We began our evaluation by subjecting Studio 9.0 to an elaborate series of stability tests. Our testbed contained a 3.2GHz Hyper-Threaded Pentium 4 processor, an Intel 875 (Canterwood) chipset, a Plextor PX-708UF external FireWire DVD rewriter, and 1GB of Kingston Hyper-X DDR433 SDRAM. We used a FireWire-attached Pinnacle MovieBox DV module for video capture and burned on 8X Verbatim DVD+R media.
First, we verified that Studio 9.0 could be installed without incident on a clean copy of Windows XP Professional. Then we upped the ante by loading Roxio Easy Media Creator 7.0, Sonic Solutions' MyDVD Studio Deluxe 5.0, Norton SystemWorks 2003, and 321 Studios' DVD X Copy onto the same system. Even with these applications running simultaneously--something no software vendor would recommend--Studio 9.0 was able to perform a variety of video-editing tasks without locking up. Reinstalling the entire set of software packages on a similarly equipped Athlon XP 3200+ system produced a similarly smooth experience.
However, digging further into Studio's more advanced features produced a string of seemingly random crashes--even on our clean system. An afternoon of detective work narrowed the problem to the program's Background Rendering function, which evidently conflicts with resource-hungry tasks such as copying and pasting clips or applying certain combinations of transitions and audio effects. Turning off this handy feature restored the system to rock-solid stability but significantly reduced productivity by forcing the program to pause after many types of edits to render the changes. We can report only what we saw during our own testing, but our readers continue to report other various instabilities. In any event, Pinnacle is aware of the rendering problem, and plans to correct it with a 9.1 upgrade due in March.
Studio 9.0's Background Rendering function was the culprit behind the program's frequent crashes--a problem that vanished when the feature was disabled.
Pinnacle Studio 9.0 offers a mature, well-designed feature set that is as comprehensive and easy to use as any in its price range. The software's flexible I/O capabilities let you capture live analog or digital video in DV or MPEG formats and import MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and most types of AVI files. Studio 9.0 can output projects to videotape, digital video recorders, DVD and CD burners, MPEG and AVI files, streaming WMV9 and RealMedia movies, e-mail messages, and even video-sharing Web sites. But the software does not support DivX, MPEG-4, OGG, or Microsoft Media Center Edition's DVR-MS video format.
In addition to giving you a choice of storyboard, timeline, and text-list video-editing modes, Studio 9.0's elegantly designed Edit screen now provides a much-needed full-screen video-preview window. A dedicated menu editor makes it easy to create complex multilevel menu systems, and a powerful titling module lets you design striking text that you can then animate with any of Studio's huge selection of sophisticated transitions.
Studio 9.0's audio features include real-time mixing capabilities for up to three stereo tracks and the new Surround Mixer, which lets you create four-channel soundtracks that any Dolby Surround Pro Logic-compatible player (including virtually all DVD set-top boxes) can reproduce. Studio 9.0 does not support compressed Dolby Digital audio, however, and as a result, the soundtracks it creates are relatively large.
Studio's new Dolby Surround mixer lets you independently position three stereo soundtracks in 3D space by dragging representations of them around a virtual living room.
Other new features in Pinnacle Studio 9.0 include the ability to import and edit 16:9 wide-screen movies, plus an assortment of cleanup tools that perform tasks such as reducing hiss, normalizing volume levels, and autocorrecting picture-quality problems. During our evaluation, we found the audio functions to be great time-savers, but the video tools were sometimes a bit tricky to use. Studio 9.0 also adds a feature called SmartMovie that intelligently remixes audio and video clips into flashy, effects-laden music videos and implements an open architecture that lets you add third-party VST (Steinberg's popular plug-in standard) filters, effects, and tools.
While earlier versions of Studio could take all night to render and burn a project, version 9.0's Hyper-Threading support cuts rendering times considerably for recent P4-based systems. The SmartRendering function further improves performance by ensuring that the program renders only those frames that have been changed during editing. During our evaluation, it took us a mere 1 hour and 23 minutes to render, compile, and burn a 3.7GB DVD project assembled from clips that were already in DVD-standard MPEG-2 format. A worst-case version of the same job, in which we had edited every frame in the project, took a total of 2 hours, 21 minutes to complete, 1 hour and 45 minutes of which was rendering time.
Pinnacle's support options aren't the most comprehensive we've seen, but they're certainly acceptable for an application that's as easy to use and as well documented as Pinnacle Studio 9.0. In addition to bundling the program with a quick start guide, an outstanding interactive tutorial, and a luxurious 260-page printed manual, Pinnacle maintains a support site filled with 2,000 knowledge base troubleshooting entries, searchable discussion forums, unlimited free e-mail support, and a variety of downloads. Furthermore, Studio 9.0 also automatically downloads and installs upgrades if you're online when you launch the program.
Pinnacle has restricted its free phone support to one call per registration, after which the company charges $14.95 per call. Support is available Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET. We made a test call during peak early afternoon hours and were placed on hold for about 20 minutes, after which a knowledgeable and friendly technician quickly solved our problem.