Apple's midrange addition to its video-editing software lineup, Final Cut Express, is positioned between iMovie (which comes free with new Macs) and Final Cut Pro (which costs three times as much). In many respects, Final Cut Express is so similar to its big sibling that, at first glance, they look like twins. In fact, to those familiar with Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express is most easily described by its short list of missing features. Fortunately, the typical hobbyist, student, and event videographer will barely miss the absent features, which makes Final Cut Express the best value in Mac-based nonlinear editing software. For those experienced with nonlinear editing systems, installing Final Cut Express will seem almost absurdly simple, and even newbies should have no problem with the process. It's very nearly automatic. The main choice is whether to initially set up the system for NTSC (American) or PAL (European) video.
To run Final Cut Express, you'll need OS X 10.2, a 300MHz or faster G3 or G4 Mac, and 256MB of RAM. Any new Mac should have the horsepower to run it. To work with real-time effects, you'll need more memory and a faster processor. You can find detailed system requirements on Apple's Web site. As with any editing application, it's highly recommended that you use a second disk drive for storing video files. Plug and play is the name of the game with Final Cut Express. Because it's a DV-only solution (see the Features section), there isn't much to do other than connect one end of your FireWire cable to the computer and the other to a camera.
Final Cut Express shares Final Cut Pro's modeless four-window interface, which neatly integrates editing and effects functionality in one seamless package. The initial learning curve may be a bit difficult, but once grasped, the design proves extremely powerful and intuitive. This is one of the best--and in many circles, the most popular--interfaces on the market. That means you'll have access to an ever-growing pool of editing help, talent, and documentation.
The four windows are the browser, the viewer, the timeline, and the canvas. You can organize video clips in bins in the browser (which, unlike in Final Cut Pro, defaults to a thumbnail view) and play them in the viewer. Using three-point editing, you selectively place parts of clips in a sequence. The order appears in the timeline, and you view the sequence in the canvas. For a longer, more complex project, you can create multiple sequences and nest them.
Once you assemble a sequence in the timeline, you can finesse it with the powerful array of tools in Final Cut Express's toolbar. The tools include ripple, roll, slide, and slip editing. Describing the specific capabilities of each tool is beyond the scope of this review, so suffice it to say that the software offers a quick and efficient means of performing just about every common editing task. And although Final Cut Express is billed as a modeless editor, it does offer an excellent trim mode, facilitating fine tweaking of individual cuts--go figure.
While there are other strong editing interfaces on the market, the Final Cut Pro/Express interface is exceptional for its seamless integration of compositing and effects. Besides its audio and video components, each clip has motion and effects tabs, which you can access and manipulate directly in the viewer. Like Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express offers 99 tracks of audio and video, though it lacks some of Final Cut Pro's more advanced effects capabilities (read more about that in the Features section).
Successful editing systems accommodate a wide variety of user styles, and Final Cut Express is no exception. You can access most functions through pull-down menus, icons, keyboard commands, and other means. Final Cut Express even comes with helpful keyboard stickers that identify keyboard shortcuts. These stickers rarely stay on long enough to be useful, but serious editors can buy specialized Final Cut Pro keyboards.
The biggest limitation of Final Cut Express is that, unlike Final Cut Pro, it is a DV-only solution. In other words, it has no provisions for dealing with uncompressed, 24P, or HD video. Fortunately, advanced hobbyists and lower-end pros, the likely users of the Express package, rarely use these higher-end formats. And Final Cut Express projects can be opened in Final Cut Pro, which makes for an easy upgrade path when the time comes.
Final Cut Express's second major limitation is its lack of media-management capabilities. There's no logging or selective batch capture (although you can automatically capture all the media in an entire project), no draft mode, and no exporting of edit decision lists or OMF files (which would let you transfer an edit to a higher-end editing system). The absence of these tools means that Final Cut Express is not particularly well suited to producing professional long-form work such as feature films. But, again, this is probably not a huge problem for the intended user.
Let's talk effects: Final Cut Express offers more than 200 of the most commonly used effects and filters, though it lacks Final Cut Pro's ability to import and create additional effects, as well as most of Final Cut Pro's advanced keyframing functionality (the ability to vary effects over time). Express does have an advanced color-correction tool, but it doesn't offer the scopes available in Final Cut Pro, so all corrections must be done by eye. On a more positive note, Express shares Final Cut Pro's ability to composite an unlimited number of layers. Of particular relevance to compositing is the fact that you can import Adobe Photoshop files into Express with their layers intact.
The software does an excellent job with audio. You can mix eight tracks in real time, and the program includes helpful level meters and a variety of useful audio filters. Final Cut Express also has a handy voice-over tool, which enables you to record a new audio track while playing back an edit.
A few miscellaneous features are noteworthy: Express offers the same titling options as Final Cut Pro, including lower thirds, rolling and crawling text, and a bundled version of Boris Calligraphy. Both DVD Studio Pro and iDVD recognize Final Cut Express markers inserted in a sequence as chapter divisions, which helps streamline the DVD-authoring process. And finally, the software has an excellent undo function and autosave vault, both of which go a long way toward protecting an editor from disaster.
Even with longer projects, Final Cut Express offers the same stable, fast, and responsive editing environment as Final Cut Pro. In our tests, device control was bulletproof. Unless you are using unusual hardware, don't expect any difficulties here.
Like Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express is advertised as having real-time capabilities. As with most of the competing software DV-editing solutions, this real-time functionality is limited to a preview of some effects on the computer screen--effects can't be sent out over FireWire. That means you can view a rough approximation of an effect while you're editing, but the effect must be rendered before you can see it at full resolution or record it back to tape.
Final Cut Express's real-time effects previewing worked flawlessly within its limitations, but rendering was time-consuming. However, the render times are no slower than those of any other software-only solution, and on a fast new Mac, renders can be quite speedy (for example, only 2 seconds for a 1-second dissolve).
Final Cut Express comes with good documentation and 90 days of free support, after which you can buy a variety of support options. Because the Express package is essentially a spin-off of Final Cut Pro, you'll benefit from the vast resources already available for that product in the form of books, video tutorials, user groups, and Web sites.