In my opinion, the best consumer-level movie-authoring software for the PC is a package you've probably never heard of, and it comes from a company that's equally anonymous. But don't be fooled by its mysterious origins: If you've ever wanted a Windows program that works like Apple's excellent iMovie software, you're in for a treat because ArcSoft ShowBiz is all that and much, much more.

ShowBiz works like similar products (iMovie and Windows Movie Maker—WMM—in particular) in that it lets you import or capture video, edit it in various ways, and then output or export it using a variety of formats. But ShowBiz goes far beyond WMM's capabilities by offering numerous professional transitions, titling options, and other effects, all in a package that's as easy to use as it is powerful. I spent last weekend editing home videos for later recording as a custom DVD movie, and even though I experimented with several tools, ShowBiz came out on top again and again. In this review, we'll look at how ShowBiz worked at various stages of the production, and why I feel that ShowBiz is the number-one PC video-editing package for consumers.

Movie Acquisition


The first step in any movie-authoring production is to get video into your PC. This video can be digital video captured through a FireWire connection, which is the method I used, or analog video captured with some sort of analog-capture hardware. My goal was to capture video in DV-AVI format, which offers minimal compression with full-screen, full-resolution features. Initially, I worked with WMM, but it refused to record sound on more than one occasion, so I moved on to the digital-recording features of the DVD-authoring package I'm currently using. But that software works natively with the heavily compressed MPEG-2 video format DVD movies require, not the higher-quality DV-AVI format. Finally, I turned to ShowBiz and, sure enough, it captures video in a wide variety of formats, including DV-AVI. I was able to capture five video segments—about 40 minutes of video—quickly and easily.

I experienced only one serious problem with the video-capture segment: ShowBiz breaks up movies into multiple files if they exceed about 1.45GB (curiously, ShowBiz doesn't offer any "clip" capabilities, in which movies are automatically segmented at actual recording breaks or in set time increments). I think this function has something to do with a file size limitation in the FAT32 file system or perhaps an older version of AVI, but WMM certainly never does this, and I have several multi-gigabyte AVI files on my system, which uses the NTFS file system exclusively. Fortunately, breaking up the captured video into multiple files had no effect on my ability to edit the video later.

Movie Editing


After you capture the video, the next logical step is to edit it in some way. For most people, editing simply involves trimming out the pieces they don't want (e.g., little Johnny with finger inserted firmly in nose or that embarrassing fall off the side of the picnic table). Like iMovie and WMM, ShowBiz offers a simple storyboard/timeline-based layout in which you can drag media clips and edit the content. Unlike WMM, however, ShowBiz offers far more functionality. In addition to the video track, ShowBiz has separate timeline tracks for text titles and effects, and two additional audio tracks for adding voice-overs and soundtracks (WMM offers only one audio track).

For trimming video, ShowBiz offers an Active Clip view, with a small timeline that features front and rear "scissors" you can visually move to define the area you want to clip. This feature is far more obvious and discoverable than similar features in iMovie and WMM.

Adding Transitions, Text, and Effects


After video trimming, the most commonly sought-after video-editing features include adding transitions between disparate clips, adding text titles, and adding other effects, such as grayscale and film grain. WMM is particularly bad at this; you can't add text titling over live video, for example, but instead have to create still images that include such text. And WMM offers only one transition type—the common crossfade. Apple's iMovie is more powerful in this regard; it can add various types of text titles to live video and comes with a powerful selection of transition types.

However, ShowBiz beats even iMovie with regard to transitions, text titles, and other effects. The software ships with several stock text title types, numerous transitions, and dozens of other effects. You can add animated text titling directly over live video, as with iMovie, and transition between clips with several professional-looking swipes and fades. And although the additional effects vary between cool and truly lame, some are fun, including the Mosaic effect, which pixelates the display, and the Film Grain effect, which adds a nice, old-fashioned look. Many of the effects involve fun "frames," which literally frame the video in an image file, and include some amazing photographic effects in which the video appears to be playing on a billboard at the side of a road, angled correctly to match the angle of the billboard. Good stuff.

The titles and effects get their own tracks in the timeline, so you can specify their location and duration and use multiple titles and effects per video, if desired. You can fine-tune each text title using font, shadow, position, blur, and intensity options, and configure each effect for varying levels of intensity so you can make them subtle or bold.

Exporting Movies


After you finish editing the movie, it's time to save the end result in the appropriate format. ShowBiz has several Save and Export options and will write files in numerous formats, including AVI, DV-AVI, MPEG-1, Video CD, Video Email, Windows Media Video (WMV), and even QuickTime. Best of all, each of these formats is almost infinitely configurable (depending on the format's abilities), letting you set resolution, frame rate, audio format, and other options. And you can export directly to recordable CD or digital videotape. Compare these options to WMM, which offers WMV and DV-AVI file-based output only, or iMovie, which works only in QuickTime format (although it can also write to digital videotape). ShowBiz is, by far, the most accommodating of these packages when it comes to distributing your work.

A Few Niggling Problems


Despite its strengths, ShowBiz has a couple of small problems I'd like to see ArcSoft address in a future release. The software runs only in an 800 x 600 window that you can't resize, so if you're using a higher-resolution screen (such as the 1280 x 1024 flat panel I use), the window floats midscreen like an unsizable postage stamp. Both WMM and iMovie can fill the entire screen.

I also experienced a weird capture problem at one point, in which ShowBiz wouldn't "see" the video I was capturing, and the resulting file it created was bogus. I simply restarted the application, and all was well.

Conclusion


Overall, I'm quite taken with ArcSoft ShowBiz, which is one of the most powerful yet simple consumer-oriented video-authoring packages I've ever seen. Best of all, ShowBiz runs on Windows, so it's available to a far wider audience than Apple's otherwise excellent iMovie.

Finding ShowBiz will probably be your most difficult task associated with this software. It's not available in retail stores, and I couldn't locate it at any online merchants, either. But you can buy this amazing software for only $80 directly from ArcSoft's Web site, and I think that's a bargain, especially if you've wasted time with other commercial editing packages. Unless you're a professional videographer who's comfortable using high-end tools such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, ShowBiz is quite possibly the only video-editing package you'll ever need.

Resources


ArcSoft ShowBiz
iMovie
Windows Movie Maker