iMovie for iPhone Review: One-of-a-Kind App Makes One Kind of Movie

By Jeremy Williams

Editing HD video on a phone is definitely groundbreaking and revolutionary, but iMovie isn't a panacea for video nerds.

Whenever I use new Apple software I hit the inevitable moment when I realize I'm not really in charge. This is not a good feeling for an adept computer user, whether you're a PC or Mac-o-phile. Yet, I love Apple products and the promise of their software so much, I return and find myself in this predicament again and again.

I hit the Apple knows best wall once again last week; Wednesday night, about 30 minutes after I'd thrown my hands up in celebration upon reading the news that iMovie for iPhone was released. Per the norm, my nerdgasm followed its usual path from ecstasy, to confusion, through disappointment, and finally surrender.


Filling An Empty Timeline

You can capture live video straight to the timeline, but your main source of assets is the camera roll. You can add video, photos, or a song from your library. That's one song, singular -- more on that later.

Wait, music? If you've tinkered with other video editors on the app store, you've noticed none of them allow access to your iTunes music. Curious. That's because app developers aren't allowed access to music. Apple isn't playing by its own rules here, and in fact hamstrings developers that they're directly competing with. Other developers are no doubt pissed, but on the other hand... music! Cool!

The video browser is well designed, displaying each file as a sequence of frames. It's easy enough to determine the content of the clips based on the thumbnails and the indicated length. Browsing in landscape makes sense here, because it shows more frames for each video. In fact, iMovie is entirely agnostic about portrait or landscape, and the UI will always adjust depending on your preference. That's a very nice touch too often overlooked by third parties. 

Speaking of location, iMovie even pulls the geolocation data from your video and displays the location on the title card of your theme. Don't fret, it doesn't list intimidating GPS coordinates, iMovie translates them into a city name. A couple of themes, Travel and News, even show your position pinpointed on a map, but you can change the location using a predictive search box if you want. It's a small touch, but as a feature, it "just works" beautifully.

Be warned, the only way to add text to your videos is using one of the lower thirds or title cards, and whatever you add is going to take on the personality of your selected theme. The themes are lovely and all, but iMovie could seriously benefit from some generic titles so that every video we make doesn't look like an antiseptic Apple advertisement. Even better would be the ability to assemble your own themes.

Importing pictures works much the same as video, you scroll through your camera roll, selecting the images you want to include. This can be frustrating if you have many photos in your camera roll--every time you add another, it starts with the oldest ones on the phone and you have to scroll to the one you want. I'd expect it to remember where you left off, like the Photos app.

All images dropped to the timeline have a Ken Burns "zoom" effect applied. You set the Start and End positions by pinching and dragging the photo and then preview them instantly. Unfortunately there's no way to remove the effect, aside from setting both positions to approximately the same spot.

Editing Clips

One of iMovie's big limitations is that there's no way to split clips. If you want to use two parts of a video that you've shot, it has to be imported, and trimmed, twice. Ouch. This safely qualifies as a major gap in the feature set, which is surprising since the desktop namesake, iMovie '09, implements splitting rather elegantly. Chalk it up to a future update.

By the way, titles can't be trimmed -- they last the entire length of the video clip. If you want to cut it early, you need to import your video twice and fake a split, and then apply a title to the first clip. Painful.

Another puzzling omission is titles for photos -- text can only appear over video. This is frustrating if you plan to close your movie with some hot Ken Burns action, only to discover you need another video clip to throw up some closing titles. I suppose you could render your photos out as a movie, and then re-import the clip, but that's grossly inefficient.

Transitions between clips are limited to hard cut, cross dissolve, and a transition tied to each theme. The latter two can last between 1/2 and 2 seconds, and while the theme transitions are sexy, they also quickly enter distracting and repetitive territory. I expect many people will want more generic transitions, but really cuts and dissolves are all you need for a quality video.


Even finding that one song is made difficult by the fact that there's no preview function inside the music browser. You need to know the name of the track you're searching for and import it to see how it sounds. DRM-protected tracks that you purchased from the iTunes Music Store are unavailable for use--they're grayed out and listed as Protected.

On a positive note, if your video clips have audio turned on, the music will automatically lower in volume (i.e. duck), and then ease back up when the clip finishes. This is a nice touch, but it's overshadowed by the glaring inability to place audio clips where you want, onto the timeline.


Through the Photos app, you can share the video with the usual suspects: YouTube, Email,  MobileMe, and MMS -- and here we experience my biggest gripe with iMovie for iPhone.

No Apple apps allow you to share HD video directly from the phone. Even over a Wi-Fi connection, Email, YouTube, and MobileMe options all convert your 720p masterpiece to blurry 360p VHS-era garbage. The only way Apple allows you to get your HD movie off the phone is by copying to a computer over USB.

Why, Apple? Is it the upload time? Give me a warning screen, do whatever you have to do, but please just give me the option to upload HD. I shouldn't have to port the file to my computer, only to submit to YouTube using the same Wi-Fi my phone was on. I should be able to share in HD anywhere there's Wi-Fi, period.

Two out of three ain't bad. 

So Should I Buy The App?

Are you joking? It's $4.99, and it let's you quickly and easily edit HD video -- ON YOUR PHONE. This is arguably the most groundbreaking aspect of the iPhone 4 launch, FaceTime not excluded. It should be mind blowing that we can even put two 720p clips together with a crossfade. Nonetheless, the limitations of the app are glaring and are at odds with the sleek and finished facade of the themes.
There is huge potential for a 2.0 version of this app. When Apple rebooted the desktop iMovie in 2007, everyone hated it. Pitchforks were raised, torches were burned. It lacked a laundry list of features, the UI was unconventional, and Apple was generally accused of oversimplifying the software. Steve Jobs claimed it was a v1.0 product, and asked people to wait. A year and a half later, iMovie '09 actually fixed just about everything, and the iLife counterpart now sits as a very capable, user-friendly movie editor.

If the same plays out with iMovie for iPhone, we'll have a pocket-sized mobile production studio that's as revolutionary for serious filmmakers as home movie geeks. Let's just hope it doesn't take a year and a half to get that update.