Checking out iLife

For the past couple of years, one of the best reasons for an average consumer to buy an Apple Macintosh over a Windows PC has been the included set of multimedia software -- iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto and iDVD.

On Jan. 31, Apple Computer Inc. released upgrades to three of the four components of what it has christened "iLife," but the software has more than a new name. Each program now interacts with its siblings, making such multimedia projects as slide shows and movies easy enough for virtually anyone to master.

While Apple has added several nice features to each of the "iApps," by far the most valuable is the degree of integration.

For example, iPhoto always allowed you to choose a song to accompany a slide show of your photos, but to use any music from your iTunes library required you to hunt through the directories on your hard drive. Now, your entire iTunes library appears automatically in the pop-up menu of songs available for an iPhoto slide show.

Likewise, your iTunes library appears in the iMovie audio panel to make it more convenient to find the right soundtrack for your digital video. Both iMovie and iPhoto now have buttons linking them to iDVD, making it easier to burn your finished slide shows and movies.

A less-welcome feature is iLife's price, $49. Previously, a disk with iDVD cost $19.95, with users able to download the other three iApps for free.

You still can download iTunes3, iMovie3 and iPhoto2 for free if you have a broadband Internet connection or much patience with a dial-up connection. While iTunes weighs in at a reasonable 6.2 megabytes, iPhoto occupies 32.1 megabytes and iMovie an elephantine 81.8 megabytes. That's why Apple put the suite on disk.

A third means of getting iLife, of course, is to buy a new Mac, though you won't get iDVD3 unless the Mac has a DVD-burning SuperDrive.

The reason iDVD3 isn't available for download becomes obvious when you install it from the iLife DVD-ROM; it consumes nearly 2 gigabytes of space! That's equal to about 400 songs in the MP3 format or about 2,000 digital photos shot with a 2 megapixel camera.

For most people, though, the $49 fee isn't a bad value -- considering that similar commercial software suites cost considerably more.

Let's take a closer look at what iLife has to offer:

  • iTunes3: Version 3 of iTunes was released last July at the Macworld industry show in New York, so it isn't really new. But the music-management software included "hidden features" so that its library would integrate into the other iLife applications when they were upgraded.

  • iPhoto2: The image-management component of iLife received several significant additions:

    Responding to criticism that iPhoto's image-editing abilities were too rudimentary, Apple added two buttons to its editing window: Retouch and Enhance. Enhance mainly adjusts the levels of shadowy images, making them brighter and crisper. It's still not Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop, but it is quick, easy and effective.

    Retouch lets you blot out artifacts.

    Users also had complained that there was no practical way to archive images in iPhoto, so Apple added a button to the main window that burns selected photos on recordable CDs or DVDs.

    When an archive disk is placed in the Mac's optical drive, the images appear as a separate collection in the iPhoto list of albums. One minor quibble is that the archived library can't be organized by film roll, although you can save your images grouped by album.

    Keywords must be accessed via menu or keyboard command, as the "Keyword" button has been evicted from the main window. Some users may find this less convenient, but the trade-off is that iPhoto now supports hundreds of keywords versus just a handful.

    Other useful changes include an option to select Microsoft Corp.'s Entourage or Eudora as your e-mail program, which formerly defaulted to Apple's Mail; and a button to create slide shows on your .Mac Web space, which formerly required a separate program, which also was a free download from Apple.

  • iMovie3: Besides having your iTunes library available for soundtracks, iMovie now can import images from your iPhoto library directly into your video.

    Better yet, the "Ken Burns effect" -- named for the maker of such public television documentaries as "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz" -- allows the panning and zooming of still photos. This function was, and still is, available via a $20 shareware program from LQ Graphics Inc. in Dublin, Calif.

    The program, called Photo to Movie, offers more detailed control than the Burns effect, but having the function available from within iMovie is more convenient.

    Another superb integration feature is the ability to place chapter markers for iDVD into a movie project.

    I used this function to help archive an old video of a performance of my 1980s rock band, Throbbing Wolfpak. I added a title and marker at the start of each song, which iDVD picked up to generate separate chapters, even pulling the title of each song automatically off the iMovie clip file.

    One bug I found during this project was that iMovie drastically lowered the volume of the soundtrack wherever I had added a title. The workaround was to extract the audio from the clip onto a separate track before I added the title, but that's extra work I can do without.

    A less-flashy, but extremely useful feature is volume adjustment within a clip, including the ability to mark two sound points and scale the volume up or down within them.

    Apple also threw in a few other bonuses -- the hokey video effects named Earthquake, Fairy Dust and Electricity, as well as some "Hollywood-quality" sound effects from Skywalker Sound, the company owned by film producer George Lucas. The mood music effects like "Suspense" and "Foreboding" are something people might actually use.

  • iDVD3: Of the four iLife applications, iDVD gains the most from the added integration, as it serves primarily as a vehicle to showcase the digital images of iPhoto and iMovie.

    Putting movies, photos and accompanying music on a DVD is drag-and-drop simple. Apple's DVD menu themes give your movies and slide shows a startlingly polished, professional look -- particularly when you use the iMovie chapter markers.

    The catch to iDVD, however, is that it only works on Macs with a "SuperDrive." Unlike iTunes, which will burn CDs to external CD-burning drives, iDVD only works with a built-in DVD burning drive. But Apple continues to offer the SuperDrive in more models, and over the next year or so should make it standard throughout most of its line.

    With a basket of new features and seamless integration, the iLife suite embodies the essence of the Mac experience: easy-to-use software that enables and amplifies the user's creativity without the hassles and conflicts common to the PC world.

    Mac users with earlier versions of these programs wondering if it's worth $49 to upgrade need only ask themselves where their interests lie: If you're creative and you like to dabble in moviemaking -- and you have a SuperDrive -- then iLife is a bargain.

    But if you're interested mainly in just managing your music or photos, iTunes3 and iPhoto2 remain free for the download.
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