Final Cut Pro 4 review

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

  • Price When Reviewed: £680 plus VAT, upgrade £255 plus VAT

Best prices today

Retailer Price Delivery  

Price comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwide

Final Cut Pro has come a hell of a long way since its launch in April 1999. Arriving shortly after Apple’s iMac-driven resurgence, the NLE software has travelled in a steady climb from an anomaly to a tool that garners a similar evangelical zeal from its users as the company’s hardware does. With users ranging from hobbyists to film directors, and a huge number of third-party plug-ins and hardware available, all eyes are on the latest version – Final Cut Pro 4. Even editors outside the Mac platform couldn’t fail to be intrigued by the launch announcement at this year’s NAB show in Las Vegas. Offering a combination of genuinely exciting new features for title and audio creation with a host of efficiency tools and interoperability functions that allowed Apple to be mentioned in the same breath as the old fogies of the industry such as Quantel, FCP 4 looked like it could fight off strong competition from Avid Xpress Pro and Pinnacle Edition 5. Quality issues
With this level of excitement, we’re happy to report that Final Cut Pro 4 is everything you’ve dreamed of. However, we’re not so happy to report that it suffers from a level of quality control you’d expect from Dr Bunsen Honeydew from Muppet Labs. Out of the box, you get four DVDs and a CD, plus three large manuals and assorted pamphlets featuring installation instructions, shortcut keys, and the like. The first DVD includes the installer for Final Cut Pro 4 plus the LiveType, Soundtrack, and Compressor modules. These new standalone applications work in conjunction with FCP to provide title creation, audio construction from loops, and transcoding for DVD and Web output, respectively. The other three DVDs provide over 14GB of media for LiveType and Soundtrack to work with, with the CD adding Peak LE for audio editing. This set-up is bound to annoy users without DVD drives but, as Final Cut Pro is now over 1GB in size and external DVD-ROM drives aren’t expensive, it’s understandable. More annoying is the LiveType media, which can only be installed to your main hard-drive. If you want to install the media, all 8GB or so of it has to sit in the bowels of your Users folder. Oh, joy. Users of FCP 3 could also find the installation process a sticky one, as there have already been enough reported upgrade problems to make a backup of all of your work a necessity rather than merely recommended. The three manuals are purportedly upgraded versions of those from version 3, though there are more than a few errors, especially where FCP 4 has renamed a particular tool and this hasn’t been corrected all of the way through the manual. Also, as most of FCP 4’s users will be familiar with version 3, it’s bad planning to provide lots of paper covering the things that your users already know, but no printed manuals for the new features – or for LiveType, Soundtrack or Compressor. The documentation hasn’t been anglicized – which is bearable as long as you remember to search for terms such as ‘color’ correction – or changed for the properties of PAL. Anyone novice enough to just read NTSC for PAL will have trouble. The electronic manuals are available on the DVD, along with an extensive Late-Breaking News (read Last-Minute Changes and some errata – but not all of it). This document also mentions some extra features that we weren’t expecting, but were added at the last minute – which we’ll come onto later. Make your way through the install process and you’re ready to go. Load up FCP 4, configure the application, and more than likely your grumbling will be replaced with an ear-to-ear grin and proclamations that you’d forgive Apple anything except Steve Jobs’s dress sense if they continue to make software of this calibre. Don’t get too excited, though – the feeling might not last. Power and flexibility
Start working in FCP 4, and you quickly encounter the new RT Extreme real-time engine. Compared to FCP 3, version 4 has taken steroids, adding a huge boost in real-time functionality – especially on dual-processor systems. Not only is it powerful, it’s also extremely flexible. Users can decide between Unlimited RT (allow frame drops in preview) and Safe RT (no dropped frames) – and between high, medium, and low playback video-quality. This is great, as it lets the user decide on-the-fly whether to drop the frame rate or image-quality when things get hairy. Although it outdoes FCP 3 by a wide margin, the level of real-time functionality available to FCP 4 is less impressive compared with the recently released Pinnacle Edition 5 on similarly priced Windows PCs and laptops. The latter has the added bonus of an outstanding background rendering system that made it incredibly efficient to use. Considering the relative performance of cross-applications such as Avid Xpress DV 3.5 and Adobe Premiere 6.5, I’m going to have to say that this is down to the hardware – and without a Mac-equivalent of the Xeon processor, FCP 4’s real-time functionality is less scalable. Here’s hoping for that rumoured corker of a Mac to justify the power of FCP 4. Add-ons
Apart from RT Extreme, most of the hyped reasons to upgrade to FCP 4 live outside the main application. LiveType, Soundtrack and Compressor have been presented more like plug-ins, and actually exist as separate applications – as does Cinema Tools, which isn’t new, but used to sell separately for the same price as FCP. As processor-intensive tools, the upside to this is that when not in use, they don’t affect your real-time performance. The downside is a less-than-fluid workflow. Title modules for NLE packages exist either as integrated plug-ins – such as FCP 3’s Boris Calligraphy, which is still here – or as separate applications with ties to the NLE to view the underlying media. LiveType is even further removed, requiring a sometimes-lengthy export of your sequence from FCP before loading in LiveType. Once inside, you find a powerful and creative titling tool that’s also marvellously efficient. If you’ve seen Prismo Graphics’ India Titler before, you’ll be familiar with LiveType – it’s the same tool with an interface overhaul and a couple of name changes. Although not the quickest at creating standard overlay titles with rolls or crawls, the secret of LiveType’s power is the huge range of templates, textures, effects, and objects that make it easy to put together a professional-looking title sequence that looks as if it took hours to create. There’s also a huge range of manual controls if you want to spend those hours for a unique look. LiveFonts
The main technology behind this is called LiveFonts, which used to be known as DVFonts. LiveFonts contain characters that are animated, vector movies. For example, many build themselves out of anything from brush strokes to sunflowers. The only problem with LiveFonts is that there aren’t many included with FCP 4, so the best ones will become very clichéd, very quickly. Prismo used to sell extra collections of DVFonts, but Apple has made no announcement about selling more fonts or licensing it to third parties. Overall, LiveType is great – but again, the quality-control issue comes up. LiveType starts up with an NTSC 29.97fps project that UK users have to manually change to PAL – every time you want to create a new title. Boo, hiss indeed. At least the application itself is solid. It uses a RAM-based preview that seems incongruous with FCP’s own real-time system. This is understandable considering that LiveType can be anything up to a standalone title-sequence compositing tool – but you’re still better off using Calligraphy for simple titles. Audio editing
Soundtrack applies the LiveFonts principle to create an application that’s similar to Sonic Foundry’s Windows-only ACID series of audio-creation tools. Soundtrack uses some whizz-bang technology to let users build audio tracks in time with video edits out of audio loops. Again, you have to export your sequence for use in the package, but this process seems quicker. Using Soundtrack is as easy as Apple claims, even for the editor whose audio skills never extended to music. Select your instrument and style, pop it into the timeline, and trim/stretch to fit – then repeat. It’s easier than failing to take over the world. There’s a wide-enough range of good-sounding instruments that should avoid your work sounding clichéd, though the sound effects and voices are rather americanized. Another separate application but with direct export from FCP, Compressor is an MPEG-2 (and MPEG-4) encoding engine. Though not in the same league as standalone tools such Discreet’s Cleaner XL and Canopus’ ProCoder 1.5 – it’s missing features such as Watch Folders – it does provide some excellent encoding tools such as two-pass VBR encoding. There are also some great workflow features such as the insertion of I-frame makers from the FCP timeline. It would be great to set Compressor up on a separate machine – for example to work with more than one FCP suite – but this is between tricky and impossible, and the machine would need to fulfill the full FCP 4 minimum specs for this to work. Under the hood
The upgrade isn’t limited to the real-time engine and exterior applications, though. FCP has been given a tune up under the bonnet, too. This extends from user requests such as customizable keyboard shortcuts – on the wish list since FCP 1 – to full-on tools such as the audio mixer and the frame viewer for comparing multiple frames, which largely do what you want them to do. There’s support for methods of working that will appeal to users of other applications, including asymmetrical trimming and the ability to show opacity, speed, and other properties on the timeline. Colour tools
The Time Remap function is one of the new effects. The others include a hue-matching tool for the colour-correction filters (which pales next to Xpress DV’s Match Colour tool), and colour-smoothing filters to improve keys from 4:1:1 and 4:2:2 video. The 4:1:1 smoothing filter is designed for use with DV footage – which is great, except that PAL is 4:2:0, and that the filter doesn’t help much. And, we’d never have heard of this filter unless we’d checked out the Late-Breaking News document. There are many other minor updates – from new screen layouts to work with the audio mixer and Soundtrack timeline markers, to interesting add-ons such as the ability to apply effects to more than one clip, and audio-keyframe thinning. There’s also a hidden XML interchange format-based architecture that adds lots more interoperability functions for high-end users – and will allow many more hardware and software companies to tie their products to FCP. There are only a couple of things missing – the ability to support the full After Effects plug-in specification, and the ability to work with image sequences without specialized hardware or laborious imports through QuickTime Pro are still not there. Final Cut Pro 4 is both outrageously fantastic, and incredibly annoying. Apple is beginning to get a reputation for releasing software before it’s ready and treating its users as beta testers, an accusation levelled at the company from the first two versions of OS X to the recent iSync 1.1. This is definitely true for the UK release of Final Cut Pro 4, which for all its brilliance needs a PAL-based health-check and a general tidy-up to be truly outstanding. Apple will have to be quick, however, as other tools such Avid’s Xpress Pro may steal Final Cut Pro 4’s thunder in the meantime.

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...