First look at Apple's Final Cut Pro X

CNET takes Apple's new pro video editing software for a spin to test out some of the new features and workflows ahead of an official review.

Apple

After two months of waiting, Apple's Final Cut Pro X has arrived. The software went live in Apple's Mac App Store yesterday and has officially replaced previous versions of Final Cut Pro: both the Studio suite and Apple's pro-sumer Express product.

I've spent the day with the software putting it through the paces. As you'll read, it worked out well for me, but my needs are not necessarily that of this application's target audience.

As background, let me get it out right from the top that I'm not a professional film editor. My last deep dive into the world of Final Cut Pro was part of a college film class where I spent hours upon hours splicing together DV tape to create a documentary and a 20-minute feature film on Final Cut 4. During that time I became a Final Cut guru, learning all of the keyboard shortcuts and making use of custom workspaces for each part of the process.

Since then, my video editing habits have taken a distinctly YouTube-centric twist, cutting the shaky, button-fumbling snippets at the beginning and the end of clips and hopping into iMovie if I needed to do anything more substantial. These days Apple has made it so you can handle both those edit scenarios from your phone and places where you might end up posting the video--like YouTube-offer video editing tools of their own.

What's so interesting with Final Cut Pro X is where it now sits as a product in Apple's software lineup. While it's aimed at pros, it's become a more consumer-friendly product. Apple has done away with Final Cut Express, the $199 version of Final Cut that was nestled between iMovie and the Final Cut Studio suite. Now if you want to get your foot in the door with something beyond iMovie--the editing software that's included in every new Mac--there's Final Cut, the company's top of the line software. And it will set you back $300 instead of the $1,000 its predecessor cost.

While a full review from CNET is on the way, here are some of my first impressions after giving the software a work out.

About the test setup: Latest generation 13-inch MacBook Pro running Mac OS X 10.6.7. It's got a 2.3 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB 7200rpm HDD. Test footage is entirely 720p short of some 1080p. 2K and 4K quality cinema footage was not tested. All clips were imported to the machine's hard drive for editing.

Downloading and installing
This is the first version of Final Cut to be offered through the Mac App Store. Installing it was the same as it was with any other application you get there. It begins downloading and places an icon on your dock that shows how far along it is. There's no serial code to mess about with or remember to squirrel away somewhere. Also, if you replace your computer one day, you can re-download it whenever you want, as long as it's a machine you've authorized with your Apple ID.

Apple

Final Cut Pro X weighs in at 1.33 GB. Once it's finished, you can download an extra 637.2 MB worth of supplemental content for the software like 1,300 sound effects and audio effect presets. All the instructional material is contained in the help file, which takes the place of a car battery's worth of literature that used to ship with the Final Cut Studio suite.

The iMovie factor
From the very get go Final Cut Pro X encourages users to import their iMovie projects, or an entire iMovie project library. One thing to point out here is that you can't currently import Final Cut Pro 7 projects, which is something to keep in mind if you were planning to upgrade.

Importing a project from iMovie was a simple affair, the software just had to re-render things like titles and transitions on the test project I imported. One wonky bit was that it changed the font in a title sequence, something that took all of 30 seconds to go in and change back. Multiplied, this same bug could added extra time to my project.

If you want to import a project from iMovie, there's a setting for that.
If you want to import a project from iMovie, there's a setting for that. CNET

There's no simple or "iMovie style" view to toggle in Final Cut Pro X, but iMovie users will find themselves in familiar territory. Options for finding media, setting transitions, and penning titles are all in the same place. Missing are features like iMovie '11's movie trailer feature, so there's still a reason to go back if you're looking for a template-style movie making experience.

To ease the transition, the software is capable of bringing over any color corrections you made in iMovie, which cannot be further adjusted using Final Cut Pro X's more granular controls. Instead, users have to ditch the color corrections entirely and start anew. This can potentially be a pain for bigger projects you may want to tweak, but it's nice your settings are kept in the first place. There are a number of effects settings and templates that make it easy to adjust a clip right from the timeline, then keep going with a project. You can preview what a shot will look like with one of these effects without having to apply it, which is very handy.

Behind the scenes
One of Final Cut Pro X's headlining features is that it does some of the heavy lifting in the background. This means if you make a change you don't have to wait for the software to reprocess the shot in order to keep working.

To actually keep an eye on what's going on behind the scenes, Apple's included a loop-style progress bar in the middle of the screen that tells you how far along it is. Here you get a breakdown of exactly what it's doing to each clip including rendering, transcoding and analyzing clips. Missing is a way to give any specific clip, or process precedence in the queue. While making edits, tweaking shots and doing just about anything else, there was no waiting to see the results, I just toggled the play button and saw the finished result. Will it do the same for 4K cinema footage? Apple says yes, but I didn't get the chance to test that.

To keep an eye on what's going on behind the scenes, there's a background activity viewer.
To keep an eye on what's going on behind the scenes, there's a background activity viewer. CNET

Finding keepers
As a time saver, Final Cut Pro X includes new auto-analysis features, part of which has been carried over from iMovie. It's able to analyze your footage and determine if there are people in the shot, how many they are, and how close the camera is. The granularity of this tops out at one and two people, along with "group" shots.

In brief testing, this worked out the same as it does in iMovie, with analyzed clips getting their own menu in the media library to help fish out the processed shots. That same process can also break out what kind of shot it is based on the camera's proximity to a user's face, to determine whether it's a close up, medium, or wide shot. In testing with an FaceTime HD camera captured shot of me at various distances, Final Cut Pro X did a good job, though incorrectly said I was in a group shot when it was just me.

The popular people finder, and shot analyzer are new features for Final Cut Pro X.
The popular people finder, and shot analyzer are new features for Final Cut Pro X. CNET

While there's no people finding, as there is in iPhoto--meaning a way to identify and mark clips with specific people--Final Cut Pro X introduces a new organization tool called range-based keywords that are effectively timed tags. You can give any section of the video one or more of these keywords, making it easy to search or categorize sections of a clip for later use. This is incredibly useful, but I found the implementation less than intuitive. While it's very straightforward to add and apply range-based keywords from the media library, you can't do it on the timeline. That makes sense from a library management perspective, but it's a shame you can't do it from both places.

Getting magnetic
The magnetic timeline is going to be one of those love it, or hate it features. While I can see it becoming a nuisance when maneuvering intricate sequences with carefully placed audio and video, the fact that it automatically keeps your from de-synchronizing parts of a project due to user error is a big plus.

The magnetic timeline keeps tertiary audio clips and b-roll from knocking one another out of the way during a move like this.
The magnetic timeline keeps tertiary audio clips and b-roll from knocking one another out of the way during a move like this. CNET

To help make this feature less of an accidental nuisance, Final Cut Pro X automatically groups together clips, b-roll, and audio together with a feature called clip connections. These act as glue to hold those elements together when you move them around on the timeline. If there are any overlaps, things don't get moved out of the way as a result of the magnetic timeline. The way this has been implemented is very straightforward: as long as you drag a clip or item nearby a neighboring counterpart, the software binds them.

Auditioning
Auditioning is by far one of the neatest features. It lets you pick out clips, or an entire section of footage you want to use, then compare it against others at a single point in the timeline. Using it for a side-by-side comparison of two or more clips is surprisingly easy, and Final Cut adds an option to duplicate a clip that's in the auditions box so that you can make a quick edit to it for further comparisons.

Auditions let you test out a clip, or a sequence from the timeline and see how it will look next to your work.
Auditions let you test out a clip, or a sequence from the timeline and see how it will look next to your work. CNET

The end result is that you can get a feel for what will work better in the finished project without having to tamper with any timeline organization you might have going. To me this seems like one of the most polished features and one that I wish I had for the projects I was working on in years past.

The export picture
Like iMovie, when it comes to getting your finished work out there, Final Cut Pro X has the same options and more. For instance, there's an Apple device-specific export option to send it to an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. As a nice bonus here you can actually preview what it looks like on each device, complete with skimming, letting you jump to a specific scene to make sure something scaled right.

Other options for the Web, like YouTube and Vimeo function the same as their iMovie counterpart, letting you put your project into the cloud and tweaking all the options before hitting the upload button.

Exporting a project to an Apple device? There's a menu that gives you a preview of what it will look like there.
Exporting a project to an Apple device? There's a menu that gives you a preview of what it will look like there. CNET

Conclusions
Overall Final Cut Pro X proved capable in what was admittedly a short run-through of some of its headlining features. The question on my mind is whether consumers will bite given the more limited distribution model that is the Mac App Store. For Aperture, Apple's professional photo library management, and editing software that strategy's worked out well, making it one of the top grossing applications, yet Apple still offers that as a boxed product. You don't get a choice here.

For professional users--who are this software's target audience--the outcome is less clear. Already pro users are piping up on the Mac App Store, complaining about the software not opening up projects made with older versions of Final Cut Pro, or supporting numerous legacy Final Cut Pro features like multi-cam editing, and external production monitors. For production houses that use Final Cut Pro on a day to day basis, having one or more features you depend on not making the transition can be a deal-breaker.

Stay tuned for CNET's review of Final Cut Pro X. If you bought the software yesterday, feel free to pipe in with your own take in the comments.

 

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