Apple's iLife '04

At Macworld San Francisco 2004 last month, Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs introduced the company's latest suite of multimedia tools, dubbed iLife '04. Apple markets the $50 product as being "like Microsoft Office for the rest of your life," which is a cute way of saying that you'll need the lifestyle applications in this suite as much as you need products such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel at work. Although iLife '04 isn't perfect, it's a stunning value for the money and a must-have purchase for every Mac OS X user. And if you aren't running Mac OS X, fear not: I also explore some related offerings for PC users.

Apple iLife '04 includes five brilliantly integrated applications, and at least three of them are best of breed:

  • iTunes 4: digital music organization, sharing, and iPod integration
  • iPhoto 4: digital photo organization, sharing, and basic editing
  • iMovie 4: digital video editing and sharing for home movies
  • iDVD 4: DVD movie creation.
  • GarageBand: new to this version, a music-creation application with limited appeal

iTunes 4
Apple didn't update iTunes for iLife '04, but this version of the company's excellent media player, which debuted a few months back, is the best yet. Apple iTunes 4 features a simple UI, blazing search speeds, automatic album art (but only for albums you've downloaded from Apple's music store), normal and "smart" playlists, free Internet radio, iPod integration, and—of course—access to Apple's excellent iTunes Music Store, which the company recently updated with a host of useful and fun new features, including Billboard music charts and Audible audio books.

For my money, the best iTunes feature is its sharing capabilities. You can optionally set up your Macintosh- or PC-based iTunes music collection for sharing among any computers in your home, through wireless or wired networking. I use this feature frequently to play music from my home office-based iMac through a laptop while I'm upstairs, which is both handy and surprisingly fast. Also, you can share music you've purchased from the iTunes store with as many as two other computers (again, Mac or PC). You can share music you've ripped from a CD with as many computers as you own.

For Mac users, iTunes is just about perfect, and it's a great example of the fit and finish Apple fans expect from their favorite company. On the interoperability side, things are a little murkier: Although iTunes integrates easily with the award-winning iPod, it doesn't support any of the hundreds of other portable audio players on the market, nor does it support Microsoft's pervasive Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which most other music stores use. On the PC, you have several media players to choose from, but none are as simple and elegant as Apple's offering, which also ships in a free PC version. For the best music-store experience on the PC, look into either Napster 2.0 or RealNetworks' RealPlayer 10 (currently in beta), which is also a great media player. Windows users who need WMA compatibility will be best off with Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 Series.

iPhoto 4
Apple's previous iPhoto versions are simple and well designed but suffer from alarming performance problems, particularly for users with large photo collections. The application tries to hide these performance problems by first rendering low-resolution versions of each photo preview, but I think Apple engendered some good will by equipping iPhoto with some killer features—such as photo-book creation, red-eye removal, and a nice slide show--which make many users overlook the performance concerns.

In iPhoto 4, Apple has somewhat addressed the performance problems, although I still find the application hamstrung on my 1GHz 17" iMac. But this version adds a host of small changes that make the product a delight to use. For example, you can now directly assign a photo in iPhoto to the Mac desktop—a capability that's more convoluted in previous versions. And because iPhoto is now more closely integrated with iDVD and iMovie, your photos and photo albums (essentially playlists for pictures) come up directly in these other applications—a nice touch.

Despite these changes, the PC-based competition still handily beats iPhoto. You have two standouts on the PC side to consider: Adobe Systems' excellent PhotoShop Album 2.0 ($50) and Picasa ($29), an inexpensive newcomer that offers lightning-quick performance. Adobe's offering includes better editing tools and killer timeline and calendar views, but either of these applications could show iPhoto the door.

iMovie 4
When Apple shipped iMovie 3 last year, I was shocked by its bugginess, its horrible performance, and the poor execution of its otherwise cool Ken Burns Effect, which lets you create animated photo-slideshow movies. This year's iMovie 4 fixes most of those problems and introduces a bunch of new features that make this release a winner. First, and most important, when you trim clips in the time line, the trimmed pieces aren't confusingly relegated to the trash can. Instead, when you make an editing mistake or simply want to restore cut footage, you can go back to the edited clip in the time line and reexpand it.

Despite some overall performance improvements, iMovie still falls short in a few key areas. Most titles, video effects, and transitions still must be rendered, and that takes a lot of time on my suddenly lowly G4 system. During iMovie testing, I applied the Adjust Colors effect to 7 minutes of digital video (DV), and the application took 45 minutes to render it. Yikes.

In the PC world, we finally have decent and even superior alternatives to iMovie 4. The best is Microsoft's free Windows Movie Maker 2, which includes a remarkable set of titles, video effects, and transitions, and none of them require rendering. Windows Movie Maker 2 also works with a variety of video sources, and not just DV (like iMovie). For a much better take on the Ken Burns Effect, consider Plus! Digital Media Edition (Windows XP only), a $20 download that includes the impressive Plus! Photo Story 2 tool.

iDVD 4
When iDVD first shipped a few years back, it was a shot heard around the world for home-movie fans. Not only could you create home movies on your computer, you could then create your own DVD movies and share them with anyone who owned a standard DVD player. Apple's excellent iDVD has always featured a simple interface, professional themes, and decent integration with iMovie, but with this new edition, Apple has raised the bar. iDVD 4 is a fascinating and fun product, almost without parallel in the PC world.

In version 4, Apple has added the capability to create DVD movies that are as long as 2 hours. Previous versions, and all consumer-oriented PC-based solutions I'm aware of, are limited to just 1 hour of video. Apple achieves this new length by compressing the source video, and the company wisely varies the compression according to the amount of video you need. That is, the more video you have, the more the software will compress it. Also new to this version is support for DVD autoplay, which lets you specify a pre-menu event that occurs when you insert the DVD; a new DVD Map feature, which provides a graphical view of the DVD's layout; better iPhoto integration for in-application slide show creation; and several professional new slide show transitions and DVD themes.

What can I say? I love iDVD and wish something as nice was available on the PC side. However, the PC side does have slightly less elegant but somewhat more full-featured products. The best of the lot are Sonic Solutions' Sonic MyDVD Studio 5 ($100) and Ahead Software's Nero 6 Ultra Edition ($80), both of which feature a wide range of non-DVD movie functionality.

GarageBand
I'm not a musician, so I question the value of including an application such as GarageBand in iLife '04. GarageBand is essentially a low-end software-based recording studio, with dozens of software instruments that you can play together over a moving timeline. Of course, music is a different medium from movies, so the details differ somewhat. For example, you will often want to repeat, or "loop," musical selections (e.g., a drumbeat) over the course of a composition.

I've tooled around with GarageBand a little and don't feel qualified to give it a full review. Furthermore, because I'm not experienced in this area, I can't recommend any PC-based choices, though I'm listening if you have any suggestions. iLife '04 is a great value even without GarageBand, so this application is just icing on the cake.

iLife for Windows?
Apple's iLife '04 isn't perfect, but it's an amazing software value and a must-have application for all Mac users. Run, don't walk, to your nearest Apple Store, CompUSA, or Apple dealer, and pick up this package immediately (or grab a copy from Apple's online store)—assuming your system meets the modern Mac system requirements .

For PC users, the story is a bit murky. Although you can often surpass the features and performance of iLife through separate applications, trying to assemble a software package that rivals iLife '04 would cost many times the iLife price. I've often argued that the Mac is a somewhat expensive proposition, but here's one case in which the Mac has the PC world beat cold. Please add my voice to those clamoring for an iLife for Windows. I'd love to see it happen.

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