Tuesday, 17 January 2017

VEGAS Pro Edit 14 Review

http://www.vegascreativesoftware.com/

The is the first new release of VEGAS since MAGIX bought it from Sony early in 2016. In spite of its new ownership, the software looks and works pretty much the way it did when it was owned by Sony. There have been only very minor changes to the look of the user interface such as some slightly redesigned icons. Apart from that, if you are accustomed to an older version of VEGAS (see for example my review of version 11 of VEGAS Movie Studio from 2011), then you should feel very much at home with this new release.



VEGAS is a video editing program for Windows. It lets you import and edit video and audio clips by placing them, onto tracks in a timeline area. There you can cut, copy, trim and move the clips. You can add effects, transitions, zooms and pans. And when you are happy with the end results you can create your final video in a large variety of configurable formats.

Scrubbing and Trimming

One of the new features that MAGIX are keen to highlight is the ‘hover scrubbing’ mode in the trimmer window. You can edit individual clips by loading them into the trimmer window where you can preview the clip and cut out a section to create a smaller subclip. By tradition, the trimming is done by selecting regions on a track shown beneath the video preview. By enabling hover scrubbing, you can work much more quickly by simply hovering your mouse from left to right over the video preview in order to scroll rapidly through the clip. When you see an appropriate start-point for your subclip you just click the mouse then carry on hovering until you find a suitable end-point, then click again.

You can hover your mouse over the clip preview to scroll quickly through it.

One curious feature of the Trimmer window is that the popup menu from which you select options is disabled when you turn off hover scrubbing. I spent some time trying to find out how to turn that option on again, but since the appropriate menu no longer popped up, it seemed impossible. Finally I discovered that if I opened up the wave-form track displayed beneath the window, I was able to click on that in order to display the menu. I presumed that the vanishing Trimmer menu was a bug and I have reported it to MAGIX. I am told it will be fixed in a forthcoming update.

If you want to speed up a clip you can do that by adding a ‘velocity envelope’ that now speeds up the clip by up to 40 times. The velocity envelope is shown as a horizontal line on the clip and you can add points to the line to increase or decrease the speed at selected points. The velocity only applies to video, however, and any accompanying audio is not synchronized when changes are made.

High Definition

There have also been a few additions to support high definition and high frame-rate video. For example, if you are working on a 4K video project and you need to include lower resolution video clips, VEGAS can ‘upscale’ those clips to improve their appearance when viewed at a higher resolution than the one in which they were recorded. If you are making slow-motion videos, you can simplify the inclusion of videos recorded at a high frame rate (say 120 or 240 frames per second) into your lower frame-rate videos by selecting the desired playback rate and letting the software automatically calculate the necessary adjustments. Other additions for 4K video include support of Black Magic and RED Digital 4K cameras and rendering in HEVC/H265 video formats.

Plugins

A new Smart Zoom plugin has been added. That lets you select the plugin from a list, then, in a dialog, pick the zoom level and the centre of the zoom to add panning or cropping to a video clip. The Smart Zoom plugin is an alternative to the regular pan/crop tool and it is aimed at preserving the sharpness and resolution of a video when zooming.

At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that VEGAS makes fairly extensive use of plugins. To use one, you click an icon in a clip on the timeline to pop up the plugin selector. Plugins can do everything from correcting the colour balance to adding blurs, light rays and vignettes. Each plugin comes with its own dialog in which you can set and adjust parameters. When multiple plugins are selected, this creates a ‘plugin chain’ - in effect, a linked list of plugins that are shown at the top of the plugin editing dialog. You can switch from one plugin to another by clicking the button in the chain, then make adjustments as necessary. This is a useful and flexible capability but, especially for a new user, it can be confusing. The problem is that while some plugins are selected from the plugin dialog, others provide video effects which are selected from a docked pane in VEGAS. Those effects are also added to the plugin chain. Each time an effect, or a plugin, is added to the chain, you are obliged to work in a popup dialog. This means you you regularly have to switch ‘modes’ from editing within the integrated environment to working in popup editors - the same is true for pan-and-crop and transitions (blurs, fades and animated effects) between clips: they all come with their own popup editors. Long-time users of VEGAS are, of course, used to working in all these popup editors and probably MAGIX has good reasons for retaining this way of working. Even so, I have to say it seems quite an inelegant way of editing at times.

When multiple effects or plugins are selected, these are added to a ‘plugin chain’ seen at the top of this dialog. Each plugin in the chain can be selected in order to change its parameters. But this does mean that you have to work a great deal in dialog boxes.

By comparison, many of the effects such as zooms and traditions in MAGIX’s other video editing package, Video Pro X (see my review), are added and edited in a docked window so that you can see the effects immediately applied in the preview window alongside. Personally, I prefer Video Pro X’s more integrated approach to VEGAS’s innumerable popup dialogs. Moreover, the entire user interface of Video Pro X is altogether sleaker and more modern-looking than that of VEGAS.

Video rendering speed (when producing your finished video) in VEGAS is unremarkable. It’s always hard to make direct comparisons, since rendering varies greatly according to the hardware, the video output format, the selected options and the video resolution. However, it is certainly the case that VEGAS does not provide rendering at anything like the speed of the fast video rendering of Cyberlink’s PowerDirector (see my review).

VEGAS Editions

VEGAS comes in three different editions: Pro Edit - which is the one I’ve been reviewing ($399), Pro ($599) and Pro Suite ($799). The two higher level products include DVD creation functionality and a number of additional third-party plugins and tools for colour correction, text and title design. The Suite edition also includes Boris FX Match Move and FX Key Blend for enhanced motion tracking and chromakey (green screening). For a full list of features see the product comparison chart http://www.vegascreativesoftware.com/us/vegas-pro/product-comparison.

If VEGAS is beyond your budget, there are also three lower-end editions which are called VEGAS Movie Studio (see the product comparison chart http://www.vegascreativesoftware.com/us/vegas-movie-studio-product-comparison). These have more limited capabilities (fewer effects, a more limited timeline etc.) and this product range is still at version 13 rather than 14.

Overall, VEGAS Pro Edit 14 is a solid performer with lots of editing options for producing pro-quality videos. Its interface is a bit fussy for my tastes, but on the plus side the fact that this remains little changed from earlier versions makes it easily accessible to existing users. In spite of various useful additions to this release, there are no real show-stoppers. My impression is that this first new release from MAGIX is primarily aimed at providing an upgrade to current VEGAS users rather than trying to attract substantial numbers of new users. Given the increasingly competitive market in video editing software, I’d like to see some more substantial innovations in version 15.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

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Friday, 2 December 2016

Cyberlink PowerDirector 15 review

http://www.cyberlink.com/products/powerdirector-ultra/

PowerDirector is one of the best value video editing programs available. Fast and feature rich, it is suitable for creating both professional and ‘serious amateur’ video projects. While it is not aimed at the ‘top end’ or cinematic video specialist, it is certainly capable of creating excellent quality, high definition videos to view online, on a mobile device, on a desktop computer monitor or on an HD TV.

PowerDirector 15

To create a video, you start by importing one or more video clips, along with any audio clips or images you may want to use. You then drop these clips onto multiple tracks in the editing timeline. Clips can be cut, copied or trimmed. You can smooth out the joins, if you wish, by adding transitions such as fades, blurs, wipes and all kinds of fancy animated effects.

The software also comes with visual and text effects which can be selected from a window and dragged straight onto a video clip. For a general overview of the features of PowerDirector, see my review of the previous edition, PowerDirector 14 or watch this short video overview.


At first sight, there is very little to distinguish PowerDirector 15 from the previous release. It looks  much the same as before with its multi-part environment: Capture, Edit, Produce and Create Disc and its three-part video editing interface: 1) the library from which tools and effects are selected, 2) the video previewer and 3) the multi-track timeline.

There are some handy new features too. For example, it can now do 360-degree editing. This lets you create videos that extend beyond the rectangular boundaries of the screen, allowing the user to scroll around to look ‘behind’ the foreground action. Bear in mind that you must have a camera capable of recording 360-degree videos in order to use this feature. I don’t have such a camera so I haven’t been able to test this. You can also place text in the 360 degree view so that, for example, labels can be placed over objects in any part of the panoramic display. 

This video shows an example of the 360 editor.



Other new or improved features include vertical video support to create movies that fit onto a  vertically aligned smartphone, a mask designer to let you mix clips in which one clip shows through a transparent shape in another clip, improved support for stop-motion videos, better colour correction tools, plus various improved rendering options.

On the whole, however, I’d have to say that, unless 360-editing is a vital feature for you, PowerDirector 15 is a fairly minor update to the previous release. It remains a good, well-featured, all-round video editor which benefits from a very fast renderer that produces finished videos at considerable speed.

For an overview of its principal features of PowerDirector 15 see HERE . The software comes in various editions ranging from the entry-level Ultra (£59.40) to the Director Suite (£164.99) which includes additional software to edit colour, audio and images.



Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Camtasia 9 For Windows / 3 For Mac (Review)

https://www.techsmith.com/

Price: $199 (includes licence for both the Windows and Mac editions)
Upgrade from previous version: $99.50


It’s been a few years years since TechSmith released a major new version of its screen recording and editing suite, Camtasia. I reviewed the previous versions, Camtasia Studio 8 For Windows and Camtasia 2 For Mac  way back in 2012. Now TechSmith has released new versions of both the Windows and its Mac releases. And what’s more, a single license will get you access to both of those editions.

In the previous releases of Camtasia, the Mac edition looked cleaner and neater than the Windows one. In these new releases, the Windows version (seen here) looks almost identical to the Mac version.
As before, this version of Camtasia has a set of tools to let you record and edit activity on your computer screen. It also lets you record video from a webcam or import video recorded by a dedicated video camera. You can place clips on multiple tracks in a timeline and edit them by cutting and splicing them, zooming and panning or adding transitions such as fades and scrolls to smooth out the joins.

Camtasia specialises in recording from the computer screen. A recording tool is provided for both Windows and (as shown here) Mac. You can record the entire screen or predefined regions and, if you have a camera attached, you can also simultaneously record ‘picture in picture’ video to show, for example, a ‘talking head narration’ of the actions recorded from the screen.
If you are already familiar with previous versions of Camtasia for Windows, the first thing you will notice about Camtasia 9 is the slick-looking new interface. This cleans up the interface of version 8 which looked a bit of a hybrid with its white-background asset windows docked inside an environment with a dark colour-scheme. Camtasia 9 has an integrated dark colour throughout and it has adopted a plain ‘flat’ look instead of the rather clich├ęd ‘glass’ effects used in version 8.

The layout has been redesigned too. In common with Camtasia 8 it has a three-part layout with the top of the screen divided between the video preview window and an all-purpose tabbed panel containing clips, a narration tool, a callout panel, transitions and so on. In Camtasia 8 the pages of this panel were selected by clicking buttons at its bottom edge. There was not enough space to accommodate all the buttons so additional pages had to be selected by clicking a ‘More’ button. In Camtasia 9, the buttons are placed at the left edge of the panel so all the page tabs can be seen simultaneously. In addition, there is a new Properties panel that lets you adjust the position, size and rotation of video clips and the volume of audio clips.

A single panel contains tabbed pages from which you can select transitions, cursor effects, behaviours and animations.
For users who plan to use Camtasia on both Windows and a Mac, the big new feature is the ability to exchange projects seamlessly between the two versions. You can create a project on Windows and load it up in Camtasia 3 on the Mac or vice versa. Previously the only way of sharing videos between the Windows and Mac versions was to render a finished video using Camtasia on one platform and then load up that video into a new project on the other platform.

This is the Mac edition of Camtasia which, even though it is only version 3 is now very similar in both look and functionality to Camtasia 9 on Windows.
This release of Camtasia has a number of interesting new capabilities such as Behaviours and Animations. At first sight the differences between Behaviours and Animations is not obvious. Both of these let you drop onto a clip some predefined animated effect. For example, if I drop a Scale-down animation onto a clip, the dimensions of the video are reduced over a set period. Similarly, a Scale-up animation increases the video dimensions and a Tilt-right animation zooms out and positions the video clip at the right of the screen.

Behaviours include effects such as ‘Jump and Fall’ or ‘Popup’. The Jump and Fall behaviour causes a video clip to drop down from the top and bounce. The Popup behaviour causes a clip to swing into view from a selected side. Both the behaviours and the animations can be tailored using the properties panel. For example, a Popup behaviour may be made either smooth or bouncy; a Scale-up animation may be made slow or fast. On the whole, animations work rather like the zoom, pan and ‘visual properties’ of earlier releases of Camtasia (in fact, Zoom-and-Pan has its own ‘sub-page’ inside the Animations page). The Behaviours work more like the text and video effects that you will often find in general-purpose video editing packages.

The new ‘behaviours’ let you apply animated effects to selected clips, images and callouts. Here I have added a behaviour to the ‘speech bubble’ callout so that it drops into the video and bounces. The speed and bounciness of this behaviour can be adjusted using the Properties panel docked at the right of the screen.
Other new things in this release include lots of new resources that you can use in your projects. These include animated backgrounds, music tracks and various slides and ‘lower third’ graphics that can be used as overlays in, for example, the title sequences of videos. There are also more annotations provided as standard to let you drop captions and ‘callouts’ into a video. In addition, some features that were previously only available in the Windows version of Camtasia - notably quizzes and clip-grouping - have been added to the Mac version.

Camtasia comes with various ready-to-use graphics such as this animated background.
In spite of all the tweaks and additions to Camtasia 9, I have to say that there are no really huge new changes here. Broadly speaking Camtasia 9 has a similar set of features to Camtasia 8 on Windows. The interface been given a much needed redesign and numerous improvements to usability have been made. Perhaps the single biggest improvement is the increased ease of project exchange between the Mac and Windows plus the addition of some features to the Mac release which hitherto had only been available to Windows users. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a far bigger expansion in the Camtasia library of effects, animations and transitions; these are still very limited when compared to the effects provided by many general-purpose video editing suites. Even so, for screencast recording and editing, Camtasia is still my favourite product for the simple reason that it is fast and easy to use.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Opera – the browser that came in from the cold

Opera used to be my favourite web browser. But that was long ago. Since then I’ve moved on:  these days I generally use either Firefox, Chrome or Vivaldi. On Windows 10, I use Edge and on my iPad I use Safari. What the heck, a browser is just a browser after all!

So why have I now installed the new version of Opera? And why is it rapidly becoming my favourite browser? Two reasons: VPN and ad-blocking.



Opera now has VPN (Virtual Private Network) browsing built in. You just pick a country from a drop-down list and Opera lets you log on from your selected ‘virtual’ location. In principle this enhances your privacy and keeps your browsing anonymous. Well, I never really believe I have any privacy online, so I take the promise of anonymity with a fairly large pinch of salt.  But even so, I love Opera’s VPN. It lets me browse American web sites as though I am browsing from America. So I can easily check manufacturers’ prices quoted in dollars instead of pounds, and I can log onto CNN’s American news instead of its International news. Read more about Opera’s VPN here:  http://www.opera.com/blogs/desktop/2016/04/free-vpn-integrated-opera-for-windows-mac/

The other thing I really like about the Opera is its ad-blocker. With other browsers you generally have to install some kind of extension to blocks ads. With Opera it’s a standard feature. This means I am now able even to read ad-intensive sites such as the UK’s ‘Independent’ online newspaper which, in Firefox, has so many damn’ ads that it often causes the browser to grind to a standstill.

So, after years apart, Opera and I are back together again. So far, it’s looking so good that it may soon become my default browser. You can download Opera here:  http://www.opera.com

Monday, 12 September 2016

Microsoft’s free cross-platform IDE, Visual Studio Code 1.5

Microsoft has just released a new version of its cross-platform editing and debugging suite: Visual Studio Code 1.5. With support for a broad range of languages including C, C#, Ruby, JavaScript and Java, VS Code can be run on Windows, OS X or Linux. If you program one or more languages on any of these platforms, this is certainly a tool worth having.

You can download VS Code here: https://code.visualstudio.com/

Bear in mind that some tools and support for some programming languages requires the addition of optional free extensions which can be found here (and some of these, such as the Object Pascal extension for Windows, may only be available on specific platforms): https://marketplace.visualstudio.com/VSCode

Friday, 2 September 2016

Don’t Use LibreOffice 5.2.0 for Windows!

In short – it crashes. I’ve installed this version on three different PCs – two running Windows 7, one running Windows 10 – and the result is the same on each. When I create a new text file in the Writer application, a crash dialog pops up prompting me to recover the document I’m trying to open. I recover it but the next time I try to open it, the same thing happens all over again.

The good news is that the latest pre-release edition (currently 5.2.1) appears to solve this problem. For all I know, it may have other problems – it is a pre-release edition, after all – but at  least it doesn’t keep bombing out whenever I try to open a document.  I haven’t found any online reports on the 5.2.0 crash problem, so I suppose it is just possible that there is some specific problem with each of the three PCs I tested it on. At any rate, if you encounter the same issue, I recommend that you too give the pre-release version a try. Downloads are available here: https://www.libreoffice.org/download/libreoffice-fresh/

Incidentally, while LibreOffice is a decent free office suite, it isn’t the only one. There are at least a couple of others (not counting LibreOffice’s close relative, Open Office) that are worthwhile trying out. I’ll be writing about a couple of these soon.