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A Buyer's Guide to Nonlinear Editors

It's not a question of which editing program is best, but which is best for a certain user undertaking a certain project. Here are the points to consider when selecting an editor.

The first time I saw an NLE -- a nonlinear editing software package -- I’d just left film school and had started my first job. It was a simple product, named Real Magic, which someone in my military public affairs office showed off. Along with another new product, CoSA After Effects, these two tools were a welcome sight for someone tired of chasing down two frames of celluloid on the cutting room floor.

Fast-forward a few years, and both products had become part of the Adobe stable of tools: Real Magic became Premiere, and After Effects became, well, Adobe After Effects.

In the intervening years since I first saw Real Magic, I've used tools from a wide swath of the industry: Adobe, Apple, Avid, Canopus, FAST, Macromedia, Media 100, NewTek, Radius, Sonic Foundry, Sony, SuperMac, and a few more in between. Some of these tools attempt to be all-in-one solutions -- think bundles and suites -- while others tend to focus on just one area of expertise.

Rather than get into what can almost be called a religious debate, akin to Mac versus PC or Coke versus Pepsi, I’m going to provide a few decision points to ponder when it comes to choosing the right tool for the right project. Notice that I didn’t say the right tool, period. With as many workflows as there are NLEs, the time is right to consider how much to beef up your toolbox before determining which editing interface will serve you best.

Where Will You Edit?

We've traditionally had to choose between speed and portability, with the desktop computer and laptop being the respective hardware platform on which these two choices rest. Yet even today's thinnest laptop -- be it a Windows 8 ultrabook or a MacBook Air -- possesses a number of key features that make portability a real option for about 90% of all editing projects.

For those projects requiring significant compositing, whether in a stand-alone motion software tool or directly within the NLE timeline, the key factor to consider in portable hardware is the graphics card (GPU). Many of today's NLEs are GPU-enabled, meaning that the actual rendering of multiple layers of video no longer occurs until a timeline is exported to a single, flat linear video file. Instead, the GPU renders as many layers as it can at one time -- including effects applied to discrete layers -- to provide a real-time representation for the editor to use for decision-making. Some GPU-accelerated tools also have the option of scaling back resolution, in favor of keeping consistent timing, that are handy on portable devices.

What About the Cloud?

The secondary question that's arisen in the last 2 years, but with a heritage more than a decade in the making, is whether the project will be edited in the cloud or on the local machine.

I remember talking to a company almost 12 years ago that had a patented process for online video editing collaboration -- if you were willing to pay $750,000 per seat. In the last 2 years, though, a number of online tools have popped up that offer the ability to trim, tag, segment, splice, catalog, comment on, and proof your basic online video edits.

Some editors choose this for their rough cut -- or a "paper edit," as we used to call it -- while others use it for crash editing and output to a streaming format.

A few solutions are now beginning to integrate this online clip storage and collaboration with the desktop- or laptop-based NLE product. It's a normal progression to use the tool you're most comfortable with, leveraging the cloud to store and share both the raw video clips and in-progress timelines.

DASH or Flash?

I told the Sourcebook editors that I wouldn't mention a single company's product, save for the historical mention at the top of the page, but I couldn't resist the rhyming question from these two well-known streaming output solutions.