Sony Movie Studio Platinum 13 Review: Not for Beginners

Who it's for: Video-editing pros who don't want to shell out for Final Cut Pro, but have great patience.

Pro-level video editing often comes at a hefty price, with the likes of Final Cut Pro X ($300) and Adobe's Premiere Pro CC ($240 subscription fee per year) costing about an arm and a leg. Sony's Movie Studio 13 puts pro tools in your hands for a mere $50, and this year Sony added optimization for touch screens, 4K editing capability and a Simple mode. But "Simple" is misleading. With confusing controls and an interface that looks like it was designed for Windows 95, Sony's program risks turning you off before you even discover all it has to offer.

Setup: Lightweight file, quick install

Sony's 463MB installer took 6 minutes to download over an 18.4-Mbps broadband connection. Your download could take between two and three times longer, depending on your connection speed. Unpacking and installing the program took just 1.5 minutes on my Lenovo Z40 laptop. In comparison, competitor Adobe's Premiere Elements 13 is 4.2GB and took 15 minutes to download and 11 minutes to install.

To utilize all the program's functions, Sony recommends you have at least a 2-GHz multi-core CPU, 2GB of RAM and 64-bit Windows 7 or later. (There is no Mac version.) But for heavier-duty functions, such as 4K editing or 3D rendering, Sony recommends stepping up to an SSD flash drive and at least 4GB of RAM and 512MB of graphics memory in your GPU. My test system was on the higher end, with a 1.6-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM, 5400-rpm hard drive, Nvidia GeForce GT820M GPU with 512MB of memory and 64-bit Windows 8.1. 

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The $50 package includes only the Movie Studio 13 editor. If you want to burn discs (including Blu-Ray), you'll need DVD Architect Studio, which comes with the $80 Platinum package that we reviewed. The Suite edition ($140) comes with both the editor and DVD Architect, as well as Sound Forge Audio Studio, ACID Music Studio, 50 production music tracks, a host of film and title effects, as well as some tutorials

Design and Interface: Ugly, cluttered and confusing

Sony's new Simple interface is supposed to make it easier for beginners, but looks intimidating enough to scare anyone away from video editing.

The new look is optimized for touch-enabled devices and features larger buttons and controls for easier navigation with fingers. Unfortunately, the oversized buttons, inconsistent font sizes and bleak, gray background color make the program look like a prison for design offenders.

The sadly funny thing is that the Simple interface is in no way easier to use than the Advanced mode. Sure, big buttons such as Add Effects and Fade make it look easy to find controls for what you want to do. But after you press each button, a window appears with confusing options and sliders that are downright scary (more on that later).

The most noticeable difference between the simple and advanced modes is the addition of the Master Bus above the timeline. The Master Bus window lets you monitor the audio output of your project. The advanced mode also has a more complex-looking timeline that has more controls at the bottom and in the left column. You can resize and rearrange each panel in Advanced Mode as you like.

Whether you're in Simple or Advanced mode, adding an effect, such as lens flare or a color filter, will be intimidating. You can use the Add Effect button below the timeline, which brings up a Plug-In Chooser window showing about 50 effects and folders in the program's FX directory for you to choose from. 

Some of Sony's tools are completely baffling. For instance, a button labeled Normal at the bottom of the timeline does nothing other than deactivate the Fade button next to it. The Fade tool sets up transitions between clips.

Another ambiguously named feature is the Make Movie button, located at the row above the preview panel, which seems like it could be a movie-making wizard. Instead, it's an export tool to compile your finished project. (Movie Studio 13 doesn't feature such wizards.)

Even for someone like me who's familiar with more advanced editors like Final Cut Pro, Sony's controls took a while to understand. A new feature in Movie Studio 13 is Help Bubbles, which can be turned on or off by clicking the speech bubble at the top right of the screen. This brings up labels on the interface to explain what each button, window and tool does. Help Bubbles don't show up on the effects windows, though, so the program left me clueless when I most needed help.

Many of the effects have jargony names such as Sony HSL Adjust, Sony Color Curves and Sony Chroma Keyer that require some level of prior knowledge of image or video editing to understand. In comparison, CyberLink's PowerDirector 13 uses the simpler terms Color Adjustment or Lighting Adjustment under the Fix/Enhance section. 

Once you select one of these effects, you'll be taken to another window with even more gibberish. For instance, the screen for Sony Broadcast Colors (which changes your video's colors to fit within a color palette for TV broadcast) offers three options: Luma, Chroma and Composite. If you're well-versed in image editing or have a basic knowledge of Latin, you might be able to figure out that the first two let you fix light and color problems, respectively. Composite lets you set the minimum and maximum points of light and dark elements in your film, but I only figured that out after Googling and asking our in-house video-editing expert. Otherwise, good luck fiddling with the controls to understand just what each setting does.

Alternatively, you can select Transitions (for effects between clips), Video FX (to change the look of your footage) or Media Generator from below the Project Media window on the left. Media Generator lets you create content such as a title screen or rolling credits. You'll have to drag and drop each of the effects in these drawers onto your desired portion of the timeline, and make sure the scrubber (cursor) is on top of your clip to see real-time previews of your changes. 

Features: Advanced tools, but glaring omissions

With Movie Studio 13, you can do it all — from something as basic as trimming and merging clips to panning and zooming in and out of a still image (aka the "Ken Burns effect"), adding green-screen background special effects and tweaking selective color channels on your footage. 

New Capabilities 

This new version of Movie Studio adds support for 4K video editing and rendering, masking to prevent 3D violations (more on that later), and a Color Match feature that lets you select the color profile you like from a scene and apply it to another. This helps make two different scenes appear as if they were shot at the same time under the same light and color conditions.

On top of the new 3D video title creator and some new third-party (NewBlue) effects and transitions, Movie Studio 13 also added a new Stereoscopic 3D masking tool that fixes problems in rendering 3D video. This tool will be useful to those who expect to work with 3D films, but the typical consumer is hardly going to need it. For more on this feature, Sony has a helpful article that explains it in detail.

Glaring Omissions 

Movie Studio 13 doesn't have the auto-analyzing or step-by-step movie-making wizards that Adobe's Premiere Elements 13 and CyberLink's PowerDirector 13 have. For a program that targets beginners (at least with its price tag), this is an odd exclusion. Sony does offer an automated Slideshow tool that lets you create movies out of pictures, and automatically adds a Ken Burns effect to the images.

Another key thing that's missing from Movie Studio is a timeline Render button that lets you smoothly play back your work-in-progress movie in the preview panel without having to first export it. Sony only offers a "Render to new track" option, which creates a new track every time you change up your effects and want to see the result. But Sony explains that Movie Studio will play through transitions and effects without rendering, so there's no need to render to see the edits. But this requires an "appropriately powered PC."

On our test, rendering a 2-minute project took about 8 minutes, so if you're working on a 15-minute short episode for YouTube, that rendering could possibly take 45 minutes each time you want to preview an edit you've made.

Precise Controls for Advanced Work

Once you get past the confusing layout, though, you'll find Movie Studio has plenty to offer. I chanced upon an opacity-adjustment option for each track when I laid my cursor on top of the box surrounding a clip. Dragging the top border of this box down adjusts the opacity of that clip or graphic, so you can layer effects atop each other and tweak the intensity of each. This is similar to the adjustment-layers feature in Adobe Premiere Elements. 

In advanced mode, you can have nitty-gritty control over the exact position, size and rotation angle of your frame by clicking the crop symbol on each clip. These features are more likely appreciated by the advanced editor who understands terms such as "keyframe interpolation."

Performance: Speedy execution, somewhat long render and export

Movie Studio 13 makes use of your GPU to speed up rendering. We timed how long the program took to convert a 2-minute-long package of five clips, transitions, title screen, text and graphics from 1080p 60fps AVCHD video format to 720p 30fps MPEG-2. On our test laptop, Movie Studio 13 did this in 8 minutes and 11 seconds

That's almost twice the time taken by the next-slowest program, VideoStudio Pro X7 (4:52), and much longer than Adobe Premiere Elements 13 (4:12), Pinnacle Studio 18 (3:25) and CyberLink's PowerDirector 13 (2:47). The tests were done on the same laptop with a similar set of clips and effects.

Most of Movie Studio 13's other processes and commands, however, happened almost instantly, which was impressive. The real-time effects, such as Broadcast Colors, that I applied to my footage showed up immediately in the preview screen.

Exporting and Sharing: Comprehensive options, hard to refine

To export your project into one file for sharing or upload, you'll have to click the Make Movie button at the top panel. Sony says it has streamlined the interface of this dialog to make it easier to use. You can upload your video directly to Facebook or YouTube, or select from "Save it to my camera or portable device," "Save it to my hard drive" or "Burn it to a DVD or Blu-ray Disc" as options. You'll need to have DVD Architect (part of the $80 Movie Studio 13 Platinum Suite) installed to burn to disc.

If you decide to save to your hard drive, Movie Studio will present a list of formats in which you can export your project: WMV, MPEG-2, MP4 and AVCHD. But you're not done after picking one of these. Another page shows up with two columns for you to pick the specific codec and resolution you want your resulting video to take.

On this page, you'd have to click Sony AVC/MVC out of the options in the left column before the formats you want would show up on the right. While I can appreciate the exhaustive list of options available, it was too difficult to figure out how to pick my preferred output format. I needed to contact Sony twice before finding out what to do, so this is hardly something the novice editor would know.

Bottom Line

For a beginner-friendly price, Sony Movie Studio 13 will give you a professional-level headache. Yes, you can do almost anything you want with your footage, but the interface will baffle you every step of the way, making your project a nightmarish experience. Power users who like wielding immense control over the exact look of their footage will appreciate the comprehensive suite of tools available. Those making 3D films will especially like the 3D violation-correction feature. But for typical users, Movie Studio 13 is more trouble than good.

Beginners will be better off with the user-friendly Adobe Premiere Elements 13 ($100), which offers helpful guided tutorials and automated movie-making tools. Those who want powerful tools in a clean, organized interface will be better off with CyberLink's PowerDirector 13 (starts at $70), which packs robust controls in a well-thought-out layout.

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