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iLife '09: Real-world test

Apple's iLife '09 suite of applications includes brand-new versions of iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb, iDVD and the flagship program, iPhoto. We've used and abused it, and have plenty to tell

Apple's iLife '09 suite of applications includes brand-new versions of iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb, iDVD and the flagship image program iPhoto. We've spent a week with the new apps on our trusty, beautiful and downright sexy unibody MacBook, and have beans to spill.

iLife is on sale now for £69, or you can buy a family pack for £85 that lets you install the software on up to five Macs -- ideal if you have various MacBooks and an iMac in your home. It requires OS X Leopard, and will not run on older versions of OS X.

Comfy? We'll begin with iPhoto... 

iPhoto
The '09 version of iPhoto is aesthetically unaltered from iPhoto '08, but now, in addition to the Events tab, you'll notice the Faces and Places organisation options. Faces uses facial recognition technology to identify individual faces in every one of your photos, figure out who's who, then sort your photos based on who appears in them.

When you first load up iPhoto '09 it automatically begins looking for faces in your library. It took under an hour on our machine, and we have about 2,500 photos. It found, at a very rough guess, about 75 per cent of the faces in our collection. Profile shots it had difficulty with, and on one occasion it amusingly identified a tongue as a face.

As we browsed through our collection it asked us 'Is this so-and-so?' when it thought it recognised a face. We click yes, and iPhoto gets smarter at recognising that face. Say no, and you can enter your own name. Any faces it identifies and can't even suggest a name for -- most of our pictures fell into this category, sadly (we know some odd-looking people, as you can see) -- you need to enter them manually. You can also add 'missing faces' to any photos in which a face wasn't spotted by the software.

It's by no means a perfect system, and in our photo collection at least, the automation didn't impress us. Spend some time appending names to your photos, however, and the resulting clipboard of Polaroid-esque headshots is amazing, and a great new way of browsing photos. You can create smart albums too, so if you want to create a collection of photos that only contain you and your statistically significant other, you can. It works just like Smart Playlists do in iTunes.

iPhoto continued
Faces is an exciting addition to iPhoto, despite the issues with its automation. But it's not all that's new. Places is a feature that groups your photos by the location they were taken. If you have a GPS camera that geotags your photographs -- such as the Nikon P6000, or even the iPhone -- iPhoto can pin those locations on a map (provided by Google Maps). It's then easy to browse the photos you took on holiday in France, when you visited your parents in the Peak District or crashed with your brother in Lincoln.

Searching for and assigning places to any other photo in your library is as simple as finding them on Google Maps, then pressing 'Assign to photo'. Probably not the greatest feature in the world if you never leave the house, or only take photos of your cat. But if you enjoy trotting the globe, it'll undoubtedly become one of your favourite additions to iPhoto.

Integrated uploading to Facebook and Flickr has also been added, and it's tagtastic. We had it working in seconds. Select the photos or album you want to upload to either service, hit the Facebook or Flickr button. Seriously, that's it. Friends you've tagged in iPhoto will have their tags transferred up to Facebook, and any untagged images your Facebook friends tag for you will be synced back down to the application. Unfortunately it's not possible to browse your Facebook libraries within iPhoto, or download them from the Web.

Finally, there are more advanced photo-editing features at your disposal now, some of which have been borrowed from Apple's flagship professional editing package Aperture, and by incorporating the tongue face-detection technology, red-eye reduction is just a one-click job.

A new 'Smart Saturation' tool instantly enriches photos with more vivid colours and brighter tones, without influencing the skin tones of your subjects -- another use for iPhoto's face recognition. 'Highlights and shadows' effectively brings hidden subjects out of their inky penumbra and into a radically more visible state -- this is a feature taken from Aperture.

All in all, iPhoto '09 has some compelling new features that make it far more exciting than anything else out there. On its own it might not sway you to spend money to upgrade, but iPhoto is just one of many apps in the iLife suite. Next, iMovie '09.

iMovie
Did you feel shafted when Apple removed features between iMovie '06 and iMovie '08? Good news -- this is the upgrade you've been waiting for. Back are timelines, dynamic themes, a heap of video effects, speed and reserve play options, and a pack of new title animations. Can we get a whoop whoop?

iMovie has always been fun, but it's climbed a new rung on the ladder of merriment with this revision. A brand new drag and drop editing system makes chopping clips like editing text: highlight the bit you want within your captured clip, then drag it to where you want it in the project timeline. It is, without question, the simplest video editing in history.

More precise editing is handled with a new Precision Editor, should you need more advanced control, which lets you zoom in on your timeline and look at the clip you're working on and the one just before it. It allows you to select the exact moment you want the scene in your movie to transition, and it works beautifully.

True, iMovie is still no pro's tool, and budding film-makers are eventually going to feel patronised by the application's simplicity. But it's a disguise for what is, more than ever, a powerful consumer video editor.

For example, you can easily select, say, 5 seconds of captured footage to use as a cutaway in any scene you're working on. Just plonk it into your project timeline exactly where you want it and a drop-down context menu appears. You can choose to insert it into the current clip or replace the current clip. Or, since we're working on a cutaway scene here, you can just choose to insert the video over the existing audio, or even opt for picture-in-picture.

Green-screening your movies is now possible as well, but the final new feature we want to talk about is video stabilisation. Plug-ins for older software and standalone applications have offered some degree of image stabilisation before now, but iMovie '09 hopes to solve the problem natively.

iMovie's algorithm analyses every frame of your video, processes the difference between one and the next, and compensates for the difference. The result is -- or should be (this is a series of extensive real-world tests for another day) -- a more stable piece of footage, keeping your subjects in the centre of the frame even if your hand was bouncing up and down at the time of filming.

Overall, iMovie is, to us at least, the best reason for upgrading to iLife '09. It might not be sold as the flagship iLife application, but its new features, incredible ease of use and sheer pleasantness to use speak volumes. It'll leave the pros wanting more, but for you and us it makes video editing simple and professional-looking, and anything you make is a couple of clicks away from being on your iPod, iPhone or DVD.

GarageBand
The basic elements of GarageBand are unchanged from before. Everything is still intact for composing songs, recording podcasts, tracking your band, and exporting everything from its multi-channel orgy to simple stereo newborn. The big new feature is Learn to Play -- Apple's take on musical instrument tuition.

Now, there are two points to make here. Firstly, this isn't going to replace a teacher or years of practice -- it's more like an extremely diverse and interactive tuition book. The second point is that quite frankly it deserves to be its own software package outright. But we'll ignore that for now because it's just too unfair to hold that against GarageBand.

Learn to Play offers basic lessons for guitar and piano, as taught by a very Apple-like tutor, in a very Apple-like sterile-white environment. You're introduced to the basics of how to hold or sit at your instrument, how the instrument works, and how songs are composed at a fundamental level. It's like a Music For Dummies book, only with sound, notation and high-definition tutors showing you everything in glorious detail with the Apple-like simplicity we've come to know.

You're not going to switch on your Mac and quickly pump out All Along the Watchtower -- or, sadly, our (genuine) personal favourite, Mutation of the Cadaver by Cannibal Corpse -- but it will help you grasp the basics, and far more than that bloody Catarrh Hero will. If nothing else, its beautiful presentation and accessibility may encourage casual music lovers to consider picking up the instrument for real, and guide along those that do.

But that's not all, Paul. Artists such as Sting and Norah Jones have worked with Apple to produce 'Artist Lessons', where established artists show you how to play their songs step by step, along with interactive notation, guides, selectable audio tracks, and even a talk about the story behind the songs themselves. Many artists have contributed and more are slated to do so in the future.

Each lesson costs £3.95, and all video contained inside them is presented in high definition. The choice of music won't appeal to everyone by any means, but for those to whom it does, it'll be an unmissable feature. For us, the distinct lack of technical death metal is a crying shame.

iWeb
We admit here we never played that much with iWeb '08, but it turns out very little has changed anyway. It's still a dead simple way to create a Web site, with plenty of built-in themes and simple publishing options.

You can now publish your Web pages directly over FTP with a native FTP interface within iWeb, and throw some new widgets into the pages themselves, such as an RSS feed aggregator that pulls in content from places around the Web.

Apart from that it's much the same as last year's version, but that's no bad thing. Simple Web sites, simple interface, good-looking results. Can't complain.

iDVD
Finally, iDVD -- Apple's DVD-creation app. Again, very little new here, but that leaves you with a simple and professional-looking piece of software that allows you to take your final edits from iMovie and publish them to a DVD, complete with themes, animations and menus, playable on any DVD player in the world.

Is it worth the upgrade?
If you want new and intuitive ways to organise photos, take advantage of photo geotagging, an even better video-editing experience than you had with iMovie '08, and if you want to start learning to play the piano and guitar, iLife '09 is well worth the upgrade.

It's a superb suite of software with some impressive features, all of which organise your personal photos, videos and music in ways no other product on the PC can come close to matching, in terms of simplicity, function or professionalism.

But if you're an advanced photo manipulator, or are happy simply browsing photos by a folder name, if you don't want to learn to play piano, and find iMovie '08 perfect for your needs, there's no reason to spend your cash, and every reason to see what Apple introduces next year.