New versions of Final Cut, in both Pro and Express iterations, used to be accompanied by the kind of dizzying excitement reserved for kids on Christmas morning. Each successive update seemed to usher in a wealth of new features, either ground-breaking in their capabilities or previously unseen in an affordable non-linear editing program.

Perhaps such pioneering advancements in earlier versions have become the proverbial rod for Final Cut's back, but we can't help feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the recent Final Cut Pro 6 and this, Final Cut Express 4.

Design and layout

The application ships bereft of any kind of printed material, on a single DVD. Included on it is a PDF manual that gives excellent detailed instructions of every aspect of the application, but printing it out isn't a realistic option as it's well over a thousand pages long!

The interface layout and design is almost indistinguishable from the previous version of Express, or the more recent Final Cut Pro 6. Complaints raised consistently over previous versions of both applications remain un-addressed. There's still no ability to jog through clips in the Bin windows using J, K and L keys (as seen in Avid).

Instead Final Cut Express 4 stubbornly retains the Scrubbing by Mouse' execution, which is both clumsy and frustrating. There is still no ability to alter the interface brightness (as enjoyed in Adobe's Premiere Pro), nor a facility to automatically hide the dock when Final Cut Express is launched, something we have complained about since the first OS X capable version!

Features

There are four main features introduced in Final Cut Express 4: AVCHD support, open format Timeline, FxPlug effects and filters, and iMovie '08 project import. The importance of these features will depend heavily upon the tertiary equipment and programs you use with your projects. If an affordable way of cutting AVCHD footage on a Mac has so far eluded you, the AVCHD support added here (though it's for Intel-equipped Macs only) might be worth the asking price alone.

The new Log and Transfer window, used when working with hard-drive-based footage, highlights the convenience and flexibility of such devices, allowing the import of clips non-sequentially. However, as all HDV and AVCHD footage gets converted to Apple's intermediate codec first, it is a little slower to import than solutions that use the footage natively.

FxPlug effects and filters support is a welcome addition to Express, there's a growing user community of such plug-ins to be found at www.fxplugfx.com, empowering the average user with effects that have previously been the domain of expensive add-on packs from the likes of Boris FX.

Performance

The open-format Timeline, first seen in Final Cut Pro 6, works exceptionally well. We mixed and matched HDV and DV footage on the Timeline and enjoyed instant playback between formats, even with transitions and the like applied. Express 4 also handled the differing aspect ratios of our footage without complaint, adding bars to the top and bottom of 16:9 HDV (where DV was the first format added to the Timeline) and bars right and left of the 4:3 DV when the situation was reversed. For users with footage spanning multiple formats, inter-cutting these formats is a thing of effortless beauty in Express 4.

The real damp squib of the highlighted new features in Express 4's arsenal is the iMovie '08 import feature. Our presumption is that since iMovie '08 has seen much of its former functionality removed, Apple is hoping users will pay to get their hands on the more sophisticated features of Final Cut Express.

A scenario it is attempting to make more attractive by facilitating the transfer of existing iMovie '08 projects into Express. However, the feature proves to be quite limited in practise. While the sequence and length of any clips arranged in an iMovie '08 project survive the import process, precious little else does.

Voiceovers and background music disappear, special effects and titles are gone, and any transitions that were applied in the iMovie '08 project are substituted with a very simple cross dissolve when the project is opened in Final Cut Express 4.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for existing Final Cut Express users will be the absence of Soundtrack from Express 4. If the application already resides on your system, the Express 4 upgrade will leave it unaffected. However, getting projects into Soundtrack is now a little tricky, as the Export To Soundtrack option has been removed in Express 4, along with Export To Compressor.

If that wasn't enough to instil trepidation into potential upgraders, perhaps the news that many LiveType styles are also absent compared to previous versions may. It is a baffling decision on Apple's part, one sure to generate a few disgruntled customers.

Conclusion

Given the predominantly negative slant of this review you'd be forgiven for thinking we believe Final Cut Express 4 to be an inferior product. This, however, is not the case. Final Cut Express 4 is a robust, feature-rich, powerful and intuitive non-linear editing platform. It's overwhelming similarity to the Pro version is also a major boon for aspirational editors hoping to cut higher-end formats in the future.

Master the elementary techniques of Express and you'll find Pro a small step up the ladder. Version 4 of Final Cut Express also sees a substantial price drop, compared to the previous versions, meaning newcomers are unlikely to find a more accomplished or accepted editing platform for their money.