In the last issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, I looked at Apple Computer's most recent consumer-oriented movie-editing application, iMovie 3, which I believe has some ease-of-use problems but excellent audio-editing capabilities. In this issue, I examine two of Apple's other iLife applications: iPhoto 2 and iTunes 3. I'll save iDVD 3 for a future examination of DVD movie-making applications.
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 simple; the application reminded me of an old adage about the Macintosh OS: "If it can be done, Apple will do it in the most elegant possible way. Otherwise, it'll be impossible." Here's what I mean: iPhoto 1.x was nice because you could plug in a digital camera and simply download all the images to the application. But iPhoto fell short in customizability: The application didn't have a 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. I take this feature for granted in Windows XP.
The photo-downloading problem hit home during a recent trip to Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. During the trip, I took several hundred pictures, downloading them each day from my 5-megapixel camera (which included a 1GB IBM CompactFlash--CF--hard disk) to iPhoto 1.1. However, I didn't delete the pictures from the camera each day because I had capacity to spare, and I planned to also download them to XP after the trip. So, each day, the process of downloading the photos took longer and longer, because iPhoto would mindlessly redownload all the camera's images each time. On the last day, I started the download to my iBook in the rental car in the Hoover Dam parking lot, drove the hour back to Vegas, and had to sit for 10 minutes in the rental car parking lot waiting for the photos to finish transferring over the pokey USB interface. That's ridiculous.
I had hoped 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, you can now archive your photos to CD-ROM or DVD, directly from the application. This feature 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 so that users don't have to worry about that complex concept. After you archive your photos to disc, you can reinsert the disc into any Mac and view them from iPhoto 2.
Another nice new feature is Enhance, which provides much of the automatic photo-enhancing functionality from Adobe 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.
I've always liked iPhoto's photo-management features. The application treats photos the way iTunes or Windows Media Player (WMP) treats music files. It collects them into a library, then subdivides them into playlists, which iPhoto calls photo albums. iPhoto's photo albums don't duplicate the photos; they collect your photos into different views, so you can add the same pictures to two or more albums. iPhoto's photo albums are an excellent organizational paradigm.
This version of iPhoto also includes some interesting integration features that make it work better with other iLife applications. When you display a slide show, for example, you can choose music from your iTunes music library from within the iPhoto application, which is handy. And your iPhoto library is directly available in other iLife applications where appropriate, including iMovie and iDVD.
Overall, iPhoto 2 is a decent upgrade and one that all Mac OS X users should immediately download. I just wish the application offered a way to select photos to input from a camera or other photo source.
Apple iTunes 3 Apple released iTunes 3 late last summer, but the recent introduction of other updated iLife applications exposes the new iTunes integration features that I mention above and in the last issue's commentary. Overall, iTunes 3 is an excellent, easy-to-use application and my favorite pure media player. By pure I mean that iTunes isn't an all-in-one media player like WMP 9 or RealNetworks' RealOne Player. Instead, iTunes focuses on only music, letting you rip (copy) audio CD music to the hard disk, burn (create) custom-mix audio CDs, and organize your digital music in a simple, logical manner. iTunes also offers 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 player you can buy.
An outstanding new feature in iTunes 3 is Smart Playlists, which tracks the audio that you've listened to and rated and gives you automatically generated music lists such as Top 25 Most Played and My Top Rated. You can also make your own playlists and copy either type of playlist to an iPod.
Also, iTunes 3 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 iTunes limitation 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 Advanced Audio Coding (AAC); I hope to see support for at least the latter format added to a future update. The application also supports Audible format so that you can download and listen to eBooks.
Like iPhoto, however, iTunes' biggest strength is its media management. The way Apple graphically presents your music collection in the iTunes UI is inherently logical, and this simplicity eludes the competition. I highly recommend iTunes 3.
iPhoto 2 and iTunes 3 are available as free downloads. Both products require Mac OS X 10.1.4 or later.