Simple HD Editing Showdown - iMovie vs. Premiere Pro CS4

I had the MBP with me at work in the hope of doing a little work on a screenplay if things got slow. They never did enough to focus on writing, but I decided it'd be a perfect chance to see how iMovie was to work with. A previous attempt to edit some footage shot with my Palm Pre smartphone went nowhere due to a horrible sound sync issue with half of the footage. (I'm talking several seconds off; it's nuts.)

I hooked up my Flip Ultra HD which records 1280x720p video and imported a 5-1/2 minute clip of the neat Detroit twee pop group Lightning Love performing a couple of songs at this year's Hamtramck Blowout concert. It was a little confusing getting the clip to actually import into iMovie, but I figured it out. All the previous clips were still in the clip bin and it made for a mess. Why isn't each project giving its own bin without extraneous junk in it?

When I said "simple editing" in the headline, I overstated the complexity of what I'm trying to do. I just want to trim the clip down to the performance of "Everyone I Know" (the beginning is missing because I was moving into position when they started) and add a couple of opening titles and copyright tags.

iMovie doesn't use a timelike like I'm used to and selecting in and out points in the bin is cumbersome. The way you can scrub playback is a neat trick, but it lacks the precision I'm used to in Premiere Pro CS4 and if you have the Help screen up and your mouse passes over footage behind it, it scrubs; an odd bug. Once I got the footage into the project, I realized I needed a few seconds more on the end, but you can't just grab and drag the end out to get more footage. Getting more from the source was also a non-starter.

Clearly iMovie isn't meant for serious editing - that's what Final Cut Express/Pro is for. Fine. Putting the titles on was easy, but controlling the editing of text sizes was a PITA. (My prior career as a typographer makes me super picky about this stuff.) If you don't want to mess with particulars, the presets are slick with automatic fade-ins/outs and decent control for rookies, but the simplicity was constraining.

When it came time to outputting the clip, I tried to use the Share menu to post it to YouTube, but it kept coming back with a vague error from YouTube and closing the dialog. When it reopens, it retained all the info I'd typed in except the lengthy title. Huh? Keywords, yes, but title, no? Stupid. Since it wouldn't upload, I exported a copy and ran into list of size options that weren't very appealing. To export at the same resolution would result in a 170MB file, so I decided to knock it down to 960x540 which would produce a 67 MB M4V file, which is an H.264 format.

Looking at it in iTunes revealed the final product had a lot of blotchy posterization. The video was shot in a darkish K of C hall, but it looked OK in its raw state, so the compression was obviously the culprit. Also, it was sloooooooow to export. Now HD footage is heavy to work with. My old PC and current laptop gagged when trying to work with the Flip files, but the MBP and my current desktop (DIRK V) handled playback handily. However, it took over 6 minutes to export the 2:20 clip - a 3:1 ratio.

For grins, I imported the same source clip into DIRK V and slammed together a similar video (i.e. trimmed to length, added titles, exported) in a fraction of the time - partially due to familiarity with Premiere, but mainly because it's a freaking MONSTER TRUCK compared to the MBP. Here's the tale of the tape between them:

MacBook Pro - Core2Duo CPU @ 2.26 GHz w/2 GB RAM.

DIRK V - Core i7 920 CPU @ 3.8 GHz w/12 GB RAM.

Is it any wonder that it took 2:03 to encode the same length clip - 13% faster than real time - into a native resolution MPEG-4 Video for Flash (.f4v) file that only weighed 27 MB? Nice!!! And I built it for 1/3rd the cost of a comparable Mac Pro tower.

Here are the videos so you can compare the quality of the output. When blown up to full screen (jump to YouTube to see them), the iMovie version is clearly blotchy while the Premiere version is much smoother, though macroblocking is visible. Both are clearly compressed, but Premiere is indisputably superior in quality and in the speed it was rendered. Yes, the DIRK V has a gigantic advantage with four times the CPU threads and six times the RAM, but the poor quality of the iMovie output makes the 3X output time doubly disappointing.

iMovie Version

Premiere CS4 Version

Bottom Line: Despite having slick canned templates and transitions, iMovie is too simple and coarse in its controls for anyone looking to do more than the most basic video editing. Toss in the slow and crummy export and I don't see it supplanting my current workflow. Perhaps Final Cut Express will do better, though it will always suck the DIRK V's wind for sheer number-crunching power.

Check out more Lightning Love at their MySpace page and buy their album which they recorded themselves. I don't like twee pop like Kimya Dawson's Juno soundtrack stuff, but I adore these guys.