting and pasting text in a word processor, and allows you to easily include fades, transitions, and other effects that cannot be achieved with linear editing.

From Wikipedia:

…a system that performs non-destructive editing on source material.

From the FCP 7 manual:

The editing process involves taking the video and audio you’ve captured, along with any music or graphics you’ve imported, and arranging these raw materials into a final edited sequence of clips. Most editors start with a rough cut, where they quickly arrange all of the clips for a movie in sequence. Once that’s finished, they work on fine-tuning, subtly adjusting the edit points between clips and refining the pacing of each cut. Basic audio editing and synchronizing are also part of this process, as well as adding transitions, such as fades and dissolves.

What does every editor need from a video editing software?

What can we learn from the above definitions? Let’s say you want to build an NLE from scratch today. What would be its core features? Here’s my list:

  • It must be able to import video files.
  • It must be able to deal with metadata and timecode.
  • It must give you the freedom to pick and choose files and use the ‘cut and paste’ method of editing.
  • It must have the three basic transitions: Cut, Dissolve, and Fade.
  • It must include audio editing, with some basic mixing features like volume control, stereo pan, fade and dissolves.
  • It must be able to perform real-time playback of sequences.
  • It must allow you to use a standard keyboard and mouse to perform quick edits, with shortcuts.
  • It must have a view monitor that shows you the edited sequence.
  • It must not make changes to the source files.
  • It must have provision for titles and text content superimposed on the video.
  • It must be able to export your video (with or without audio) to standard file formats.

 
It is incorrect to assume that an editor needs visual effects plug-ins, color correction plug-ins and other jazzy things. They have its place, but not on every editor’s workflow. A super-cool plug-in package might help one editor, but not another.

Similarly, if one wants jazzy titles and motion graphics, it would be nice for the NLE to have these features, but it’s not mandatory. The same goes for audio, visual effects, color correction and all the specialized fields of post production. An NLE cannot be all things to everyone, and to have a fair comparison, you only need to compare each NLE against the other for its core feature set.

How can you improve the core features of an NLE?

What I’ve listed above are the core features of any NLE. It’s what makes it an NLE. The average editor needs to edit, that is a given.

Therefore, an NLE can only stand out in these ways:

  • It can import more file formats than its competitor.
  • It can export to more file formats than its competitor.
  • It can work with native file formats (non-destructive editing) if that’s what you want.
  • It can handle more frame rates and resolutions than its competitor.
  • It can handle more color information than its competitor.
  • It can handle more audio information than its competitor.

 
Today, most NLEs can work with native file formats. Those that can’t support higher quality intermediary codecs that provide visually-lossless non-destructive editing. Frame rates and resolutions are limited by the distribution pipeline and display monitors. The same goes for color information. Why view your edits in 16-bit when 8-bit is all you need at this stage?

What I am not going to compare

There are three things I’m not going to compare.

The first is the basic editing features like cuts, dissolves, shortcuts, etc. Every one of the NLEs compared here have thousands of satisfied users, and it would be foolish to even question if these NLEs can edit or not, because they all can. You’ll just have to trust me on that one. I’ve edited on all of them. It all comes down to which NLE can support the most diverse workflows. If you’re setting up a post facility, having a versatile NLE gives you the freedom to accept a large variety of projects. If you’re stuck with a restrictive NLE, you will be forced to work within its limitations.

The second is the number of available plug-ins (both internal and third-party) – these are specialized tools and are not mandatory features of an NLE.

The third is audio. For true audio quality you need a DAW and a sound editor and mixer. You cannot depend on a video editor for audio, then why depend on his or her tool, an NLE?

The three acts

I have divided this shootout into three segments:

  • The beginning – basic information, availability and pricing.
  • The middle – comparison of workflows.
  • The end – comparison of features and support, and the future.

 
How to use this comparison, and who is it for?

Who is it for? Anybody who wants to know how each NLE stacks up against its competitor in the things that matter – to everyone equally.

If you are into workflows that one and only one NLE supports, then your choice is made for you. However, if you’re a newcomer, or somebody looking to take on multiple projects and invest in an NLE for the future, you will appreciate the details provided in this comparison.

This article does not intend to change your mind, or make you buy something. Don’t take buying decisions based on this, and take responsibility for your own actions and choices.

I will show you the data, and I’ll also provide my conclusions. You can take either, neither, or both. Your choice. Just understand why you’re making those choices.

The goal

Is this article an attempt to find the best video editing software in the world so everyone can buy it? No. On the contrary, it is a survey of facts which should help you find the ideal solution for your work faster.

The players

Don’t you want to know which seven video editing softwares are included? Here are the names (in alphabetical order of the names of their developers):

  • Adobe Premiere Pro Creative Cloud (CC)
  • Apple Final Cut Pro X
  • Autodesk Smoke
  • Avid Media Composer
  • Editshare Lightworks Pro
  • Grass Valley Edius Pro
  • Sony Vegas Pro

 
I’ve written beginners’ guides for them all:

 
In addition, there are the following round-tripping guides:

 
Do I have a personal bias?

Of course I do! Now’s a good time to tell you that I have a strong bias towards Adobe Premiere Pro. Well, I should, because it’s what I use. If you’re the type who –

  • can’t be bothered to read through all what I’m about to share with you,
  • don’t care to think on your own, and
  • will trust my advice unquestioningly, then

 
How much money have you got? Purchase a subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud and send the rest to me.

To those who aren’t pushovers, though, this article is an assimilation of data that will either confirm your own views or lead to new ones. Don’t let my comments and conclusions blind you to the facts. I’m sharing everything, warts and all.

Ready? Let’s roll.

Pedigree

It is important to know, albeit briefly, when and where each NLE sprouted from, and why. Here’s a chart:

First released Current release Years
Avid Media Composer 1989 7.0 24
Editshare Lightworks Pro 1989 11.1 24
Adobe Premiere Pro 1991 CC, 7.0, Ongoing 22
Apple Final Cut Pro X 1999* 10.0.8 14
Sony Vegas Pro 1999 12 14
Grass Valley Edius Pro 2002 7 11
Autodesk Smoke 2004** 2013 Ext 1 9

* – FCP-X was released in 2011, though to be fair Apple has been in this game for longer.
** – Smoke was initially an editor to support Flame. Flame was released in 1993.

Surprised? They are all big names. Each an every one of these applications are world-class professional grade video editing software. They all deserve this moniker simply for one reason – they deliver.

Except for Final Cut Pro X, none of them have changed their ‘fundamental character’ radically:

  • Avid, Edius and Lightworks still support broadcast-based workflows more than any other kind. They also provide turnkey storage and hardware solutions for collaborative workflows.
  • Premiere Pro and Sony Vegas Pro are possibly the only applications that are device-agnostic. Adobe does not make hardware. Avid, Smoke, Edius and Lightworks have been forced to abandon turn-key systems and are now giving up their software as standalone versions.
  • Smoke is a finishing system that does compositing as well. It is only half-NLE, but that’s a very good half!
  • Premiere Pro and FCP-X are probably the only two NLEs geared to make use of ‘future-proof’ (for lack of a better word) metadata and digital asset management. Apple went so far as to write the application from scratch, and they are not encumbered by a ‘suite’ to integrate with.

 
See? They all have good reason to be who they are. You can’t take that away.

Price

This one had to come up sooner or later! I’m going to give you two prices. The first is for just the application, with no updates (other than the free ones):

Price in USD 2013 3 months 6 months 1 year 3 years
Editshare Lightworks Pro*** $ 60.00 $ 60.00 $ 60.00 $ 180.00
Apple Final Cut Pro X $ 299.99 $ 299.99 $ 299.99 $ 299.99
Grass Valley Edius Pro $ 699.00 $ 699.00 $ 699.00 $ 699.00
Sony Vegas Pro $ 699.95 $ 699.95 $ 699.95 $ 699.95
Adobe Premiere Pro*** $ 89.97 $ 179.94 $ 239.88 $ 719.64
Avid Media Composer $ 999.00 $ 999.00 $ 999.00 $ 999.00
Autodesk Smoke $ 3,500.00 $ 3,500.00 $ 3,500.00 $ 3,500.00

***These have monthly and/or yearly plans. For Adobe Creative Cloud, you’ll get a better deal if you purchase the cloud rather than just one application. The price, though, is for the stand-alone application only.

Important: The prices might be inaccurate or plain wrong. Some softwares are available at discounted rates from various vendors. I’ve included their full price. For correct prices talk to the developers directly.

What if you wanted to always have the latest and greatest? Do some applications give you extended support for new releases? Yes. This is what it would look like:

Price to stay current in USD 2013 3/6 months 1 year 3 years Last release period^
Editshare Lightworks Pro $ 60.00 $ 60.00 $ 180.00 12
Apple Final Cut Pro X $ 299.99 $ 299.99 $ 299.99 3
Adobe Premiere Pro $89.97 / $179.94 $ 239.88 $ 719.64 2
Sony Vegas Pro $ 699.95 $ 699.95 $ 898.95 13
Grass Valley Edius Pro $ 699.00 $ 699.00 $ 998.00 9
Avid Media Composer $ 1,598.00 $ 1,598.00 $ 2,796.00 10
Autodesk Smoke $ 4,175.00 $ 4,175.00 $ 5,525.00 15

^In months. Smoke was released as a beta and the duration is from that period to the release of Extension 1. Lightworks Pro cycle is from version 11 to 11.1.

The second chart is bound to be incorrect, because we don’t know which application will be around three years from now, and we don’t know what pricing model they’ll select for upgrades or whatever. I’ve used the upgrade prices or service contracts as they exist today.

There’s another reason why you should only focus on the one-year period. The applications who lag in today’s marketplace are the ones who update the slowest. Adobe and Apple have frequent updates, and this is going to be the trend for the future. Smoke also updates regularly, but calls them service packs.

What this means, though, is that you’re going to be faced with annual service contracts instead of the old model. Premiere Pro, Smoke, Lightworks and Avid all follow this paradigm. Regular updates are hip now, and the market reflects that.

Okay, what do we learn from the charts? Leaving aside Smoke, which has to maintain high prices due to its VFX features, one can see that Avid is probably charging at least twice as much as the rest. FCP-X seems to be the best deal, considering Apple has been providing free updates so far. We don’t know if that will carry on to version 11, whenever that comes.

Ultimately, you will have to compare prices not only with features, but also with your business model. E.g., if you’re a Mac person, and if you can do your job with FCP-X, then it seems stupid to opt for Autodesk Smoke, at more than ten times the cost.

That’s all for the ‘beginning’. In Part Two we’ll go deeper, and harder.

 

3 replies on “The Best Video Editing Software 2013 (Part One): The Beginning”

  1. missing from your list are two of the most important features I seek to compare and that premiere simply can’t do or handle as efficiently as vegas/edius right now today or in 2014 (luckily this guy did some real comparison tests here you may be able to leverage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7G7SgkfbcQ ).  

    missing from this comparison matrix in my view (now that i’m abandoning premiere for 4 reasons total): 
    a) jitter-free multicam and fullscreen playback/scrubbing with native AVCHD footage (longer than 15min)
    b) DVD burning directly from the NLE timeline

    this is where premiere falls flat on its face aka chokes aka cant hang anywhere near vegas+edius with even a 2 cam native HD video edit.  i’ll assume you must edit proxy files in multicam mode aka dont edit native HD in multicam mode, but with or without proxy files, this should be in the comparison (imho).

    Therefore, an NLE can only stand out in these ways:It can import more file formats than its competitor.It can export to more file formats than its competitor.It can work with native file formats (non-destructive editing) if that’s what you want.It can handle more frame rates and resolutions than its competitor.It can handle more color information than its competitor.It can handle more audio information than its competitor.it can handle more multicam footage with jitter-free fullscreen playack/scrubbing

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