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Avid Xpress DV 3.5 review: Avid Xpress DV 3.5

The Good Avid's popular and elegant interface; real-time previewing; advanced color correction; cross-platform compatibility; file and media sharing with higher-end Avids.

The Bad Lacks compositing functionality and the ability to handle higher-end video formats; real-time functionality for previews only.

The Bottom Line Avid's Xpress DV 3.5 is a superb nonlinear editor for serious videographers and aspiring postproduction professionals--and now you can run it on a Mac.

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8.7 Overall
  • Setup 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Support 8

Avid's sole software-only product, the Xpress DV nonlinear editing package brings most of the interface and functionality of the company's industry-standard Media Composer systems to the independent producer and the advanced hobbyist. With a street price that has dropped as low as $1,000, version 3.5 is clearly meant to go head-to-head with Apple's Final Cut Pro, the young upstart that has been making significant inroads into Avid's territory. Until version 3.5, Xpress DV was a Windows-only product. But now it ratchets up the competition with Final Cut by running on Mac OS X and providing full cross-platform compatibility for sharing media and project files. What's more, this superb editing tool is bundled with Boris FX 6.1 LTD, Boris Graffiti 2.1 LTD, and, for Windows XP, Sonic Solutions DVDit LE. It's also available at a very affordable student price or in Avid's PowerPack, which bundles half a dozen additional software products. Installing Xpress DV on our dual 800MHz Mac G4 tower was straightforward, as it is reported to be on all systems meeting Avid's requirements. For Macs, including PowerBooks and iMacs, you'll need a G4 with OS X 10.1.4 or higher. For PCs, a 750MHz Pentium III or 4 (or equivalent) is the minimum requirement, along with a DV card. Take a look at Avid's Web site for further information on compatible systems, components, and peripherals. The Xpress DV 3.5 package includes both Mac and Windows versions, as well as a USB dongle that you'll need to run the software. However, since only one dongle is included, you can't have more than one active installation running at a time.

For many, the most important selling point of Xpress DV is that it offers the industry-standard Avid interface, developed over the past decade with Avid's Media Composer line of professional editing systems. This means that, with a few small adjustments, any professional Avid editor will be able to sit down at an Xpress DV system and get to work--and that less-experienced editors with professional ambitions will get training from the software that will apply to pro Avid systems. It also means that an Xpress DV system can share projects with higher-end Media Composer and Symphony systems, serving as an affordable offline workstation.

The Avid interface is definitely worthy of its reputation. While it may take a while to learn, once mastered, it is efficient and powerful. In fact, its editing paradigm is so effective that it has been copied by most of the competition. For example, clips are called from a bin to a source window, trimmed, and dropped into a record window or directly into a timeline.

On the other hand, unlike much of the competition (such as Apple), Avid employs a mode-based system. Different toolsets and corresponding window arrangements are called up within the various editing modes, which include source/record editing, color correction, effects editing, audio editing, trimming, and recording (digitizing). This mode-based system makes for a steep learning curve, but in time, you'll appreciate the efficiency of the keyboard-based style of editing it enables. Fortunately, the learning curve is significantly eased by the included documentation, which is well written and comprehensive.

Advanced users will appreciate the high degree of user customization that's available in version 3.5. Everything from button styles and workspace colors to window arrangements, encoding and output settings, and keyboard mapping can be set according to your preferences. Like all modern Avids, Xpress DV 3.5 is a highly refined editing tool. Its powerful logging, batch-capture, and media-management functions make it especially well suited for long-form projects.

Xpress DV shines somewhat less brightly when it comes to effects. While billed as a real-time editor, it provides real-time previews only. As with Final Cut Pro, all effects appear in real time only in a window on the computer screen and when you disable output via FireWire. Effects must be rendered before they can be viewed at full quality on a professional video monitor.

Conceived of primarily as an editor, Xpress DV lacks much of the compositing functionality of Final Cut Pro, including mattes, sophisticated keyframing, and the ability to apply several effects to the same clip. Multiple effects must be nested--a tedious task. The software accommodates only eight video and eight audio tracks, though, again, nesting provides a way around this limitation. Xpress DV 3.5 offers good basic titling by bundling a limited version of Boris Graffiti 2.1.

When it comes to color correction, however, Xpress DV's new color-correction tool is unrivalled in the current generation of software-based editors. Lifted from Avid's top-end Symphony system (it isn't even offered in the Media Composer), this tool truly obliterates the traditional offline/online distinction, enabling quick and precise image sweetening. Two sets of controls are offered: hue-lightness-saturation (HLS) color wheels for the independent manipulation of highlights, midtones, and shadows, and color curves for adjusting RGB and master channels.

To allow you to judge the effects of all these tools, the color-correction window provides three panes, each of which can be scrubbed and split between corrected and noncorrected appearance. One pane displays the current shot, one the previous, and one the next. In conjunction with the Color Match Control eyedropper, this interface makes it almost ridiculously easy to match colors from one shot to another and achieve a uniform, professional look.

Audio is another area where Xpress DV 3.5 excels, offering powerful gain and equalization controls. Particularly nifty is the Automation Gain Tool, which lets you ride gain on the fly while playing an edit. We also found the Audio Punch In Tool useful; it lets you add sound from external sources, such as voiceovers, on the fly.

Xpress DV imports and exports all the typical video, still, and audio formats, including QuickTime and MPEG. Perhaps the greatest limitation of this software is that it supports full-resolution DV only--there's no low-res draft mode to save disk space and no support for higher-end digital video formats such as uncompressed and high-definition video. For DV editing, however, Xpress DV is a winner.

If you need a comprehensive postproduction package, consider Avid's Xpress DV 3.5 PowerPack. For several hundred dollars more than the basic package, it includes additional effects, better titling, and, most significantly, Avid's Film Scribe, which enables Xpress DV to generate frame-accurate cutlists for film-originated projects. Various packages and upgrade options are described in detail on Avid's Web site. When it comes to straight editing, Xpress DV 3.5 is fast and responsive. Even with long projects, edits are nearly instantaneous. As we explained in the Features section, the story with effects is a bit more complicated. In our testing, the real-time effects previewing worked flawlessly within its limitations; you can preview an effect and keep editing, but you'll have to sit through a time-consuming render before you can output the edit to tape. Fortunately, as hardware gets faster and faster, these renders are becoming more and more manageable. A one-second dissolve took only a couple of seconds to render on our dual-800MHz Mac G4 system.

Xpress DV proved extremely stable during our tests. In the event of a crash, the program provides an excellent automatic backup function that rescues all but the last few minutes of work. After years of having what some perceived to be an elitist attitude, Avid now seems to be extremely supportive of its lower-end customers. The in-depth manuals included with Xpress DV 3.5 are well written, and Avid's online knowledge base and user forums are comprehensive and helpful. When it becomes necessary to talk to an actual human being, Avid will give you tech support that's considerably less expensive than what Apple offers for Final Cut Pro: $50 per incident or $599 for an annual contract.

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