Review: Apple iMovie for iPhone
iPhones have been capable of recording video since last year's release of iPhone 3GS -- arguably longer if you take hacks into account -- but Apple's own iPhone OS/iOS Camera software has been limited to super-simple capturing and trimming. With the release of iPhone 4, Apple dramatically improved the device's video recording and processing hardware, simultaneously announcing a new standalone piece of software called iMovie ($5, version 1.0), which brings more sophisticated video editing, transitioning, and titling options to iPhone 4 users who may need them on the road. iMovie's features all come from the Mac OS X iLife program of the same name, and much like the company's earlier Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps for iPad, iMovie is a stripped-down but capable little tool that enables almost anyone to create impressive-looking content directly from an Apple touchscreen device; it is also clearly a 1.0 release, and still in need of some additional polish.
On iPhone 4, iMovie starts with a “Projects” screen that enables the user to switch between multiple automatically saved video editing sessions, create new ones, and export them for later sharing. Each has a representative image, a date, and a length in minutes and seconds to help you differentiate between them without needing to worry about filenames. Select any one and you’re brought to an editing screen with five key icons that are—in iMovie’s biggest flaw for novice users—confusingly similar: the first one combines an arrow, a star, and a piece of paper but just could be labeled “back to Projects,” second is a triangular play icon arrow that plays the current project, third is a box with an arrow that allows you to choose video, photo, and audio content to assemble into a video clip, fourth is a camera-like icon with an arrow to activate the camera for additional recording, and the fifth icon is a gear.
The gear turns out to be important: it contains five themes (modern, bright, travel, playful, and news) that are distinctive packages of fonts, graphic overlays, and music that can be individually activated or ignored as you desire—you can either add or leave out opening, middle, and ending titles, a cheery song that runs through the collected footage, and text you can change with an on-screen keyboard to suit your needs. Pieces of video can be cut down with pin-style start and end points, spliced together with a song and dissolving or Ken Burns effected pictures from your iPhone’s Photos and iPod libraries, and then saved as a fully assembled clip for sharing. All you need to learn is how to tap on each of the pieces of footage in your timeline, drag to reorder them in your preferred sequence, and make small tweaks to their transitions.
iMovie’s single biggest selling point is the fact that it exists at all: other video editing programs have appeared for the iPhone 3GS, but iMovie’s design—once you get used to it—is streamlined and powerful enough to churn out results that are close to what you’d get from using a computer program, particularly at the application’s maximum 720p output resolution, which is HD-quality as an offset to the 360p (sub-DVD-quality) and 480p (DVD-quality) alternatives offered. That the program seamlessly mixes music, applies fade and other transitions, and titles videos without the need for any transcoding or import time is pretty impressive; users will only need to sit around waiting to export their final products, which will take minutes rather than seconds.
Despite its positive features, iMovie has a few problems that leave plenty of room for both point releases and major updates. One is scope: while iMovie will seem intuitive enough for experienced Mac iMovie users to jump right in, the collection of similar icons and other interface oddities will leave newbies feeling a little confused by their options. Rather than building the application with a wizard or a Magic iMovie feature a la the desktop program, Apple drops you into some gray screens and just leaves you to figure out how to use the buttons, tap on clips, and the like. A tutorial like the ones found in Apple’s iWork applications for the iPad would help some people learn how to make the most of the limited tools. Additionally, while geotagging information is imported automatically, and can lead to some nice on-map pinpointing of your general location, the location details can look a little weird—for whatever reason, ours kept coming up with the name of a local airport that wasn’t really close to where we were actually filming.
On the other hand, expert video editors will wish for even more—greater control over the timing of audio clips, more photo transitions, additional themes, and the ability to make aspect ratio-filling choices rather than having differently-shot clips presented with large black bars. Under ideal circumstances, starting with footage shot solely by the iPhone 4’s rear camera in wide orientation, you can wind up with a great-looking project, but if you’re mixing footage from the front and rear cameras, or downscaled content, expect some awkward results with little ability to remedy them. Additionally, iMovie’s sharing options are so deliberately limited at this point that you can do little more than choose the output resolution, dump the file into your Photos application, and then figure out what to do with it from there—you can’t really e-mail full-sized clips unless they’re really short, and iMovie doesn’t include one-step export to MobileMe, YouTube, or other video destinations. Being able to play back a full-sized clip directly from iPhone 4 is nice and all, but having the ability to easily share it without needing to load another application, trim it down again, or the like would be a lot better.
There’s also one other issue: even though iMovie is capable of running on the iPhone 3GS, Apple has limited it solely to iPhone 4 users for the time being—a shame given that the prior-generation 640x480 camera is quite capable of producing video worth sharing directly from the device. Hopefully iMovie will expand its support to include additional devices, including the iPad, as the ability to assemble videos surely needn’t be limited to just the iPhone 4; the iPad Camera Connection Kit could really benefit from the added functionality, too.
For now, iMovie is a good start and a solid value for the $5 asking price—a tool that first-time video editors will only struggle a little to figure out, but will enjoy once they understand its capabilities and learn how to effectively share the videos it creates. Future releases of this application would really benefit from offering two interfaces: a wizard with simple features and a lot of hand-holding, and a manual mode with greater flexibility for those who need it.