iLife 09 Review

Apple recently began shipping iLife ’09, the latest update to their multimedia funhouse suite of software. While it’s still too early to provide in-depth feedback, my initial observations and product-specific reviews are below.

iPhoto

iPhoto is by and far the most drool-worthy (and upgrade-worthy) product in the mix. While it’s been possible to send photos to Facebook and Flickr from within iPhoto for a while (with a free and paid plug-in, respectively), the new integration is much more seamless. The new slideshow themes are pretty nifty; they even included some music for them, which is a nice touch (even if one of the tracks is Randy Newman). What has everyone buzzing about this version, though, are Faces and Spaces. Faces can be used to auto-detect people within your pictures, so you can sort through and find pictures with certain people easily. It even gives you a handy corkboard view with Polaroid-style images for each of the people you have. Spaces uses metadata (or your own input) to divvy up your photos by where they were taken; you then have a map with pins to indicate each area, and can sort and view them that way. Images you take with this metadata (including any taken with an iPhone) will automatically be marked, but it’s easy to add your own info; simply press the Info icon on the bottom of an image and it flips over (just like dashboard widgets).

iMovie

iMovie really needed to be updated; the last version was such a disappointment that Apple even ensured that users who upgraded could still hold on to the previous version. But there’s always been that one big challenge for iMovie; how do you make it simple enough for users who just want to ‘set it and forget it’ without forcing those who want a little bit more to jump all the way up to Final Cut Express (which would be overkill for them)? This version is definitely a step in the right direction. The Themes are simply awesome; you set a theme and it automatically applies appropriate transitions to your movie (for example, the Comic Book theme automatically switches comic ‘pages’ to transition). There are several advanced options built-in now; picture-in-picture, reversing a clip, speed (slow-mo or speed up), and a green screen. You can add effects to your footage to give it that romantic glow or make a daytime scene look like night (admittedly, in the same fake-y way that TV does it by making everything blue and a little darker). And for a travel/holiday video, what could be more fun than the Indiana Jones-style map? But still, iMovie is simply not a tool for anyone who wants to really control how they edit video. Even with the precision editor, it’s still too clunky to really use to do anything more than chop off the beginning and end of a clip. And for a lot of people, that’s fine. Those people will probably also appreciate the video stabilization, which will reduce the shakes in their footage. I won’t be giving up any of my other editors any time soon, but I will definitely use this for some fun videos; and what’s wrong with that?

GarageBand

GarageBand seems to be getting a bit ambitious with its new ‘learn to play’ feature. There are probably a lot of guitars about to lose some dust with this. It has Basic Lessons (for keyboard or guitar) to teach you the principle concepts of playing, and then there are Artist Lessons, which cost $4.99 each and have an original recording artist teaching you a song. It’d actually be a fun social/family gathering activity – learn how to play a song and have people sing along (you can even play the song without certain portions, so you can mute the vocals or the band as needed). This would also be a great feature to see if little Eddie really will follow through with his commitment to learning music before forking over the money for a home studio. The new guitar amps and stompboxes are simply too much fun; it’d be easy to lose hours playing with the effects. One minor niggle is that the starting screen hides the Movie option by default, and it’s not readily apparent that you can scroll. I’m also not crazy about the starting options; they’re instrument-centric for the most part, although you can start with Loops for a blank slate. Also, I wish they’d added new styles to Magic GarageBand; it’s a great way to quickly make background tracks, but there are still only 9 genres to choose from.

iWeb

iWeb really is a cool app; unfortunately, it suffers from being smack dab in the middle of a rock and a hard place. Anyone who wants to make these kinds of media-rich Web sites will want more control to style it and add more customization, and anyone who would love its simplicity probably isn’t going to feel like they need to use it. While it’s nice that they’ve made it easier to host elsewhere, it still seems as though the market that would care about that probably uses WordPress, or at the very least wants their own design. The new widgets are kind of hit and miss. The Google maps and AdSense remain, but there are some nifty new additions such as a countdown timer and an RSS feed. The unfortunate miss is the iSight integration. While the still photo feature could be useful in certain situations, the iSight movie option is rather worthless; you can’t edit or make changes, and a 9-second recording was over 400MB. Needless to say, it’s a much better option to just record the video in iMovie (where you can still use your iSight), and then edit it and place it into your site. The YouTube widget would be useful to many, but I think it also needs Flickr integration (yes, yes, it has MobileMe integration for sharing photos. But even iPhoto admits people want Flickr integration). iWeb does remain the easiest and fastest way to get started with podcasting; maybe if Apple toots that horn a bit more loudly it’ll gain iWeb some love.

iDVD

iDVD feels like an afterthought compared to the rest of the applications. The starting screen isn’t consistent with the rest; instead of being greeted by the ‘getting started’ screen with the video, you go directly to the starting options with a link to tutorial videos at the bottom. I can’t really tell what’s been updated in this version; admittedly I don’t use it much, but they didn’t even bother to put it on the products listing on the back of the retail box. That being said, it remains a solid choice for creating very nice DVDs of your movies and photographs.

To upgrade or not? While iLife isn’t terribly expensive, it doesn’t make sense for everyone to upgrade. Upgrading makes the most sense if:
•    You have a ton of photos and need more methods to sort through them; especially if you’ve got a lot of people or locations to sort by
•    You haven’t already paid for the Flickr plug-in for iPhoto
•    You want to do more with video but don’t need to go all the way up to Final Cut Express
•    You want to learn how to play music or would have fun making your own music
•    You would use iWeb to integrate videos you put onto YouTube or share events, etc.
•    You never use a tripod and want to get rid of the Cloverfield effect in your videos

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