Decision-making guide: Should you upgrade to new Final Cut Pro X editing software?

Apple released a new-from-scratch version of its Final Cut Pro X editing software last week, and reading the critiques and reaction to the critiques has been very entertaining. If you think it's all too inside-baseball, even Conan O'Brien's editors shared their feelings about the new FCP X.

The reaction includes a lot of hope that the biggest problems with previous versions -- especially file management and transcoding -- got solved, and a lot of anguish that things that didn't need fixing got changed.

Critics note these downsides to FCP X:

  • It requires learning new software because it's changed so dramatically.
  • It's missing professional features.
  • Audio editing in layers is more difficult.
  • Organizing materials is completely different.

My goal is not to review Final Cut X, but to point out some of the most useful critiques and share reaction from journalists and journalism educators so you can decide whether to make the switch now, wait or choose new software entirely.

For those who are complaining that Apple messed with their software in the first place: Please. Final Cut was way overdue for updating, and it looks like the biggest complaints about version 7 have been addressed: it's much faster to import digital files and it renders in the background.

"As soon as you put your card in, you can start editing within seconds. Terrific! And you're not slowed down by rendering -- no red bars at all," said Chuck Fadely, visual journalist at The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald in an email. "Working with your clips is wicked fast."

And if that was all the update accomplished, a lot of folks would be thrilled. But Apple didn't update the previous version, they started from scratch to take advantage of modern computer architecture. Instead of just reinventing the internal workings, though, they changed the very metaphors we have used to edit for the 20-year history of non-linear editors (anyone else learn to computer edit on Video Toaster?), and it hurts.

Clips replace tracks

Fadely said in spite of the speed improvements, the new interface that uses magnetic clips instead of assigned tracks makes it unusable for them.

"It's like it's forgotten the non-linear part of NLE," he said. The magnetic timeline makes it difficult to put narration down with gaps to fill in later. "To get around this, you've got to put down a dummy clip on the timeline, and then use the 'position' tool to put down the real clips above it."

The Herald often does both English and Spanish versions of their videos. In FCP 7, they would put English titles and lower-third graphics on one track and English narration on another, then Spanish titles and lower-thirds on a third track, Spanish narration on a fourth. By turning tracks on and off, they could export English and Spanish versions from the same timeline. Fadely says this a real headache in the new version, forcing him to copy and paste timelines from one project into another. "You can't have multiple sequences within a project on X, so if there's a fix or update on your video, you've got to update or fix multiple projects instead of just one."

"What a debacle. Apple has a real mess on its hands with FCP X," is PF Bentley's reaction. Bentley is a documentary filmmaker and editor who teaches workshops that train newspaper photographers, among others, in video storytelling.

In spite of the fact that he's an Apple-certified trainer, he's already returned his copy of FCP X for a refund. "Love ya, Apple, but I can't use FCP X in the sorry state it's in. Many cool features and ideas, but in an unusable program for professionals," was his reaction after trying it. His feeling is that the interface is so foreign, and so many pro features are missing, that many editors will make the decision to switch to Adobe Premiere.

The decision to stop selling the Final Cut Suite, including Final Cut Server, as soon as FCP X was released "was the real salt in the wound" for Bentley. The new Final Cut will not work with Final Cut Server. And the new version is only available through the app store.

Missing pro features

Not being able to buy new copies of the suite was just the first of many problems for documentary and production editors I talked to. Here's another: Many of the production tools for sending movies and documentary work to post-production finishing are missing.

"No OMF export for sound sweetening. No multicam. No multiple sequences," complained Bruce Jacobs, chief technologist at Twin Cities Public Television. His list of problems with the new software went on: It can't open projects created in Final Cut 7; the staff can't share work over a server; and the new version would require a complete retraining of staff.

"We knew the new version was different, but the features sounded attractive, so we were willing to figure out how to manage the transition quickly. Now there's no reason to do that. We can't do that," he added.

They have 31 stations or seats for FCP 7, and were looking to add a couple more in the next month. Now, without being able to buy new licenses of FCP 7, and with FCP X incompatible with their other systems, he's exploring options. He's got an Avid Media Composer system in house to evaluate it.

"What's our choice?" Jacobs asked. "At least they're committed to our market. Apple has shown they're not committed to us with this release. They would have been upfront about it and told us what to expect if they were."

Value for teaching

Most people I spoke with sound like they're in one of the early stages of grief -- anger or denial. Some are hopeful that Apple will improve the software.

Richard Koci Hernandez, formerly Deputy Director of Photography and Multimedia at the San Jose Mercury News, and now a Ford Foundation Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, is optimistic.

The much lower price point -- $299 -- and simpler interface will make it easier for teaching, he says. "This version of FCP X will put the power of video storytelling in the hands of more journalists. It's affordable and once you figure out the new workflows, it's pretty easy."

Making that transition, though, isn't easy.

"My impression was one of being blindfolded and asked to walk through my house after a complete remodel," he said.  "I was blindly looking for things that weren't there and bumping into new things. In the end I've come out with a few cuts and bruises, but I'm still alive."

As much as he likes it from an education perspective, he's disappointed in it as a professional editing tool. Still, he's optimistic that in time Apple will make updates that bring pro features back. "One year from now I'm hoping [fingers crossed] FCP X will be everything we need it to be. I'm putting a lot of faith in Apple to do the right thing. I hope they come through."

Jeremy Rue, a lecturer at Berkeley, says the timing of the switch has generated a lot of discussion at the school. "We're not 100 percent sure we're going to use FCP X as the primary software taught in the fall, but I think we're moving in that direction."

"I'd feel behind the curve if we didn't," added Koci Hernandez.

The ability to have both versions installed on the same machine was a deciding factor for them.

That has appeal for Sterling Anderson, a technologist at the University of Wisconsin Journalism School. He's hoping to install the new version on all the machines and keep the old version on a few machines, although he's still waiting to hear the details about how the new app store distribution will work for computer labs.

"The software itself should be easier to maintain and use," he said. While the lab used Final Cut Server, he says students had a hard time understanding it, and fewer student projects should go missing now. "It has a feature to allow users to easily move entire projects from one location to another, so losing media files will hopefully be a thing of the past."

TV newsrooms slow to upgrade

Some television newsrooms are using Final Cut, but those I talked to said it will be a while before they even start to think about upgrading. And many television stations, like WTSP-TV in Tampa, have only used Final Cut Pro on special workstations, or for editing on laptops in the field like CNN, so it won't affect the entire organization. KING-TV in Seattle used Final Cut until recently, but is now moving to a new Sony system.

At KSTP-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul, they still use Final Cut 6. Photographer-editor Eric Parker Anderson says it's not at all clear whether the new software will even work with their media server system, so there is no chance the station will be adapting it soon.

However, Anderson does a lot of freelance editing, and he thinks it will have a place for him there. He's been trying it out and thinks the speed improvements alone show a lot of potential.

"I think it's going to be genius," he said, even though he thinks it will take him a long time to get fast using it. "It wouldn't surprise me if there's some way to do some of things we used to do, but it doesn’t feel like it yet. I'm chalking that up to not knowing it well."

He's also hoping the expensive third-party plugins he's added to his system will be updated quickly to work with the new version.

As excited as he is about the potential of the new software for the future, he's disappointed in how Apple has handled this launch with the professional market.

"I can wait until I see what happens, but I can sympathize with some of the haters," he told me.

So what should you do?

After talking to a number of folks who've played with the software pretty extensively, my advice is to wait. Things might get better. If you can't wait, or are still confused about whether you'll update, here's a short list of reasons you may or may not want to switch. (Find a longer, detailed list here.)

Why you might want to upgrade:

  • You've has been waiting to upgrade from iMovie to Final Cut. Go for it.
  • You shoot with a DSLR, or a video camera that records in AVCHD on daily deadlines. Speed seems to be much improved, so you may be better off, although certain Sony cameras may need a driver update.  And the learning curve may be frustrating on deadline.

Why you might not want to upgrade:

  • If you need to print to tape, or view your output on a true broadcast monitor, this option is not available.
  • If you shoot on tape and like to use batch capture functions, this function is gone.
  • If you're in the middle of a project in FCP 7, don't upgrade! There is no importing projects from the previous version. (Although you can import iMovie projects. Ouch.) If you've got older projects that may need re-editing, make sure you hang on to FCP 7.
  • If you do multi-cam shoots for concerts or games or TV programs, wait. Apparently, restoring multi-cam editing is on Apple's to-do list.
  • If you do post-production work that relies on EDLs, OMF or XML, that function is not available, although it looks like some third-party solutions may be along quickly for XML.

And some additional cautions:

If you're thinking about switching to another NLE

More than one person I talked to said they're thinking about -- or have -- switched to another editing software package.

Many television stations are in transition on video editing systems, and they're moving in several different directions.

All the Gannett TV stations are in the process of switching from Avid to Grass Valley's Edius, which a number of newspaper video teams use as well. It's a Windows-only product.

The Belo stations are in the process of switching to Sony's new Xpri editing software, which is now part of  Sony's newsroom management software system. And the newspaper video listserv includes several people who like Sony Vegas. Again, Windows only.

You can't go anywhere on the Web this week without tripping over an Adobe Premiere Pro ad, and Adobe is running all kinds of specials to take advantage of the FCP X discontent (one popped up on the petition to Apple to reinstate Final Cut Studio). It's available for Mac and Windows.

And the granddaddy of them all, Avid, is still an option, with lowered prices and fewer hardware restrictions that, in the past, put it out of reach for many individuals.

All of this talk of Final Cut Pro X not being a professional tool got you down? Not to worry. I highly recommend reading everything from Jeffery Harrell. The post on project management is laugh-out-loud funny. Edit-nerd funny, but funny. And the parodies and jokes have already begun. On video, naturally.

Visit for more info.

Update: Apple released an FAQ Wednesday morning which answers a few of the lingering questions about the new release.

  • Regina McCombs

    Regina McCombs is a faculty member of The Poynter Institute, teaching multimedia, and social and mobile journalism. She was the senior producer for multimedia at in Minneapolis-St. Paul for 11 years.


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