Online vs. desktop tools for subtitling

Athena Consultancy frequently handles User Acceptance Testing (UAT) projects for media localization clients, and a few months ago, a special request came in: I was asked to check how a cloud-based subtitling tool compared to one of the popular desktop solutions available in the market. 

Cloud-based tools have taken the subtitling market by storm since their appearance approximately a decade ago. As they exist entirely online, they can be accessed from anywhere, at any time. They typically offer handy workflow integration features and are great for teamwork, while they also ensure a much greater level of security given that source video assets do not need to be sent to or downloaded by the users, but can be streamed live while a user works on a file, as well as accessed locally if need be. As a result, they have been adopted by all major subtitling service providers, but also by freelancers who appreciate the flexible pay-as-you-go pricing options that they come with. But are they really just as good when it comes to the subtitling functionality they offer as compared to traditional, robust, desktop editors that experienced subtitlers have come to know and love? 

I’d always answered this question with a stern ‘no’ myself. A loyal fan in the noughties of the great Swift subtitle workstation, which I’d rolled out in the company I worked at and then spent years working with Softel’s developers on bugs and new user functionality, my heart broke when I heard the news that Swift was going out of commission a few years ago. And yet there are still subtitlers out there making daily use of their good old Swift dongles until such a point in the future when an obligatory Windows update will no longer allow them to do so.

Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to take on this project and see for myself whether online tools had finally caught up with desktop editors. I hired one of my favourite subtitlers for the UAT and we got down to work. We compared the tools from any aspect and function that would make a difference to the day-to-day work of a subtitler/translator working on subtitle files: user interface and intuitive layout, customization, configurable settings, file and video handling, frame accuracy and automatic shot change detection, import/export functionality, timing and editing functions via the keyboard and the mouse, quality checks and automated fixes for errors, integration of spellcheckers and language automation tools such as speech recognition and machine translation, ability to work with closed caption and teletext formats, help centre and video tutorials.

The result? 

Some things were as expected. Online tools tend to be more intuitive and user-friendly than complicated desktop editors, or at least this one was. Back in the day I had had to ask Softel to create a cut-down version of Swift for my translators, so as not to overwhelm them with features they would have never had to use. With this online tool, we didn’t even need to use the help files much to get to the core functionality users need – things were where you’d expect them to be. Having said this, the desktop tool we evaluated also offered a toolbar with an extremely easy way to find the hotkeys you needed for the task at hand.

Fine, I hear you say, but what about more sophisticated functionality, the kind that makes you feel you’re flying a plane instead of riding a bike? It was there. With a handful of exceptions that I flagged, so they could be added in a future release of the software (some of which already have), the bulk of which most subtitlers would not have even noticed. Waveform, shot change detection, audio scrubbing, settings, customizable hotkeys, edit and review modes, file and video handling, user defined checklist? Yes to all – and my favourite Swift keyboard layout was also available as a preset! How about automated error flagging and fixes for errors, spellcheckers, and integration of language technologies? Yep, all that too. The latter could be done better, I have to say, but let’s bear in mind that everyone is in the early stages of integration of such technologies, so I always have something to pick on in that regard in whichever editor I see. 

What about frame accuracy and speed of working? That’s where all desktop software excels over online tools. Timing a file was indeed slower when tested on a very poor internet connection (download speed of 4Mbps/sec, with constant interruptions) on an old laptop, but no significant difference was noted when the internet connection was stable (and download speed was higher) on the same laptop. Let’s face it – no matter how good the online tool, its speed will vary with your available bandwidth and the age of your machine. If subtitling is how you make your living, you may want to think about investing in better infrastructure for more reasons than just being able to time files faster. 

All in all, the online tool we tested had no discernible difference to a top-notch desktop editor for the average user. If anything, it would be easier to work with due to its intuitive nature and the simpler use of validation errors it offered. It also ‘looked’ better than the ‘heavier’ desktop editor, which is something many tool developers tend to underestimate. For experienced users who have much higher demands of their subtitling editors, there wouldn’t be much they would need to compromise on. If you are one of them and own a desktop editor already, keep using it for as long as you can – you’ve probably paid for a perpetual licence anyway. But if you are considering what to buy, I would explore the available online options before investing in a desktop one. 

What is your experience with online versus desktop tools for subtitling purposes? Clearly there are a lot of factors at play when choosing a tool aside from its functionality, such as full-time vs. part-time work, office environment, client base and types of projects, etc., though I would have expected functionality to be the key one. I wonder if force of habit also makes a difference in people’s preferences. An experienced subtitler I spoke to suggested that younger colleagues who are used to online tools in general tend to prefer them for subtitling also – it gives them more freedom in terms of the operating system to use as well, since most desktop tools are only built for Windows. Let’s do a poll to see what other subtitlers think!

Online vs. desktop subtitling tools

Online vs. desktop subtitling tools

Do you prefer working in online or desktop subtitle editors?
What is the main reason affecting your selection of tool?

8 Replies to “Online vs. desktop tools for subtitling”

  1. Hi Yota

    So lovely to read your experiments with online subtitling tools. I haven’t let go of Swift yet, for all the reasons you mentioned, but I might try an online tool after reading your article 🙂
    May I ask which ones you tried and which was your favourite (i.e. more similar to Swift)?
    Sending you love from Brazil

  2. As far as subtitling goes (including timings) definitely desktop for me, so many more functionalities and no Internet connection needed – ideal for digital nomads
    However, if we’re talking about just translation of already timed/positioned subtitles, online tools work absolutely fine – unless you have a spotty Internet connection.

  3. Hi, Yota. Thank you for the analysis. Having used the same desktop tools for 20+ years, they were comfortable. But they’re also slow and, like Swift, will eventually become useless. (I admit this, but still voted in favor of having them.)

    The online software gives you scalability, better media management, autoformatting and updates that save time – and that’s what I favor for the production team. But the tradeoff is that you lose the ability to exactly match the look your long-time customer requires for their archive. So maybe you have to keep the last working copy of the old software in a drawer somewhere, just in case.

    Ironically, no matter what software you use, streaming platforms can corrupt your perfect timing and placement, change your font – some even rebreak and rewrap text, and generally take all the art out of matching the subtitles to the video. If you haven’t already done so, perhaps you can do a blog post about subtitle readability on different platforms and devices.

    Thank you –

  4. Hi! I am a Mac user and I use an online software because I can’t find a desktop subtitling software for Mac that seems convincing (user interface, tools) and most of them don’t offer a trial version. I would probably switch to a desktop app if I found a convincing one because it would cost as much as my six months subscription to the current online software. If I think of the cost of my subscription, after 4 years it will have cost me as much as my computer…

  5. Here are the poll results collected over a two week period, from 25th May to 7th June 2022:

    • 121 unique responses logged, after removing duplicates
    • 66 votes in favour of online tools (54.5%) and 55 in favour of desktop ones (45.5%)
    • The primary reason affecting users’ choice of tool is tool functionality (43.8%)
    • The next three reasons affecting users’ choice of tool are internet connectivity (14%), types of clients/projects (13.2%) and choice of operating system (8.3%)

  6. Hi, Yota,
    Great survey. I work full-time as a freelance German into English subtitler. I use both an online subtitling tool and a desktop subtitling tool and, currently, I still prefer the desktop tool. The main disadvantage to the online tool is that it is laggy and I have invested in the highest-speed Internet available in the area I live in and also always save the video locally on my computer. I think this factor may well change over time, but currently, for those of us not in cities and living more rurally, Internet speed is a big factor. However, the laggy-ness may also be due to the fact that the videos I use with the online subtitling tool are videos I have captured myself; I am not sure if this might be an issue. In addition, I receive regular updates from my desktop subtitling tool, including new technologies, which they roll out to you if you pay an annual support fee on top of the one-off purchase fee. Plus their customer service is second to none. For now, I think the only advantage of online tools for freelance subtitlers is that you can access it anywhere you go. I think the advantages for agencies in using online tools are many and various and as a result online tools will win out in the end. And perhaps, once the laggy-ness issue is resolved, these tools will also prove more beneficial for subtitlers too.

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