The iLife suite is one of the best reasons to buy a Mac, since every new machine comes with full versions of all the applications. With the release of Apple iLife '09, the Cupertino-based company is hoping that Mac users will be tempted to upgrade. Apple's team has given a lot of thought to how people use their digital media and what Apple can add to the experience. Ease of use is key throughout, and new features deliver real value, usually without adding complexity. Considering that the improvements to these five apps are numerous, the experience of using them is completely enjoyable, and the price is a modest $79, iLife '09 easily earns LAPTOP's Editors' Choice Award.
iPhoto seems to be getting the most attention with this release, mostly due to two novel organization features: Faces and Places. With both Faces and Places, Apple recognized that digital photo libraries are growing and that keywords don't work for organization because users don't input them. Both systems offer a new perspective on photo collections and a new way to view them.
Both Faces and Places are in the top left corner, under the existing Events and Photos categories. With Faces, we were able to train iPhoto to recognize the people who populate our photos so that it tagged photos automatically with later imports. It doesn't quite work like magic, though. Photo detection isn't that advanced, apparently, because even after we'd trained iPhoto with several hundred photos, it was still averaging below 50 percent: if a face was sideways or tilted, the program could not recognize it. Still, Apple has made tagging fun, and the process of putting names to faces became almost a game.
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Apple has also taken a cue from Google Picasa; Places reads the place information on geotagged photos (you can manually input location information on regular photos as well), then creates a map of where your pictures were taken. We were also able to add or modify place information, either for individual pictures or for entire events, by clicking a small "i" that appears in the lower right corner of photos when we hovered our mouse over them.
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We were impressed with the improvements to the photo-editing tools, as well. The saturation tool now keeps skin tones accurate while saturating other colors in a photo. Red-eye reduction now works with face detection to automatically remove red eye from problem pictures. It worked perfectly about half the time; after that, we needed to remove the color by hand.
Other iPhoto improvements include automatic Flickr and Facebook uploading and professional-looking slideshow effects that had our jaws on the floor. One effect called Sliding Panels moves photos on and off the screen, with two or three showing at any time; it reminded us of Hollywood-quality opening movie credits--it's that slick. Another effect called Shatter has transitions that break the photos up into different-colored layers, revolves them, then compresses the layers to form a new picture. It looks almost too advanced for a home computer, but there it is.
iMovie '09 and iDVD '09
iMovie made a huge change with iMovie '08, and we were among the many mourning the loss of such a powerful and simple video editor. (In fact, we refused to give up our copy of iMovie HD.) Still, we had to admit that movie editing was simply too complex for most people, and that Apple's clip-based approach was more useful to the YouTube generation.
With iMovie '09, Apple is starting to beef up the editing features, and here especially we see the developers struggling to simplify the complex. The program still offers a drag-and-drop interface, but now when you drag one clip on top of another, a pop-up window appears asking how you want to add the new material. Selecting the Audio Only option, for example, let us create easy narration.
Advanced Tools also shows iMovie's increasing level of sophistication. This menu offered new options, such as the ability to add picture-in-picture or green-screen effects. Both options were easy to apply, but we missed the surety of timeline editing and the fine control of audio that iMovie HD allowed. For that, we recommend Final Cut Express ($199).
The biggest addition is video stabilization, and the hype is true: we were amazed by how well iMovie now steadies a wobbly shot. Select Analyze for Stabilization from the File menu and be prepared to wait, because it's a slow process (four to six times the video's running length) even on a fast Mac.
Other impressive additions include new easy-to-apply color effects, the ability to speed up or slow down playback speed, and a tool for timing your edits to the beat of your soundtrack.
When GarageBand first launched five years ago, Apple had made song creation amazingly simple and fun; it did everything but teach you to play an instrument. Well, now it does.
GarageBand now comes with one guitar and one piano lesson installed, and owners can download eight more of each for free. A small collection of Artist Lessons (which, featuring original artists, Apple says will grow) are also available for $4.99 each. Overall, the lessons emphasize end results, not theory, and provide easy tools for learning, such as the ability to isolate a section, slow it down, and repeat it until we got it right.
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We played along on a few piano lessons, one led by Ben Folds, using an M-Audio keyboard. Compared with the many hours of instructor-based piano lessons we've taken, this was more fun. The GarageBand lessons got us playing along and brought us into how songwriters think. It was fun to hear Ben Folds talk about the chords that the song "Brick" was built on and hear how he writes. With the artist lessons, there's also a section where they sit back and talk about the making of the song, which while not contributing to our training, was a cool extra.
iWeb is perhaps the least-used part of iLife, but it makes site creation easy and HTML-free. The program is full of drag-and-drop ease, and we like the new widgets added to this version, including a countdown widget and one that let us add YouTube videos.
Site publishing was difficult with previous versions, so we're glad to see that iWeb now contains an integrated FTP publisher and that we're able to manage many sites from the Site Organizer pane. We'd like to see page-creation tools greatly increased, though, such as a way to group and save repeated elements and an easy way to customize the appearance and placement of site menus.
Apple iLife '09 Verdict
Creative apps have always been central to the Mac experience, and iLife '09 delivers more than its share of worthwhile improvements. For $79, you get a comprehensive suite of multimedia creation tools whose features more than account for its premium over free-editing programs. Better yet, the new wrinkles to iLife's offerings--such as video stabilization and music lessons from professional artists--doesn't make it more difficult to use. Mac users both new and old should be more than satisfied with this suite's update.