Price: £435 plus VAT; £135 plus VAT
A few months ago, Discreet released Cleaner 6 for the Macintosh. This provided some welcome performance improvements, allowing it to compete more effectively with its new rival, Canopus’ ProCoder. But it struck us as odd that there was no Windows version. To this end, Discreet has now released a new version of Cleaner for Windows – but it isn’t Cleaner 6. Cleaner XL for Windows bears very little resemblance to Cleaner 6 for the Mac. It does share some of Cleaner 6’s new features, such as Watch folders, which can monitor a specified folder and automatically encode any files that are placed there, but the interface that presents those features to the user is so different from that of Cleaner 6 that the Mac and Windows versions of Cleaner are now effectively two separate products. Discreet says that the new interface is “less busy, and easier to use”. We don’t agree. It certainly has advantages when encoding large numbers of files, but it requires more effort to set it up properly, and will probably come as a bit of a shock to users of previous versions of Cleaner. In Cleaner 5 (and 6 on the Mac), you can simply drag-&-drop files into the program’s Batch window and click on the Settings button to select the required encoding settings. This approach works well if you’re working with only a few files at a time, but it isn’t terribly efficient if you’re working with large numbers of files, or producing multiple encoded versions of each file. Cleaner XL is geared more towards creating an efficient workflow for high-volume work. The Batch window is gone, and is replaced by the rather more intimidating Job window. This is divided into two main sections – Sources and Processing. You can insert files into the Sources window just as you would with the old Batch window, but now you also have to select an Input Profile from a pull-down menu. This tells Cleaner XL what type of files you’re dealing with, such as PAL 4:3, or NTSC 16:9. This is straightforward if you already know what formats all your video files use, but it could become a problem if you’ve a disk full of files in different formats from different sources. It also means that each encoding job will only allow you to use files in one format. If you want to work with files in other formats, you’ll have to open additional Job windows and set up a new job with a different Input Profile for each format. In this respect, Cleaner XL is less flexible than its predecessors, as Cleaner 5 allows you to simply drop any number of files into the Batch window, regardless of their format. However, Cleaner XL does compensate by providing improved background encoding so you can carry on working and setting up new jobs while it continues to encode earlier ones. The second section of the Job window is called Processing, and deals with the encoding and output options. The main element is the Output Profiles window, which lists the encoding formats that you’ve chosen. You can select multiple Output Profiles, making it easy to produce multiple versions of files for different bandwidths or distribution media. This could be done in Cleaner 5, but Cleaner XL’s approach is more efficient. There are options for modifying encoder settings, de-interlacing methods, and selecting video filters. These are all useful features, and allow you to fine-tune the encoding settings for each Output Profile in great detail. However, cramming all these input and output options into what is essentially one very large dialog box makes Cleaner XL seem a lot more complicated than its predecessors. The application also lets you set up a template-based workflow. Each template includes an Input Profile and a series of Output Profiles. So, if you select the ‘DV PAL To Windows Media Streaming’ template, this will automatically specify DV PAL as your Input Profile. It will also provide several Output Profiles that let you create Windows Media files for different bandwidths. You can modify these templates by adding, removing, or customizing individual Output Profiles, and you can then save the template for future use. This will be an absolute godsend if you’re working in a high-volume environment. There are some rough edges, though. The need to identify each source file so that you can select a suitable Input Profile is annoying, as is the lack of a ‘Cancel’ button in most of the secondary dialog boxes. This means there’s no quick way to discard any alterations that you might make to dialog box settings. There’s no online Help, and the Job Queue window doesn’t tell you how long an encoding job is likely to take. There’s an animated progress bar that shows you how much of the job remains to be encoded, but it doesn’t tell you how long that process is likely to take. Of course, there’s more to workflow efficiency than just interface design. Speed matters too, and Cleaner’s encoding performance has been a bit lacklustre in the past, especially when it came to MPEG encoding. Fortunately, Cleaner XL has made some improvements here. To test its performance, we converted a 650MB AVI file to MPEG-2. When running on a 1.8GHz PC, Cleaner XL took just 12.5 minutes to perform the conversion, compared to 30 minutes using Cleaner 5 on the same machine. We were also pleased to see that Cleaner XL ran well on dual-processor systems – something that wasn’t true of Cleaner 5 on either a Mac or a Windows machine. ProCoder performed the same encoding task in just ten minutes, though, so it still has a slight advantage in terms of sheer speed. However, the improved workflow in Cleaner XL could give it the edge in a well-organized production environment. The new interface may take a bit of getting used to, but the improved workflow and performance provided by Cleaner XL mean that it will continue to earn its keep – especially in busy production houses that work with large quantities of files each day.