Walt Mossberg

iLife Gets Better; Just Don’t Ask It to Find a Face

While Apple‘s Macintosh computers are known for handsome hardware design, what really makes the Mac distinctive is its built-in software. That software includes a suite of multimedia programs, called iLife, which is preinstalled, free, on every new Mac.

The iLife software has integrated photo, video, music and Web-design applications meant for average, nontechnical consumers. It is better, in my view, than any comparable offering on the Windows platform, even those that cost extra.

This week, Apple (AAPL) released the latest version of the suite, called iLife ’09, and I have been testing it for a while. It includes five programs: iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb and iDVD. The new version will be bundled on new Macs, and current Mac owners can upgrade to it for $79.

This latest iteration isn’t a radical revision of iLife, and I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-have upgrade for current Mac owners. But three of the programs — iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand — have significant new features that make them more appealing and useful.

In particular, iPhoto now has the ability to detect and identify faces in your photos; to identify and map the location where they were shot; and to directly post sets of photos to, and synchronize them with, the popular online services Facebook and Flickr.

I focused my tests on iPhoto’s sexiest new feature — face recognition. It worked OK, but it wasn’t as good as I had expected from software made by Apple.

GarageBand, a powerful but easy tool allowing nonprofessionals to mix and produce music, now offers beautifully produced video lessons in how to play the two most popular instruments: guitar and piano. There are some free lessons built in, but you can also buy, for $5 each, lessons from famous artists such as Sting and Norah Jones.

In iMovie, you can now do precision editing of clips. You also can insert one clip in the middle of another by simply dragging and dropping; insert animated maps into travel movies; and apply handsome themes that can make a home movie look like, say, a scrapbook. There’s also a new tool that stabilizes jerky footage, like video shot from a moving car, although Apple warns that this process can take hours.

For me, however, the most important improvements in iLife ’09 are in iPhoto, Apple’s program for organizing, editing and sharing digital pictures. The top two are face recognition and geo-tagging, the ability to tag a photo with its location. Neither of these features is unique to iPhoto. For instance, the Web-based version of Google’s (GOOG) Picasa photo software has face recognition, and Flickr, a Yahoo (YHOO) online service, has location tagging. But Apple has enabled them in iPhoto in its typical handsome, easy manner.

There are two new views of your photos in iPhoto ’09. One, called Faces, organizes all the photos in which faces have been identified. You click on a thumbnail bearing a person’s face and get an expanded display showing all of the photos identified as including that person.

The second, called Places, shows a Google map with pins in the places where the locations of your photos have been identified. Click on a pin, and see a display of all the photos shot at that location.

Face recognition takes several steps. First, iPhoto analyzes your photos to pick out the faces, which are then shown enclosed in a rectangle when you click the new “name” button. You then are prompted to type in a name under the rectangle identifying each face. Once you’ve identified the same person in multiple photos, iPhoto begins to identify that face in any additional photos. If you bring up a picture of a person you’ve identified, and click “confirm name,” iPhoto will show you other pictures it thinks include the same person, and ask that you confirm its suggestions.

In my tests, on two different Macs with thousands of photos, face recognition worked most of the time. But I was too often disappointed. In a surprisingly large minority of cases, iPhoto failed to detect the presence of a face, even when it was large and clear, or to correctly identify faces it did detect, even after I had named or confirmed the same face in dozens or scores of other pictures.

The program sometimes confused men and women, and in a few cases even claimed animals or inanimate objects were people. It rarely detected faces shot from the side, even if they were sharp and obvious. The program also was slow to analyze newly imported photos, or to synchronize name tags already entered on Facebook, a feature Apple touts.

The Places feature worked much better, automatically recognizing the location of pictures taken from devices with built-in GPS tagging, like Apple’s own iPhone, and optionally showing a map when you click on a photo. It was also easy to manually enter a location for an entire “event,” or group, of photos taken at one time.

I still like and recommend iPhoto and iLife. But, in my opinion, the new face-recognition system isn’t up to Apple’s self-proclaimed high standards, and isn’t reliable enough to justify an upgrade all by itself.


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