In the world of free audio editing, there's Audacity. In the world of free photo editing, there's GIMP. What’s a video editor on a budget to do? We didn’t know, so we set out to find out. There’s plenty of expensive video editing software—Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, and Avid—but there’s no juggernaut in the freeware space. The software we tested ranged from the widely available Movie Maker to the free version of Lightworks.
As a small disclaimer, watch out while installing some of these programs. A few of them include bundled adware software that you have to uncheck or deselect before installing, unless you want stuff like Search Protect by Conduit—you don’t. Here's an article we did that shows you how to avoid downloading some of that adware.
Microsoft’s Movie Maker should be familiar to most people. It’s provided by Microsoft as part of the Windows Essentials software suite along with a bunch of other “essential” software, but it’s actually surprisingly capable. If all you’re doing is editing a family video or two, this is more than enough to add a title and some transition effects.
In fact, Movie Maker’s biggest weakness is its greatest strength: it’s super simple. The UI makes sense to Windows users and doesn’t hide anything behind menus. Microsoft doesn’t even use words like ‘import’ and ‘gain’ opting instead for ‘Add videos and photos’ and dead obvious buttons labeled things like: “Emphasize narration’ and ‘Emphasis video.’
Getting your finished video out of Movie Maker is also super easy. The program supports direct publishing to YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and even Flickr. There’s also a list of preset options for exporting the video onto your computer that includes options for Android and iOS phones as well the standard HD and SD options. If you’re a bit more knowledgeable about rendering videos, you can edit the resolution, bit rate, frame rate, and even the audio format of the finished product. As amazing as Movie Maker is, we found it hard to stomach the fact that it can only export .wmv videos.
Final Word: Movie Maker is a great choice if you don’t need anything particularly fancy. It’s quick and easy to use if .WMV videos aren’t a problem.
There aren’t very many options for serious video editors, but Lightworks is right up there with software like Adobe Premiere. Although there’s a paid version available for $280—there’s also monthly and yearly subscriptions—the free version works well enough for amateur videographers. You don’t get professional features like timeline rendering and Blackmagic support, but you do get access to an editor that’s as close as you’ll come to Premiere or Final Cut Pro without having to pay for it.
It’s not nearly as intuitive as something like Movie Maker, but if you want to add custom effects, color correct, or even key out a green screen, this is the best option. Taking a cue from older versions of Microsoft Office, Lightworks even has a friendly shark in the corner that throws out tips and pointers while you navigate around the freeform interface. If you like having your timeline in the top left, all you have to do is drag it there.
The biggest limitation of Lightworks Free is that you can’t export 1080p video. 720p and below is fair game with exports allowed with H.264 encoding only. On the bright side, Lightworks supports pretty much every video format you’d ever need to import.
Final Word: Lightworks Free is your only option if you need an editor that lets you really dig into your videos. If you need more than basic effects and some simple cuts, Lightworks is a great option.
If you only need to work with a couple of files, Avidemux is a great solution. It doesn’t use the timeline workflow that most video editors do. This means that you won’t be rearranging clips of different videos along a thumbnail-covered timeline. Instead, you’ll be editing out parts of individual clips or joining videos together. What’s nice is that Avidemux can work with encoded files without having to re-encode them.
Avidemux isn’t meant to be used for full-fledged projects, but it's great for cutting and filtering videos. It also supports task automation which means that batch processing video files is a cinch. A wiki filled with tutorials, general information, and guides, means that the possibilities with Avidemux are pretty much endless.
Final Word: This won’t replace a fully-featured editor, but it’s a great program for quick edits and video alterations.
AVI files are the name of the game with VirtualDub. It may have started as a side project in college, but it’s a fine choice for anyone looking to edit AVI. The tiny program that doesn’t even require an install has all of the standard features—minus a standard timeline. Video filters like rotation, sharpening, and smoothing, are all included. VirtualDub even gives you the option to export a video as a series of images or an animated GIF.
Final Word: It may not look like much, but if you’re churning out a few small videos or just making some tweaks, VirtualDub will work just fine.
Click through to the next page to read about VSDC Free Video Editor, VideoPad Video Editor, and MPEG Streamclip.
It looks confusing, dated, and cluttered, but it’s a capable video editor that shouldn’t be overlooked. Like Lightworks, VSDC Free Video Editor is a fully-featured editor that can do pretty much everything you need. Cutting and splitting clips is a cinch, and the timeline makes rearranging clips and adding effects easy.
Our main gripe with VSDC is that previewing the video pops up an external player. You can view the video frame by frame, but you can’t play it within the editor itself. We also didn’t enjoy learning how to use the editor. Most of the buttons and controls are unlabeled and aren’t particularly clear about what they do.
VSDC doesn't work like most professional video editors. Many options are hidden behind pop-up menus (splitting a clip is a lot harder than it should be) and clunky sidebars. Compared to the freeform layout of Lightworks, VSDC is a pain to work with.
Final Word: VSDC Video Editor has all the features, but none of the design. If you’re willing to spend the time to learn it, it’ll do what you need it to do.
We found ourselves pleasantly surprised by NCH Software’s VideoPad Video Editor. Available for non-commercial use—unless you pay for a license—the editor is as close to Audacity-for-video as you’re going to get. The interface strikes a nice balance between feature-packed and user-friendly with labels under most of the buttons and a spacious window layout.
It gets even better. VideoPad manages to go almost toe-to-toe with much more expensive software. It's the video editing experience you expect, at an unexpected price. Although the free version is limited to two simultaneous audio streams, VideoPad provides extensive audio and video editing options. To top it all off, it supports a ton of formats for importing and exporting. Uploading to YouTube, Facebook, or Flickr is a cinch and the program even offers standard settings for portable media players and smartphones.
NCH Software isn't trying to break new ground and has instead opted to create a video editor that just works. It borrows elements from other editors and doesn't try to set itself apart with fancy layout options or an interesting color scheme.
Final Word: VideoPad Video Editor is a stellar editor that manages to pack an almost obscene number of features into a surprisingly digestable package.
MPEG Streamclip lacks many of the features you’d expect from an editor, but it makes up for it with some stellar exporting options. Once you’ve trimmed a clip, you can export it to any number of formats including DV, MPEG-4, and AVI with control over the frame size, frame rate, how it’s cropped, the compression, and even the zoom.
It's hard to call MPEG Streamclip an editor since it's more of a video processor. You aren't really creating montages or full features, but you are editing existing clips to better fit your needs. If your source video is too large, you can re-export it with more compression or a smaller resolution. Small jobs are perfect and MPEG Streamclip can fit into any video editors workflow.
Final Word: If all you need to do is trim a clip to size and convert or compress it, MPEG Streamclip is perfect. Look elsewhere if you actually need to do more editing.
VideoPad is easily the best free video editor available. It stands up against Premiere and Final Cut while still being fairly approachable for amatuers. It's not the prettiest or the most feature-packed, but it'll do almost everything a hobbyist videopgraher would need it to.
If you're not as concerend with advanced featuers like color correction and audio effects, Move Maker is the next best thing. It’s both capable and easy to use, while being readily available from Microsoft. It doesn’t do everything, but even beginners can edit videos into passable productions with a few clicks and some time spent exporting.