Video Editing Software for the Novice, Prosumer & Expert
Pinnacle Systems has been in existence since 1986 with its "Studio" line of editing software for the consumer & "prosumer" (professional consumer). Pinnacle is known for two major computer products: (1) Their "PCTV" hardware & software combination allowing for watching (and eventually recording) broadcast television; and, (2) Their "Dazzle" line of capture solutions which allow composite video recording, especially from camcorders and VCRs. Their website home page is here.
In 2005, Avid Technology purchased Pinnacle Systems. Avid has been in existence since 1987 with video products directed toward professional video, broadcast and film production. Avid’s website home page is here.
Anyone who is moderately comfortable working their Windows-based computer will be able to become familiar with this product and make satisfying final products in a reasonable amount of time. I say reasonable, because video editing is very bandwidth demanding on all aspects of your computer. It is no exaggeration for me to say that you will benefit from the newest, fastest motherboard and processor combination you can afford, as well as on the video card. I suggest at least 2GB of system RAM for XP (3GB for Vista) and 512MB on the video card (Pinnacle says 256MB). The fastest drive you can afford to put into your system will greatly improve the overall system response time and performance, making your editing experience that much more enjoyable. A large capacity drive, 250GB or more, is highly recommended. Remember that the final product will consume over 16GB per hour, and you will need probably 3 times that space for the editing process. I will give my system breakdown at the end. For screen shots and video examples, I highly suggest you go to the Pinnacle site and check out the links. This article is going to be long enough without my adding screen shots. And, this is video! Nothing speaks more than seeing the video demonstrations.
The heart of the Pinnacle Studio functionality is the same in all three versions, but there are big quality differences for those moving into high definition (HD) recording. For some background, here are some basics of video resolutions, to help understand them. In this case a larger number means more video clarity, and larger amounts of information to work with. Video images are composed of horizontal lines, each of which have a number of points of resolution (now referred to as pixels). The more points of resolution on a line, the more detail the image has. Likewise, the more lines used to produce an image, the higher its resolution. The more pixels and lines used to comprise an image, the clearer it will appear. Even though this comes from analog days, the analogy can be applied to digital, and is. It turns out that in digital, lines are just a row of pixels.
These are generalized to understanding the amount of information needed for each resolution. Making the jump to a 480 line recorder from an older 240 line one makes an amazing difference in video quality. The movie industry has found that most consumers who have purchased new HD TVs and upscale DVD players enjoy enough of a video quality improvement to not desire either of the new HD formats (HDDVD & Blu-Ray). Editing at this level needs about a quarter the computer power for editing than full HD. You probably won't have to buy a new computer (maybe a hard drive), the camcorders are cheaper, and the final DVD will play on most any standard DVD player.
In the next sections, I will first cover the features of the "basic" version of Studio, which is common to all versions. Then, I will cover what is added with "Plus", and finally what you get with "Ultimate". Then, I'll cover my "Pros & Cons" with the product. I was able to find reviews on the Internet that did a lot of copy from Pinnacle's site. I'll cover how I actually used the product to make videos.
The Studio Basic Review (MSRP $50):
Studio's interface looks the same across all the versions.
The application has three major tabs on the top.
The first tab is video capture. This is where you import digital video (DV) content from your DV playback device, usually a camcorder. The interface is fairly straight-forward. Select the input format, which "basic" is limited to a maximum of 480 lines.
The second tab is the edit screen. You will spend the majority of your time in this tab. It is split into an upper and lower section.
- The upper section has the video playback window on the right. The left side has multiple functions. It shows the video files you want to edit and insert into your project. The left side also switches to transition affects, title menu for text-on-screen, insertion of still pictures, injection of voice over, insertion of music, sound effects, and even selection of DVD menus.
- The lower section shows your project layout. It is comprised of multiple views:
The first view shows you video clips in little boxes, called the storyboard view. This layout makes it easy to place multiple video clips in and move them around because they are all the same size equally spaced little blocks representing an entire clip.
The second view is a timeline view that shows the videos on a row by their time length, the audio track on another for volume changes, your title overlays on another row, your inserted music on another row, and another row for the Pinnacle generated MIDI music.
The third view is a tabular list of your project elements by name, duration and where they start in the video. This is great for those who really want tight control over their project layouts.
From either the storyboard or timeline views, you can drag and drop video clips into the order you want. You can select where and how to crop and slice you're your videos. By double clicking on a video, a panel pops up that allows you to cut off the beginning and end of a video. By playing into and pausing playback (or sliding the timeline indicator in timeline view) you can cut a video into two videos with the razor blade icon (or right clicking on the video and selecting "Split Clip". If your project is long, you can stretch out the timeline width and get very finite time markers to make precision cut points. There is also a time counter under the display panel where you can step the video by frame for even more precision.
From either the storyboard or timeline views, you can drag and drop transitions between clips giving options from hard switching between scenes. Putting in text overlays can be done in either view, but timeline view allows you to insert text at precise points in the video, as opposed to just the transition between scenes.
Timeline view allows for a high level of control in all your video and audio inserting and editing. For those who decide to endeavor into making more critical videos, you can spend many hours fine tuning the audio and video, including sound EQ and noise reduction, video brightness/contrast and how the transitions actually work from their default settings. With time and effort, you can make a video rivaling anything you have seen on television, short of special video effects.
The third tab is for compiling your final product to hard drive or DVD. This is where you choose the quality of your video and destination. For those who need low resolution content for a web site, the output resolution can be very low and formatted for various players. You can even burn your project directly to DVD from Studio. Included formats are: DivX, Mpeg-1/2/4, Real Media, iPOD, AVI, Windows Media, and Sony PSP. Chances are very good you can get an output format you can use.
The Studio Plus Review (MSRP $100):
Along with all the above features, Studio Plus adds the ability to natively edit high definition video (HDV) and AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition). If you plan on buying a camcorder that records in 720 line or 1080 line mode, or at least editing in this format, you need to purchase either Plus or Ultimate.
Also included in Studio Plus is the ability to use "Picture-In-Picture" (PIP). This is great for showing a smaller video frame of say someone talking while the main screen shows some video of what they are talking about. It makes a dramatic difference in the presentation.
Studio Plus also introduces "Chromakey" affects. You see this on the news when the weatherman seems to be standing in front of the dynamic weather map, but is really standing in front of a colored screen. This is usually something not likely to be found in the desired image, like bright green. By recording someone or something with a unicolored background screen, you can introduce a video behind the subject making the subject appear to be in another place.
Studio Plus allows for "keyframes" to be dynamically adjusted. These are the frames at the beginning and end of a transition or effect. You can find more on this at Wikipedia…
The Studio Ultimate Review (MSRP $130):
Studio Ultimate includes the above features and is mostly a compilation of additional video and audio affects. Pinnacle includes a film-looks and special effects add-on that gives the user the ability to make their video look like a certain type of film stock and resolution one would expect from film of a specific age and quality. This includes effects like star bursts on light reflecting off of water or rays of light emanating from behind text or objects. For those interested in more serious video production, this feature will be worth the upgrade to Ultimate.
Surround 5.1 channel mixing is included in Ultimate. There is an easy sound position tool where you can move the audio to play from any speaker combination.
Ultimate also includes an audio cleaning tool, called BIAS Sound Soap. It has a simple set of adjustments to sample and reduce unwanted noise in an audio track.
Another Ultimate addition is a "Precision Pan & Zoom" tool, called "Moving Picture" (by StageTools). This tool allows you to take a still image and traverse it as if you were videotaping it. You can zoom into the image, pan across it and even rotate the image. Again, this tool is worth the upgrade to Ultimate if you want to do this type of editing.
Another Ultimate addition is an add on called "ProDAD Vitascene". This feature allows you to make special effects on your videos and text overlays from simple sparkles and shimmers to complex light diffusions swirls and distortions. You can spend hours just in this feature making dramatic effects.
For those who have an HD movie player, but not an HD writer, Studio Ultimate 11 allows you to write an HD content video onto a standard DVD-R disc. It will only play in an HD player, but allows for the inexpensive creation of content. Videos are limited to about 20 minutes for a 4.7GB single layer disc, the same as with standard DVD content. This is possible because HD content is encoded with MPEG-4/H.264 compression, instead of MPEG-2. There is less than a megabyte difference in file size at full length. Standard DVD players cannot decode MPEG-4, while newer software players for the PC will. This allows for PC-based viewing. If you have a computer plugged into an HDTV, you can play your HD content in the high definition of the material.
Included in the Ultimate box was a demonstration DVD. For those who don't like to read, and the Ultimate manual is just under 300 very informative pages, this DVD is a great way to get introduced to Studio and how it works. In fact, I used it to learn the "Moving Picture" tool, because I just couldn't translate the manual and make anything useful. The Ultimate box includes a green screen for making chromakey videos. But, remember that the software feature is also in Studio Plus. This is just the cloth to hang behind the subject.
My Overall Impression:
Anyone who has the desire to edit videos at any level will be interested in one of the Studio products. As long as you feel comfortable working a Windows PC and feel reasonably confident navigating standard applications, like Microsoft Office, you will be able to gain basic knowledge of Studio and produce a product with minimal frustration from becoming familiar with a new application.
Anyone who is planning on moving into HD format editing will need to purchase either the Plus or Ultimate version. Anyone who thinks they want to have the ability and diversity to do as much with creative alternatives in video editing, and doesn't mind spending the extra time to achieve results, should really plan on purchasing the Ultimate version.
In personal use compiling hours of video into smaller presentations, I have found that the application will benefit from the fastest computer you can afford. This will reduce the time you will be waiting for video rendering. Studio version 11 benefits from a multiple core CPU system. A 3.0GHz Pentium 4 processor with two cores will choke on 1080 content, but will be fine for 480 editing. A "Core 2 Duo" processor is highly recommended for HD. Video files are much larger than just audio files. Editing a 15 minute 1080 video could easily require 30GB of drive space, especially if you spend hours in the application. It will hold up to 5 edits of history, by default, making backing up a snap. But, that means the old edits are kept on the drive.
Pinnacle Studio processes in the background allowing you to keep working in the application. Some transitions take a while to compile. Making changes in the middle of a project can cause Pinnacle to recompile transitions all over. It can take as long as the project length to complete. And, the timeline changes color over the transitions and effects to show it is recompiling. I managed to hang the application by becoming impatient or continuing on after recompiling had begun. I now keep the Microsoft Task Manager up so I can see when the CPU starts loading down.
In one of the videos I created, I used only the MIDI music generation without voice over. When I did this, I could drag a music clip into the voice over row of the timeline allowing me to overlap and cross fade the music. This is exclusive of the video track. It is a subtle but dramatic advantage to video production. I quickly found I could split any audio track I overlay, bring the split into the regular track and record a voice track. It sounds complicated, but it is really easy to do.
One thing that was initially annoying was when I decided to edit a video clip that I had already placed a voice over or music track to. The audio file would get chopped, but I found it is easily re-stretched by double-clicking on it. However, I have not yet found where my voice over ends up. Maybe I haven't found it, yet, but I have had to recreate them, so far.
Another thing that has not worked well is an addition in the Studio Ultimate bundle, the BIAS Sound Soap sound editor, for noise reduction. I have had no reasonable luck filtering out the sound of my car from videos I've taken while driving. The end result has always been less desirable then road noise. I can see it would be a great advantage for basic background noises. Several times, I have launched Studio Ultimate to have BIAS Sound Soap prompt me for the license key, which is separate from Pinnacle. I kept a text file with the long key in it, for when this happened. But, I grew tired of this and finally removed the application.
My final annoyance came when I tried to contact Pinnacle's technical support using their live chat assistance. They offer one free phone call, then the rest are chargeable. The live chat was a joke. With 15 to 30 minutes waiting in queue, I got bumped when it was my turn, switched to Italy, and dropped because no one was available. I called to complain, gave my name and email address and that was my free call! So, I gave my two issues, neither of which is resolvable. I hope Pinnacle changes their policy on this in the future. But, I don't think this is a show stopper for anyone considering this product.
As a marketing tool, Pinnacle inserts a number of transitions and effects (both audio & video) for you to test, but not effectively use. They are either crippled with a Pinnacle logo or preset with a pirate's chest indicating you can buy this feature. It is a good way for them to market these add-ons. They are either an extra $50 or $100, which means you can spend another $600 to get them all. Remember that these add-ons bring Pinnacle closer to a professional editor's capabilities. So, you can slowly buy your way into a better overall package.
I personally think that the Apple platform is best suited for serious video editing. Without moving over to the Apple platform, Ithink Pinnacle is the most cost effective, usable and stable Windows application for video editing without spending at least 10 times more for professional software. Their closest competitor, U-Lead, has downloadable trials. The one that excels for them is their "Pro" version, which runs at about 3 times the price ($400).
For those wondering, I decided against using Vista, just to keep the OS overhead down. In 2009, when Vista is 3 years old and XP retires, I expect Intel and AMD to have some noticeably faster processors than they do today. I am sure Vista will be no issue with overall computer performance by then. When XP first came out, Pentium-II 400MHz processors were pretty much top-of-the-line.
The Computer I Used For Ultimate & HD:
Before I make this hardware list, keep in mind how intense video editing is on a computer. In 1998, I did 16-channel audio recording. A Pentium-III 600MHz processor, 512MB of RAM and two drives mirrored to double through put was state-of-the art. And, it still took the same amount of time to save a session as it took to record it. Today, computers can be good enough to do the same with HD video. But, be prepared to spend a good $1,500 for a serious PC. $1,000 can get you a decent PC that won't be frustrating and can be upgraded.
The list (minus the operating system):
NOTE: I personally prefer ATI video cards over nVidia. But, I have an issue with Studio 11 and the one I purchased - Gigabyte's ATI HD 2600 Pro with 512MB of DDR2 memory and 400MHz dual RAMDACs. Some of the transition effects did not work unless I went into thr troubleshoot tab of the video properties and dropped the hardware acceleration by three notches. But, other effects would not work. The ones that didn't work in preview also did not work in the final mix down. Pinnacle had not history on this issue, and could not help.
I had a 2-year-old nVidia GeForce 6600SLI card, made by Rosewill. Although this card is slower and has less total RAM, it performs perfectly for video editing. nVidia has replaced this generation card with the GeForce 7600, which supports HD. It is the same price. I have not seen Rosewill cards for a year, but there are plenty of other brands using the chipsets.. The nVidia 7600 series may perform the same, but I don't have one to test. I do have an ATI Radeon 9600 Pro card with 256MB of RAM that runs Pinnacle Studio v10.7 without issue on an older PC.
I know a little trick to make Windows XP do software RAID-5 with 3 or more drives. Putting 4 250GB drives in a RAID-5 array gives me just over 700GB of space that is protected from data loss in the event a drive fails. This is called fault tolerance through redundancy. To do this with a hardware drive controller, I'd easily have to spend another $300 to $500 more for a RAID-5 solution. For a lower-performance solution, I'd suggest two large drives mirrored together in RAID-1, which XP Pro natively supports. The data transfer rate is not as fast, but it does give a level of protection in case a drive fails. It is not as good as RAID-5, but a lot better than using one drive.
From the novice to the semi-professional, a version of Pinnacle studio is a great tool to develop video content in the new age. At $50 to $130, this is a great tool for the price. With time and diligence, I believe a dedicated user will be able to create premium content rivaling that of what we see on television every day.
To put history down and quell the Pinnacle version fears from those who remember, like me… Versions 10 & 11 are nothing like version 9 was. I bought Studio Ultimate 9 in early 2005, as an upgrade from Ulead version 6. Studio 9 had issues, and I never was able to make a decent video from it. I went from making some videos with Ulead to making no videos with Pinnacle. Then, I read I was better off finding an old version of Studio 7 somewhere. In early 2006, I heard that Avid purchased Pinnacle and that Studio 10 was again a greater video package than Studio 7 ever was. And, it is true, as far as I am concerned. After visiting a few user forums and getting the same response, I bought into Studio Ultimate 10 and haven't looked back. The incremental upgrades to version 10.7 put it in line with Studio 11 without the HD part and either the Stage tools or ProDAD add ons. I now have Studio Ultimate 11, and a new computer, and am making HD content video with minimum difficulty. You shouldn't have reservations about moving to Studio 11 for any of your personal and semi-professional video editing desires. Forget the nightmares of Studio 8 & 9. With Studio 11 and the right computer, reasonably easy HD editing is in your grasp.
Other Review URLs:
Digital Camcorder News
— Jim Lloyd
The Author: I have been immersed in various aspects of electronics since I soldered together my first crystal radio in the very early 1970s. I have always been electronically inclined from building analog circuits to CB radios and the Commodore 64 to electronic field service and various jobs in aerospace in the 1980s. I was a hobbyist black & white photographer in the 1970s and 1980s, and an audiophile DJ in the 1980s and early 1990s. I have been involved with IBM PCs (and Apple Macs) since the late 1980s. Currently, I am the Microsoft network administrator at a bank, in Big Bear Lake, California.