Know Your NLEs


More and more schools across the country are bringing digital media into the curriculum--from digital painting and graphic arts to digital print production to digital video editing. In particular, there seems to be a surge of activity in the digital video editing space, with schools offering courses designed as either electives to fulfill an art requirement or as prep for students looking to pursue careers in production and post-production.

Judging anecdotally from the letters I receive, there seems to be a whole lot of confusion surrounding the hardware and software involved in video editing. Educators make recommendations to IT people for equipment; IT people come back with different ideas; and between the two--somewhat understandably--there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of expertise involved in the decision-making process.

Setting aside the merits of incorporating digital video editing into students' educations, which I happen to support, I'd like to walk you through some of the technical and decision-making difficulties that have been voiced to me. As a person who is involved in technology choices for your school or district, you will be faced with some of these difficulties as digital video editing continues to gain in popularity.

We'll start off with a look at the software available--both the free applications and the editing apps hat make more sense for career- and college-oriented video editing education programs. In the next installment in this two-part series, we'll try to make some sense of the hardware options available out there.

System Breakdown
Non-linear editors (NLEs), also known as video editing applications, come in three varieties: professional, semi-professional, and consumer.

Consumer (Freebie) NLEs
Consumer NLEs are generally free or very cheap and include programs like iMovie from Apple (free on all recent Macs) and Microsoft Movie Maker. For video editing projects, they can get the job done. In fact, Apple's iMovie can even get the job done on high-definition (HD) video projects. These free and cheap solutions are ideal companions to courses that involve multimedia projects beyond PowerPoint. (A science class project, for example, might include an edited video of a field trip.)

These programs can also serve as somewhat acceptable solutions to help introduce students to video editing concepts.

However, they're also dead ends in the sense that the particulars of these programs do not apply to NLEs that students will use in college or professionally. Yes, students can benefit from learning the art of video editing through these programs, but experience with Movie Maker isn't exactly something that a kid can put on a resume. And the way those editors work is not the way professional systems work. (To use an analogy, it's about as valuable as teaching students wireless networking using a Linksys Wireless-G. Yes, they might get a little something out of it, including learning how to deal with the frustration of poorly conceived networking devices; but, no, as a whole, it doesn't apply to the professional world.)

Avid Free DV is an exception to this. Although it lacks a whole lot of functionality, it does give students a free head start on learning the Avid interface, which is a plus (and pretty much the only value of this software).

So for career or college-prep courses, consumer NLEs aren't a good option unless there is literally no money in the budget for something else.

On the semi-pro side of things ("prosumer"), there is a diminishing reservoir of viable applications out there. They are more affordable than the pro systems, and there is some continuity between the semi-pro NLEs and the fully professional ones. Final Cut Express HD, for example, can help prepare students to work in Final Cut Pro. But, again, the options are limited as developers bump their offerings up to the pro level and the gap between semi-pro and pro widens.

At this point in the history of video editing, I don't see a lot in the semi-pro category that's worth considering. The divide between pro and prosumer is widening, while the price points aren't all that different, especially when you consider the kinds of bundles that come with the pro-level systems.

Pro-Level NLEs
Then, finally, there are the fully professional systems--the ones that, unquestionably, will be valuable for students looking to make a career of video editing. Here there is a much broader choice, though few stand out as being truly valuable in terms of the direction in which the industry is heading. This is not to say, at all, that somebody who knows the ins and outs of one particular piece of software will be any good at editing; but learning the professional tools can help students get over the initial technical hurdles and focus on what's important: the art.

Apple's Final Cut Pro should, generally, be the first consideration. Not only is it one of the most popular systems out there with professionals, but it ships with Final Cut Studio, which includes DVD Studio Pro, the de facto standard for DVD authoring, as well as some other useful tools for creative production. The new version will be out this month. On the downside, Final Cut Pro s Mac-only, so, for some schools, implementation would require a bit of capital outlay. (Keep in mind, though, that in stark contrast to the real world, the creative market as a whole is more than 50 percent Mac-based.) Apple does offer education and volume discounts for schools. (As of this writing, the latest version of Final Cut Studio had not yet shipped; but is is due very soon.)

Next up--and I never thought I'd put this one in second place--is Adobe Premiere Pro. The old Premiere used to be considered semi-pro. But Adobe put a lot of effort into building up this NLE into a serious piece of creative software, and that effort has paid off. Premiere Pro is gaining in popularity. And, once the CS3 version is released, it will once again be dual-platform (Mac OS X and Windows). In terms of education pricing, Adobe as a distinct advantage in K-12 now that it's changed its licensing programs. Site licenses of the Adobe Master Collection can be purchased for about $15,000, which includes school and home seats for every single application in the suite (Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere Pro, Encore DVD, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Flash Pro, etc.). Considering what you get, along with a very relevant NLE, that's a tough offer to pass up.

Sony Vegas is another one that has attracted a lot of professional users, rising from non-existence to fanatic status in a relatively short time. It is considered by many to be far superior to other NLEs on the market, but, of course, that's irrelevant to its ultimate potential for success. Vegas may be the speediest of the software-based NLEs. Users--and I am not one of them--claim this, while also conceding generally that it is not as versatile as Final Cut Pro. It is also a Windows-only program.

And finally there's Avid, the former titan of NLEs. There was a time when Avid was everything, when to use another NLE was to invite ridicule. In fact, I knew some producers back in the day who actually purchased Avid systems to show off to clients, then went and did the work in their own tool of choice. Back then, Avid systems were priced similarly to Bentleys. Now, however, with the competition from software systems like Final Cut Pro, Vegas, and Premiere Pro (but mostly Final Cut Pro), Avid has brought the cost of entry down considerably. Avid is still the choice of professionals doing truly high-end work; however, the high-end Avid systems they use (Media Composer) are not within the price range of schools. Turnkey systems still compete with automobiles in terms of prices.

The one Avid system that does compete in price with FCP, Vegas, and Premiere Pro is Avid Xpress Pro, which, for the general population, runs about $1,700. For schools, students, and teachers, it's $295 per seat. In recent years, Avid has had some quality issues with its software solutions as it scrambled to keep up with changes in the industry, but those days seem be behind the company now. (At the NAB convention last month, Avid admitted to the problems, apologized to users formally, and promised that development in the future would produce more solid releases.) Either way, Avid isn't going away anytime soon, and getting some experience with Avid editing can be a distinct plus for students looking to pursue careers in this field--even if it isn't on the highest-end Avid systems.

I should add that Avid, though it had its beginnings in the high-end NLE market, is not any more difficult to grasp than other systems on the market. Avid NLEs do support Mac and Windows systems, including the latest Intel-based Macs.

What Else Is There?
Now, I've discussed the four major pro systems available (major in terms of popularity among professionals), but these are not the only solutions available. Media 100, for example, was once a tremendously popular editing tool and was also the first viable competitor to Avid, at a scant $40,000 per seat. But Media 100 too has felt the pressure form the lower-end systems that have worked their way up, and it was not able to respond to that competition as effectively as Avid. t has also changed hands a few times and is now owned by Boris FX, a developer of popular motion graphics tools. It is conceivable that Media 100 could make a comeback, although it will take some truly spectacular marketing and unquestionable technical superiority to make that happen. The last time I was anywhere near a Media 100 production environment was back in the days of Mac OS 9. I've seen, but not worked with, more recent versions. It is available for Mac and Windows.

And what about the once heavily hyped Video Toaster? Well, that's now called VT[4] and is owned by NewTek, the maker of the extraordinarily popular 3D animation system LightWave. NewTek also competes with itself by offering a few other video systems, including SpeedEdit and TriCaster and TriCaster Pro. I have not ever touched any of these systems and so can't attest to their quality. TriCaster and VT have a somewhat small following, and neither is particularly well suited for K-12 budgets. (The VT[4] Live! Education Bundle runs $3,995. TriCaster and TriCaster Pro are more, but they do include hardware.)

What To Choose?
If you have the budget, along with a program aimed toward college- and career-oriented students, any one of the four major NLEs I discussed will do well for both the teacher and the students. All offer great features and can be a benefit to those looking to a (crowded) future in editing. It comes down to the right tool for the right person.

Avid and Apple are probably the two most useful NLEs to work with in terms of broad acceptance in the industry, but neither Vegas nor Premiere Pro are slouches either.

And, with Adobe's new CS3 (along with the deep education discounts), Premiere Pro is likely to gan in popularity over the next few years to become Final Cut Pro's major competitor. The Adobe Master Collection is also the best value of the four in the K-12 market, coming in at $30 per seat for the complete Adobe collection (assuming you use all of the 500 seats included in the license). If your schools would benefit from the "additional" software in the Master Collection (mentioned above), that would seem to be the way to go. It pencils out pretty nicely.

For truly dedicated video editing courses, however, the benefits of learning early on the industry leaders (Avid and FInal Cut Pro) are obvious.

In terms of the consumer software available, there are plenty of good choices. I personally would go with iMovie. It's straightforward and has some good effects students can play with to get creative, and it is somewhat extensible. Beyond iMovie, everything at the free level is pretty much the same in terms of versatility and features. Since these apps are free, you don't lose anything (except a little time) trying each one out. See below for a list of free NLEs.

Next time around, we'll discuss the recommendations for hardware in a video editing environment, including machines, drives, cameras, and capture devices.

Free/Consumer NLEs

Pro NLEs


About the author: Dave Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's educational technology online publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at

Have any additional questions? Want to share your story? Want to pass along a news tip? Contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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