Content creation has exploded in recent years, and it’s become even easier to create videos that can be shared to TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and many more social channels.
There are many free video editors that come with straightforward features to create these videos, but it may be a challenge to sift through the ones that bring the best benefits.
There used to be a time where we could load up Windows Movie Maker or iMovie on our computers, and quickly create a video to share between friends on a chat app such as MSN Messenger.
Nowadays, there’s a whole breadth of social networking sites to share your videos on. The five we’ve curated will be able to edit the videos you’ve taken into a format that will be perfect for the service you’re planning on uploading it to.
With the new iMac, you may be looking for a new video editor to take advantage of the M1 chip if you’ve bought one. In this case, there’s plenty below to choose from to see which one fits your workflow.
- We've also featured the best video editing laptops.
Today's top 3 best video editors
These first three options aren't free, but they are the best video editing services you can get. Most people tend to go for Adobe Premiere Pro as it's the best overall video editor and is available for a modest subscription.
1. Adobe Premiere Pro is the very best video editor in 2021
Premiere Pro offers outstanding value for money. It's the industry-standard video editing program for pros, but really easy to use and get the hang of. So if you're serious about your videos, you should seriously consider going for Premiere Pro.
2. CyberLink PowerDirector - a great value, powerful editor
CyberLink is a terrific choice if you like the idea of premium video editors, but still want to keep costs low - less than $4/£5 a month! For that, you still get a feature-packed tool that caters to beginners, intermediates and pros alike. We particularly like its clever Magic Movie Wizard mode.
3. Apple Final Cut Pro X - top honors for Mac users
It may be aimed squarely at the professional end of the market, but Apple Final Cut Pro X is not needlessly complicated and its 'trackless' timeline is super intuitive. You pay for it upfront rather than monthly, so it's likely to work out very affordable in the long run if you're in video editing for keeps.
The best free video editing software 2021
Lightworks is the best free option for anyone who wants to create professional-quality movies and videos without paying a penny. While it still can't be considered a match for a program like Adobe Premiere Elements, it supports multitrack video and is a non-linear editor, so the quality of your footage won’t be reduced while being processed.
With Lightworks, you’ll find all sorts of high-end features that are normally only available with expensive packages such as Final Cut Pro. These include the ability to import and render footage in the background, and to preview video effects in real-time.
The one downside is that learning how to use Lightworks can take some time as the interface is fairly complex. You can drag various editing windows around to create an almost infinite number of layout variations and set custom keyboard shortcuts to speed up your editing jobs.
You can download and install Lightworks for free on Windows, Mac, and Linux devices. If at a later date, you decide you want to invest in an improved experience, you can upgrade to Lightworks Pro. With this upgraded version, you’ll be able to export your projects in different formats, create 3D masterpieces and upload straight to YouTube.
Read our full Lightworks review
Like Lightworks, Hitfilm Express is free-to-use video editing sofware that aims to make a professional editing experience available to everyone. With this software package, it’s easy to adjust color balance, trim clips, and export your projects in different video formats.
But the Hitfilm Express feature set goes way beyond that. You can also use this free video editor to set green screen chroma keys, create custom video masks, and take your footage to the next level with a range of 3D compositional tools. Although first-time users may find it a little confusing, the HitFilm Express user-interface will be familiar to anyone who’s worked with an advanced video editor before.
There are only two small downsides to this video editor. The first is that it’s technically demanding, so you’ll need a PC or Mac with a powerful processor to run it. And, secondly, the installation process is unnecessarily complex. To get access to the Hitfilm Express software, you’ll need to share a link to its developer, FXhome, on social media.
Read our full Hitfilm Express review
Shotcut started life as a free video editor on Linux and was ported over to Windows and Mac machines after it had already been around for a few years. This development journey has resulted in a slightly odd-looking user interface, but Shotcut is still one of the best free video editors you can download now.
Some aspects of the Shotcut system are easy and intuitive, such as the process of dragging media files to import them into your project. However, there’s no doubt that there’s a steeper learning curve with this video editor than most. For example, you’ll have to configure your display by adding the modules you need.
But once you get the hang of Shotcut, you’ll discover why this free video editor has amassed such a large following. The best Shotcut feature is a large selection of filters that can be applied to audio and video content. Once added, you can layer and customize filters to achieve the precise effect you’re looking for.
Read our full Shotcut review
Nostalgic in its name to some, Movie Maker Online is a video editor that runs in your browser. To edit a video, you simply need to upload it to an unusual vertical project timeline where you can crop clips and add filters or transition effects.
Other free video editors listed here are software packages that can be installed and run locally. However, these aren’t the only types of free video editor available. There are also many great browser-based tools too, and Movie Maker Online is one of these.
The big advantage of an online editor is that you can access it from any desktop device, and there’s no need to worry about content storage. Another big bonus is that your computer specs don’t matter as much, the age of your hardware doesn’t matter when using an online video editor as everything happens in the cloud.
If you want to enhance your video or movie with music or still images, Movie Maker Online gives you access to a large archive of royalty-free images that can be inserted into your project timeline with a single click.
Read our full Movie Maker Online review
VSDC Video Editor used to be known as one of the clunkier free video editing programs. Thankfully, the latest edition of the software has a dramatically improved interface with a fresh-looking dark theme and the ability to detach individual windows, ideal for editing with more than one monitor.
Like Lightworks, VSDC is a non-linear video editor that’s able to compete with more expensive video editing packages. It comes in both free and premium editions, and there are pleasingly few prompts for free users to subscribe. The only serious annoyance is that the free variant lacks multiple color chroma key tools and can’t be used for resolutions above 1080p.
VSDC supports plenty of useful video editing functions including animations, sprites, transitions, watermarking, blending, overlaying, and masking. Another awesome feature is a free video stabilization tool, which is excellent if you need to improve the quality of shaky clips captured on smartphones.
Read our full VSDC Video Editor review
Other free options to try:
If you need to trim a video and don't mind the watermark, Adobe Spark can get the job done quickly and easily online. The basic version is free to use, but you'll need a premium account to remove the watermark and perform more advanced editing tasks.
When you need to crop a video to a specific aspect ratio, this simple online tool could be just what you need. It's not suitable for very large files, but you can set the dimensions, select from a list of presets, and position the crop area yourself.
Video editors FAQ
Should I pay for a premium video editor?
To state the blindingly obvious, premium video editors tend to have advantages that free ones don’t. Those advantages tend to come in the form of resources: resources to develop apps that squeeze the most performance out of high-end hardware, resources to develop better effects, resources to fix show-stopping bugs, resources to make sure the app works on the latest hardware, resources to polish the interface and create help files and how-tos and all the other things you’d expect from professional software. But of course, that comes at a price – $300ish for Final Cut Pro X, for example.
If you’re a pro, time is money so you spend money to save time, whether that’s the time it takes to render your footage or the time you can’t afford to spend shouting "WHY GOD, WHY?" when the app doesn’t do exactly what you want or crashes mid-edit.
Free apps are aimed at a more forgiving and less demanding kind of user. That’s not to say they can’t do great things. They can. But they often take a hand-holding approach that focuses on the basics and doesn’t give you access to the fine detail. They might take a good-enough approach to performance rather than a “Steven Spielberg needs this NOW!” no-compromise approach, and their effects may be simpler than the pro ones.
Is free video editing software good enough?
It can be. Movies made in Apple’s iMovie have wowed crowds at film festivals over the years, and some people have made perfectly good movies using just it and an iPhone.
There are many decent free video apps out there, but there are a few things to consider. Performance, especially encoding and exporting, isn’t always up there with the big hitters, and you’ll often find that features are only available if you buy in-app purchases or just aren’t there at all. Some stick an enormous watermark over everything you output; few offer any kind of technical support. Pro-level features are rarely offered because these apps aren’t designed for video pros.
It’s worth being a bit pedantic here and differentiating between free commercial software and free open source software. The former is often a cut-down version of a full product offered for free in the hope you’ll buy its big brother. The latter is usually a full product made available by individuals or teams of volunteers with no expectation of any financial reward. While open source acts can sometimes lack the polish and/or user-friendliness of commercial software they may well deliver all the features you need without requiring you to spend any money.
Why should I care about free software?
Video is the new rock’n’roll: where children used to dream of being rock stars, now they dream of being YouTube vloggers. Meanwhile video has become the lingua franca of the internet, from viral clips and video responses to indie films and glossy corporate presentations.
The one thing they almost all have in common is editing. That could be simple trimming to cut a clip at the appropriate place, or it could involve mixing multiple clips together, changing the soundtrack and adding a whole bunch of special effects. To do these things you’ll need a video editing app.
How do I choose video editing software?
There are several key factors, and price isn’t necessarily the most important: if it were, every Hollywood movie would be made in Apple’s free iMovie!
Let’s start at the end. What kind of video do you intend to make, and where is it for? There’s a world of difference between quick editing of home videos you’ll watch on TV and editing something for Netflix or cinema distribution.
You’ll need to consider what formats the software needs to export in, what level of quality it needs to output (HD? 4K? 8K?) and whether it can deliver the kind of visual effects you want to use. If you’ll be collaborating, your app will need to be compatible with the other people’s apps too.
There’s also you to consider. Are you experienced, or would a simpler app that takes you step by step through the whole process be more helpful? Do you want to have complete control over every pixel, or would you rather let the computer do most of the work? How future-proof do you need your app to be?
And then there’s price. Most but not all cheap or free apps are very limited; most but not all high-end editors are frighteningly expensive. It’s possible to pay too much and end up with an app that’s overkill, or to pay too little and end up inventing new and colourful swears when the app refuses to do what you need it to do.
Remember too that the more you can do, the more you’ll want it to do. Can your chosen app grow with your imagination?
What video editing software features should I look out for?
That depends on the kind of editing you’d like to do. For example, you might not need much in the way of visual effects if you’re just splicing together clips from Uncle George’s 90th birthday party. But there are some key things to consider.
First up, what formats and resolutions does the app support? Can it use the footage from your camera without converting? Can it export to the places you want to share your finished footage?
Do you need features such as green screen or picture in picture (if you’re a YouTuber, the answers to those to are probably yes)? Can you share directly with social media, if that’s your thing?
How many tracks can you use? Can you pull in footage and audio from multiple files, swapping between them as needed, or will you need to do some pre-production first because the app can only handle a couple of tracks at once?
Does the app have any smart features to make everyday editing easier, such as smart trimming of clips or simple editing modes? Is it easy to add titles, transitions between scenes or to adjust the colours?
If it’s a mobile app, can you transfer your project to continue editing in a desktop equivalent of the app?
Which programs do professionals use?
That depends on your definition of 'professionals' and the industry or sector you’re thinking of. Go to Hollywood or a major TV studio and the editing’s almost certainly being done in Avid Media Composer Ultimate.
In ad agencies, indie film studios and businesses making YouTube films you’re more likely to see Adobe Premiere Pro CC or Apple Final Cut Pro X and associated apps such as Adobe’s After Effects, a motion graphics and visual effects app - see above for how well we rate those. These are very, very good tools designed to run on very, very good computers.
Which programs do most YouTubers use?
Generally speaking YouTubers tend to go for simple, effective and affordable apps. One of the best free apps is Lightworks, which you can get for Windows, Mac and Linux devices. It has integrated YouTube exporting and a bunch of really impressive real-time effects. It looks absolutely terrifying compared to something like Microsoft Photos but it doesn’t take long to learn and it’s a really good editing app.
There are lots of other good options too. HitFilm Pro has a free version but also offers a powerful professional version. The free app DaVinci Resolve is very good, especially on colour correction, and while the VSDC Free Video Editor lacks the hardware acceleration of paid-for editing apps that’s not really an issue if you’re not in a busy working environment.
- Check out our guide to the best free YouTube downloaders