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Aperture 1.5 - complete package review: Aperture 1.5 - complete package

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For the uninitiated, raw-workflow software supplies tools for those who don't require the compositing and effects capabilities of Photoshop, delivering a more targeted, streamlined approach to photographic production tasks--specifically viewing, selecting, organizing, retouching, and outputting photos. (For an example of what that means, see the first few paragraphs of the Lightroom review, linked above.)

7.6

Aperture 1.5 - complete package

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Excellent retouching tools in a streamlined interface; delivers great results; integrated color management.

The Bad

No Windows version; relatively steep hardware requirements; limited Apple support options; restrictive file-management system; no curves view or editor.

The Bottom Line

This raw work-flow application isn't the Holy Grail many hoped it would be, but Apple Aperture 1.5 could make life easier for photographers who need to cull, retouch, and output large numbers of photographs quickly and efficiently.
Though it might seem as if Apple spawned the raw-workflow-software category--or any other category--with a mere from the lips of Steve Jobs, fiat fiat probably hits closer to the mark. With the launch of Aperture in early 2006, Apple bestowed its design sensibility and hefty marketing budget on an application area that pro and enthusiast photographers considered, if not boring, then at best a necessary evil standing between them and their envisioned imagery. That influx of money and exposure roused Adobe from its complacency, galvanizing the year-long development of Photoshop Lightroom, which finally shipped early this year.

Aperture's file handling ranks as the most important change introduced with the 1.5 update. One of its biggest weaknesses had been the way it secreted all your images from view into an operating system package file, the type usually reserved for installation programs. Now when you import your photos from removable media, it copies them to wherever you want; it also allows you to reference files on optical discs or detached drives. And you can still create a replica of the Library, called a Vault, for backup purposes.

However, the program remains fairly restrictive about the Master--original--files. For instance, you can't rename them. When you import the files, Aperture builds its database of references and gives you powerful tools for automatically naming the Version, which is the referenced Master that you work on. When you export the images, you can use the same powerful tools to name the final file. However, Apple's philosophy, and the philosophy of many Aperture acolytes, is that you have no reason to care what the file is named or where it's located. I disagree with this for a variety of reasons, but I'll offer what I consider the most compelling: many of us don't run Aperture (or Lightroom, or Photoshop) all day. We sometimes have to close applications. Who wants to launch Aperture simply to locate and copy a file? Ironically, the touted integration with Apple's iLive '06 and iWork '06 software suites was likely necessary because of the way Aperture's file handling forces you to bypass the Finder. And personally, I'd like more flexibility in renaming files from both Aperture and Lightroom, such as the ability to automatically rename using the file's keywords.

Furthermore, this closed-system approach affects Aperture's Photoshop integration to its minor detriment. Rather than storing adjustments with the original file in an XMP sidecar, Aperture creates the history and metadata XMP file only when you export. At the very least, an Edit With... option could make it a single-step process. Version 1.5 adds an Export API plug-in architecture, however, which would allow third-party software developers to greatly strengthen the ties between Aperture and Photoshop, as well as with other apps.

Aperture does maintain one significant workflow advantage over Lightroom: a Photoshop-like Proof Preview setting, which Lightroom lacks, allows you to work in a more color-WYSIWYG environment.

More on Apple Aperture 1.5
For a full discussion of Aperture's features, click here.

I tested Aperture on a tricked-out octocore (two quad-core, 2.66GHz Intel Xeon CPUs) system equipped with an ATI X1900 XT card, 2GB of RAM, and many hundreds of gigabytes free hard disk space.You'd think there would be hitch-free operation, and to a large extent, there was. Surprisingly, though, there always seemed to be a small pause when initially loading the loupe. Moreover, speed is relative. A typical export task--converting 123 files with various associated transformations to JPEG, compressed at 60 percent quality, and constrained to a maximum dimension of 500 pixels--took Aperture twice as long as Lightroom (6 minutes, 20 seconds vs. 3 minutes, 10 seconds).

Running a similar operation simultaneously with Apple's Activity Monitor showed that Aperture was using CPU bandwidth much differently than Lightroom does. Both applications used at least seven of the eight cores at a time, but Aperture tended to use a similar percentage for each at the same time, and while Aperture chugged away, the OS used a higher percentage of CPU cycles than did Lightroom. Neither exceeded a half-gig of memory use for the same tasks. Since Adobe has had years to optimize its imaging engine and tweak its threading model, its superior efficiency--at least for that particular task--doesn't surprise me. Furthermore, Aperture is best viewed on at least one 30-inch Cinema Display: Aperture's icons and typeface can be very small and difficult to read.

Open the Aperture box, and you'll find a Getting Started Guide, which will get you up and running, but it won't tell you about some of the application's finer points. The better option is to watch the video that's bundled with the software. Aperture has a reasonably large user community, with books, groups, and conventions popping up all the time, and an extensive knowledgebase on Apple's site. That's good, because you have only two support choices after the 90-day complimentary tech support expires: $49 pay-per-incident or $2,800 unlimited AppleCare. Ouch. At least Adobe offers a few more options in the middle.

Despite appearances, Adobe and Apple aren't the only game in raw town. Last year, Adobe digested Pixmantec for the nutrients in its RawShooter software line, but veteran competitors such as LightZone and Bibble Pro still survive and thrive. The latter even has a Linux version. (Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to cover all the players in this arena, but you can find some excellent coverage at Digital Outback Photo.)

If you work on a Windows system, the choice between Lightroom and Aperture is easy; since there's no Windows version of Aperture, your choice is made for you. On a PowerPC G5 or G4-based Mac, Lightroom's less demanding system requirements make it the more attractive alternative. But what if you have all the horsepower a tower chassis can contain? The answer is still the more-efficient Lightroom. That said, Apple Aperture still ranks as a very practical, powerful tool for working with digital camera raw files and can certainly bring efficiency into the life of any photographer willing to accede to the program's demands.

7.6

Aperture 1.5 - complete package

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Setup 9Features 8Performance 6Support 7