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Whats New, Pussycat?: Apple Leopard and Final Cut Express 4

October brought the release of Apple’s long-waited Leopard operating system, formally known as Mac OS 10.5. Although most working editors are treading lightly–waiting for the right time to upgrade–Apple also sweetened the pot with the release of Final Cut Express 4, which is ready for Leopard. Professional editors working with the full Final Cut Studio package or Avid Media Composer may tend to view Express as a watered down “lite” version. Nevertheless, Final Cut Express 4 is an extremely powerful package for its $199 price tag. Since it’s built on the same code as Final Cut Pro, all of the Express tools are simply a reduced subset of the full FCP feature set.

Final Cut Express is actually the ideal application for new editors who are interested in learning Final Cut Pro. It supports DV, HDV and now AVCHD–the newest prosumer, compressed high-definition video file format. Anyone finishing and mastering in these formats–without the need to rough-cut first at a draft resolution or master to a higher level format–will be perfectly happy with Final Cut Express as their main editing application. This covers the majority of video users, including educational facilities, corporate video units and indie filmmakers.

Leopard on the Loose

Let’s first look at Leopard. I decided to install Leopard on my older Mac PowerBook G4 as a real world test. Many Express users are likely to be budget-conscious, so although new MacBook Pros are on any Mac user’s wish list, there are some great deals on older PowerPC Macs. A PowerBook G4 that’s faster than 1.25Ghz is robust enough to handle Leopard and most things you’d tackle with Final Cut Express, including compressed HD. Throwing caution to the wind, I ran the standard Leopard install, which updates the OS on the Mac.

The more cautious (and recommended) approach is to use the Archive and Install method, available under Options after you select the destination hard drive. Fortunately for me, the installation went painlessly, but there are some things you should know about Leopard when you first start to use it. Initially the machine takes a long time to restart and you do get a bit nervous watching that blue screen. In my case, it was just a matter of being patient.

Once you are up and running, the computer takes a while to put things in their proper place. Spotlight, Apple’s resident search utility, will re-index all of your hard drive contents, even if you migrated from Tiger, which already used Spotlight. It’s a background function, but can easily take more than an hour, depending on how many documents you have. I’ve also found that with each new start, my PowerBook seems to launch a little faster each time and things get a bit zippier.

There are many major and minor changes in Leopard, both in appearance and procedures, which you may view as good or bad depending on your own likes and dislikes. Not all of your applications will run properly under Leopard. Most will be fine. Some will require patches and some just won’t work. After installation I decided to clean house and remove many of my unused applications. My tools of choice for this clean up were several low-cost or shareware and freeware utilities, including AppDelete (removes all files related to an application) and Cocktail (cleans up many of the Unix and OS X system files). Remember to Repair Permissions using Apple Disk Utility. Don’t despair, as this will appear to run for a long time before it’s finished. That’s normal.

Much has already been written about the big features like Time Machine, Spaces and Boot Camp. In my case, I have little interest in these. I’m good about backing up, cloning my hard drive with SuperDuper!, as well as burning frequent back-ups of document files to DVD-ROM, so, I disabled Time Machine. That’s fine, except the first time you stick in a FireWire drive, you are prompted to make this the Time Machine archive drive. This behavior persists, until you say YES. If you don’t actually intend to use Time Machine, next simply reset Time Machine to OFF and lock the Time Machine settings.

Spaces is also pretty cool, but it really just organizes applications into segregated working areas to reduce screen clutter when several applications are open at once. For example, Final Cut Express 4 and LiveType 2 can be open in one Space, while Safari and Mail are open in another. You’d move between Express and Mail by changing from Space 1 to Space 2 or by using the traditional application switcher (command + tab) to select the application. This second method automatically shifts your screen from Space 1 to Space 2. You cannot, however, have two versions of an application open in two different Spaces, nor does a Space automatically launch a set of task-oriented applications for you.

I don’t have that irrational exuberance for a new OS that many Mac fans display, but in the end, I find Leopard more pleasant than I’d expected. I do feel the appearance smacks of Apple trying to outdo the eye candy of Vista. The new 3D dock is harder to read and to tell which applications are open, although moving the dock to the side makes it 2D again. Leopard has better security, but there are more nagging messages now–not as bad as Vista adopters have complained about–but more than in past Mac operating systems. I’ll most likely upgrade my primary working machine in a few months and at that time, I guess I’ll look back at Tiger (OS 10.4) with the same quaintness as I now do with machines still running Panther (OS 10.3). My main reason for doing so will be the improved performance on Intel machines, since Leopard embraces 64-bit computing.

Final Cut Express 4

My machine already had an older version of Final Cut Studio installed, so my first Final Cut Express launch brought up an error message indicating a conflict. It’s unlikely that someone would have both these packages on the same machine, so I decided to use AppDelete to totally clean out the Studio applications and Express and then reinstall it. That worked fine and I was ready to roll.

Final Cut Pro users will feel right at home with Express. The tools and menus are the same, except that there are fewer choices in most cases. If you are new to either, then Final Cut Express provides a great stepping stone for FCP. The installation DVD includes LiveType 2, but otherwise there are no additional applications for DVD authoring or audio post. Macs typically come with iDVD and Garage Band installed, giving you options for DVD authoring and some additional audio functionality.

Final Cut Express 4 is designed to work with FireWire or USB capture. This means that it takes in signals from DV and HDV cameras, as well as the new AVCHD consumer high definition camcorder files. DV is treated natively, but HDV and AVCHD media is converted on ingest to the Apple Intermediate Codec. 720p/30 and 1080i/60 HD files are supported, but AVCHD requires an Intel Mac. AIC is an all-I-frame compressed HD codec optimized for the RT Extreme engine in Final Cut Express. Think of it as the little brother to Apple’s ProRes 4:2:2 professional HD codec.

Once your content is ingested as either DV or converted to AIC, you are free to mix an -match these in real-time on the same timeline. Express takes care of the adjustments, just as in FCP, so DV content will be scaled up on an HD timeline and HD content will be down-converted on a standard definition timeline.

Apple is positioning Final Cut Express in the middle of their video ecosystem. For example, new iMovie project files can be exported as XML files that can be opened in Express. I was also able to open FCE4 projects inside Final Cut Pro. Going the other way is a little trickier. You can’t open a Final Cut Pro project file in Final Cut Express, but you can export an XML file from FCP and with limited success open that up inside Express. Any FCP sequence that matches the Express options will show up inside the Final Cut Express project. So for example, DV sequences moved from Pro to Express just fine, but DV50 sequences wouldn’t even show up, because Final Cut Express doesn’t include DV50 timeline compatibility.

Final Cut Express 4 is a tremendous value for the money. It uses the same FxPlug architecture as Final Cut Pro, so many of the third-party plug-in filters will work in both applications. The standard installation comes with over 200 effects, filters and transitions, including over fifty new FxPlug effects. I like that it includes LiveType 2, but I wish the package also included an audio application… maybe not a full version of Soundtrack Pro, but it would be nice to have a useful recording/clean-up/music tool other than Garage Band. Something similar to Adobe’s Soundbooth would be great. Of course, that’s a minor point.

Express fits well into the Apple video lineup between iMovie and Final Cut Studio. There simply is no other $199 application offering this level of professional performance. Between Leopard and Final Cut Express 4, Apple has ended 2007 with software solutions that are not only powerful, but won’t break the bank.