You have to hand it to Apple. It knows how to pile on the iCandy. This major upgrade of the iLife suite has in most of its components at least one "whoa, cool" moment when it does something deliciously neat. In iMovie it's the skimming previews where you drag a bar across a thumbnail strip of video scenes to speed-screen your footage. In the iWeb site builder, you drop in live interactive Google maps for any address or pull in media directly from your online Web Gallery or iPhoto and iMovie. And the new Magic GarageBand feature lets you play in a virtual jam session with nine musical genres to choose from. Who needs Guitar Hero?
To be sure, iLife is more about breadth and value than it is about depth. The $79 suite includes iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, and GarageBand, plus trial access to the online .Mac Web Gallery for media sharing. With the exception of the deeper GarageBand app, each one of these programs is fully serviceable and streamlined for everyday and casual users, but don't expect the richness of Photoshop here or even the detail of a dedicated DVD editor. What you get instead is a remarkable range of highly usable and well-integrated functions designed for quick and easy digital self-expression.
The new features are too vast to catalog here, but in each app something stands out. The iPhoto '08 image editor and library now organizes photos neatly by events, so a full day of images is in a stack that you can preview simply by mousing over the top thumbnail. In fact, the app is a great photo browser, because it lets you zoom in and out of full views of images with double clicks and lets you hide others without deleting. Most impressive is that iPhoto has a good memory. "Non-destructive editing" lets you alter to your heart's delight and still revert to the original image later.
Also organized by events is the iMovie video editor. Among the most intuitive drag-and-drop editors we've used, iMovie imports your camcorder footage into a filmstrip of thumbnails where you highlight stretches of video and drag them into the project window for inserting titles, rearranging, and basic effects processing. Almost everything here works by pointing to areas of video and pushing buttons to apply effects and functions. The iLife Media Browser pulls in clips from elsewhere in the system, and can even import your iPhotos. This level of integration and seamless access to all of your media at once makes iLife easier to use than any multimedia suite available on the PC, although it doesn't have the range of apps or the editing depth of Nero's or Roxio's suites. Laying down multiple audio tracks, for instance, is omitted here.
The iDVD DVD editor is a solid disc-building tool, with cool themes and menu selections. The standout feature for DVD novices is the Magic iDVD feature, which lets you drag movies and images into simple buckets called "drop wells," choose a theme, and let iDVD assemble a basic DVD project you can edit or just burn immediately. The editor has clear operations, such as simple buttons that add submenus and more clips. Alas, iDVD was one of the apps that proved buggy for us; it wouldn't start properly at first. We had to discover a fix online that made us manually delete a batch of temp files for iDVD to load properly.
We won't pretend to be musicians or Web site builders, but the revamped iWeb and GarageBand helped us think we were. These tools do an excellent job of exposing novices to more sophisticated media-making. We planted personal photos and a map on our iWeb page in two minutes, and the system published directly to our .Mac URL. Now you can also use iWeb to publish to a personal domain rather than the .Mac address.
In the music synthesizer/editor that is GarageBand, we were drawn to the easy podcast-creation tool. With drag-and-drop simplicity, it recorded our voice from the MacBook microphone, laid down an intro jingle that faded automatically as our voice came up, and then connected us directly to iTunes for distribution.
For media sharers, the key feature that ties iLife together is the .Mac Web Gallery, where you can publish your images, movies, and audio directly from each of these applications. The uploading worked relatively well, although we suffered repeated server failures and timeouts from .Mac when the MacBook used a Wi-Fi rather than Ethernet connection.
From the user side, you get a Web 2.0 experience: stacks of Events folders that run slideshows when you mouse over them, and embedded QuickTime versions of your videos. It even looked cool on our iPhone. According to preferences you set for each folder, other users can upload additional material to your gallery. The big downside is the price tag: a $99 annual fee for a .Mac Web Gallery subscription with 10GB of storage.
In all, iLife '08 is a nutritious confection, an exceptionally well-designed and well-integrated suite of media-making tools. For current Mac owners, the $79 price tag is a bargain, and for computer shoppers who will get iLife '08 bundled with all new Macs, it makes Vista's newer multimedia tools look stingy and unimaginative.
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