Premiere Pro CS3's debut on the Mac last year was impressive, especially given the challenges it faced. It not only had to overcome the lacklustre reputation of its previous Mac-compatible predecessor, Premiere 6.5, but it also had to reclaim the territory it had ceded to Apple and Avid editing systems during its long absence.

Today, Premiere Pro has more firmly established a reputation with Mac-based editors, and this new version will enhance its credibility.

Premiere Pro CS4 rectifies the previous version's most conspicuous flaws, and introduces some useful new features. In contrast to the previous version, Premiere Pro CS4 includes the same software bundle as the Windows package and can accept a wider range of tapeless formats. A new Media Browser panel, extensive support of metadata, revamped editing controls, blending modes, and batch processing are among its other notable new features.

Package equality
With Creative Suite 3, Adobe nearly achieved parity between the Mac and Windows versions of Premiere Pro. But whereas the Windows version included companion programs Adobe OnLocation (formerly Serious Magic's DV Rack), and Adobe Ultra (another benefit of Adobe's acquisition of Serious Magic), the Mac version included only OnLocation -- and that could only run via Boot Camp. Creative Suite 4 eliminates the disparity by providing a Mac-native version of Adobe OnLocation CS4, and -- surprisingly -- by excluding Adobe Ultra from both packages.

The absence of Ultra, a program for keying subjects (such as those shot against a greenscreen) and compositing them with virtual sets, may simply reflect Adobe's desire to equalize the Mac and Windows versions, albeit at the expense of Windows users. Until Adobe decides to restore Ultra to the package, users can turn to the Keylight effect included with After Effects for professional keying, but will have to look elsewhere for virtual set features.

OnLocation CS4 gives Mac users a valuable production tool that allows them to use a laptop to monitor and capture video in the field. OnLocation not only lets your laptop serve as a field monitor, but also as a portable waveform monitor and vectorscope, instruments used to accurately measure video luminance and chrominance levels.

(However, users accustomed to traditional video devices might wish that OnLocation's waveform monitor didn't measure the video signal in terms of RGB instead of IRE, the customary metric, named for the Institute of Radio Engineers). You can also use the program to capture video to a hard disc while shooting, bypassing the additional step of capturing footage later from videotape.

Capture disparities
When you do need to capture from tape, you can use Premiere Pro CS4's Capture panel, which differs little from the previous version. It provides a unified interface for specifying capture settings, controlling a wide range of camcorders and decks, logging, and batch capture. But it also retains some of the previous version's shortcomings, and represents one of the few areas where differences remain between Premiere Pro for Mac and Windows.

On Windows, Premiere Pro's Scene Detect feature identifies points on the tape where the camera stopped between shots and captures the shots as separate master clips, each linked to a corresponding media file. But on the Mac, Premiere Pro captures a single master clip and creates a subclip for each shot.

Both master clips and subclips work fine when it comes to editing. But because the subclips are linked to a single, large master clip and media file, managing media and storage space could be more difficult. And as in the previous version, Premiere Pro for the Mac can't display HDV footage in the Capture panel; you'll have to use your camcorder's built-in screen or an attached monitor instead.

Media browser
For previewing and importing assets into a project, Premiere Pro CS4 incorporates a new Media Browser panel. As part of the Premiere Pro interface, the Media Browser provides a more convenient way to search for footage than using the traditional Import command and dialog box. And by allowing you to sift the items it lists by file type, it makes finding the footage you want even easier.

It also lets you view prospective source material in Premiere Pro's Source Monitor before actually importing the file into the project.

Tapeless formats
The file types you can now import into Premiere Pro CS4 include a wider array of tapeless formats, including P2, AVCHD, XDCAM EX, and XDCAM HD. And Premiere Pro CS4 not only supports the media, but its metadata, as well.

Along with the video and audio, Premiere Pro recognizes additional shot information encoded in the file, making it easy to organize and search the footage without intermediate steps.

Metadata
Enhanced support for metadata is one of Premiere Pro CS4's most prominent new features. A new Metadata panel lets you view and input information about a clip or its source file. The Project panel's column headings have become just one set of information in an extensive list of metadata categories, or schema.

The Rights Management schema, for instance, includes data fields for storing and tracking copyright information. Moreover, metadata can be conveyed throughout the workflow: Metadata logged in OnLocation is transferred to Premiere Pro, and a file exported for the Web can contain metadata that enables you to search the video.

Speech transcription
However useful it may be, it's hard to get excited about manually logging metadata -- or as Adobe calls it, metalogging. But many editors will be thrilled to hear about one of the Metadata panel's features: automated speech transcription.

The speech transcript feature analyzes a selected clip's audio and transcribes spoken words to the Metadata panel. You can specify one of several languages to transcribe, including English as it's spoken in four regions of the world: Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. You can even set it to identify different speakers. When you play the clip, each spoken word is highlighted in the transcript. Conversely, double-clicking a word in the transcript cues the clip to the corresponding frame in the Source panel. To find a particular word in the selected clip, just type it in a search field.

Automated speech transcription could be just the kind of feature Adobe is looking for to lure more editors -- particularly those who regularly deal with interview footage -- to Premiere Pro CS4. Unfortunately, the feature simply isn't accurate enough to be very useful in most circumstances.

Using the slower, higher quality transcription mode, it took about twice the duration of a clip to analyze its audio. But I would have gladly waited longer for a more accurate transcription. Even slow, carefully articulated speech might produce a transcript that's largely misinterpreted, creating a kind of bizarre word salad. And informal speech -- the kind you'd record in an interview--is seldom enunciated slowly.

I wouldn't expect any program to produce a completely accurate transcription of natural speech, but a garbled transcript is of limited practical use. And although you can correct the transcript manually, the process can be painstaking. Each word is linked to a specific point in the clip, so you can only select and edit a word at a time, and there's no way to select the entire transcript or export it to a text editing program.

True, even an incomplete transcript could contain enough correct keywords to help you locate certain utterances. And implementing metadata this way has real potential for automating other workflows. But until it becomes more accurate and easy to edit, speech transcription won't set Premiere Pro apart from its competitors.

Batch processing with Adobe Media Encoder
Thankfully, one of Premiere Pro CS4's most anticipated features is also one of its most successful: batch processing via Adobe Media Encoder. Prior to CS4, the Adobe Media Encoder was a specialized dialog box that facilitated a sequence's export to various formats. But it could only export a single sequence to a single format. Moreover, Premiere Pro CS3 was inaccessible during rendering; you couldn't even pause the render once it started.

In CS4, Adobe Media Encoder (or AME) is a separate, yet integrated program. Once you confirm a sequence's export settings in Premiere Pro CS4, Adobe Media Encoder launches and adds the sequence to a list that resembles After Effects' Render Queue panel. You can add as many items to the queue as you'd like, and each item can be exported to multiple formats.

Furthermore, you can use AME to export both Premiere Pro sequences and After Effects compositions, or to process other files. And because AME is a separate program, it can render in the background while you continue to work in Premiere Pro or any other application.

With CS4, you can export SWF versions of DVD and Blu-Ray projects for viewing on the Web. However, there's still no OMF (Open Media Framework) export, so exporting audio for finishing in Avid's popular ProTools software remains difficult. But overall, the Adobe Media Encoder is a capable and welcome addition to Premiere Pro.

Improved editing
Premiere Pro uses a familiar and efficient editing paradigm that enables you perform edits by dragging with the mouse or by using editing controls -- two methods generally referred to as drag-and-drop editing, and 3-point editing.

In Premiere Pro CS4, both methods have been improved. New icons make it easier to drag a source clip's video or audio (or both) to the timeline; and new keyboard modifiers make it easier drop each component in the target track you want. For 3-point editing, new track buttons make it possible to work with formats that contain multiple audio tracks, and to perform more complex edits.

The addition of sync lock controls lets you specify whether clips in a track shift when you perform insert edits (without having to lock the track, as in the previous version). The addition of source track and sync lock controls makes 3-point editing more efficient. However, the program's design still favors the drag-and-drop method for many edits.

Admittedly, drag-and-drop editing is inherently more straightforward and intuitive. But the controls for performing a 3-point edit feel a bit spread out. And although you can assign keyboard shortcuts to perform the necessary steps, the lack of default shortcuts make me feel as though 3-point editing isn't fully integrated into the program's design. That said, Premiere Pro CS4's editing features are solid, and don't hinder your work.

Other improvements
Premiere Pro CS4 includes numerous other improvements. In contrast to the previous version, you can apply speed changes, transitions, and effects to multiple clips at once. And you can finally composite clips using blending modes (and retain blending modes when importing files from Photoshop). Other new features include an enhanced view of audio in the Source monitor, more assignable keyboard shortcuts, and the ability to replace a clip yet retain its effects and other settings.

Project settings are more streamlined, and a new Resource Central panel provides a convenient gateway to Adobe's online information resources. Text objects can now be copied from Premiere Pro and pasted into other applications, but I still look forward to more substantial upgrades to the titler's capabilities in the future. Nevertheless, Adobe set the right priorities for upgrading to CS4.

Family ties and dynamic links
Based on its features alone, Premiere Pro CS4's still won't convert editors already faithful to its main rival, Final Cut Pro. But editing programs must also be judged on the company they keep. Premiere Pro, OnLocation, and Encore form a solid video software package that covers production, editing, and DVD authoring.

The trio is less extensive, but also less expensive, than Final Cut Studio. Costing a bit more than Final Cut Studio, Adobe Production Premium CS4 adds the heavyweights Illustrator, Photoshop Extended, Soundbooth, After Effects, and Flash Professional. It also includes Bridge, Device Central, and the benefits of the Dynamic Link feature (which requires less rendering in CS4).

Buying advice
Premiere Pro CS4 further strengthens Premiere's reputation on the Mac as a capable video-editing program. It has yet to attain the best-of-class standing enjoyed by many of the other programs in the Creative Suite, but it has earned its place among them.

For those who already have an allegiance to other programs in the Creative Suite -- but not to another editing system -- Premiere Pro CS4 should be particularly tempting. And the inclusion of OnLocation, AME, and new features make an upgrade from CS3 well worth the price.

For a look at Digital Arts' beta preview of Premiere Pro CS4 click here.

[Antony Bolante hosts Lynda.com's Premiere Pro CS4 Essential Training, and is co-producing a documentary entitled, on the nOse.]