DaVinci Resolve Free vs Studio – Is it worth the upgrade?

Resolve is incredibly powerful, but what's the real differences between the Free and Studio versions?

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Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is a non-linear editor, similar in scope to Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut, but boasts one of the best methods of colour grading and a full-scale audio suite, as well as an in-depth graphics suite to boot.

Now on Version 17, Resolve is very quickly pulling the rug from under a lot of the staples and no longer just being used for colour grading and then importing back into Premiere Pro.

I use Resolve on nearly a daily basis. It’s a vast piece of software that’s great if you go free for dipping your toes into the mix of video editing with no risks but also scales all the way up for those who’re going to be editing full-on films or longer videos for the web.

It’s not perfect in any capacity, but I still highly recommend a look over it if you’re that way inclined.

Versions of Resolve Studio

DaVinci Resolve is split into two products, Studio and Free, with the Free version encompassing a lot of what the Studio version has to offer, but is ultimately hamstrung by deliberate hardware and software limits to convince you to shift over to Studio at some point.

Resolve is a one-time payment deal with a perpetual license. Once you pay, you get all future versions and it’s often included with cameras that Blackmagic produces, like the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, 6K, and Pro.

The issue is, is that Blackmagic do not provide a downloadable version outside of the Mac App Store and even then, the price is increased slightly to compensate for Apple’s mandatory tax on all apps sold.

So when you order, you’ll have to wait for it physically ship to you in one of two forms – that you choose – the dongle or card.

You can read more about the Dongle or Activation Card in our little guide.

Hardware Requirements for DaVinci Resolve Free?

Well, this is a difficult discussion. Because Resolve has a free version, it’s incredibly enticing to simply download and expect it to work, but DaVinci is a hungry piece of software that only hardware will satisfy.

Essentially, if you’re going to be editing on your 599 laptops from Amazon with 8GB of RAM and an integrated graphics card, you want to look elsewhere if I’m blunt. However, if you have a gaming PC with at least 16GB of RAM and a nifty graphics card, you’ll be able to hop into the Edit and Cut pages.

However, where things collapse in on themselves is when you need Fusion, which some effects rely on even in the Edit and Cut pages. These will slow down on 16GB of RAM, leading to stuttery messes. The recommended is 32GB of RAM, but even then, you’ll need to bundle it with a beefy GPU and CPU if you intend to be using heavy effects in your videos.

This doesn’t even get into the limits of the free version.

For more on System Requirements, you can see our roundup and hardware recommendations.

Resolve Studio vs Free - Video Formats

H.264/H.265, MP4 and Decoding

You’ll find that Free Resolve is not capable of decoding H.264 files easily. The codec that usually sits in MP4s and is used by consumer-grade gear regularly, is brilliant for watching back but not editing with. It’s a cumbersome, condensed set of data, which Resolve then needs to extrapolate that dataset out to allow you to work with it. It’s why when you create Proxy Media or Optimise Media in Resolve to make editing easier (these methods essentially allow you to convert your video from say, 4K to 720p, and then when you export, it’ll replace the files with the original 4K) they usually recommend file formats you’ve never really seen out in the open like DNxHD etc., which Resolve can play with fairly well.

On Studio, decoding H.264 and MP4s is helped along by the extra utilization of your hardware. More threads from the CPU, more GPU power, all the good stuff. While it’s still not a great format to edit in, if you’re editing videos that come out of streaming or NVIDIA ShadowPlay and phones, you’ll find it helps massively.

4K and Above Exports

Simply, anything in excess of 4K UHD (3840×2160) – this includes variations of 4K, like DCI – will not be allowed to export in the Free version of Resolve. However, this really isn’t a factor unless you’re working on a film, high-end web content, or something similar that requires anything more detailed than UHD. You do get 2K DCI, HD, and anything below.

10-bit H.264

Okay, on macOS, you’re good if you’re on the free version. However, on PC, 10-bit H.264 will not work out the gate. You’ll have to transcode the footage to something else and then edit it if you want to use the footage. Importing it into your project you’ll find your footage is returning a ‘Media Offline’ error. This issue is most commonly found with the Panasonic GH5 line of cameras, which use AVC file containers.

Linux Resolve Limits

So of course Linux has to be just that bit different than the rest. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be Linux. Outside of Blackmagic’s insistence on only really supporting CentOS 7.3/7.6 – this is just a legacy hold over – you’ll find that the Free version of Resolve on Linux is a lot less equipped than the Windows or Mac versions.

On Linux, you need the Studio version to access consumer-level codecs like H.264, H.265, and AAC audio – basically whatever a phone camera puts out. There are methods around it, like transcoding via FFMPEG, but the Linux version of DaVinci Resolve was never meant to really be used by anyone outside of massive production houses who were doing large renders, but also because Linux distributions don’t always have the license for the H.264/5 codec.

Resolve Studio vs Free - Visual Effects & Colour Grading

While DaVinci Resolve is fairly open and unlimited for users who only need to do basic video editing, it’s still got to make money in some capacity. This is where you’ll begin to see the limits of the free version.

Fusion, Resolve’s answer to After Effects and other visual effects software, is actually fairly limited in some ways, but they’re all major Neural Engine features that Blackmagic keep behind the paid door. A lot of the features that are locked in Fusion, are actually also on the Colour page, as Blackmagic only recently combined the Resolve and Fusion into a singular piece of software in the last couple of versions.

Fusion in Resolve is not 1:1 with Fusion 17, which is more focused on larger VFX projects.

See, in the past, Resolve has been designated a secondary piece of software, one that would take over Premiere Pro or Final Cut for colour grading. Blackmagic pride themselves on their colour science, so it was always the better choice over Apple’s or Adobe’s. The thing is, the Colour and Fusion pages in Resolve actually holds a lot of what Resolve has become known for outside of the generic colour grading, with its stabilisation, tracking and noise reduction features saving countless projects from being scrapped.

Anything around Face Detection, Object Removal and Super Scaling footage (blowing it up with the Neural Engine to meet new sizes) is not included in the Free Version. This also includes Speed Warp and various Stylising filters, like Analogue Damage which produces really cool emulated old TV effects.

Video frame taken from a video I did with the Analogue Damage Effects.

Resolve FX not available in DaVinci Resolve Free

Blackmagic haven’t updated the Feature Comparison since Version 15, which is a shame because there’s no way for me to list everything here that’s been changed in the last two versions.

Is DaVinci Resolve Studio worth it?

If you’re a budding videographer who is now exploring different means of content creation, you really should look into the full Studio version. You’ll find yourself not worrying about the restrictions, you can use your PC to its full potential and best of all, experiment without fear of hitting a wall.

DaVinci Resolve Studio can use your hardware to accelerate the rendering, decoding, and effects that you place onto the timeline. This is pretty much the major reason a lot of people upgrade is to brute force their way through a lot of projects that are beginning to lag behind, by circumventing the Free limitation by throwing cash at the software and utilizing the hardware acceleration that comes with it.

For example, I was editing a lengthy video about DOOM Eternal and had captured everything via NVIDIA ShadowPlay, but not enough time to facilitate the wait for transcoding (three days). An upgrade to Resolve Studio mostly fixed the issues I was having, just by the PC immediately using my PC’s hardware to its maximum.

If you’re someone who is just putting together holiday videos, let’s play videos, and the like, then no, you really don’t have to upgrade to Studio. It’d be easier, cheaper, and better if you stick to capturing in 1080p or convert your MP4s into a format that suits Resolve more than the underlying issue of H.264/265 not really being great to edit with.

For those that can afford to do so, Blackmagic are actually currently giving away free Speed Editor hardware with licenses from resellers. You’ll really find the leap in usage of the hardware you have to be worth every penny.