The video editing software included with Apple's Mac computers hasn't changed much in the past several years, but it still tops what you get in Windows 10: Nothing at all, since Microsoft stopped developing Movie Maker for its desktop operating system. Apple iMovie has, however, added support for 4K video, and more sharing options. And it still maintains some of the best storyboard-based movie making tools for novices—Trailers and Movies—along with excellent green-screen and soundtrack capabilities.
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You don't get all the timeline, multi-cam, freeze-frame, picture-in-picture, and motion-tracking options that PC consumer video editing software like Corel VideoStudio and CyberLink PowerDirector offer, but for folks who just want an easy way to put together some video clips and still images into a presentable movie, iMovie is hard to beat. It's particularly suited to iPhone video shooters who want to make something appealing from their clips and shots.
If you purchased a Mac on or after October 20, 2010, you can acquire the new iMovie for free from the Mac App Store. Essentially, that means the app is free on almost all Macs in use. If for some reason it's not free for you, you can get it in App Store for $14.99. The latest version requires OS X 10.11.2 or later and weighs in at over 2GB. In testing for this review, I installed it on a 21.5-inch iMac with a 3.1GHz Core i7 CPU and 16GB RAM. To get started, simply page through the splash-screens touting its great new features.
iMovie's interface only shows you the tools you need at the moment, and doesn't clutter the screen with all available tools. The latest version has a dark interface that starts out with three tabs at top center for Media, Projects, and Theater. On the left side of the Projects view window is a single huge plus-sign button. When you click this, you get two choices: New Movie and New Trailer. You import content by tapping the down arrow icon, which may be too subtle for some users.
The standard three-pane video-editing interface is used in iMovie, with source content at the top left, preview top right, and the timeline spanning the bottom of the screen. But that's about all that's standard. There are no track divisions as in other editors; instead, you drag clips down to the timeline, where they'll extend to represent their running time. You only get two video tracks, which is a far cry from the 100-plus allowed by most consumer PC video editors.
A neat interface touch is that you can scrub through any clip in the Media view simply by swiping the cursor across it. An improvement since my last review of iMovie is that now, when you click on a clip, the whole thing is selected rather than a range within the clip; the old way could make adding clips to your timeline dicey. Another helpful feature in the iMovie interface is that clips in the source panel show an orange line along the bottom to indicate that they've been used in your project.
I had no trouble importing any video content I threw at the program—GoPro, phone, and even 4K. You can also import projects you've started in iMovie on iOS and finish them on the desktop. For organization, you can mark clips or even clip sections as Favorites or Rejects, but there are no ratings, keyword tags, face, or geographical categorization like you get in Adobe Premiere Elements. Content that's used in your project will show up in the separate Project Media section of the source panel, however. The Projects page makes finding what you're working on a snap, and is always accessible from a button at the top left; it's less fussy, though less powerful as an organizer, than Premiere Elements' separate Organizer program.
Dragging inserted clips around in the timeline is very easy, and they automatically cling to the adjacent clips. This action also creates Clip Connection lines, which helpfully keep media together when you move one of the clips. You can trim them in the source panel before entering them into the project, or simply drag the end handles in to change the in and out points. For more control when working with a transition between two clips, the Precision Editor expands the view to show you the parts of the clips before and after the transition. It also indicates how many seconds (but not frames) are in the clips and transitions.
In addition to trimming, you can crop and rotate video clips or photos. The latter automatically gets the Ken Burns pan-and-zoom effect, so that they engage the eye rather than being static images.
The magic-wand Autocorrect button did a good job enhancing the lighting and color on many of my clips, especially those shot on an iPhone. In fact, the iOS version of iMovie includes nearly everything in the desktop version, though in a more touchable, small-screen-optimized format. If the magic wand isn't enough, you can have the program match color between clips (a very pro-level tool, actually), set the white balance from a point in the frame, or enhance skin tones with a dropper tool.
If you want the program to make some informed artistic choices for you rather than going it completely on your own, you can apply a Theme. This option hides in the Settings panel that you open from a link below the movie preview. There are 14 to choose from, and they apply titles and transitions for a unified viewing experience. Newscast and Travel are two of the more engaging options. The latter actually shows your movie's location on a map.
The same is true for the wonderful Trailers feature, which boasts stirring orchestral background music. But the real beauty of Trailers is that it mimics real movie production by using an outline, storyboard, and shot list, telling you exactly what type of shots to include when, and how long they should last.
The two video tracks are enough for one of iMovie's strongest features—its green-screen (aka chroma-key) tool, which is automatic and extremely effective. You get at this from the overlay button above the video preview window. That also accesses the picture-in-picture feature, which is limited to one embedded picture. PC editors such as PowerDirector can include many PiP images and even animate them around the screen. iMovie also offers a split-screen effect, but it's only two exact halves, with no resizing possible.
Time effects are simple and powerful, too. Freeze-frame is applied with a simple click, and you can then adjust the time of the freeze. You can choose Fast, Slow, or enter a speed percent for slowdowns and speedups, and hitting Reverse doesn't stop you from using those timing changes, as well.
What other programs call "effects," iMovie calls Clip Filters, and you get at these not from the menu section that includes Transitions and Titles, but from the eighth button (out of nine) above the preview window. There are some nifty filters here, including Xray, Duo-Tone, and Sci-Fi, along with several black-and-white and retro looks.
There aren't anywhere near as many transitions available as you get in Premiere Elements or the other consumer editors, but there are some fun ones, nevertheless, including page peel, cube spin, and mosaic.
Titling in iMovie is well done. After choosing from a selection of well-designed title styles you can enter text and edit right in the preview window. Many of the title options animate in and out, and there's no problem with changing font, size, and alignment. You even get the good old Star Wars scrolling text effect if you want that.
The iMovie editor ties in with iTunes and GarageBand for background music, and you can add from a decent selection of sound effects, including four levels of pitch down and up, cosmic, and robot. There are controls for equalizing, hum reduction, voice enhance, and bass and treble reduction, though these are one-click affairs that aren't adjustable as they are in VideoStudio. The Reduce Background Noise setting, however, is adjustable with a slider control.
You can easily share your creation via email, to your iTunes Library, to YouTube, Facebook, or Vimeo. You can also just save it to a video file and even choose the resolution and bandwidth, but you can't choose the actual file type the way competing consumer video editors let you. The saved MP4 format is pretty universally supported, however.
As with everything Apple, iMovie ties in beautifully with the rest of the company's ecosystem: It closely mirrors iMovie on iOS, and makes the path to the pro level Final Cut Pro X quite smooth. Another example of this is iMovie Theater, which uses Apple's iCloud online service to push your productions onto any Apple device you have, including Apple TV. Unfortunately, iMovie Theater isn't visible on the Web, so you can't enjoy it from a non-Apple device or PC.
Making Movies the Apple Way
If you're a video hobbyist in the Apple ecosystem, using iMovie is a no-brainer. The app's slick interface and powerful tools make it our top pick for entry-level video editing software. iMovie can also serve as a gateway drug to Apple's pro video editor, Final Cut Pro X, with which it shares many interface and functional characteristics. If you want to do some radical things with video not possible in iMovie and don't want to spend $300 on Final Cut, you might want to try out a couple of very powerful PC video editors that have won PCMag Editors' Choices, CyberLink PowerDirector and Corel VideoStudio.