Unless you're producing a Hollywood blockbuster, there's no reason to spend a fortune on video-editing software for your Mac or PC. While there are many reasonably priced video-editing suites, going for less than $100, completely free or freemium editing packages can accomplish most or all of what some of the paid software packages can do.
After testing six of the most popular free editing suites, our top choice is HitFilm Express for its lavish cinematic capabilities and high-powered interface. For Mac owners, Apple's iMovie is the no-brainer choice, because of its macOS integration, top-notch output, professional themes and trailers, and support for professional shooting and editing techniques. For YouTube and other social media platforms, the free, cross-platform VideoPad is the best option.
Hitfilm Express's high-energy style appeals to budding filmmakers who want to put a special touch on a personal event or get creative with a video blog, but it's still easy enough for the adventurous friends-and-family crowd. The one concession you have to make is that you have to give the software maker a shout out on social media in order to download the free app.
New features include animation keyframing in the editor, motion blur, enhanced preview options, a new layout panel, improved masking in composite shots, additional workspaces and new export features.
Other great features include the ability to create your own lightsaber battles, support for 4K video, as well as such features as 3D effects, 360-degree video editing and lens distortion correction from action cameras. Our one quibble is that some features, such as picture-in-picture and animated text require a $9.99 expansion pack.
As with previous versions, HitFilm wasn't the fastest at encoding videos, but that's a trade-off we're willing to make for such an expansive feature set.
Update (Dec. 2018): Since our initial review, HitFilm has been updated to version 11.0; improvements include better font rendering and an increase in transition length as well as various bug fixes.
- Robust timeline editor
- Ability to continue editing during export
- Flexible and intuitive export features
- Supports 4K and 360-degree video
- Works on Macs and PCs
- Export performance is slow
- Some popular features require an add-on purchase
- Interface has a learning curve
iMovie is the Mac-based amateur filmmaker’s best friend, delivering themes, Hollywood-style trailers and video effects with minimalistic panache, a cinematic flair, and deep integration and optimization with the Mac OS. Recent updates tweaked the interface and added Touch Bar support for the latest MacBooks.
While you can now edit and share 4K videos, iMovie lacks features found in other free apps, such as the ability to edit 360-degree video, multicam editing and motion tracking. You also have limited control over output settings.
Because it's so deeply entwined with the macOS, iMovie was one of the fastest apps when it came to encoding video. Once that's finished, it also gives you plenty of sharing options: You can upload directly to YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, and share any video frame as an image. When you couple iMovie with iMovie Theater and iCloud, you can also view your creations on any Apple device or via Apple TV.
- Simple interface
- Professional-looking themes and trailers
- Abundant audio tools
- Theater feature shares movies to all Apple devices
- Supports 4K
- Lacks multicam, motion tracking and 360-degree features
- Limited output controls
This free video editor makes it a cinch to export your creations to YouTube, Facebook, Dropbox, Flickr, Google Drive and an assortment of mobile devices through a simple pull-down menu. You have to sign in to these services first. And while YouTube uploaded directly to my channel without incident, you may have to save your video to your hard drive with social media specs and then upload to the social network yourself.
Compared to HitFilm's high-energy interface, VideoPad has a simple, soothing look which makes it more approachable for novices. It works with both Macs and PCs and still lets you edit 360-degree video with the same ease as you would traditional movies, though adding text to 360-degree clips can be a bit tricky. VideoPad also lacks some of the advanced features you'll find with HitFilm, like multicam editing, high-end special effects and motion tracking, but you can purchase a number of add-ons to expand VideoPad's feature set.
Our biggest issue with VideoPad was not knowing which features were disabled in the free version versus the trial and paid versions. We found VideoPad to be a bit slower on our transcoding tests than Hitfilm, too. But that may not matter for those looking for an app that they can use to quickly and easily edit video and then upload to the social media outlet of their choice.
- Intuitive and easy to learn
- Supports 360-degree camera editing and output
- Extensive YouTube, social media and mobile-output formats and specs
- Works on Macs and PCs
- Lacks some advanced features like multicam editing and motion tracking
- Lacks a free slide-show creator
- Difficult to tell whether you have downloaded the free or trial version, especially in Windows.
MORE: VideoPad - Full Review
Why You Should Trust Us
We have been testing the leading consumer video-editing suites, both free and paid, for several years. With such knowledge, we can compare things like performance, interfaces and features, and improvements in the various suites over time.
The reviewer, Jackie Dove, is an obsessive, insomniac freelance tech writer and editor in Northern California. A wildlife advocate, cat fan, photo-app fanatic and VR/AR/3D aficionado, her specialties include cross-platform hardware and software, art, design, photography, video, and a wide range of creative and productivity apps and systems.
How We Tested
After downloading all of the free video editors, we put each one through its paces, concentrating on the interface, what you get, new features, the ease with which you can share to social networks and how much add-ons cost.
We then timed how long each program took to render a 2.5-minute video shot at 60 frames per second to MPEG-4 at 720p. We ran each encoding process at 30 fps and 60 fps.
With the exception of iMovie, we ran all our tests on a Windows 10 HP Spectre x360 laptop powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i5 processor with a 5200U Intel CPU. For iMovie, we used a MacBook Air (mid-2013) with a a 1.7-GHz Intel Core i7 processor, HD Graphics 5000 and 8GB of RAM, running macOS High Sierra.
What to Look for in a Free Video Editor
The Definition of Free: There's free and then there's freemium. Some software, like iMovie, is genuinely free. But just as some video-editing packages are sold in tiers — with more-expensive versions offering more and expanded features — a freemium video program may just be the lowest level of a paid version. Or it may be a trial version that hobbles the end product in various ways, like putting a huge watermark on your video or limiting output formats.
But there are variations on this theme. HitFilm, VideoPad, DaVinci Resolve and VSDC, for example, offer paid versions with high-end features that most consumers probably won't miss, but otherwise allow for full use of the basic program.
Another hidden "cost" is periodic or even constant in-line advertising or reminders that an upgrade is available. Our favorite program, HitFilm, never pushes an upgrade on you, but it makes you go through a social media and authorizing song and dance to download the product or switch computers. VideoPad (on the Mac) makes you verify at every launch that you are using the free version for noncommercial purposes.
Both DaVinci and VSDC mix paid features in their basic programs, but they do not explicitly mark these features as such. However, if you try to use them, you'll get an error message and an ad. We can't fault the software companies for trying to get users on board with paid versions, but just be warned that such annoyances are the hidden cost of otherwise-free video apps.
Those looking for a powerful editor with a huge variety of built-in resources and responsive technical support may be better off dropping some cash on a consumer video-editing program, like award winners Adobe Premiere Elements, CyberLink PowerDirector or Corel VideoStudio. However, first consider trying out software such as HitFilm Express 2017, VideoPad, DaVinci Resolve or VSDC, which offer all of the basics for free, and then purchasing additional features à la carte or simply upgrade as your experience and needs grow.
Credit: ShutterstockBasic Features: The watchword with free apps is often which one offers the best combination of technically complex software for which you would otherwise have to shell out the big bucks. All video editors should, at the very least, have some combination of familiar features like a viewer or playback window, library, timeline, and access to transitions and effects.
Tech support and documentation: One of the big distinctions between paid and free software is the level of documentation and tech support; paid software has more-explicit and -detailed documentation and guides than the free versions. That said, many software packages post instructional videos of the most popular features to YouTube, and more-complex free packages may offer extensive documentation.
Many independent vendors, who are often sole proprietors in charge of the software, make themselves available to users via social media and email to assist with problems, troubleshoot, take suggestions and criticism, and otherwise oversee the software. Programs with intuitive interfaces and tool-tip hints, and even built-in tutorials to greet new users, make free software popular.
System requirements: Many free software packages technically serve most consumer hardware systems with integrated graphics, as opposed to more-powerful discrete graphics cards. If you have a consumer machine like a MacBook or a Windows laptop with integrated graphics, make sure your machine is powerful enough to run them efficiently.
Export options: Another area where free meets inconvenience may be at the tail end of the project, when you want to export your video, only to discover that the free version will not output to your desired format. Before you start using a free package, make sure that it will save your video to the platform and resolution you need, whether your video will eventually wind up on YouTube or on a Blu-ray disc.