App Review: iMovie for iOS

Along with its iPad 2 launch, Apple also released a new version of iMovie for iOS. iMovie is $4.99 from the App Store, or a free update if you already own the iPhone version that debuted alongside iPhone 4 last summer.

As for iMovie, I think I’ve used just about every version of iMovie from iMovie 3 on a 2002 iMac to the latest iMovie ‘11 as well as the iPhone version, so I was eager to get my hands on the new iPad version. However, Apple states you must have an iPad 2 to run iMovie. iMovie for the iPad is not available for the original iPad, but I have read several reports of people successfully installing and using iMovie on an original iPad. Nonetheless, I have an iPad 2. If you’re thinking you’d like to use the iPad version of iMovie, but don’t want to shell out the dough for a new iPad, you can go here for instructions to install iMovie on your original iPad, but please note the cautions regarding the installation of additional apps. Also keep in mind, my experience with iMovie (as you’ll read below) says it is a very resource intensive app (obviously, right) and I wouldn’t make any guarantees. It started to get bogged down during heavy editing sessions with the iPad 2’s dual core A5, faster graphics chip and supposed 512 MB of RAM. So consider yourself warned.

Since the announcement of the first iPad — iPhone really — I have been waiting to see what touchscreen computing would do for the non-linear editor (NLE). The gestures of swiping and pinching with your fingers to manipulate footage seemed to me to be a perfect fit for an NLE. Final Cut Pro is Apple’s professional NLE, whereas iMovie is for the consumer. As if to put an exclamation point on this, Apple rebuilt iMovie from the ground up in 2008 taking what was a capable consumer level NLE and stripping it down into something much simpler. The past few releases and updates has seen iMovie get back much of it’s original functionality. The latest version is really quite good and can take on some fairly serious editing tasks, but make no mistake with iMovie, Apple’s goal is to make editing movies fun. Final Cut Pro is an incredible editor, but to use it for “fun” and to edit my home movies with it isn’t what I think of when I think “Final Cut”.

iMovie for the iPad is no different in this regard. iMovie for the iPad is a stripped down version of it’s older bother on the Mac although it’s far more capable than its iPhone counterpart.

iMovie's Project Timeline

As part of this review I created a short movie which you’ll find later in the review. I didn’t have any extra footage laying around to put together in iMovie, so for something quick, I decided to chase around our cat, Starlight, one afternoon with the iPad’s camera. (Note: No cats were harmed in the making of this review. -Mike)

This brings me to my next point. iMovie for the iPad is only able to edit video shot from one of the iPad’s cameras or from an iPhone. Clips from the Mac version of iMovie are not compatible. This is also true for video shot in most consumer camcorders. In order to get iMovie to work with video, you will first need to convert it into something compatible. It doesn’t appear that saving a video in the .mov extension is enough, I have read reports saying iMovie still won’t see and import that video. The basic rule of thumb appears to be that if the iPad can’t play it back (in its Camera Roll), then neither will iMovie.

Importing Video Into iMovie

Besides video you record with the iPad itself, you may also transfer video recorded from an iPhone through the optional camera connection kit. This works quite well. In addition to using the iPad, I also employed my daughter for the video shoot to test editing clips shot on different devices at different angles. My daughter used the iPhone 4, while I shot from the iPad 2. This was a chance to for me to try out the precision editor in iMovie. The rear facing camera on the iPad 2 has been much maligned, and for good reason. However, in good daylight, the iPad shoots good quality HD video. Before shooting, I thought of the “shooting video with a lunch tray” analogy. While true, I have to admit that there was something very enjoyable about using the iPad to frame and shoot. In addition to the new video, I also imported a few older clips shot on my iPhone. Again, anything shot on these two devices is a breeze to bring into iMovie.

Adding Clips & Pictures

As a user of iMovie for the iPhone, I was happy to see that the iPad version has the ability to scrub through clips. Like iMovie for the Mac, the iPad version allows you to preview and bring in only the footage you want into the timeline. Once in, iMovie marks the used footage with an orange line at the bottom of the clip. There is no tagging or way to mark the footage beforehand as there is with iMovie. A bigger omission is that you can’t play back the clip until you actually add it to the timeline. Previously, with the iPhone version, you didn’t really know what you had until you added it to the timeline. I would have to go into the camera, roll just the preview clips and trim down big clips to smaller, more manageable, ones. This brings up the little red vertical playhead. Being able to scrub, preview, and select just what you want before you bring it in to the timeline is a huge improvement. To scrub though a clip, just keep your finger on the clip and move though. To mark video to bring into the timeline, tap once on the clip and then grab at either end moving each inward until you’ve trimmed it down to what you want. At that point, iMovie presents you with a blue curved arrow pointing downward. Tap the arrow to add the clip to the timeline. It couldn’t be easier.

Clips In iMovie

The same is true for adding photos. To add a photo, tap the little camera icon. This takes you to the iPad’s Camera Roll. As with video, you can preview a photo by touching and holding the photo’s thumbnail. It will display a preview of the picture in the viewer. Again, this is a nice addition to the old iPhone-only way, where you didn’t know what you had until you added it to the project. Once you’ve selected your photo and added it to the timeline, iMovie presents you with Start and End boxes. Choose one or the other and pinch in or out to zoom in or out on the photo. Then tap the photo once in the timeline to bring up the yellow selection handles, and grab one end or the other to shorten or lengthen the clip of the photo. For example, you can click the Start box, pinch to zoom all the way in, then the End box, and pinch to zoom all the way out. Finally, adjust the yellow selection handles so the entire clip is four-seconds long. Once you’re done, you will have a clip that starts zoomed in and takes about four-seconds to zoom out before moving onto the next clip.

Adding Audio

Audio Track

If adding video is nonlinear, then adding audio is extremely linear. At least for the iPhone version and when it comes to adding theme music. Adding music and audio that is part of the theme pretty much adds it as one big, green, non-adjustable track. However, you can add other sound effects and audio from your iPod in the same fashion that you can on iMovie for the Mac. When it comes to adding that audio, you can overlap audio tracks, trim and expand audio tracks, as well as see the waveforms on all the audio tracks including the audio that is part of the base video track. The visual waveform was a welcome addition to iMovie ’11 and to this version of iMovie as well. No, I can’t tell exactly what’s being said for each peak and valley on the visual waveform, but I do use it as an indicator of where something might be occurring without having to always play back the clip. While you can adjust the audio of the entire track itself, you cannot adjust the volume within the track. In other words, you can’t fade out the end of one track while fading in the start of another. I wish that they would have at least given some simple ability to do this, like a predefined fifteen second fade-in/fade-out function, or simple ducking. However, again, due to the precision editing, visual waveforms, and being able to arrange tracks any way that you want them, you can create and get sound effects added with a good deal of accuracy. If you do need the ability to precisely adjust the volume at certain points, you could always do that in another app (like GarageBand) and then bring it into iMovie.


Editing, as on the iPhone and in the Mac, is straight forward. iMovie comes with some predefined themes, each including their own transition. In addition to the transition for the theme, your only other choices are Dissolve or None (same as on the iPhone). I could complain, but outside of fade to black and the occasional wipe, Dissolve is the only one I ever use. I always thought using more than two different transitions in a single movie was the equivalent of using too many fonts in the desktop publishing world.

Precision Editing Tool

To rearrange your clips, press down and hold on a clip until it changes size, then drag it to the part of the timeline you want. To remove a clip, double tap it and hit the red delete button or drag it off the timeline. To change the transition double tap on the transition icon box and choose the transition type and time. Tapping the transition box once will reveal the precision editor arrows. Tap those to bring up the precision editor. Editing with the precision editor tool made precise edits easy enough. The one thing I noticed in using the application, and nothing to do with the precision editor tool, but did affect its performance, was that after using the application for a while, loading a bunch of clips, and in a heavy editing session, things started to bog down and become sluggish. In other words, I would do an action with my fingers, or perform a gesture, and then have to wait for iMovie to actually carry out the operation. A few times I quit and killed the application as well as anything else I might have had running at the time (I mean applications iOS allows me to kill) and it did seem to make a difference. After a while though, I just kind of learned to live with it and work around the issue. That’s why I mentioned above that iMovie may work with the original iPad, but I don’t know that I’d want to actually use it. Keep in mind also, that my “heavy editing session” and “dealing with multiple clips”, resulted in a movie that is only 1 minute and 20 seconds long. We’re not talking about a major motion picture here, or even hours upon hours of high school football games or family events. So take this into consideration when choosing a project for iMovie on the iPad. Besides these performance issues, however, editing in iMovie is straightforward and generally works pretty well.

While I haven’t used the precision editor extensively on iMovie for the Mac, I find it a godsend for iMovie on the iPad. To better explain why, I think I need to talk about gestures in iMovie a little more. I mentioned above that I was looking forward to the day Apple (or someone else) released a nonlinear editor that I could control with my hands instead of with the mouse and keyboard. Dreams are one thing, reality is another. In my dreams, I imagined swiping and pinching and zooming and moving footage effortlessly around with my fingers. In reality…well, reality is always different isn’t it? Apple has done a great job with iMovie for iOS in its first attempt. I don’t think anyone thought it would be a replacement for iMovie on the Mac, or any desktop-based nonlinear editor for that matter. With gestures, you can pinch out to zoom in, pitch in to zoom out, move clips around with your fingers, touch once on a clip to select it and swipe down on the playhead to split a clip. This all works pretty well. However, there are a couple of issues. One, is the performance and responsiveness I mentioned mixed in with the biological fact that you can’t actually see through your finger! This means it’s impossible to see what you’re touching at times. On top of that, is the frustrating issue of things not exactly lining up where you want them to. This happens quite often while using the precision editor. I would line up and edit two clips where I wanted them in the precision editor only to leave the precision editor and see that the edit was off by half second or so. Whether iMovie was running sluggishly or not had no effect on the “impreciseness” of the precision editor. After a while, I simply had to take in account this half second (or second) discrepancy just to line up the clips the way I wanted them.

Star Chaser the Movie

Transition Picker

Like I said above, the following video is a mixture of old footage plus what my daughter and I were able to shoot over a few hours this past weekend of our cat, Starlight (usually called Star). She and my daughter were troopers about it.  Subject matter and creativity aside, the purpose of this video is an attempt to demonstrate all the capabilities of iMovie, and show how precisely you can edit. Keep in mind the music in the video isn’t the music I would have chosen, but it’s royalty-free and not protected. Also, keep in mind when watching this movie, if the audio looks like it’s synced up with the video (i.e. the music seems to match the video) it’s because it is. The mewing sounds over the photo at the end were added via the audio recording function in iMovie (and no, Star wasn’t tortured, just offered treats).


iMovie on the iPad is, in some ways, nothing short of incredible.  Not so very long ago, this sort of editing was limited to the job of a computer, and the idea of non-linear editing on a portable touchscreen device like the iPad 2 was unthinkable.  At least, not editing at this level. As a Final Cut Pro user, I can definitively say that iMovie for the iPad has a long way to go before it’ll take over duties of Final Cut. I’d even say it has a long way to go to replace its desktop sibling.

And when it comes to your hands and gestures vs. the mouse and keyboard, I would have to give the nod to the mouse and keyboard. I noticed this first using OmniGraffle for the iPad. And though a recent update has made things much better and faster for OmniGraffle users, there are still many operations that are easier and quicker to do with a keyboard and mouse on the Mac than with gestures only on the iPad. You could argue this is because I’m used to a keyboard and mouse.  That touch UI’s are still young and once they mature and the hardware becomes more powerful, doing things by touch will be far superior. That may be true, but I have to wonder (Lest I sound like an episode of “Kung Fu,”): will you catch more fish with a fishing pole, or with your hands, grasshopper?  Are the keyboard and mouse way of computing there because that’s all we had, or because they’re a powerful tool?  I believe that, like a bait caster fishing pole, the keyboard and mouse takes some skill, but in the end proves to be much more powerful.

Yes, there’s the argument that using your fingers and touch gestures is more intuitive than the mouse and keyboard. Certainly that’s true when it comes to swiping and turning pages in iBooks, but I didn’t know how to split a clip in iMovie until I looked it up first.

It’s difficult to know if iMovie is Apple’s glimpse into the future of non-linear editing or just one more thing you can do with your iPad. It’s still missing a ton of features and, inexplicably, some basic functionality too. It’s maddening on some levels, while simply amazing on others.

It may be a small step that will some day turn into a giant leap.

Review Summary

iMovie for iOS
Version: 1.2

Price: $4.99

Publisher: Apple, Inc.

App Store Link:

FMEO Rating:
Rated 4 Macs

System Requirements: iPad 2 or iPhone 4 (Unofficially it is possible to install and run on an original iPad).

Strengths: Easy to use, and even easier if you’ve used iMovie on the Mac since it incorporates a similar layout. Easily share videos to YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook.

Weaknesses: Limited transitions. Audio editing is limited.  Precision editor can be “imprecise”. Can become sluggish over time.