Sony Movie Studio Platinum 12 review

Pros

  • Powerful, precise editing tools
  • Customisable interface
  • Performance improvements

Cons

  • Obtuse, outdated interface
  • Limited to 20 tracks
  • Lacks features such as MKV, 4K support

The latest consumer video editing software from Sony drops the "Vegas" brand from its name, but Sony Movie Studio Platinum 12 (£60) still feels like a derivative of its pro-level Vegas Pro software rather than a product designed for consumers from the ground up.

When I last looked at it, Sony Movie Studio was slow, and did badly in terms of user-friendliness. With the new version, Sony Creative has made progress in the performance stakes, and the program remains chock full of near-pro-level tools, including 3D and Blu-ray support. But Movie Studio hasn't come far along enough in terms of usability to earn a high score, and neither has it kept up with competitors that offer new capabilities such as 4K support.

Installation

You can install Movie Studio in Windows 8, Windows 7, or Vista – no XP, no Mac! It's now a 64-bit app, which helps with performance when keeping a lot of large video footage in memory. A pleasant wizard takes you through the installation process, and you can choose whether you want to install DVD Architect (pictured above) for disc authoring along with the video editing software.

Setup took just 2 minutes, and like most fully-featured video editors, it took up a good chunk of disk space – over 1GB for the program plus its disc authoring companion. That's still a bit less than the 1.4GB used by CyberLink PowerDirector 11. I tested the application on a 3.4GHz AMD quad-core Windows 7 Ultimate PC with 4GB RAM and an ATI Radeon HD 4290 graphics adapter – not state of the art, but not too shabby.

On first run, a message window told me that the installer program requires administrator privileges to run, so a UAC dialog had to be okayed. Happily the installer doesn't try to load unrelated software such as browser toolbars onto your system, as is all too common these days. But to run the program, I had to enter the longest serial number I've ever encountered.

What's new?

I'm always happy to see a newly improved application, but for a product with as many difficulties as Movie Studio evidenced in my past testing, I'd been hoping for more than what Sony has given us this time around. I'll dig into what's new in more detail, but for those with shorter attention spans, the company summarises it in four bullet points:

  • More tracks, more possibilities. The allowable number of video and audio tracks has been upped to 20 from 10. Several competitors in the consumer video editing space allow up to 100 tracks.
  • Simplified workflow. This claim is based on new split and trim buttons, as well as 3D project templates, and "enhanced timeline interaction."
  • Publish to Pixelcast. Sony now offers an online video and photo-sharing service. I can't really say this boasts much more than what you get free with YouTube.
  • Windows Vista and Windows 7 64-bit support. This is something that's been available in other products, such as CyberLink PowerDirector, for years.

Import

You can import video, audio, and still images from disk, cameras, or camcorders. Most standard formats are acceptable, but MKV isn't among them, nor is Super HD 4K content – both accepted by PowerDirector. When I plugged in a USB video camera, no AutoPlay option was added the way other software video editors such as PowerDirector and Adobe Premiere Elements 11 do. Clicking the file icon let me import as though it were any other file location, but this button (tool-tipped as just "Open") actually added all the media to the timeline, when I really just wanted it added to my source tray. The folder browser didn't recognise Windows 7 Libraries, instead making me navigate down to the actual folders containing the media.

When you import media files, the program "builds peaks" for each in order to display its waveform (users have complained about the slowness and instability of this process, but I didn't find it excessively obtrusive). The capture option let me get video from a webcam and camcorder, but there's no stop-motion capture tool like the excellent one in Corel VideoStudio Pro.

Once you've got the content in the app, there's next to nothing in the way of metadata to help you organise your media – no keyword tagging, let alone face recognition or auto scene-type detection that you get with Adobe Premiere Elements and Final Cut Pro X.

Interface

The program has a professional, usable, no-nonsense feel, but it lacks some important aids for consumer-level video editors found in Corel VideoStudio, PowerDirector, and Premiere Elements. Sony’s interface still looks dated when compared to those three apps. Unlike those apps, it doesn't have an interface organised by "modes" – such as one for acquiring media, another for editing, and another for output options. These helpfully lead users through the movie creation and delivery process. Another thing missing in Movie Studio is a storyboard view, which can make arranging clips and applying transitions simpler.

When you first run Movie Studio, you'll see its still somewhat too-light-grey interface (you can fortunately change this colour), with a Welcome window in the centre, offering to let you create a new project using common presets, start tutorials, or simply start the editor. The intro tutorial is a wizard that highlights and explains each program feature. Another helpful touch (and almost necessary for this program) is the "What's This?" button that gives you a cursor that you can click anywhere, and this opens a help page about a program element.

The interface is actually one of the most flexible around, in terms of letting you resize and move panels around. You can break any panel out into its own window, and the video preview window has a button that lets you send it full-screen to a second monitor. However, the preview window lacks a helpful button you see in most consumer video editors: Jump to last/next edit point, though it does have play-from-start and frame-by-frame advance buttons.

The interface looks like most video editing software, with a three panel layout dividing the top half of the screen into a left-side source panel and a right-side video preview window, with a timeline running across the entire bottom half of the window. Along the top are the menu row and a toolbar row loaded with small, perplexing icons, but thankfully tooltips appear to explain their functions when you hover the mouse over them. Another help is the Show Me How button, which opens tutorials for common procedures like adding fades or crops.

One thing I don't like seeing in a consumer editor is the Media Bins folder in the left source pane – the term "media bins" should be left to pros from the past. This is a recurring theme in the program – another example is the top choice in one of the program's menus: "Quantise to Frames." What's a budding enthusiast supposed to make of that?

At any rate, I'll concede that the Media Bins offer a way to organise your project assets; you can create sub-bins to taste. The bins are really no different from folders, except they're local to the program – they don't actually correspond to PC folders. But Premiere Elements' comparable Project Assets panel is far more useful, letting you collect transitions, effects and audio files, rather than just the clips and photos allowed by Sony's bins.

The timeline is easily navigable. Unlike most apps, spinning the mouse wheel expands and contracts it, rather than just moving back and forward. In fact, there are more ways to zoom and unzoom the timeline than you can swing a cat through: There are plus and minus buttons, a magnifying glass icon, the scroll bar, and the up and down keyboard arrows. But just moving back and forth in the timeline is less straightforward than in other apps, because when you drag Sony's insertion point head, it only moves at the actual speed of playback. And the mouse wheel doesn't advance you in the timeline as it does in most other apps. If you click above the play head in just the right area, though, you can jump around in the timeline.

For the version 12 update of Movie Studio, the maximum number of video tracks you can use has increased from 10 to 20, and even though this is likely to be enough for most hobbyists, it's still far more restrictive than what you get in PowerDirector or Premiere Elements, which let you go to town with 100 tracks.

To get to transitions, FX, and the trimmer, you click on tabs below the source panel. This program is not very visually intuitive; every other consumer editor and even the pro-level Apple Final Cut Pro X has icons that visually indicate their purpose.

Scores of keyboard shortcuts let you perform operations quickly. Within each clip display on the timeline are icons for Event FX and Pan-and-crop, and these useful choices are also available from a right click context menu. Audio tracks are shown separately as voice tracks, and these display the audio's waveform view. As in most apps, you can drag a line down in this waveform track view to lower the clip volume.

Basic video editing

When I started creating my first project, a dialog for setting "common presets" chose AVC-HD 1080i in NTSC format with stereo sound, which made sense for a disc burning project for a US location. New for this version are buttons that no video editor should be without: Split and Trim. Actually there are three Trim buttons – one that cuts everything before the insertion point, one that cuts everything after, and one that leaves only the region you've selected. You can also trim clips before they're on the timeline, by clicking the Trim tab under the source panel.

This is where you trim both source clips and timeline video. The view in this panel is a little strange compared to other apps' similar tools, as there's no clear scrubber or insertion point which you get in most app's trimmers. Instead, you see the audio waveform above 19 toolbar buttons. It's a cluttered and difficult-to-use tool, compared with other products out there. And in a departure from what you can do in the main window toolbar, you can't customise the buttons on this trimmer. Nor does it let you mark multiple in and out cuts as you can in PowerDirector's multi-trimmer or in Apple Final Cut Pro X's source panel. One useful button it does offer is Create Sub-clip, and you can send your cuts right to the timeline.

Another useful feature I've been seeing in video editors of late, which is included here, is the ability to drag the corners of clips in your timeline to create fade transitions – the most frequently used type of transition. Adjusting brightness, a pretty basic task, requires opening Media FX, and there's no auto-correct option; there are, however, presets for brighter, darker, more contrast, and so on. All these effects are referred to as plug-ins, even though they ship with the product. Though a dialog box opens whenever you add one of these "plug-ins" to your movie, their effects only show up in the preview panel, not in the effect's own dialog.

Getting fancy with digital movies

Sony Movie Studio offers loads of more complicated transitions and effects – literally hundreds. These are found in tabs under the source window, looking more like what you see in Adobe Premiere Pro rather than a consumer app – they're just in folders. The transition previews show the effect with standard A>B demos, rather than with your own content. I do like the search box atop the list, since there are so many to choose from.

You can't just drop a transition between clips and have the program figure out the necessary overlap. A simple star wipe opened a box with 14 different slider settings for the transition – I could set the number of arms the star had, its border colour and feathering, and animation direction, among other things.

Effect plug-ins from the respected NewBlue come along with the Platinum version of Movie Studio, and you can install any effect plug-ins that work in Sony Vegas, including professional ones like those from Red Giant.

Time stretching is possible in Movie Studio – playback speedup or slow motion – but again, there's no easily visible tool showing you it's there. You can either drag the left or right edge of a whole clip, hold Ctrl, and drag to enlarge or shrink the timeline entry. Alternatively, you can enter a playback rate factor in the clip's Properties dialog. But you can't just speedup or slowdown part of a clip, and there's no freeze-frame tool as there is in Premiere Elements.

In my chroma key test using a green screen to fake a background for my subject, I could either choose green or blue screen, or choose the dropper to set my background colour to clear. The initial result wasn't as simple and correct as with Premiere, iMovie, or PowerDirector, but Movie Studio gave me high and low threshold sliders that let me clear the background nearly as effectively as those competing apps.

There's no tab or toolbar button to take you to the program's text tool: Text is just another choice under generated media effects. You can also get to this "plug-in" from the Insert menu. Your text can use any system font, and you can adjust the size and colour to taste; you can't type directly on your preview window, but rather you do so in the separate FX window. You can also animate the text's position, scale, and pretty much every other property from clock icons next to each. The Media Generators tab offers presets for these text animations.

Forget picture-in-picture presets or resizing video within the preview window – you have to go to the Video Event FX window with its host of adjustments. Finally, there is a stabilise tool buried in the Media FX options (I'd love more of these to be available from a right click), and it did a decent job smoothing out footage shot from a train window.

3D video editing

3D production is not new for this version of Sony Movie Studio, but version 12 does add 3D project templates for both Internet and Blu-ray, and an improved stereoscopic adjuster to smooth production. The program doesn't make editing and viewing 3D content as easy as PowerDirector does – there's still no tutorial for this new editing paradigm, nor any help in getting set up with viewing.

My side-by-side test clip wasn't aligned into one 3D image at first. After much digging into the help and properties dialogs for project, preview, and display device settings, I could finally view 3D video in anaglyphic red/cyan 3D using simple coloured glasses. Movie Studio 12 also supports the popular Nvidia 3D Vision system. However, there are still no 3D titles for adding to your 3D movie in this piece of Sony software.

Output and sharing

When you're happy with your video editing job, you select Make Movie from the Project menu – there's no mode or button for output options, either online or local. But the Make Movie dialog offers both of these, including Blu-ray burning for true HD output. Other choices are to save the project to a portable device or the local hard drive. The first option, though, is Upload to YouTube. Unfortunately, there's no direct Facebook uploading, which most other apps have added by now.

Pixelcast is a new photo and video sharing site from Sony, to which you can directly upload your creations from Movie Studio. The site's media hosting is offered at three tiers: a free Basic level, a Plus package at £37 per year, and Premium at £53. Free accounts get a generous 500MB, Plus ups this to 5GB, Premium to 10GB.

You may well ask: "If YouTube lets me upload everything free and offers the biggest audience on the Internet, why do I need this Sony service?" The well designed site can show a map and timeline of your contributions, and offers "Experiences" that groups can contribute to. However, the very first movie I uploaded went awry, as it should have been 4 minutes long, but I only saw a 5 second clip in my account, and indeed, the upload dialog finished much too quickly for the full video.

Performance

Sony Movie Studio's newfound use of 64-bit processing, and its continued use of graphics hardware acceleration for both Nvidia and AMD architectures bring it into the fold of decent performing video editors. A four-track picture-in-picture previewed without the stop-and-start that many video editors suffer from – including the previous version of Sony's – but the image quality was heavily degraded to perform this feat.

In a timed video rendering test, Movie Editor showed a nice improvement over its predecessor. For testing, I used a movie consisting of four clips and the same transitions in competing consumer video editing packages. The 4 minute and 27 seconds long movie took just 4 minutes and 15 seconds to render to MPEG2 720 DVD format in Movie Studio 12, much faster than version 11's 6 minutes and 30 seconds.

Indeed, this time beat out Premiere Elements 11's 4 minutes and 27 seconds by a smidge, but was still behind CyberLink PowerDirector 11's 3 minutes and 33 seconds, and Pinnacle Studio 16's 3 minutes and 21 seconds. Sony's software helpfully displayed pretty accurate time remaining and time elapsed counters.

Now for a word on stability – which is always a concern with video editing software. Early on in testing Sony Movie Studio 12, I experienced a “not responding” condition with an endlessly spinning cursor. I realise that video editing is a very intensive computing activity, and crashes like this occur in even the best software, but other apps have made better progress at eliminating these glitches.

Commendably, the program did open a window encouraging me to send an error report to the company, and offered a link to info on the problem. This led to an update patch I installed, after which I experienced only one more crash.

Audio editing

Movie Studio 12 includes a healthy selection of audio effects, but the installer DVD no longer includes Sony's Sound Forge Audio Studio, a capable sound editor and fixer. Instead, the sound effects and editing are included as Audio Even FX. This is accessible from a menu choice or right click, but there's no main tab for audio unless you dig into settings and enable it. Features include noise reduction, echo, panning, and chorus, and you can use the package to restore vinyl recordings, create loops, change bit-depth, fade, normalise, and much more.

Verdict

The truth of the matter is that Sony Movie Studio 12 hasn’t kept up with the competition, especially in terms of usability, but also in failing to introduce new capabilities that other products like PowerDirector and Corel VideoStudio now offer (such as 4K and MKV support, and direct Facebook uploading). But the big problem is usability. Sony Creative is going to have to do more than adding a few trim and split buttons to make this program appeal to the consumer audience it targets. Even a fellow colleague in the office familiar with video tech found Movie Studio difficult to master.

The speed improvement and truly rich set of tools the app sports offsets the usability issue somewhat. The software lets you do nearly anything you want with your digital video if you're willing to dig into the program's intricacies. But if you want an equally powerful but far more usable consumer video editor, check out CyberLink PowerDirector, which just seems to keep pulling away from the competition in terms of performance, advanced capabilities, and ease of use.

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