Intuitive interface. Cool trailer creation tool. Supports sharing to popular web video sites. Good use of multi-touch. Responsive performance. 4K-capable. 3D Touch support.
Limited text formatting. Lacks video overlay capability.
- Bottom Line
Apple's mobile video editor is a stunning achievement of features and usability in a small format.
The iPhone's video-recording capability is so good—with up to 4K resolution, optical image stabilization, and continuous autofocus—you really should take advantage of it. For creating a really dazzling presentation from footage shot on a mobile device, you're best off using desktop video editing software, but there are times when that's not possible. For those moments, the iMovie app is your best bet. It helps you join and trim clips, apply effects, and even offers storyboard templates to give your digital movie a compelling structure. These and other features are missing in its competition, making iMove the mobile video editor to beat—at least on the iPhone.
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Pricing and Starting Up
If you your iPhone was purchased after September 1, 2013, it's a free download. If not, it's a $4.99 purchase—well worth it if you want your mobile movies to look polished. The app works on iOS 9.3 or later, which accounts for over 94 percent of iPhone users. Note that it's not a small app, at a whopping 697MB, so if your storage is getting full, you may want to go with a competitor, such as Adobe Premiere Clip or FilmoraGo, which each take up less than a fifth of that amount. I installed the app on my 64GB iPhone 6s.
Since I last reviewed iMovie several years ago, its interface has become simpler and more streamlined, without dumbing down its capabilities the way Adobe has with Premiere Clip. Three modes are available from links at the top of the screen: Video, Projects, and Theater. The first simply shows any clips on your phone and lets you play them and trim their beginning and end. Theater is a sharing option I'll discuss later. It's in Projects that the real value of the app appears, as that's where you edit digital movies. You can start a Project, as well as share one you've already completed, from the app's 3D Touch menu.
The timeline is brilliantly done for the small mobile screen. Instead of moving the insertion point, you swipe on the clip thumbnail itself to move in the timeline. Transitions are clearly indicated with arrows in small boxes between the clips. Clicking on these lets you change the transition type. You can add more media to your movie by tapping a Plus sign, and reordering content is a simple matter of tap-hold-drag-and-drop—similar to moving app icons around your iPhone home screen. You can also intuitively pinch-zoom the whole timeline. If any interface element is unclear, tapping the question mark icon overlays tooltips that tell you what each control does.
Making Your iMovie
To start creating a movie here, you click the plus sign. You then see a choice of Movie or Trailer. Both of these options offer templates, with Trailers going further in guiding you as to what type of scenes to include. The Movie option includes default transitions and titles, optional background music, and applies motion to any still images you've included.
When you tap on a clip, new options appear: You can split the clip, detach its audio track, duplicate it, or delete it. There are also time-stretching options, including freeze frame, speedup, and slowdown. By contrast, Adobe Clip only lets you slow down video.
Text overlay options are also easy and good looking. You get a choice of the Theme font or several other tasteful but sometimes animated options. For each title, you can choose Center or Lower, just what you need for the distinction between titles and explanatory captions. Text entry is WYSIWYG, so you see your words over your video. But you can't move the text around the screen, and sometimes the lower option is on the left and sometimes the right, meaning you may have to choose a font based on that location. Nor can you change the text style after the fact.
Ten effect filters (à la Instagram) are available, with some attractive color and black-and-white options. That's less than half what Instagram itself offers, but remember that app only allows videos up to 60 seconds long and none of the trimming, titling, or soundtrack options.
But as you'd expect, the iPhone version of iMovie lacks several features found in the macOS version. There's no multitrack overlay for features like picture-in-picture and chroma-key.
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Its unique Trailers feature really sets iMovie apart. It goes beyond simply allowing you to trim and enhance a video, to actually helping you plan scenes and timing for a Hollywood-like result. Along the bottom of the Trailers page, you'll see 14 appropriately decorated theme choices, from Adrenaline to Bollywood to Swashbuckler to Teen. An Apple-produced sample trailer is ready to play for each. Some of the options require a specific number of people, indicated when you select one. Hitting the Create button opens a handwritten-looking outline page, with the movie preview window and source video content above.
The outline is where you enter your movie's name and credits, and you can change the studio and logo style from the default, HighDef Films. But the really cool stuff happens when you switch from the Outline tab to the Storyboard tab. Here, you'll see suggested scene thumbnails, such as group, wide, action, and landscape, each with a time indication in seconds. It's almost identical to what you can do in the Mac version of iMovie.
To fill in the storyboard panels, tap one and choose videos or photos from your iPhone storage or tap Camera to shoot and immediately fill in the storyboard panel. Or, shoot the scene on the spot using your iPhone's camera. The newly shot clip will zip into the storyboard thumbnail and will actually be longer than the required scene so that you can trim off that often-unwanted beginning or end. The same goes for existing clips. You can swipe your clip left and right, while a selection box indicates the required length in the middle of the clip.
You might be surprised to see how many shots a movie trailer requires. I tested with the Indie theme, which requires 24 clips of varying scene types. One disappointment with this theme was that you can't add cast members beyond what the theme includes at the outset. It might also be nice to be able to delete scenes, but then again, the template is designed to produce a polished presentation, and to match the soundtrack.
Sound is a strong point for iMovie trailers. You get high-quality, large orchestral soundtracks that sound as good as those you hear on real Hollywood trailers. And the storyboard approach means that your clips will be in sync with the mood of the music. You can also turn the sound on and off for your own included clips. In the end, it's hard to imagine a more fun way to create with your video, without involving yourself in all the intricacies of multitrack editing.
Sharing and Output
Sharing your video masterpiece happens through the standard iOS Share Sheet. That means you can instantly send it to another iPhone via AirDrop or iMessage. You can also share to any third-party app that accepts video input, and sharing to sites like Vimeo, YouTube, and Facebook doesn't require leaving the app.
Remember that Theater mode option that the app starts with? It uses iCloud to make your movie viewable on any of your Apple devices. The iMovie Theater icon was past a lot of third-party apps for me, so it wasn't immediately evident. Once you've share the movie to Theater, you can watch it on any Apple device logged in to your account, including Apple TV. The system creates resolution versions appropriate to each display device. I do, however, wish that this sharing option were less closed: Adobe Clip, by contrast, lets you save a video online and share it via a link. As with Clip, iMovie lets you start editing on your iPhone and then continue the process on a Mac. This requires saving the project to iCloud Drive or AirDropping it. You can't go the other way and edit iMovie desktop project on the phone, however.
Who says you need to spend nearly $100 on fancy video editing software? You can create an impressive digital movie right on your iPhone, thanks to iMovie. It's the perfect tool to get those snaps and clips from your last vacation watchable—and enjoyable. Of course, serious digital video enthusiasts will want the more-powerful desktop software for more whiz-bang effects. But iMovie can do a surprising amount with your media, including freeze-frame, filters, titles, trimming, and adding background music. And if you're a recent iPhone owner, it's free. The only caveat is that it takes up a lot of storage space. Despite that, Apple iMovie for iPhone is the PCMag Editors' Choice video editing app for the iPhone.
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Michael Muchmore is PC Magazine’s lead analyst for software and Web applications. A native New Yorker, he has at various times headed up PC Magazine’s coverage of Web development, enterprise software, and display technologies. Michael cowrote one of the first overviews of Web Services (pretty much the progenitor of Web 2.0) for a general audience. Before that he worked on PC Magazine’s Solutions section, which in those days covered programming techniques as well as tips on using popular office software. Most recently he covered Web… More »
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