CyberLink PowerDirector 11 Ultra review

Pros

  • Powerful yet easy-to-use effects
  • Speedy preview of edits and effects
  • 3D and 4K editing and output capability
  • Blu-ray disc authoring

Cons

  • Storyboard view not very useful
  • No search within transitions or effects

Seldom do I come across a product that so far surpasses all the competition in its field by every measure. And it's hardly as if there isn't much competition in the consumer video editing software game, with entries from software strongholds including the likes of Adobe, Corel, Sony, Nero, and more. Not only is CyberLink PowerDirector 11 the fastest video editing software to use, but it can also boast the deepest arsenal of tools and yet remain among the easiest to use, with a clear, intuitive interface.

Again with this latest version, PowerDirector achieves a first among consumer video editors – support for 4K video content, which, judging from this year's CES trade show, is the future of digital video. Previously, PowerDirector had been a pioneer in 3D video editing. Version 11 is also graced with Adobe-like "content aware" features, which analyse your video footage for flaws such as shakiness and lighting issues. They've also revamped the program interface for even better usability. Let's dig in and take a look at why this is the software to purchase if you're an amateur who's enthusiastic about creating digital movies.

Getting started

CyberLink PowerDirector is available in four incarnations, starting with the Deluxe version (£59.99), moving through Ultra (£71.99), Ultimate (£89.99), and culminating in the £179.99 Ultimate Suite, which includes ColorDirector for advanced colour grading, and AudioDirector for professional audio editing.

The software runs on Windows 8, 7, Vista, or XP SP3; there's no Mac version. I tested the Ultra edition, which includes the speedup of hardware acceleration and can handle 4K Ultra HD video – pretty impressive for a consumer package! After a 430MB download, the setup process took less than 5 minutes to install on my 3.4GHz quad-core test PC with 4GB of RAM.

When you fire up PowerDirector for the first time, you'll see its Welcome window (pictured above), which features three big buttons – Full Feature Editor, Easy Editor, and Slideshow. Above this, a smaller option control lets you set your video project for 16:9 HD or 4:3 standard definition aspect ratio. You can permanently disable this prologue to the actual editor and launch the full editor if you prefer; a checkbox at the bottom lets you bypass it. The software can import pretty much every video file format you throw at it, and version 11 adds support for MKV, a flexible open source format popular with the BitTorrent crowd, and AVCHD 2.0, which adds 1080p and 3D video capabilities for Sony and Panasonic camcorders.

Easy editing

The Easy Editor uses a wizard interface to take you through the workflow of importing, theming, adjusting, previewing, and finally outputting a canned digital movie project. My default setup only had two themes included, Ink Splatter and Reflection, but I could choose from hundreds more to download at DirectorZone, CyberLink's online community of media enthusiasts. After choosing a style, you can add background music from your computer, and change the video length to match. The resulting movie isn't exactly "instant": The wizard then analysed the content and created the movie, a process that took 6 minutes for my 3 minute and 26 seconds long clip.

Other apps include more in the way of canned music to add to instant projects. A nice feature is a slider that lets you adjust the balance between the video and background sound. After this, you get a preview, with transitions and effects added. The results were a bit hokey for me, but some will find them fun. After you've previewed the Magic Movie, the final step is to produce it by outputting to a file or burning to a disc. Alternatively, you can open it in the advanced editor for fine-tuning.

A couple more Magic tools may be of interest: Magic Fix and Magic Cut. The first stabilises and enhances audio and image quality, while the latter finds the most interesting parts of a clip and cuts out the rest. The latter lets you match a clip to a music track's length, and even lets you set criteria such as favouring sections with zooming and panning, or with people speaking or moving objects. It worked as advertised in my testing, and offers a handy way to easily ditch the boring bits in your video clips.

The proper editor

The actual editor interface, which is reached by selecting Full Feature Editor from the Welcome screen, uses three panels: The top is divided in half between the source (called the "library") and effects panel on the left, a preview window on the right, and the bottom taking up the timeline or storyboard. You can resize each panel relative to the other, and you can now undock the preview window into a separate window as you can with Corel VideoStudio.

The timeline is easy to customise and navigate, with a button for adding tracks (you're allowed up to 100)! By default, you get two pairs of video and audio tracks, an effects track, title voice, and music tracks. You can lock, disable/enable view, or rename tracks from the left track info area, and you can even use drag and drop to move them up and down on the timeline.

Zooming the timeline in and out is also a snap, either with Ctrl and the mouse wheel or a slider control. The storyboard view in PowerDirector is one of the program's few weak points: It's just thumbnails, with no ability to add transitions or other effects. It does let you insert clips, but if you try to add a transition, the view will be switched to timeline. I'm tempted to advise CyberLink to just ditch the storyboard until it's more useful. Some other video editors, such as Sony Vegas Movie Studio, dispense with it.

Basic video editing

PowerDirector makes it easy to fix the lighting, colour, and stabilise your video, from the Fix/Enhance button above the timeline. The stabilisation worked well, letting me adjust the crop factor, but I was really amazed how I could preview it in real time, with the stabilisation in evidence. Even pro editors like Final Cut and Premiere make you wait for a period of lengthy processing to see the effect of stabilisation. The trim tool (pictured above) allows precise control (down to the individual frame) with two sliders, and the multi-trim tool lets you mark several In and Out points on your clip – something that isn’t available in most competing packages, more’s the pity. But if you're not fussy, you can just delete a selected part of a clip right in the timeline.

PowerDirector's unique and intuitive selection cursor makes splitting video and deleting sections dead easy. Sony Vegas Movie Maker doesn't offer the excellent control of PowerDirector's double sliders or its scene detection. Fix/Enhance also includes video denoise, audio denoise, and enhancements to punch up colour and sharpness. You can independently adjust the brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, sharpness, and white balance. Also, for each of these adjustments, you can set keyframes to designate when it should be turned on and off. Premiere Elements makes you choose separate effects for each of these, rather than offering PowerDirector's unified Fix/Enhance options.

Content aware

Clips in the source library now show two icon buttons when you hover the mouse over their thumbnail – Detect Scenes and Edit using Content Aware Editing. Choosing the latter launches an “analysing content” message with a progress bar, which doesn't take long to finish. Then the Content Aware Editing window opens, with timelines showing where the clip is shaky, zooming, panning, moving, badly lit, or contains faces. You can select any of these areas for deletion, and in the case of shakiness, you can auto-fix that problem. You can also set just one in and out point in this clip editing mode.

Near pro-level video editing

If you want to get into keyframe editing (which allows precise control over when effects begin and end based on exact frames you choose) PowerDirector is there for you. PowerDirector 11 offers all the video editing techniques you could hope for in a consumer video editor – picture-in-picture, overlays, motion, cropping, and time codes. All of its effects and adjustments can be pegged to keyframes. You get a healthy 165 transitions to choose from, and 129 special effects, including 10 from NewBlue. The app doesn't let you install third-party effect plugins, but CyberLink says that capability is coming soon.

PowerDirector offers preset picture-in-picture (PiP) grids – 2 x 2 up to 10 x 10 – and your clip tracks will snap to fill the resulting spaces. New for version 11 is an actual PiP Designer window, which makes creating PiP movies much simpler than in any competing application. And none of the rest could preview these types of movies without stop-and-start jerky playback.

Transitions are easy to add, and the program can decide what material to use before and after when you drop this kind of effect to a join line between clips, which you can adjust to taste. Some programs, such as Pinnacle Studio, simply won't add a transition you try to drop onto the timeline if there isn't the required overlap between clips. One thing missing in PowerDirector's Transition Studio is the ability to search for a specific type, like Page Curl.

4K support

Yes, PowerDirector is the first consumer video editing software to accommodate 4K video content – that is, video which is quadruple the resolution of 1080p. CyberLink can work with video from several 4K-capable cameras. I was able to edit some 4K footage will all the editing tools I tried, and performance was better than I'd expected, though adding some of the more complex transitions slowed preview playback somewhat. In all, it’s a definitive feather in the software's cap to be the first with this futuristic capability.

Editing 3D video

PowerDirector can import, edit, display, and produce 3D video – something still completely lacking in Adobe Premiere Elements, though it is offered by Sony Vegas Movie Studio and Magix Movie Edit Pro. PowerDirector can even attempt to convert 2D content to 3D, but of course, starting with 3D-shot content is far more convincing.

PowerDirector supports standard 3D display systems, including anaglyph (red/cyan glasses), 3D-ready HDTVs, and polarised. It can import popular 3D file formats, including both video (MVC/M2T, side-by-side, top-under, and Dual-Stream AVI) and photo (JPS, MPO). I downloaded several 3D video and photo samples, including some high definition content, and PowerDVD had no problem importing and displaying it all.

Once you've got your 3D content in the program, you can add 3D transitions, particles and titles. The 3D titles offered by CyberLink weren't the most polished, tasteful examples around, but you can modify them to your heart's content. The 3D effects, too, were less than sophisticated, but if you're looking to add rain, snow, or falling wreaths and stockings, you can do so.

Audio

By default, audio tracks in the timeline show as waveforms, and as with Apple's video editors, you turn the volume up and down by grabbing and dragging a line in the middle of the waveform. The Audio Room, a simple track volume mixer, features normalise buttons for each track to even out the sound level of all clips. It's also easy to create voiceovers with the Voiceover Recording Room, accessible from a tab sporting a microphone icon. And Magic Music, only available in Ultra edition and higher, will add canned background music tailored to your project.

CyberLink's WaveEditor is a separate app included in PowerDirector. It shows the waveforms, lets you correct distortion, equalise, generate reverb, and apply a few special effects. It also includes VST plug-in support for third-party effects.

The standard video editor also includes beat detection, which puts markers on the timeline at music beats so you can synchronise clip action. But for really advanced mixing, recording, syncing, cleaning, and restoration, there's AudioDirector (which is only included in the Ultimate Suite edition). You can easily round-trip the audio tracks from your movie and apply effects and fixes using this.

Output and sharing

PowerDirector offers a multitude of output options: AVI, MPEG-1 through 4, H.264 AVC, WMV, MOV, and now MKV. As you'd expect from the highlight of this new version, 4K output is an option for the formats that support it. You can also choose a device to output the right format for, such as Apple devices, Blackberry, Google, or Microsoft phones. Gaming consoles, namely the Sony PSP and Xbox aren't left out of the output party, either.

Possibly more interesting is the direct upload option to Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, Nico Nico (popular in Japan), and DailyMotion. I could simply authorise my Facebook account in PowerDirector and send the movie up to the cloud. All these choices are clearly accessible from buttons on tabs in the Produce mode.

For disc output, options include 3D Blu-ray, 3D AVCHD or 3D DVD, so that you can enjoy your creations on your HDTV in three glorious dimensions. Also new is Blu-ray burning with DTS audio. But no 4K for discs yet!

Performance

CyberLink has packed a slew of speed enhancers into PowerDirector, including 64-bit native operation and graphics hardware acceleration, and this has very much paid off. The company has even added further speed boosters: OpenCL support for more graphics hardware support and "intelligent SVRT" which determines how your movie's collection of clips should be rendered for the best quality output and fastest editing.

A comparison with the market-leading Adobe Premiere Elements 11 gives concrete evidence of the beneficial effects of all this optimisation and acceleration. The preview window and interface in general are far snappier in PowerDirector, without any blurry or jerky playback rearing its ugly head.

In a head-to-head rendering performance test, I took a test movie consisting of the same four clips of mixed types (some 1080p, some SD) with the same transitions and rendered it to 720p MPEG2-DVD format in each program. Premiere Elements 11 took 4 minutes and 27 seconds, almost a minute slower than PowerDirector, which took only 3 minutes and 33 seconds on the same PC.

The latest version of Pinnacle Studio, which also uses graphics hardware acceleration, was a tad quicker still at 3 minutes and 21 seconds. Premiere Elements showed an estimated time to completion, which was useful and quite accurate, while Pinnacle only displayed the percentage completed. PowerDirector adds the time elapsed, and actually previews the video being rendered.

Verdict

PowerDirector may not be a professional video editor like Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro, or Premiere Pro – and that's a blessing for the video hobbyist and enthusiast. Where those products offer detailed control, it generally comes at the cost of usability. Not so with CyberLink PowerDirector 11 – you can still accomplish an amazing number of powerful video effects, but without all the head-scratching.

And ease of use is just part of the picture: Thanks to its many performance enhancing technologies, PowerDirector 11 does the job smoothly and speedily, without the waiting time the other products will impose on you. Along with speed and ease of use, PowerDirector 11 also impresses with industry leading support for new standards like 3D and 4K. All this means that CyberLink’s package is a top notch piece of enthusiast video editing software, and a definite Best Buy award winner.