The magnetic timeline and reasonable defaults

Over the last few weeks, I’m sure I’ve seen the magnetic timeline called ‘non-professional’ in hundreds of blog posts, forum messages and tweets. The logic seems to be that it’s designed to make it easier to edit, but in the process it removes control from the editor. Well, I’ve already addressed how this is not really quite accurate with respect to its clip collision behavior. But what about other ‘magnetic’ behaviors?

I’ve been trying to think this through systematically, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the behavioral changes in the magnetic timeline are essentially all about one thing: more reasonable defaults.

Let’s say you’ve got clips A, B and C on a timeline (in that order, on one track), and you drag C so its head is lined up with B’s head. Do you really want to overwrite B with C? The vast majority of the time, you don’t. You want to swap their positions.

In Final Cut Pro 7, overwriting is the default action taken in response to this command. Rearranging requires you to use a modifier key. Worse, you have to start dragging and then hit the option key. If you hit option before you start dragging, you’ll just overwrite B with a duplicate of C. How often have you ever wanted to do that?

In FCP X, swapping is the default behavior. For that one time in a hundred that you really want to overwrite, move C using the Position tool.

Another example of the magnetic timeline’s more reasonable default behavior is how it handles audio. Sometimes, you entirely discard clip audio. Sometimes, you deliberately slide it out of sync. But in the most common case, you leave clip audio linked to the clip it came with, in its default sync.

In FCP 7, audio tracks are always displayed separately from video tracks. Worse, there’s no particular visual indication of a link. Worse still, linked selection is a global mode; once you toggle it off, nothing prevents you from breaking audio and video apart for any clip in the sequence, even for clips where you’d never want to do this.

In FCP X, audio and video are combined into a single clip on the timeline by default. You can perform J and L cuts without having to separate them at all. Audio is only broken away from video if you explicitly ask for it to be; it’s not something that can happen because you moved the wrong thing with a global mode activated. Moreover, links between audio and video clips are shown explicitly, even after they’ve been separated.

It is true, in general, that these new FCP X behaviors are probably much easier for new users to grasp. But that’s not because they’re less “professional” — because they remove the user’s control. OS X is easier for new users to users than MS-DOS. Does that mean it’s less powerful? Obviously not. FCP X’s enhanced usability comes not from removing control, but from simply having more obvious default behavior.

Performing more reasonable default actions in response to commands doesn’t just make software more accessible for new users — it also makes it more efficient for experienced users.

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One Response to The magnetic timeline and reasonable defaults

  1. Luke says:

    It’s been ages since this post, when can we expect some articles about the post-FCPX debacle. Also, I wouldn’t mind an in-depth summary of the first major update! If that’s not too much to ask… :P

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