Katherine Boehret

The New iLife: We Test Upgrade of Apple Suite

Apple Inc. last week introduced a redesign of its elegant iMac desktop computer, the machine that packs a powerful, beautiful consumer PC into the back of a generously large, bright screen. The new models are even thinner than their slim predecessors, sport an aluminum skin instead of white plastic, and have a new, flat keyboard, more power and lower prices.

iMac
Apple’s new iMac comes loaded with iLife ’08 software.

But Apple‘s bigger change was a major update to its iLife software suite, which comes loaded on all its Macintosh models — not just the new iMac — and can be purchased by existing Mac owners for $79. The suite includes iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb and GarageBand — programs that help average people organize, edit, share and publish photos, videos and music. These uncluttered and intuitive programs have been best of breed, so Apple’s decision to update iLife is intriguing, if for nothing other than to see what major improvements could really be made.

This week I tested iLife ’08 on a new iMac — the midrange $1,499 20-inch model with a 2.4 gigahertz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a 320-gigabyte hard drive. I focused especially on iPhoto and iMovie, the anchors of the suite and the programs that got the biggest overhauls. One significant change in iPhoto is its new method of organizing photos by sorting images into “Events” according to their dates, rather than by the batch in which they were uploaded to your computer. The iMovie program underwent a more drastic overhaul, adding a library for storing all of your video clips and a new interface for organizing those clips into a movie that dispenses with the traditional timeline design long used in digital video software.

Both iPhoto and iMovie now use “skimming,” a rich feature that lets you scan through photos or videos just by passing your cursor over a thumbnail. And if you have an account on Apple’s online .Mac service ($100 annually), both programs offer effortless one-click photo or video uploading to a “Web Gallery,” where you can share your content. Videos can also be uploaded directly to YouTube without a .Mac account.

Before delving into the software, a quick word about the new iMac is in order. It’s an improvement on an already stellar computer, with beefed-up specs. There are four models, from $1,199 to $2,299, in two screen sizes — 20 inches and 24 inches. The base 20-inch model costs $1,199, a price cut of $300 from the prior 20-inch model. The base 24-inch model now costs $1,799, down $200 from the old model of the same size.

The biggest adjustments for users will be the screen and keyboard, which took me a few days to get used to. The new iMac comes with a glossy screen, which makes colors pop but also reflects more background light than a traditional matte display.

Radical Keyboard

The keyboard is radical-looking. It’s much flatter and sleeker than typical desktop PC keyboards. I found it easier to type with, but in an attempt to make it more like that of a laptop keyboard, Apple rearranged some built-in key functions, which was confusing at first. If you hate it, you can still use an older Mac keyboard or any USB keyboard, even those meant for Windows computers. For now, the new iMac offers only a wired keyboard. A small wireless model is due in a few weeks.

I quickly picked up on how to use the new features in iPhoto and iMovie, thanks to unintimidating, self-explanatory icons. The Events feature in iPhoto might be a pain for users who are transferring numerous already-organized albums from the previous version of iPhoto into this one, as not all albums will perfectly translate into Events. But it’s a great improvement over the old method — and over Windows photo programs I’ve tried — for organizing newly shot photos.

The new version of iPhoto will look familiar to anyone who used the older version; its layout is the same, with a list of your photo library on the far left and a large display area to the right of this list. I uploaded a couple of albums at once, and each was automatically sorted into its own event because the photos from each were associated with two different dates.

Skimming the Thumbnails

A few new features stand out at a glance. When photos are grouped into Events, these are neatly marked with one large thumbnail image that is selected to represent the entire pile of photos. By passing my cursor over this top thumbnail, I skimmed through all of the images in that Event in mere seconds. A button labeled Web Gallery instantly uploads images to a .Mac account, and a list of photos that are shared online appears in iPhoto.

iPhoto
The updated iPhoto automatically groups photos into Events represented by thumbnails that make for faster photo browsing.

Rather than deleting images that I didn’t want in a particular Event, I selected the new Hide icon, which takes marked images away from view but notes the number of hidden photos at the top of the Event as a reminder. Hidden photos can also appear within the Event, denoted with red X marks.

Double clicking on any image now magnifies it without opening editing functions, letting users quickly see larger versions of each shot. Editing in iPhoto was already straightforward, but new options provide more customization; for example, red eyes can be removed with a cross hairs (like the old iPhoto) or by using a circle that manually adjusts to match a subject’s pupil size.

The new version of iMovie is deliberately designed to steer away from the familiar interface most consumer video-editing programs use, which was borrowed from professional-grade software. Instead of the usual timeline of clips, iMovie employs a more free-form canvas where clips and effects can be assembled. Apple knows that this may irk people used to the traditional method, but believes it will make video editing much less intimidating for casual users.

To test iMovie, I used a high-definition Panasonic video camera to capture amusing moments around my office and brought it with me to Boston for three days so I could document my sister’s move into her new place (the moving guys were thrilled). In both places, I turned the camera on and off numerous times, capturing short clips.

Instant Recognition

My video camera was instantly recognized when I plugged it into the iMac, prompting iMovie to generate thumbnail images of each clip. Times when the camera was turned on or off were clearly marked, and I chose the clips I wanted to import. Transferred content appeared in the new iMovie library at the bottom half of a screen, and I dragged and dropped clips to the top half of the screen to add them to a project. Clips can be selected by using your cursor to draw a yellow box around the whole clip or just a part of the clip that you’d like to use. Skimming through content is helpful here — as I moved my cursor from left to right through clips, the audio and video played in the top right of the screen, letting me see and hear footage so as to select exactly where to trim a clip.

iMovie
The new interface for iMovie is more approachable for everyday users, with a smart library that organizes Projects and Events into two different libraries.

After dragging various clips to the top half of the screen, I added special features like music, sound effects and title slides to my project. These were all added the same way my clips were: by dragging and dropping to put the right thing where it needed to go. Music from iTunes can be used with videos, or Apple provides over 500 different sound effects and tunes.

Still photos can be incorporated into iMovie using a “Ken Burns” effect (panning across a still image) to keep the video’s pace moving along. And any videos captured on a digital camera that were uploaded into iPhoto can be retrieved and used from within iMovie. If footage is too dark, it can be automatically or manually adjusted, like images in iPhoto.

Polished Results

In just about 15 minutes, I created a short movie that mashed together various clips from three days of moving. I added titles to introduce the movie, and transitions in between each clip that looked really polished.

I uploaded photos and videos to the .Mac Web Gallery, checking off the privacy option (passwords can be set to limit who sees the content). Other options to check include showing titles of photos; enabling a feature that lets others upload images to my gallery via a set email address; and letting other people download high-resolution versions of my content. In one step, videos can also be uploaded to YouTube.com or transferred to your iTunes library, where they can be viewed on a PC or Mac, or moved over to an iPod or iPhone.

The new programs in iLife ’08 are a pleasure to use, and the new iMac is a great way to experience them.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email: mossbergsolution@wsj.com.


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