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Hands on with Apple iLife

At last month's MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iLife suite, which includes updated versions of iMovie, iPhoto, and iDVD, as well as the iMovie 3 release that debuted last summer. Let's dive right in.

iMovie 3

Compared to previous iMovie versions, iMovie 3 uses a standard, resizable brushed metal window instead of a non-sizable, non-standard window. This means that iMovie now interacts better with the system, though you'll need copious amounts of screen real estate to take advantage of its new sizing options. But the basic layout of iMovie is identical to previous versions, a complicated mismash of controls, wells, and sub-windows that offers little in the way of obvious starting points. So those familiar with iMovie 2 will feel right at home in the new version, but it's still the most complicated and most unintuitive iApp that Apple offers.

Workflow in iMovie 3 is unchanged from the previous version, and as confusing as before. Rather than support the standard "Open" and "Save" terminology used in other applications, iMovie "imports" and "exports." You can acquire video from a digital source, such as a DV camera, or import one or more media files, assuming you have compatible file types; iMovie 3 is compatible with AIFF and MP3 audio, JPEG and GIF still images, and QuickTime, MPEG-4 and DV video formats. When you're done editing a movie, you don't "save" it to the hard drive, but rather "export" it in a variety of ways. iMovie 3 supports exporting to DV camera, to iDVD (quite convenient), and to QuickTime or DV format. But iMovie 3 adds a new MPEG-4 export option as well, assuming you have QuickTime Player installed, that is hard to find and, sadly, limited only to 320 x 240 resolution. This means that MPEG-4 remains, at least for iMovie users, no real competition to the powerful Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 format offered by Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 2 on Windows XP. So if you want full-screen, full-quality video, you're still forced to use the disk-hungry DV formats. And any Mac video user will tell you that means you'll be doing a lot of writing back to tape for archival purposes, which is a bummer.

iMovie does offer new integration features with iPhoto and iTunes, and can create chapter markers that are compatible with iDVD, and all of these features make the product much easier to use. If you'd like to add photos to your movie for example, you simply select the new Photos buttons, which displays the contents of your iPhoto photo library right in the iMovie interface, which is definitely a time saver. Likewise, if you want to add background music, you select the new Audio button, which displays the contents of your iTunes music library. Sadly, the iTunes integration doesn't extend to fine-grained control over the songs in the library: You can play or pause tracks, but not skip through them in any way until you actually import them into a project.

The new iMovie also suffers from performance issues, especially on the G3-based iBook with 384 MB of RAM that I normally use. The slowdowns are both miserable and plentiful: Every photo you import is modified with the so-called "Ken Burns Effect," which creates a zooming, panning animation out of a still image whether you want it or not. Each image will therefore need to be rendered--in agonizing slowness--to create an effect Microsoft's Plus! Photo Story does instantaneously, albeit at a cost of $20 for the full Plus! Digital Media Edition package. (If you don't want the Ken Burns effect, you must import photos the old way, using the Import function, which negates the benefits of iPhoto integration, since importing uses a standard dialog box.) But panning photos aren't the only thing that needs to be slowly rendered in iMovie--transitions, titles, and video effects are all slowly rendered as you add them to your movie, adding to the time it takes before you can start viewing your partially edited film. It's frustrating and unfortunate, and one of the issues I had hoped Apple would resolve. In Windows Movie Maker 2 (WMM 2), all of these tasks occur immediately, with no rendering wait.

Apple iPhoto 2

Like most of Apple's applications, the original iPhoto release was hailed for its simplicity, and it represented a huge improvement over Apple's previous Mac OS X-based image acquisition software, the reviled Image Capture. But iPhoto 1.x was almost too simpleminded, and it was the embodiment of an old adage about the Mac OS: "If it can be done, Apple will do it in the most elegant possible way. Otherwise, it will be impossible." Here's what I mean: iPhoto 1.x was nice in that you could plug in a digital camera and simply download all of the images into the application. Where iPhoto fell short in this task was customizability: There was no way to specify which photos you wanted to download, and if you wanted to download just a few of them, you were out of luck. This is a feature I take for granted in Windows XP.

The photo downloading problem hit home during a recent trip to Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. Over the course of the trip, I took hundreds of pictures, downloading them each day from the 5 mega-pixel camera (which included a 1 GB IBM Compact Flash hard drive) I was using into iPhoto 1.1. However, I didn't delete the pictures from the camera each day because the camera capacity to spare and I planned to download them into Windows XP after the trip as well. So each day, the process of downloading the photos took longer and longer, because iPhoto would mindlessly re-download all of the images on the camera every time. On the last day of the trip, I started the download to my iBook in the rental car in the Hoover Dam parking lot, drove the one hour back to Vegas, and had to sit for ten minutes in the rental car parking lot, waiting for the photos to finish transferring over the pokey USB interface. That's ridiculous.

I was hoping that the recently released iPhoto 2 would fix this problem, but it doesn't. Instead, iPhoto 2 is another evolutionary release, with a few small but important improvements. First, it's now possible to archive your photos to recordable CD or DVD, directly from within the application. This is a wonderful convenience of course, but it's even more important when you consider how Apple downplays the location of photos in the file system. Once you've archived your photos to disc, you can re-insert the disc into any Macintosh and view them within iPhoto 2.

Another nice new feature is Enhance, which provides much of the automatic photo enhancing functionality from PhotoShop Elements in a simpler (and free) format. When you click the Enhance button in iPhoto 2, the application scans the currently selected image and changes its color and contrast. Apple iPhoto 2 also includes a handy red eye corrector and, as with previous versions, can convert images to black and white.

One thing I've always like about iPhoto is its photo management features. The application treats photos like iTunes or Microsoft's Windows Media Player treat music files: They are collected into a library and then sub-divided into playlists, which iPhoto calls photo albums. IPhoto's photo albums don't duplicate the actual photos, but rather collect your photos into different views. So you could include the same pictures in two or more albums if you wanted to. It's an excellent organizational paradigm.

This version of iPhoto also includes some interesting integration features that make it work better with other iApps. When you display a slideshow, for example, you can choose music from your iTunes music library from directly within the iPhoto application, which is handy. And your iPhoto library is available directly in other iLife applications where appropriate, including iMovie and iDVD.

Overall, iPhoto 2 is a decent upgrade, and one that all OS X users should immediately download. I just wish it offered a way to selected input photos from a camera or other photo source.

Apple iTunes 3

Apple iTunes 3 was actually released late last summer, but the recent introduction of other updated iApps exposes the new integration features in iTunes that I mention above. Overall, iTunes 3 is an excellent, ease-to-use application, and my favorite "pure" media player. By that, I mean that iTunes isn't an all-in-one media player like Windows Media Player 9 Series (WMP 9 Series) or RealNetworks' RealONE Player. Instead, iTunes just focuses on music, letting your "rip" (copy) audio CD music to the hard drive, "burn" (create) custom mix audio CDs, and organize your digital music in a simple, logical manner. It also offers nice Internet radio functionality that is, in typical Apple style, simple and elegant. And of course, iTunes integrates with Apple's excellent iPod, which is the nicest portable MP3 you can buy.

An excellent new feature in iTunes 3 is Smart Playlists, which tracks the audio you've listened to and rated to supply you with automatically generated lists of music such as "Top 25 Most Played" and "My Top Rated." Naturally, you can also make your own playlists as well, and copy either type of playlist to an iPod.

iTunes 3 also includes a nice cross-fader (which unfortunately doesn't work on the iPod or CDs you create with iTunes), volume leveling so that all songs appear to play at consistent volume levels, and the expected visualizations and mini-player mode. One limitation to iTunes 3 is that it lets you rip audio only in MP3 format, despite the availability of newer and more capable formats such as Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 and the MPEG-4-based AAC (Advanced Audio Coding); I hope to see support for at least the latter format added in a future update. The application also supports Audible format so you can download and listen to eBooks.

Like iPhoto, however, iTunes' biggest strength is its media management. There is just something inherently logical about the way Apple graphically presents your music collection in the iTunes UI, and this simplicity eludes the competition. iTunes 3 is highly recommended.

Both iPhoto 2 and iTunes 3 are available as free downloads. Both products require Mac OS X 10.1.4 or higher.

iDVD 3

Apple iDVD 3 is the final piece of the iLife puzzle, and a competitor to the current Windows-based DVD making champion, MyDVD 4. Note that both of these applications are consumer-level, not professional-level, DVD movie making applications. That means they are both easy to use and offer accessible, basic functionality. If your needs are more complicated, however, both the Mac and Windows platforms offer higher-end tools aimed at the video professional.

When I looked at iDVD 2 last year, I was blown away. Apple's consumer-grade DVD making application was without peer, with an elegant, simple user interface and stunning design templates, some of which were nicely animated. With iDVD 3, released in January, Apple has improved the product dramatically, and the new version offers a number of features, some obvious, others subtle, that once again elevates iDVD above the competition.

First, iDVD 3 is quicker than previous versions. One of the biggest problems with digital video in general, and with DVD movie making specifically, is the amount of time it takes to render video to DVD-compatible MPEG-2 format so it can be encoded on disc. To offset this issue somewhat, iDVD renders videos in the background as soon as they are imported into the application. That way, as you go about designing menus and performing other tasks, the application is silently getting some of the more time consuming tasks out of the way in the background. And you can switch to the new Status page on the side-mounted shelf to see how the rendering process for each imported video is going. In tests comparing iDVD 3 with MyDVD 4, I found rendering speeds, overall, to be faster on the PC. But that probably has more to do with the underlying superiority of PC hardware than anything else. And it doesn't matter which platform you're using, really: In either case, video rendering takes a long, long time.

Back in iDVD 2, Apple added motion menus, which made finished DVD movies look more professional. It was hard for me to imagine how the company could improve on this feature per se, though I at least expected to see more motion menu designs. However, in iDVD 3, Apple has instead raised the bar yet again. Now, you can add your own video clips into special motion areas of certain menus, and the effect is simply stunning: Imagine a DVD menu, with various links to movies and photo slideshows that includes one of your own home movies animating in the background. This feature is amazing, and there is nothing like it in the PC world.

Speaking of themes, iDVD 3 does ship with a large collection of professionally designed themes, most of which are quite beautiful. This is one area where Apple really excels. Say what you will about the company, but Apple knows quality and makes no bones about distributing only the highest quality themes with iDVD. The same can't be said for MyDVD 4, which includes a few nice themes but also a bunch that look like they were designed by children.

Another advantage of iDVD 3 is that it is now thoroughly integrated with the other iLife applications. If you want to make a photo slideshow, for example, you can access your iPhoto photo library directly from the Photos page of the iDVD shelf, a nice shortcut that doesn't require you to move between two applications. Likewise, thanks to its integration with iMovie 3, iDVD 3 recognizes the chapter markers created in iMovie and adds them to your finished DVDs. Here, Apple's integration strategy pays off because one company makes each of the applications and its easier for the company to create cross-application functionality. By contrast, in MyDVD 4, you can create chapter points only when you record video directly from within MyDVD 4. Since I prefer to record (and edit) video in Windows Movie Maker 2 (WMM 2), and MyDVD 4 doesn't allow you to add chapter points to video recorded in another application, this feature is useless to me, as it would be to anyone using any third party application to record video.

With iDVD 3, it's clear that Apple still owns the consumer-oriented DVD movie making market. That's not to say that MyDVD 4 is horrible. Actually, it's the nicest Windows-based consumer-oriented DVD movie making application there is, and it features a simple, attractive, XP-like user interface and, more importantly, compatibility with the Windows Media Video (WMV) 9-formatted movies created by WMM 2. A few months ago, I declared that Windows video editing had pulled ahead of the Mac because of WMM 2, and I still believe this is true, as iMovie 3 still lags behind the Microsoft product. But when it comes to DVD making, the Mac has little viable competition.

That said, the obvious question is, which platform makes more sense for the typical home user trying to record their home video and photo memories on DVD? If you'll excuse the cop-out, both platforms are equally viable. The Mac has a better DVD making application in iDVD, and Apple's other iLife applications are all excellent. Windows has the superior movie editing software in WMM 2, but no integrated DVD movie making functionality, leading users to the third party market, where Sonic MyDVD 4 is king. Thanks to their single source, however, Apple's products are now highly integrated, which makes working with them somewhat simpler than their Windows equivalents. Whether that's enough to cause consumers to switch platforms is debatable.

Personally, I've chosen to use both Windows and the Mac, because each offers various competitive advantages over the other. However, this isn't a choice most people can afford to make, and for all the familiar reasons--inertia, a preexisting library of software, and data compatibility issues (whether real or perceived), among others--Windows will likely continue to dominate, even in digital media. But don't let this scare you away from the Mac. Apple has many plans in the making, including those for a digital music subscription service, new iPods, and more, than may further cement this company's stake in the digital media market. The debate, such as it is, only gets more interesting over time.

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