Apple Announces Final Cut Pro X: Impressions

At the 2011 National Association of Broadcasters show, Apple turned away from its recent high-profile iOS and mobile iPad/iPhone announcements to strike back and recapture a market it was in danger of losing, unveiling the next version of its venerable Final Cut Pro application, Final Cut X (1).

Everyone knew the announcement was coming: Final Cut Pro 7 was released in 2009, with no major updates since then. The program was showing its age, both in appearance (with a GUI that had remained stagnant for a decade) and in features (as Adobe’s Premiere became a valid editing tool and industry giant Avid finally started innovating for its own editing software.) Apple privately demoed the program to thousands of editors in development, and went so far as to buy up all the time on the NAB stage to show off its new baby. The result is Final Cut X (while the eighth version of the program, it’s pronounced “Ten”, not “Ex”, akin to the OS X nomenclature). With this update Apple is poised to address many of the faults of the previous program as well as become a renewed competitor. What’s new? Here’s a quick tour, and my impressions.

Under the Hood
Final Cut Pro had long been written with the Carbon application programming interface. Carbon was intended as a way to ease developer pains as they switched from OS 9 of the Mac operating system to the new architecture of OS X. Unfortunately, Apple (and other developers) essentially used it as a crutch; even today, Apple’s own iTunes remains mired in the lagging performance of Carbon.

With Final Cut, however, this legacy has been dropped. Final Cut X is completely rewritten in the OS X-native Cocoa API, meaning that the program can finally address the benefits of 64-bit architecture-namely, no 4GB limit on addressing random access memory, faster speeds from Intel’s 64-bit processors, and the advantages of Apple’s own new architectural elements to OS X (2). These include OpenCL, which leverages a computer’s graphical processing units for more tasks (3), and Grand Central Dispatch, a new feature in Apple’s upcoming OS X 10.7 “Lion” version that accesses every core and scrap of power your computer is able to offer. Taken together, not only does Final Cut X promise to be the fastest version of the program ever, but it also suggests that no other Mac version of any editing program will be as fast. That’s a big plus for the Mac-only Final Cut.

New Coats of Paint
Editors may not know anything about how many cores their processor has or if Grand Central Dispatch is making a difference, but they will instantly see the dramatic redesign of Final Cut X’s graphical user interface. In a word, it’s sexy, taking graphic cues from Apple’s consumer media apps such as iMovie.

Even more important than a nicer-looking interface is what that new interface can do. Final Cut X will support a host of new features, but perhaps the most important is the removal of manual rendering-Apple’s Peter Steinauer said that rendering is now done in the background. Much of Final Cut X’s new features have to do with similar time-saving techniques. Editors can now batch footage, add keywords over portions of clips, smooth camera jitter, color-correct via ColorSync, fix basic audio issues, and group footage by shot type before transferring the raw footage to Final Cut. Even better, editors can continue with other tasks while media input is occurring, meaning you don’t need to find something to occupy yourself for two hours while you wait for your media to download. The new rendering also promises that transcoding will be less painful-hopefully meaning less issues with mixing codecs.

On the timeline, editors also have new options. Final Cut selects “primary” audio and locks it in sync with video, meaning that pairing audio captured from an off-camera device to footage should be much easier, and it will be much harder to accidentally desync the audio during editing. Dropping clips on the timeline now no longer shifts the existing clips, meaning there’s less cleanup and dragging of clips-for editors like me, a huge timesaver. Instead of the often-baroque process of nesting sequences to clean up the timeline, editors can now create compound clips, cutting down on sequence bloat.

There’s even more changes, big and small. You can now “audition” effects, rapidly demoing different effects and filters nondestructively. Audio clips now have fade handles, meaning editors do not have to pick at and create custom keyframes (4).

What this means
The biggest news about Final Cut X came at the end of the presentation-that it would retail for $299 on the Mac App Store when it arrives in June. The announcement was so crammed with information it’s not surprising that Apple’s other ProApps weren’t mentioned, but although we know they will all receive updates, what form they will take is not known. Previously editors had to buy the entire Final Cut Studio suite for $999, but Final Cut X’s standalone price suggests that people may now be able to construct their own ProApps suite by a la carte options, skipping the apps they don’t need. The low price also casts the future of Final Cut Express in doubt. Currently sold at $199, the app might be dropped in cost or ditched altogether.

As much as the Final Cut X unveiling had me (and others) excited for the future of Final Cut, many questions remain. Until I can actually use the program and see how its features work for me, its improvements are still in the abstract. However it definitely appears that Apple remains committed to its professional market and that Final Cut X is the biggest push in years to continue to dominate the market.

* (1) Daniel Lonescu (April 13, 2011). “Final Cut Pro X: Apple Previews $299 version”. PC World. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
* (2) Chris Foresman (April 14, 2011). “Apple Outs 64-bit Final Cut Pro X”. Ars Technica. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
* (3) Peter Cohen (August 6, 2008). “OpenCL: What You Need to Know”. Macworld. Retrieved April 16, 2011.
* (4) Eric Reagan (April 12, 2011). “Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet Live Blog”. Photography Bay. Retrieved April 16, 2011.

Read more Mac features by David Fuchs: “The Future of Mac Gaming” / “Protect Your Mac with Preventative Maintenance” / “The Future of the Personal Computer”