Final Cut Pro vs. Media Composer 5

For at least the last six years, and really even before that, Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Avid’s Media Composer have been the leading products for professional editing, with FCP having carved it’s way into Avid’s market share quite substantially in some sectors.

The typical head-to-head comparison of non-linear editors now is between Final Cut and Media Composer, with FCP often coming out on top in many people’s estimation, but in the last few years Avid has been adapting to meet these challenges. And the recent release of Media Composer 5 with some dramatic new features in the pinacle of that adaptation.

So, now with the release of Media Composer 5, how does the Final Cut Pro vs. Media Composer argument shape up? Has Avid created an FCP killer in the latest version?

To look at this question it’s necessary to look back a little at what features helped FCP reach it’s current popularity, and how the products have traditionally been compared.

When Final Cut Pro busted onto the market at the end of the 90′s it had two very appealing points in it’s favour – Price and Firewire. With an initial price of only $999 FCP was an attractive and affordable option when Avid systems still required turn-key hardware and a mortgage. Final Cut Pro also arrived on the scene just in time to take advantage of the new Firewire standard, with new Macs shipping with Firewire support built in, and a range of DV cameras like the Sony VX1000 offering easy editing of great pictures for a stand-out price.

Avid also met the DV challenge with Xpress DV which offered the DV support via Firewire, but at a cost what was orders of magnitude above that of Apple’s product. And that was largely the way things continued – Apple continue to improve FCP for professional use, and Avid continue to build on it’s lower end Xpress DV, then later Xpress Pro, by integrating features from the high end Media Composer and Symphony products. Both products got better, with Xpress Pro coming very close to Media Composer in featues, but FCP always having a cost advantage.

And then in 2008 Avid annouced it was discontinuing Xpress Pro, and at the same time would be cutting the price of the Media Composer software-only version to $2,500. This was the start of a change for Avid, with a consolidation of it’s product line, then followed a number of version upgrades in quite quick sucession.

What’s Changed?

With the release of Media Composer 5 has enough changed to tip the scales back in Avid’s favour for those that have decide that Final Cut is the solution to use? Maybe – it certainly makes the choice a little harder.

The big features in Media Composer 5 that seem clearly targeted at FCP users are Increased AMA Support, the Smart Tool and MXO2 Mini support which address three of the aspects of Avid’s approach that have often frustrated Final Cut editors.

AMA has been expanded to allow immediate access to Quicktime files – broadly speaking, anything you can play in Quicktime player, you can also edit in Media Composer, almost immedately with no import delays. This includes, most notably, Apple’s own ProRes files and H.264 media from the very popular Canon DSLRs. This has been something that FCP has always done but Avid’s approach, given their strong focus on media management, is perhaps a little more robust.

As well as Quicktime the new AMA expansion brings native RED RAW support into Media Composer, going a step beyond FCP’s support for the format. The full RAW file is accessible from within the bin along with all standard processing controls, while FCP is limited to access through RED’s Quicktime proxy files, or a Log-and-transfer process to ProRes media.

The new Smart Tool makes the mouse a more active within the timeline, allowing for direct manipulation of clips in a contextual fashion. It allows editors to easily move clips around the timeline and trim without having to switch modes as was the case in earlier version of Media Composer.

In an increasingly file-based world another big issue for many editors was the difficult of external monitoring with Avid. While FCP editors have a range of third-party hardware available, Avid users have always been limited to Avid’s own hardware which is much less affordable, especially when only being used for simple monitoring. In Media Composer 5 this is initially addressed with support for monitoring with Matrox’s MXO2 Mini, and in the longer term it appears Avid is opening up for other hardware options.

Overall, it now seems that Avid’s software now offers the best file-based workflow for most formats, something that was previously seen as a plus in the Final Cut column. AMA support for all XDCAM flavours, P2, Quicktime and RED media now makes editing of most professional file-based formats easy and fast.

Game Changer?

It seems just about every new product these days is heralded as a ‘game changer’ – it’s certainly been said of Media Composer 5 – so is it?

Yes, in some respects it is. The opening up for file support wiht Quicktime AMA and the start of support for third-party hardware are certainly changes in Avid’s game, and by extension the post-production game. But I’m not sure it’s the start of any revolution. It’s just the start of a shift by Avid in the way they handle the challenges they now face in professional post-prodiction.

So, Avid or Final Cut?

In general I think the people who have chosen Final Cut, or were going to choose Final Cut, still will. But I think those people may at least have some of their preconceptions about Avid changed, and may very well give the Media Composer trial a go.

Final Cut’s most recent upgrade, from 6.0 to 7.0 was seen as a disappointment by many, with few new features. If Apple don’t deliver a more impressive update next time around I can certainly imagine some users deciding to switch to Avid (or at the very least run a Media Composer setup in addition to FCP).

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