People like movies — no question about it — but not everyone likes to go through the painstaking task of filming and editing their own feature-length film. It’s often a difficult process, one that can be filled with time-consuming chores and tedious work, not to mention a costly budget. However, simple video editing can be done on the cheap if you’re willing to part with powerful, high-end software like Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas Pro in favor of a more modest program. Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to be making Spielberg-seque films, but your home movies and YouTube uploads can take on a whole new shine with a few straightforward tools.
Below are our picks for the best free, video-editing software available for Windows and Mac OS X. Now you can channel your inner Michael Kahn, Thelma Schoonmaker, or Arthur Schmidt on a nonexistent budget. Ready, set, EDIT.
Updated 9-24-15 by Rachel Grozanick: Updated external links, software descriptions, screenshots, and swapped several alternative options (i.e. WeVideo, Magisto).
Apple’s iMovie has long been one of the most consumer-orientated video editors out there. It’s packaged with iLife, a simple software suite that comes bundled with every Mac, and touts some serious practicability for the everyday user. The latest version of the software allows you to import and edit video clips from a variety of external devices, such as smartphones and GoPro cameras, and sports a clean interface that is attractive and easy to navigate.
Aside from video, images and audio can also be incorporated into your project by simply dragging your desired multimedia into the project area and arranging them in timeline-like fashion. The resulting video can always be previewed in real time, as well as any effects — themes, text, music, voice-overs, etc. — before exporting the file directly to YouTube or iCloud. Newer features include a basic audio editor, the option to make previews for apps you’ve developed, and the even ability to make your own movie trailers complete with transitions and end credits. It’s not a tour de force of video editing, but it’s perfectly suitable for home videos and minor projects.
Although Movie Maker is not officially supported in Windows 10, you can still download and use it to create videos. Like iMovie, it’s another easy-to-use video editor capable of creating fresh videos without all the complicated bells and whistles of more robust programs such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro. The software lets users combine video, images, and audio using a drag-and-drop method similar to iMovie, and it features all the essential functions we now come to expect from any basic editing software. Adding themes and effects is a breeze, as is trimming video and one-step uploading to various sites like YouTube and Facebook.
Limited format support is a drawback, as is the jarring white background which makes its resemblance to Microsoft Word even more pronounced. A decent video converter or media player can typically solve the format issue within minutes, though. For the background color, you’re on your own. Additionally, the full-screen preview and high-definition webcam capture are also a plus. The audio editing capabilities are pretty limited, but for simple videos, the software’s fade in and fade out capabilities should suffice. Windows Movie Maker certainly won’t floor you with its capabilities, but it does offer enough free incentives to keep the amateur video editor satisfied without the financial burden of the aforementioned, heavy-duty programs.
Most of the software programs in our roundup can’t boast Hollywood credentials like Lightworks can. EditShare’s non-linear editing system has been used to help produce everything from LA Confidential and Pulp Fiction to Hugo and The King’s Speech, offering a solid set of both free and premium tools that we simply can’t ignore. Notable features include professional-level color correction, GPU-accelerated real-time effects, video capture, and nearly all-encompassing format support. However, the free version is only capable of exporting MPEG-4 files with a resolution of up to 720p. Thankfully, Lightworks also offers traditional tools for importing, trimming, and seamlessly weaving audio and video together with a few effortless mouse clicks.
Other great inclusions are the program’s instant auto-save functionality, which works flawlessly in the background, and the ability to select Avid and Final Cut Pro keyboard layouts if you refuse to adopt Lightworks’ default design. Despite its brawny capabilities, it’s quick and on-point, and the full-screen interface is polished and well organized as well. Also, given the open-source nature of the software and steep learning curve associated with the freemium product, the program’s forums are more bustling than most. Lightworks is by far the most fully featured video editor on our list, however it’s also the one that requires the user to be the most tech-savvy to truly tap into its powerful framework and flagship feature set.
Avidemux is the Instagram of video editing software: quick, dirty, and impressively capable. The software is designed for quick trimming, filtering, encoding, and a slew of other basic features. The cross-platform software remains open-source — with a resourceful wiki page to boot — and tasks can be automated using assorted projects, job queues, and custom scripting capabilities that push it slightly beyond barebones functionality.
Moreover, with light features also comes a light footprint, and Avidemux takes up little space compared to the other programs in our roundup. It also allows users to change extensions and select individual output formats when they’re finished editing a video, but the less-than-friendly user interface makes it difficult to navigate the more intricate features and worthwhile tools. It may remain a bit buggy and prone to crashing, but the program’s defaults still work as intended. Avidemux is a standout choice once you learn your way around the software. Just remember to save your work.
The lesser-known VSDC Free Video Editor comes bundled with a hodgepodge of video-editing features — not to mention an onslaught of adware — most of which is designed for quick editing and conversion. Also, while the software might be free, the technical support is not.
However, the editor still boasts a good deal of capabilities when it comes time to alter lighting, splice video, and apply filters and transitions in post production, and once you get used to the clunky interface, you can make good use of all of them. Furthermore, the software sports a minimalist design and a simple navigation ribbon that isn’t nearly as complex as it looks. The software also handles many common formats, from AVI to MP4, and combines audio and video effects with ease.
While the software does run slow when utilizing more power-intensive tools, the recent builds rarely crash and offer optimized save outputs for a variety of devices, including smartphones and gaming consoles. Like Lightworks, the non-linear editing system is able to produce stellar, professional-grade videos in the right hands, but users will have to get over the learning hurdle before they really start to see what VSDC Free Video Editor is capable of.
While Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, and Lightworks may take the crown as far as free video-editing software goes, there are scores of other free programs capable of performing basic video-editing functions without dipping into your wallet. They might be a little lackluster, slow, or downright unattractive, but they’re still worth a look if Microsoft and Apple’s user-friendly software fails to catch your eye.