For the past two years, we have chosen HitFilm Express as the best free video editing app for Mac and Windows. Recent upgrades serve up a plethora of key new features, many of which have trickled down from HitFilm's Pro version.
Along with adding more Pro features, HitFilm Express lets you purchase additional starter packs that were previously limited to the Pro version. These reasonably priced add-ons — like 3D model import and render, 3D particle simulator, 16-bit color depth and many more — enhance specific projects or serve a filmmaking niche. If you don't mind the program’s somewhat quirky interface, HitFilm Express is a great free video editor.
Editor's Note (Dec. 2018): We have updated this review with notes on improvements since the release of HitFilm Express 9 in September.
December 2018: Version 11.0 of HitFilm Express has minor bug fixes. Here is a list of all improvements HitFilm has made.
November 2018: Version 10.1 of HitFilm Express has improved rendering of fonts, extends the length of transitions beyond five seconds.
September 2018: Major updates 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.
Timeline animation and keyframing
Composite shots are a major feature in HitFilm, letting you create a timeline just for special effects, animations and motion graphics (which you can then apply to your main video). It works by stacking layered effects rather than immediately integrating everything into the main linear timeline.
The new update makes animation tools accessible directly in the timeline editor. In past versions, you could perform animation keyframing only in a composite shot, which forced you to switch back and forth between the two modes. The update makes it even more intuitive to create simple animations by letting you display a new animation timeline without exiting the editor.
Motion Blur for objects and whole clips — another timeline enhancement — lets you set motion parameters, also without having to create a composite shot.
The updated Express now lets you choose from several viewer quality options, including customized playback and pause, which makes playback much snappier and helps eliminate preview lag, especially for high-resolution video. New choices include Playback Quality, Playback Resolution, Paused Quality and Paused Resolution, each with four choices ranging from low to high.
This feature is convenient and extremely easy to use, but if you reduce quality too much, playback could hide special effects that you may have added to your video, like picture-in-picture or animated text, and you'll wonder why you aren't seeing your effects.
If you want to see everything included in your clip, balance quality with speed. Even with short clips, there is a notable difference in speed between Final and Fastest Playback and Antialiased and Quarter Resolution. The Options menu now lets you choose to view a full-screen preview, as well as a preview on a second monitor.
New layout panel
Updated and expanded workspaces in the latest version of HitFilm Express give you new options for aligning and arranging objects in your scene and for working on different kinds of projects. The new version adds workspaces such as 360 Degree Video, Audio, Colorist, and Organize, letting you focus only on the functions you need, eliminating panel clutter.
The new Layout panel lets you more easily customize and rearrange elements, such as text or an inset picture, within your clip. It lets you place all elements exactly where you want them with controls that place or distribute objects all around your canvas. No more eyeballing.
One complaint is that the Layout panel is not a default part of the Editing workspace, and when you choose to add it, it opens as an enormous window that integrates poorly with the rest of the Editing workspace panels. To rectify that, you can detach and float it or, even better, choose the All Panels or Compositing workspaces for a more fluid integration.
Graphical effects widgets
When you apply a special effect in HitFilm, you can control it either with a slider or via numerical menus. The new version provides another, more graphical way to adjust effects right in the viewer. Just choose an effect, and controls will automatically appear, letting you tweak it directly in the viewer.
Improved masking in composite shots
Even though newer versions of HitFilm Express grant more functionality to the timeline editor, the compositor still gets some love, because while the timeline is great for simple effects, the compositor is needed for more complex work. New features for composite shots include applying and modifying masks directly in the viewer using the Pen tool. It's now easier to modify masks by moving the selection points around.
If you're incorporating motion graphics into your videos, three new effects give you an easy way to move elements without the tedium of placing multiple keyframes. Acceleration, Gravity and Throw do pretty much what their names suggest. Acceleration lets you adjust the speed at which an element moves on your canvas, as well as the direction in which it's going. As you might suspect, gravity goes in one direction: down. Throw is like throwing a ball, so that the object goes wherever you want it to over time. You can combine behaviors to accelerate gravity or throw.
HitFilm now lets you export your movie in the background while you continue working in the Editing module. On the Edit screen, the word "Export" now appears, so you don't have to guess which tiny icon will export your clip. HitFilm has also overhauled the export module by adding two new panels: Project and Preview.
The project panel lets you view the editor timeline and composite shots, letting you add them to the queue without switching back to the Editing panel. The preview window shows file information, such as frame rate and size, in and out points, and duration.
The best part is that you don't have to wait until the export is finished to continue editing other clips. Just being able to manage export functions in a single panel without having its actions dominate the rest of the editing process is helpful, as is watching your preview export.
Starter pack add-on
While we lauded HitFilm Express as the best free video editor, a few of the new features, such as the timeline-based text effect and the picture-in-picture effect, are available only as part of an Edit Starter Pack for $9.99. We checked out some of those add-on features because, for the price of a couple of soy lattes, you get capabilities that make HitFilm even more compelling, especially for newcomers. Nonetheless, we factored only HitFilm's free features into our overall rating.
One of the most useful features of the Starter Pack is a module that lets you add text effects directly in the timeline. (Otherwise, you have to create a composite shot.) A pop-up menu lets you type in the text you want. You can treat it like any other text by changing the font, color, opacity, line spacing, blend and more.
A series of transformations, including position and rotation, are available to enhance animated text effects. While in the text controls, you can also move the text anywhere in the frame, or quickly compose subtitles or labels.
Depending on the clip you use, it may be difficult to see the anchor point that lets you move the text around different parts of the scene.
A quick picture-in-picture effect is also included in the starter pack, so you can quickly position one clip within another at various points on the canvas.
Anyone who's shot vertical video using their smartphone knows the pain of having to make it look good in a horizontal format. HitFilm's vertical-video feature takes the original video and blurs it to fill the horizontal space in the background, to eliminate those ugly black bars.
Like the 2017 version, HitFilm can run on most post-2012 computers, but the app works better with a discrete graphics card. I used HitFilm Express Version 9 on an HP Spectre x360 running Windows 10 Home with a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i5-5200U processor, an HD Graphics 5500 GPU and 8GB of RAM.
To test its performance, I combined five clips into a 2.5-minute video shot at 60 frames per second and rendered the projects to MPEG 4 at 720p. I timed rendering at both 30 fps and 60 fps.
HitFilm, which was among the slower performers in a recent video roundup, has not improved its export times with version 9. The app still lags behind the competition at both 30 fps and 60 fps, taking about 5:09 minutes and 8:42 minutes respectively to export my test clip. The 30 fps rate was about the same as the 2017 version, while the 60 fps rate was slower. That compares with speed demon Shotcut, where I recorded speeds of 2:15 at 30 fps and 3:14 at 60 fps on the same Windows system. HitFilm operates fluidly on a range of consumer and pro-level computers, and is otherwise generally snappy and responsive for most operational tasks.
If you upgrade
You can still use HitFilm Express 4 and 2017 (technically, version 5), but if you're currently using version 8 or later of HitFilm Express, you can upgrade to the newest version without having to download a brand new app. All of your previously saved or purchased effects, presets, workspaces and caches remain operative. Projects created in earlier versions can load into the new software, but you cannot run new projects in older versions.
HitFilm Express is a solid upgrade, offering improvements and new functions that augment existing features and adding new ones that make video editing easier and more intuitive. The iterative update scheme is a huge convenience, as you no longer have to keep track of yearly upgrades and renamed software. I especially like having more functionality in the editor timeline rather than having to switch back and forth from the compositor so often.
It's disappointing to have to spend $9.99 for popular features such as animated text in the timeline, picture-in-picture and vertical video. But the upside is, if you need them, the price is low. On the rendering side, performance is still slow, especially in lower-end consumer systems.
Balancing creativity, ease of use and performance is a trade-off, but HitFilm remains an inspired software package brimming with features, and paired with a dynamic website offering an abundance of fun, funky training videos.
Screenshots: Jackie Dove