If you are keen to get sucked into the world of film and video editing (and who wouldn't be?!), one of the biggest roadblocks stopping you could be the financial stakes involved. If you want to experiment with editing before making a pricey commitment, or maybe you just don't think you'll need all the bells and whistles that expensive NLEs offer, it can be painful paying out potentially hundreds of dollars without needing to. This is where free editing software programs come in.
While there are definitely some free NLEs out there that really aren't worth your time, the landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years in the "freemium NLE" market. Programs like DaVinci Resolve and HitFilm, amongst others, which are completely free to download right now, are able to offer industry-level features that rival (and even beat, in some cases) the big players like Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro X and Avid. In this article, we'll take a look at 2 of the best freemium NLE offerings (DaVinci Resolve and HitFilm Express) and discuss which one might be right for you, specifically.
Why we are comparing these 2 editors
So, first of all, why compare these 2 specific NLEs in the first place? It's certainly not to say there are no other respectable choices out there, there are, but these 2 make for an obvious comparison for several reasons.
First, both HitFilm and DaVinci Resolve have similarly sized and significant and loyal user bases (both boast over 2 million users). This alone affords them credibility, but it also means you can confidently take on either NLE knowing there is a wealth of fellow users who have stress tested the software, encountered and resolved issues, and who form a support community. Second, they both offer a competitive set of features against many of the pro/paid programs out there, but we'll be getting into those in much more detail shortly. Lastly, both have teams of developers constantly improving the service and responding to their respective community's feedback. Over the years, this has led to significant advancements in both NLEs, further narrowing the gap between them and their price-tagged competitors.
So, that's how these 2 NLEs are similar, but to make the right choice, you'll want to know how they differ. In particular, you'll want to know how these differences might impact you, personally, in your editing journey. To begin this comparison, let's introduce you to DaVinci Resolve and HitFilm Express.
But first, full disclosure: Back in July 2021, Artlist acquired FXhome, the HitFilm software developer. And although it makes us biased, we did everything we could to make this comparison as objectively as possible.
Brief introduction to DaVinci Resolve
Many of you will likely have heard the name DaVinci Resolve before, but perhaps in the context of color grading as opposed to non-linear editing. That's because its paid version (now named DaVinci Resolve Studio) has been the single most widely used color grading system in Hollywood for years and maintains this position today. Its original developers, da Vinci Systems, were bought over by Blackmagic Design in 2009. Since then, each update has brought it closer and closer to the 360 post-production solution it is today. Its editing functionality only began appearing from 2013 onwards, but today even its free version released in 2017 has been converting editors away from paid NLEs in droves.
For more, check out this post about DaVinci Resolve vs. Premiere Pro.
DaVinci Resolve Free vs. Studio
For more on this, check out this post about DaVinci Resolve Free vs. Studio. But here are the big takeaways.
- First, the free version struggles with playback of certain compressed formats ("AVCHD, AVC-Intra (all-I) and also 10-bit formats like the H.264 10-bit 422"). In contrast, the paid version utilizes GPU better to improve this.
- Another general downside of the free version is its lack of GPU acceleration. It will impact editing speeds altogether, especially render time.
- The GPU limitation also restricts the number of FX that can be used in the free version.
- Finally, unlike most NLEs (free or otherwise), DaVinci Resolve's features, though extensive, are still limited to the program itself, so plugins (3rd-party or otherwise) are not an option.
The DaVinci Resolve UI
Resolve utilizes multiple "Pages" that organize the stages of an edit into separate interacting sections. For example, if you trim a clip in the "Edit" page, the "Color" page will reflect that change. These pages allow you to deal with asset management, assembly, audio mixing, color grading, VFX and export independently. You can see the icons for these pages at the bottom, shown in the image above. While this makes sense to experienced editors, it can also be an intimidating workflow to follow for simple projects. It may not feel as intuitive to new editors.
Confession: The first time I edited a project in DaVinci Resolve, I had to Google "how to export" because I didn't realize you had to go to the "Deliver" page to do that.
Brief introduction to HitFilm
HitFilm is an original creation of UK-based FXhome, a software and visual effects developer whose goal has been to produce innovative technologies for modern content creators. Its initial emphasis was creating easy-to-use VFX.
Building a community
Between HitFilm and its paid version, HitFilm Pro, FXhome have cultivated a massive following of over 6 million users, many of whom contribute and collaborate in an active community. This community focus is reflected in the software itself, which populates its open page with various recent blogs, videos, tutorials and tips from HitFilm creators.
HitFilm vs. Pro
As for the differences in features between HitFilm and HitFilm Pro, the vast majority are VFX-related. However, many of these can be overcome through more affordable purchases from its extensive plugin library.
- "Out of the box," so to speak, HitFilm lacks a scopes panel that comes as standard with the Pro version.
- The resolution is maxed at 4K UHD/DCI and 8-bit pixel depth.
- Advanced exposure and color controls (e.g., color wheels) are also only available through plugin purchases for HitFilm.
If VFX is what primarily draws you to HitFilm, you will find their extensive list of Express vs. Pro features helpful in your decision-making.
The HitFilm UI
The user interface of HitFilm is more in line with the typical design found across most mainstream editors. Unlike DaVinci Resolve's various "Pages," HitFilm uses different workspaces that you can activate, which add, remove and reorganize different panels of your interface accordingly. Depending on the user, this may feel more intuitive as you are repurposing 1 page rather than effectively dealing with 7 different interfaces.
HitFilm or DaVinci Resolve, which is better?
While this article will continue to address the specific differences between these 2 NLEs, now that we have provided an overview of each, we'd like to offer our conclusion now and justify it below. This is because the right decision for you will probably depend less on specs but more on what you're looking for as an editor. Here's an example that illustrates my point. DaVinci Resolve is the industry leader in color grading, but unless you need industry-leading color grading tools, this might not factor heavily in your case. In other words, the specs matter, but only insofar as they respond to your specific needs.
So below, we have provided a comparison table between HitFilm and DaVinci Resolve, but each row is a trait of an editor rather than a comparable feature, and the program that is best suited to that trait is given a tick. Depending on what characteristics are important to you, the table should hopefully inform which option to choose. This will then be backed up in further detail as we break down the table's contents below.
You are new to video editing altogether
Upgrade cost is a big concern for you
You have old/basic hardware (computer/laptop)
Your hardware has good GPU performance
Speed and simplicity are important to you
Advanced color grading tools are crucial for you
To summarize our recommendation here, if you are a new editor with basic hardware, and your editing needs are for simpler projects or you need a fast turnaround, HitFilm is probably the best option for you.
However, if you are starting editing to become a pro colorist or have the hardware to fuel some intensive editing projects, DaVinci Resolve could be your best bet. Needless to say, below is a breakdown of the reasoning behind the table above.
If you are new to video editing - HitFilm
It's obviously a bold claim to make, and of course, HitFilm is not the clear-cut choice for all new editors. The rationale is mainly based on the relative user-friendliness of HitFilm and its similarity to other NLEs. It's also worth mentioning that your choice of NLE should depend on all the factors in the table and more, not 1 single criterion.
Claiming that HitFilm is more suitable for new editors does not necessarily imply something wrong with DaVinci Resolve. Because it all comes down to the main point of this article. DaVinci Resolve is more than capable of meeting the needs of a professional editor's workflow. But being a great pro editor's choice can come at the expense of being a beginner's choice. Its 7 separate workspaces, node-based color grading system and extensive fine-tuning options and capabilities make for a truly powerful NLE, but also make for a very steep learning curve.
By contrast, HitFilm has an intuitive experience that mirrors the layout and processes of most other NLEs. Of course, if you are completely new to editing, any NLE will take some time to grasp, but there would appear to be fewer surprises along the way with HitFilm. After a bit of use, as well, you can improve your own user experience even further with extremely versatile layout customization. You can add, remove and move panels using "floating panels," which create separate windows for particular functions and resize panels.
If upgrade cost is important - DaVinci Resolve
With free editors like these offering so much, you may not find yourself needing a paid NLE for some time, if ever. However, if you are exploring free options to make an informed decision and invest in a paid NLE down the line (e.g., HitFilm Pro or DaVinci Resolve Studio), budget could be a serious consideration. If that's the case, there are 2 reasons why DaVinci Resolve may be of more interest to you.
First, and most obviously, the upgrade cost to DaVinci Resolve Studio is cheaper than the upgrade cost to HitFilm Pro ($299 vs. $349, respectively). So if that's a dealbreaker for you, you might be better familiarizing yourself with the Resolve workspace to make that transition to Studio easier for you. Second, it's also worth mentioning that the full version of DaVinci Resolve Studio comes free with the purchase of almost any recent Blackmagic camera (like BMPCC 4K/6K/6K Pro, the Ursa Mini Pro lineup, etc.). So if you intend to purchase one of these cameras at some point in the future, it might make sense to get used to Resolve until then (especially since their cameras are designed to work seamlessly with Resolve/Resolve Studio).
If you have old/basic hardware - HitFilm
If you intend to edit off an old or basic PC or laptop, you should be aware that your own setup could hinder the efficiency of any NLE and some more than others. In the case of HitFilm and DaVinci Resolve, they both use CPU and GPU in different ways, with Resolve being more GPU dependent. Unfortunately, many basic desktops/laptops won't have dedicated GPU, or if they do, it may be limited. HitFilm, on the other hand, is more CPU reliant, which is less of an issue for lower spec computers. As such, for a smoother editing experience with better playback, rendering and export, HitFilm could be the choice for you.
If you have good GPU performance - DaVinci Resolve
The flip side to the point above is that if you do happen to have a high spec laptop/desktop with a good graphics card, DaVinci Resolve could work beautifully for you. For example, if you intend to work on larger projects, do more complex editing or just want a speedier editing experience. Having said this, the Studio version of Resolve does use GPU better than its free counterpart, but the difference should still be noticeable in either case.
If speed and simplicity are essential - HitFilm
As alluded to already, HitFilm does appear to offer a more intuitive and less overwhelming editing experience for those who want to cut together videos with a fast turnaround. This is especially the case if you need to incorporate any VFX elements into your videos. The drag and drop approach to adding impressive VFX elements is extremely simple to use, as are the adjustments you can make to these effects. This is, after all, what HitFilm was initially designed to achieve.
If advanced color correction tools are essential - DaVinci Resolve
Finally, if you are especially interested in color grading and maximizing the quality of your videos through advanced fine-tuning in this way, DaVinci Resolve stands out against nearly any other NLE, paid or otherwise, and does definitely overshadow the free capabilities found within HitFilm. While it takes quite some time to get used to if you are familiar with other NLEs or photo-editing programs, the node-based system is nonetheless very powerful. Plus, the free version contains basically all the same tools as the Studio version. This is quite amazing when you consider how widely used DaVinci Resolve Studio is across the entire film industry.
While there has been a lot to cover in this comparison, the best way to decide the right NLE for you will likely still come down to experiencing them both. Both DaVinci Resolve and HitFilm are punching well above their weight as free editors. And both will offer powerful tools to use in your journey as an editor. However, understanding the type of editor you are and the tools that are most important to you will be what eventually crowns one over the other as the freemium NLE champion.
Tim McGlinchey is a lecturer in Northern Ireland's leading film school, where he specializes in teaching cinematography, editing and scriptwriting. His professional background is in commercial videography and narrative filmmaking, which he still engages in heavily by writing and directing short films and contributing stock footage to Artgrid.io.