Pinnacle Studio, long a video editing enthusiast favourite with some 13 million customers, has been bounced around over the past couple of years in terms of ownership. After existing as a standalone company for 19 years, Avid, a force in professional audio and video production software, bought it in 2005 and put out Avid Studio, a video editor that was supposed to lie between the pro and enthusiast tiers. When Avid decided it wanted out of the consumer market, Corel snapped up Pinnacle last year, restoring the name Pinnacle Studio to this more powerful product which we’re reviewing here.
Corel is keeping Pinnacle a separate entity for now, with its own branding and website. It even seems to compete with Corel's own excellent VideoStudio line of video editing software. Let's see how the relaunched Pinnacle Studio can stand up against the likes of Adobe Premiere Elements and CyberLink PowerDirector.
Editions and setup
The new application is available at three levels: The £49.95 Pinnacle Studio 16, which offers 3D and HD editing and 1,500 effects, but limits you to just three audio and video tracks, and doesn't allow keyframe timing or green screen chroma keying. Then there’s the £79.95 Pinnacle Studio 16 Plus, which removes those limitations and adds 300 more effects and Blu-ray disc authoring. And finally, there’s the £99.95 Pinnacle Studio 16 Ultimate which ups the effect total to 2,000 (including pro-quality Red Giant effects) and throws in an actual green screen.
The Pinnacle software runs on Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista (SP2) – no XP or Mac – but there is an £8.99 Pinnacle Studio for iPad app that can round-trip your video projects. That app will be the subject of a separate review. To really take advantage of the PC program, you'll need a computer with at least 2GB of RAM and an Intel Core Duo 1.8 GHz, Core i3 or AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ 2.0 GHz CPU. You'll also want a decent graphics card that supports DirectX 9 with Pixel Shader 3.0 support. I tested the application on a 3.4GHz AMD Phenom II X4-based PC with 4GB of RAM.
For anyone who used Avid Studio, Pinnacle Studio will look strikingly familiar, right down to the reel icon at the top left. Despite this superficial similarity, the company has implemented over 300 workflow improvements and built the whole thing on top of a much faster code base that includes more hardware acceleration. The same main app modes remain, too – Import, Library, Movie, Disc, and Export. You even see the same Welcome dialog on first run offering a guided tour and initial settings such as which folders to watch for new media. It's a well-designed interface with a dark grey tone that's easy on the eyes.
It's also logically laid out; similar to most NLE (non-linear editing) apps, your source content – clips, images, sound files – are in a top left panel. To the right of that is your video preview window, and across the bottom are your timeline tracks. All the panels are resizable, but they can't be undocked in the way Sony Movie Studio allows. The Preview window can be popped out to full screen or split into a side-by-side layout. Navigating the timeline is easy enough, but I'd like to see more (or any) use of the mouse wheel to move back and forth, and to shrink/expand its timeframe.
All media organisation is done inside the main app – there's no need for a separate app like Premiere Element's Organiser. The Library mode shows media and effects in groups separated by dark grey dividers, and it lets you search its contents and filter the view by star ratings or tags. You can group items into Collection, which lets you work like a pro, keeping all the clips effects and other assets for a project together.
Import and organise
Pinnacle Studio can handle almost any video file type you throw at it, including MPEG-1/2/4, WMV, QuickTime, and MKV. A new trick is that it can import from the cloud, in this case from the popular Box web service. You can also import from an attached camcorder, including AVCHD, DV, HDV, or Digital8 models. Capturing from analogue sources is possible if you have Pinnacle or Dazzle video hardware. The software recognises and imports 3D video clips and still photos, too. But one thing not yet supported by Pinnacle Studio is the new Ultra HD 4K format, which PowerDirector can handle.
Webcam import is also an option, with an excellent stop-motion importer tool, similar to the one in Corel's VideoStudio application. The stop motion tool’s scene detection can divide your clips by sudden changes or by time increments during import.
After an import, you're taken to a new tab showing just the clips from this last import – a helpful touch. Pinnacle doesn't offer Premiere Elements' ability to analyse the imported footage for faces, brightness issues or shakiness. But you can apply tags and ratings, just as with most photo software, to help organise and retrieve relevant media later.
Instant movie making
Pros wouldn't use Pinnacle Studio's SmartSlide and SmartMovie tools, but these will be welcomed by hobbyists. They produce a finished movie without forcing you to get your hands dirty with the nitty-gritty editing tools. You start SmartSlide or SmartMovie from the Library view, rather than the Movie view, using the appropriately labelled buttons at bottom. You drag clips and music files into the tool's panel, and you can choose short, medium, or maximum clip length, and clip volume per cent. The same video settings for aspect (standard or widescreen), size (up to full HD) and frame rate that you get in the full movie editor are available.
The Smart tools let you preview and export their work, though when I did this, it took a few minutes of processing before I could preview. The result was attractive, with a title and transitions added and dull portions cut. Most instant tools like this have a bunch of themes – sports, birthdays, babies – that you can apply, but Pinnacle has eliminated all that here. In case the results don't suit you, you can always go back and edit in the full movie and sound editing interfaces later.
Basic video editing
Trimming and splitting video on the timeline is intuitive, with a Smart Editing mode and Magnetic Snapping setting doing a good job of anticipating how you want to align clips and audio that you insert on the timeline. There's no separate trimmer window as seen in most consumer video editing programs, but you can easily trim clips and add in and out markers in the preview video window. A razor button lets you split clips or the whole movie at the playhead, but there's no multi-trim tool like PowerDirector's, which lets you mark multiple ins and outs.
Another thing that PowerDirector makes easier is video rotation. I sometimes shoot with the iPhone's surprisingly good 1080p camera in landscape, but Windows usually presents these images upside down. After a bit of digging, I found that rotation was possible by opening the clip in the Effects Editor, choosing Camera, and then scrolling across to Rotate. I could also rotate in the 2D editor effect, which also let me change position, size, transparency and more – pretty powerful. I do wish, though, that I could double click in the main video preview window to crop, resize, and rotate, as is possible in many video editors.
The Corrections tab of the Effects Editor let me fix lighting and colour – including stuff like Fill Light and Blacks, helpful corrections I usually associate with photo apps. Automatic levels and white balance also did an decent job of making the image more balanced. In fact, all these corrections do work on still images, too. Corrections also offers a Stabilise tool, which only managed a mediocre job of compensating for my shaky hands on a handheld shot.
Adding basic dissolve and fade transitions can be done right on the timeline by simply dragging on a clip's top corners. Another neat timeline tool is Dynamic Length Transitions, which you enable from the right side toolbar over the timeline. This lets you drag the effect of the more sophisticated transitions you can add from the source panel. Some of these are pretty spectacular, like one that collapses your video into an origami bird that flies away to reveal the B video. This gives us a head start on the fancy effects of the next section.
Advanced video editing
Pinnacle made light work of the task of creating a mask from my test green screen clip, and it did a generally excellent job here, even though the background wasn't perfectly uniform. The app uses the term "montage" where most others would say "PiP" – picture-in-picture – and from the Library's Montage section you can choose among scores of templates for creating "montage clips."
These combine the PiP effects into a single clip which you build in the Montage Editor. I actually prefer simply to create a montage with multiple stacked clips on the timeline, for more control.
You can still create a custom montage using the 2D-3D Effects on each clip separately, but this doesn't offer any WYSIWYG resizing or rotating – you'll have to enter the coordinates manually. But I was still able to animate a clip’s movement across the screen and resizing. There is, however, a performance toll with either type of montage – template or custom.
Remember the Effects Editor? In addition to simple lighting and colour, this also offers a Photoshop-like selection of effects like frames, posterising, blur, swirl, sepia, and even fractal fire. Some more subtle and professional effects are included, too, if you spring for the Ultimate edition. This gets you Red Giant Filmmaker’s Toolkit including Magic Bullet and Knoll Light Factory motion graphics toolkit.
I do wish you could see a preview of these on timeline footage, rather than the useless A>B preview. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty amazing toolkit of effects, which would cost hundreds more if bought separately. Austin Powers will be happy to know that there's even a Mojo effect, with a slider to increase just how much mojo you want to add. Be warned, though, these effects can tax even a relatively powerful PC.
Pinnacle shows waveforms for your clips, and can separate the audio from the video. In the Audio tab of the same Effects Editor we've already met, it also offers an equaliser, compressor, expander, de-esser, and noise reduction. Seven more adjustable effect types can also be found here: A channel tool, chorus, grungeliser, leveller, reverb, stereo echo, and stereo spread. The reverb options include making your speech sound like it's in a cavern, church, or restroom.
There's also a decent selection of canned background music you can add to your movie, organised by instrumentation type and mood – a lot more range than you get with most consumer video editors. Some of it's a little hokey, but it has the advantage of stretching to your video's time length. And of course, you can add any music files of your own to the source panel. If the built-in capabilities aren't enough, you can add SmartSound Sonicfire and Scorefitter plugins for customising music to your project.
Finally, a simple microphone icon takes you to a voiceover recording tool, with a simple interface that adds a new audio track to your timeline.
The text titling and captioning tools in Pinnacle Studio are deep and powerful. You get WYSIWYG positioning, rotation, and sizing. A selection of over 30 motion paths for the text to enter, emphasise, and exit the screen is also available. These motions are prefabbed, but I would like to see some overall preset title, caption, and lower third themes here for common uses, like those you get even with pro editors such as Apple Final Cut Pro X.
3D is last year's 4K, but it's still pretty much opening table stakes for a self-respecting enthusiast video editor. Shockingly, the top-selling Adobe Premiere Elements doesn't include it, but nearly every other major player does. As I mentioned above, Pinnacle lets you import all the standard 3D file types. You can apply all the same adjustments and enhancements to 3D that you can to standard footage. Unlike PowerDirector, there's no tool for turning 2D into 3D, but Pinnacle does support the popular Nvidia 3D Vision system. Once you're done editing, Pinnacle can output your 3D project to 3D Blu-ray or AVCHD, and upload to 3D YouTube or Vimeo.
Sharing and output
Pinnacle's clear Studio Exporter window pops up when you click the Export button at top right of the main interface. It offers four main output options – File, Disc, Cloud, and Device. File formats you can export to include all the likely suspects – AVI, DivX, Flash, MOV, MPEG-1/2/4, Real, and Windows Media. Each format offers plenty of preset options for common resolutions and sizes. You can also target popular devices, including the Apple iPhone/iPod, Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, and Sony PlayStation 3 and PSP.
The new Cloud export option corrects one of Avid Studio's omissions when it comes to sharing – you can now export directly to Facebook and Vimeo. Another new cloud target is Box. You still get YouTube export, as you do with pretty much every piece of video software. I could choose the target resolution on the video sharing site, from 360 to 1080p. As with other software that uploads to YouTube, you choose the video category, description, tags, and public/private status before uploading.
Disc authoring uses the same main video editing interface, with Menus just another class of assets you can drag down to a target area above the timeline. You can have the program create chapters automatically or use timeline markers to specify them manually. A large selection of over 100 menu themes is at your disposal, with topics like winter holidays, and sports, just to scratch the surface.
Pinnacle takes advantage of hardware acceleration with Nvidia's CUDA and Intel's Quick Sync, but not AMD hardware. Competitor PowerDirector adds OpenCL to this mix, which allows acceleration on AMD graphics boards. I actually tested with an AMD (ATI Radeon HD 4290) graphics card, and performance was nevertheless quite snappy. In fact, on my movie rendering test, Pinnacle Studio edged out CyberLink PowerDirector. The feel of general editing is also snappy, and I didn't encounter the "not responding" errors all too common to the highly intensive computing activity of non-linear multi-track video editing.
In my 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. The latest version of Pinnacle Studio managed a time of 3 minutes and 21 seconds, a tad faster than PowerDirector’s 3 minutes and 33 seconds. Premiere Elements 11 trailed at 4 minutes and 27 seconds. Premiere Elements showed an estimated time to completion, which was useful and quite accurate, while Pinnacle only showed per cent completed. PowerDirector adds the time elapsed, and actually previews the video being rendered.
The new Pinnacle Studio is vastly more impressive than its predecessor, because it's based on the higher-end Avid Studio rather than on its nominal predecessor. I have no problem giving it a very high rating – Corel has taken the smart interface and toolset of Avid Studio and got this package right, with good performance, new helpful tools, and more output options.
Pinnacle Studio 16 really does have all the tools any sophisticated amateur video editor would need. However, Cyberlink PowerDirector 11 goes a step or two further, with smoother multi-track preview performance thanks to better hardware acceleration, not to mention its multi-trim tool, and support for 4K video content.