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, which is just the basic video capabilities in Windows’ Photos app. Apple iMovie includes excellent tools for media organization, color grading, speed, green-screen effects, narration, and soundtrack in your digital movies. It supports 4K video but not 360-degree video. iMovie also boasts some of the best storyboard-based movie making tools for novices—Trailers and Movies. It’s a PCMag Editors’ Choice for entry-level video editing.
Since our last review in 2016, few major features have been introduced, but the software now can take advantage of the MacBook Touch Bar and the HEVC video format used by recent iPhones. If you need to get really serious with video editing or to work with many tracks, 360-degree footage, or multicam, consider moving to Final Cut Pro X, which will seem familiar to iMovie users, despite its vastly greater video editing power and feature set.
Apple’s iMovie doesn’t offer the 100-track timelines, multicam, customizable transitions, and motion-tracking options that PC consumer video editing software like Corel VideoStudio and CyberLink PowerDirector offer, but if you 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 photos.
Getting Started With iMovie
If you purchased a Mac on or after October 20, 2010, you can get iMovie for free from the Mac App Store. Essentially, that means the app is free on almost all Macs in use. 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.
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 (even if you aren’t using the new Dark Mode in macOS Mojave) 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 to easily find.
The standard three-pane video-editing interface shows up 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. In an improvement from earlier versions of iMovie, 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. HEVC videos and HEIC photos from my iPhone X displayed without a hitch, which is more than you can say for some PC video apps. 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, or 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 it’s always accessible from a button at the top left. It’s less fussy, though also less powerful as an organizer, than Premiere Elements’ separate Organizer program.
Editing in iMovie
Dragging inserted clips around in the timeline is 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 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. Photos automatically get the Ken Burns pan-and-zoom effect, which makes them engage the eye rather than being static.
The magic-wand Autocorrect button did a good job enhancing the lighting and color on many of my test clips, especially those shot on an iPhone. 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.
MacBook Touch Bar Support
Starting with version 10.1.3, iMovie gained support for the Apple laptop’s Touch Bar. I’m somewhat disappointed with how limited the support is, compared with what you can do in Apple’s own Final Cut Pro X. You can drop a selected clip into the timeline, split clips, and add overlays (including PiP, greenscreen, and cutaway). That’s about it.
Unlike Final Cut, iMovie doesn’t let you use the Touch Bar to adjust color properties, scrub playback, move clips on the timeline, or adjust title font sizes. It’s kind of a shame, since the consumer users of iMovie may be more likely to adopt the Touch Bar than pro editors, who tend to be stuck in their ways, as evidenced by the outcry over Final Cut’s major redesign several years ago.
IMovie Special Effects
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 (PiP) feature, which is limited to one embedded picture. PC editors such as Cyberlink 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 or Slow, or you can enter a speed percent for slowdowns and speedups. Hitting Reverse doesn’t stop you from using those timing changes, which is handy.
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 X-ray, 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 (see below) 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.
iMovie on iOS
It’s likely that more people will use iMovie on an iPhone or iPad than a Mac, simply because there are far more of those devices in use than there are MacBooks. Apple has gone to great pains to make the macOS and iOS versions of iMovie consistent. The timeline is brilliantly done for the small mobile screen. Instead of moving the insertion point, you swipe on the clip thumbnail itself to move in the timeline.
Transitions are clearly indicated with arrows in small boxes between the clips. Clicking on these lets you change the transition type. You can add more media to your movie by tapping a Plus sign, and reordering content is a simple matter of tap-hold-drag-and-drop—similar to moving app icons around your iPhone home screen. You can also intuitively pinch-zoom the whole timeline. If any interface element is unclear, tapping the question mark icon overlays tooltips that tell you what each control does.
To start creating a movie here, you click the plus sign. You then see a choice of Movie or Trailer. Both options offer templates, with Trailers going further in guiding you as to what type of scenes to include. The Movie option includes default transitions and titles, optional background music, and applies motion to any still images you’ve included.
When you tap on a clip, you can split it, detach its audio track, duplicate it, or delete it. There are also time-stretching options, including freeze-frame, speedup, and slowdown. By contrast, Adobe Clip only lets you slow down video. Outputting movies on the iPhone or iPad is like sharing from any other iOS app, but you also get the iMovie Theater option (see previous section).
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 bridge 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 that aren’t possible in iMovie and you 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’ Choice, CyberLink PowerDirector and Corel VideoStudio. And if you’re sticking with a Mac but aren’t ready for Final Cut, Adobe Premiere Elements offers a good compromise.