TechWorld

Apple's iLife '09 'a must-have update'

iPhoto now scans photos for faces and uses geotagging to organize albums
  • Ryan Faas (Computerworld)
  • 02 March, 2009 09:25

Apple's iLife suite has long been a cornerstone of the company's "digital hub" strategy for organizing, managing and creatively using the array of digital media available today. In the latest version, iLife '09, the suite received major updates to almost all of its five applications. The only application that didn't gain any revolutionary new features was iDVD, Apple's tool for creating DVDs of movies and photos edited with the other iLife apps.

In some cases, the updates add revolutionary new features; in others, they're subtler additions that fill long-standing gaps. But after a few weeks of hands-on iLife '09 use since the latest version was unveiled, I can say that the mix of new features and tweaks make this a must-have update for almost all Mac users.

iPhoto adds Faces, Places and more

I've been a fan of iPhoto since the first version was released in 2002. As iPhoto has evolved, Apple has focused on finding ways to help users organize the huge digital libraries many are amassing with the help of digital cameras, cell phone cameras and online photo-sharing and social networking sites. IPhoto '08, released a year and a half ago as part of iLife '08, delivered an early attempt to help people organize photos automatically with Events -- date-driven groupings that automatically organized photos taken or imported on a given day. The result: browsable groups of pictures and videos that can be identified with a title and description.

New features in iPhoto '09 continue the trend toward automating the organization of photos. First up is Faces, which uses facial recognition technology to identify people's faces and allows you to tag them. Once you've tagged people in a handful of photos, iPhoto will attempt to find and identify them in existing photos and in any newly imported photos, allowing you to confirm or reject its guesses. If you expect Faces to be completely effortless, however, you're in for a bit of a shock.

When first used, Faces will analyze all of the photos in your iPhoto library to locate faces in each picture. On my 2.4-GHz iMac, analyzing some 4,800 images took about 40 minutes. Once all of your photos have been analyzed, you can browse them and -- after clicking on the "Name" button in the iPhoto toolbar -- you should see a rectangle around each person's face in the photo. In some cases, faces may not be recognized as such; in other cases, other objects may be identified as faces (such as a club soda bottle Faces identified as my mother). IPhoto provides options for adding missing faces or removing other mis-identified objects. Overall, tagging people is easy and is very similar to tagging people in photos on Facebook. Simply click in the text box under each rectangle and type someone's name -- full name, first name, nickname, whatever you like. IPhoto will remember all the names you've tagged and auto-complete names as you begin typing them.

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Once you've tagged a few people, iPhoto will begin making suggestions as you continue tagging people. Not surprisingly, this can be a hit-or-miss process, particularly when you first get started. In some cases, iPhoto is able to correctly identify people across your library after they've been tagged once, while in others you may need to tag people in dozens of photos before the software begins to correctly identify them.

For libraries that contain images of the same people at different ages, particularly children, tagging a variety of photos seems to make the process of identifying them more successful. My iPhoto library, for example, includes family photos of me spanning three decades. Tagging photos of myself as a toddler and as an adult, iPhoto did a surprisingly good job of identifying potential photos of me as a child, teenager and as a grown-up.

Faces also includes a library view of all the people that you've tagged. Double-clicking on someone's entry will display both the photos you've tagged of that person as well as photos that Faces thinks contain the person but which you haven't yet tagged. From there, you can confirm or reject iPhoto's guesses, which tends to be a faster way of training Faces once you've done some initial tagging.

Faces can be used to build smart albums very easily. Simply select one or more individuals in the cork board view showing people you've identified and drag them to iPhoto's sidebar. This creates a smart album of all photos containing those people and updates it as you identify them in additional photos. (You can also create more granular smart albums using the traditional smart albums dialog box that combines Faces, Places, Events, dates, keywords and other criteria.)

The second big organizational feature in iPhoto '09 is Places, which uses longitude and latitude geocoding information to group photos by where they were taken. Places relies on Google Maps to decode the location information and associate it with an address. Places also includes a library of points of interest such as the Washington Monument or the Empire State Building that it can display instead of a generic address. And you can add your own points of interest for things like houses of family and friends, local restaurants and clubs or parks and monuments not included in the overall library.

Places is a really fun feature because in addition to a static list of locations where you've taken photos, you can view a map of them with support for Google's map/terrain, satellite, and hybrid views and a pin will identify the points of interest. You can also browse locations listed by country, state/province, city and individual addresses, making it easy to view very specific locations or more general ones. Maps can also be used in photo books including the new "Maps" themed book; it's a great addition to the already beautiful photo book printing options.

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Places is a useful feature, but it does rely on geocoding to work its magic. This isn't a problem with some of the new digital cameras that come with GPS capabilities or a GPS-enabled smart phone like the iPhone 3G. Older cameras and existing photos aren't likely to include this data, however, and even modern devices may not be accurate if they can't properly acquire a GPS signal, which can often happen indoors. IPhoto will allow you to manually add location data to any photo by mousing over the photo and clicking the small "i" icon that appears in the lower right corner, and you can do this in batches by selecting multiple photos. If you have a large iPhoto library, however, assigning all this information is going to take some time.

One feature that could be a little easier to use is the interface for managing your custom list of Places. The option is located in the Window menu in the menu bar and is easy enough to use. However, it can't be accessed while manually assigning locations to photos, which is probably when it would be easiest to use. As a result, you end up having to switch between creating locations and assigning them, which makes for a disjointed workflow.

Beyond Faces and Places, iPhoto '09 offers integration with Facebook and Flickr for sharing photos. While direct access to these sites was possible through third-party extensions in past releases, it's now built into iPhoto directly. Each upload will create a new album in Facebook or Flickr based on the upload itself, not on the events or albums in iPhoto, which could be a little confusing. Uploading all photos you want to share from a given event or album at one time avoids this issue.

When uploading to Facebook, individuals identified via Faces will be tagged as people in the photo automatically. If a user untags himself in a photo using Facebook, iPhoto will remember that instance and not attempt to tag them again if the photo/or album is updated. The one challenge here is that for Facebook tagging to be truly effective, you must be sure the names you are using in Faces match people's names in Facebook. Places geocoding data is included with photos uploaded to Flickr.

IPhoto also boasts enhancements to its photo editing capabilities, most notably the ability to automatically avoid adjusting skin tones when changing color saturation. Others include smart retouching to avoid blurring object edges, the ability to adjust the definition of an image, and smart adjustment of highlights and shadows. Also included are additional photo book templates, and slideshow themes. The themes include a variety of professional designs and transitions as well as integration with Faces to keep photos centered on people.

Without a doubt, iPhoto '09 packs a lot of punch and is pretty much worth the upgrade price in itself. Faces is definitely the standout feature, with Places a close second. That said, if you have a large existing iPhoto library -- or an extensive collection of photos to import into iPhoto -- be prepared to spend some serious time identifying people and locations to get the most value from iPhoto '09.

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iMovie evolves

IMovie was one of the very first iLife apps, and Mac users have been using it to edit home movies and even some award-winning indie films for nearly a decade. When Apple released iMovie '08 in 2007, it completely rebuilt the application from the ground up to be faster and easier to use. The revamped version provided users with a radically new interface that included a centralized library for all video imported onto or available on a user's Mac. Unfortunately, a number of features from previous releases -- like a range of titles, transitions and special video effects -- were either dropped or scaled down. After longtime users complained about the changes, Apple made iMovie '06 available to users for free.

IMovie '09 continues the evolution that started with iMovie '08's new interface, but it also reintroduces and improves upon some of the features in earlier releases. There is a broader range of titles and transitions, including several impressive 3D effect transitions, as well as a palette of video effects -- sepia tone, dream-like soft lighting, aged film, and even a science-fiction-like X-ray effect, among others -- that can be applied to individual clips or an entire project. Apple has provided an amazing array of title options, from basic scrolling text to B-movie/cartoon-style captions and the "far far away" scrolling style made famous at the introduction of each Star Wars movie.

Taking a cue from another classic Hollywood graphic effect -- travel maps like those in the Indiana Jones movies -- iMovie includes a number of map options that, like iPhoto's Places, rely on Google Maps to build animated or still travel maps into a movie. (It's a great touch for editing vacation footage.) IMovie offers additional static background elements such as solid colors, a curtain and a star field for things like credits or introductions.

If you don't want to spend a lot of time choosing titles and transitions and such, Apple has you covered. IMovie offers a handful of themes that will automatically build in matching titles, transitions, a background and framing elements. You can later customize all of these components if you want to.

One of the best features of iMovie has always been its simple drag-and-drop editing nature. You can drag a clip from your library into the project, drag photos to create a slide show, drop titles onto a clip to add them or drop transitions between clips. IMovie '09 maintains this ease of use and improves on it by allowing you to choose what happens when you add elements: Do they replace existing elements or get inserted into existing elements? Do you want to only add the audio track from the new elements? Do you want them placed exactly where you dropped them?

If you want to go beyond the simple editing capabilities, which are very powerful and easily deliver professional-looking results, iMovie now offers precision editing. A precision editor allows you to view a larger timeline of your project and it allows you to separately manipulate video clips, photos, titles, transitions, audio and other elements. The result is finer control over your project than in previous iMovie releases offered. Similarly, iMovie introduces features for speeding up and slowing down video and still images to better match a music track.

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One final feature of iMovie is a must: image stabilization. Nowadays, video is almost always shot with a handheld device -- a camcorder, digital camera or mobile phone. IMovie '09 can analyze elements in a video clip to determine their positions from one frame to the next and can correct the shakiness that is almost unavoidable with a handheld recording. Analysis can be done on import or later, and it can take quite a bit of time to complete. Once your video has been analyzed, however, you can toggle stabilization on and off during the editing process. The feature works fairly well for most video, though it does require some consistency in footage to work perfectly, so don't expect it to completely correct things like a quick shift of the camera from the ground to the sky or from left to right.

As with the previous version, iMovie supports direct sharing via YouTube as well as Apple's MobileMe galleries. It also supports exporting projects directly to iTunes, iDVD and the iLife Media Browser, which can be accessed from Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, the various iLife apps, and a number of third-party applications. When exporting to iTunes or the Media Browser, you can include multiple resolutions appropriately optimized for different devices and systems such as an iPod, an iPhone or Apple TV.

Making music with GarageBand

It's easy to think of GarageBand as the most niche-oriented of the iLife apps. Unlike working with photos or video, GarageBand's primary focus has been making (or at least editing) music -- something not everyone has the talent or skill to do. Over the years, Apple has broadened the appeal of GarageBand beyond the musically inclined, first by making it into a tool for creating podcasts and then by introducing Magic GarageBand, a feature that allows users to choose a musical style and select instruments from which GarageBand will create a random piece of music that can be saved or edited.

With GarageBand '09, Apple has taken further aim at introducing the less musically skilled to the application and to music-making itself with a new feature called Learn to Play that's designed to teach novice musicians how to play either the guitar or piano. Learn to Play consists of nine basic lessons for each instrument; one of each is included with iLife, the others can be downloaded for free directly from within the application. Or you can buy a series of additional lessons featuring popular musicians teaching users to play one of their hit songs. The artist lessons cost US$4.99 each.

The basic lessons are surprisingly well done, consisting of a video presentation by "Tim" the instructor, who does a good job of teaching concepts like reading musical notation, locating notes and forming chords. The video includes on-screen representations of a keyboard or guitar fret board. Options include varying forms of musical notation and a practice session during which you play along with a prerecorded band. Practice sessions and the lessons themselves can be slowed to half-time, allowing novices to get used to proper playing techniques at their own pace. The work can be recorded by GarageBand for later editing into projects or to gauge progress.

The artist lessons are equally well done and offer the same on-screen and practice features as the lessons by Tim. Each song is taught in a basic version for less-experienced musicians and in a more advanced arrangement similar to that of the recorded version. There's also a Story section that features each artist telling something about the creation or the song or his experience as a musician. Some artists seem to be better at engaging users than others, and sometimes their instructions run counter to the basic lessons for things like finger placement -- though all seem to do well with the story track. If you're a big fan of any of the artists offering lessons, this will be a treat, even if you're not a skilled musician.

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Unfortunately, for now, there's a limited amount of artist lessons. I'm hoping the selection will grow over time, since it is one of my favorite features of the Learn to Play function. The process of selecting artist lessons in GarageBand and then being switched to a Web browser to pay for them via the Apple Store Web site and then going back to GarageBand to download them is a little confusing. It would be better if the entire process were built directly into GarageBand, but this is more a minor irritation than a real problem.

Of course the big question is, can you really learn an instrument this way? Overall, you can at least get the basics -- so long as you put in the time and practice. I certainly learned more in the first few guitar lessons than I did in my attempt to teach myself to play several years ago. You do have to really commit to practicing and listening to your own progress, however, and it helps to be good at self-directed learning. That's an advantage to working with an actual instructor that can't quite be replaced by GarageBand -- you don't get personalized recommendations for lessons or practice, nor do you have someone experienced watching you and telling you if you're getting into any bad habits. So, yes you can learn to play with GarageBand, but be aware of the limitations inherent in the approach and realize that virtual instruction will probably only take you so far.

Beyond Learn to Play, GarageBand features a handful of additional updates. One is an improved new project interface that allows you to choose between the varying features of Garage Band at start-up. Specialized options are available for new projects, Learn to Play, the Lesson Store (where basic and artist lessons are downloaded), Magic Garage Band, iPhone ringtone creation and a list of recent projects. Even within new projects, the interface is more granular about the types of available projects, which offer predesigned settings and tracks aimed at specific types of recording or editing.

Magic GarageBand has been enhanced, too, giving you more control over which instruments are used when auto-generating a song. The interface also now allows you to define an instrument and record yourself jamming along with GarageBand's creations without moving into the primary editing screen. This is a fun feature that makes getting your feet wet with GarageBand a little less intimidating.

For electric guitar players, GarageBand offers a selection of virtual amps and stomp box effects. Each one is patterned after the controls of actual rigs and allows you customize your sound in the same way you would if you were using physical gear. Thirty preset rigs are included, but you can further customize the combination of virtual hardware. The result is a diversity of creative power that most amateur musicians wouldn't be able to carry off with real equipment because of the cost. It also offers a playing and recording experience that more accurately mirrors what it's like to use real equipment instead of a computer. Obviously, this feature applies to a more limited set of users than other GarageBand features do. But Apple did a good enough job with the interface that it's worth noting for electric guitar aficionados.

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iWeb makes site updates easier

Like many of the other iLife and iWork apps, iWeb has always made it easy for novice users to create polished and professional-looking projects -- in this case, Web sites. The range of tools and templates makes it easy for anyone to create a customized and beautiful site that features photos galleries, video, blogs and podcasts with little effort or experience. While always good overall, iWeb has always been lacking some major features that Apple has now introduced with the new version.

One of the catches to iWeb's ease had always been that publishing a site anywhere other than to Apple's MobileMe service (previously called .Mac) was not as easy as creating the site. The process required publishing the site to a folder on your hard drive and then manually uploading the entire site to your Web host using a separate FTP tool. Since it was impossible to publish just-changed files, minor updates such as writing a new blog entry or changing an image on one page often required a fair amount of time and effort.

Web '09 finally includes the option to publish directly to a server using FTP. The interface is easy to navigate, more so than most FTP applications, and it allows testing the FTP settings when creating a site. Alongside this is support for multiple sites, each published to separate FTP servers, MobileMe or to a local folder. More important, each site can now be published independently of any others. Without a doubt, this single feature makes iWeb '09 a must-have upgrade for iWeb users, though it would have been nice if it hadn't take three versions for Apple to get around to adding it.

For the most part, iWeb's features and interface remain unchanged outside of multiple site and FTP support. Apple has integrated the iLife media browser along with a widgets browser directly as a drawer in the iWeb window (as opposed to being a floating palette), which makes incorporating music, photos and video into sites a little easier.

The widgets browser itself includes seven prepackaged widgets that directly embed into a site features such as Mobile Me galleries, YouTube content, Google Maps, Google AdSense, photos or video from a Mac's iSight camera, a countdown timer, the contents of an RSS feed (useful for embedding a feed from a non-iWeb powered blog, Flickr, Twitter, or other source), and HTML snippets for embedding your own HTML code or that of other services. While some of these, like Google AdSense or HTML snippets, aren't new, they all are useful features for novice Web designers or anyone who just wants to add these features easily. All of the widgets are simple drag-and-drop operations and work fairly well to help further customize a site or offer services commonly found on the Web.

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A final feature worth noting is Facebook notifications. Beyond iPhoto, iWeb is another place that Apple has joined the Facebook bandwagon, allowing the software to automatically post a link to your site whenever you make changes. It's a nice touch, though perhaps not the most necessary feature, since sharing a link on Facebook is pretty simple.

Final Thoughts

If you're a Mac user and use even one of the iLife applications, chances are that you'll find at least one new feature worth the US$79 cost of upgrading to iLife '09. Most users will find that iPhoto and iMovie combined are an incredible value. If you or a member of your family is interested in learning the piano or guitar, the basic instruction offered in GarageBand itself is more than worth the price, considering the cost of lessons or self-instruction books and DVDs. The one caveat is that if you have an older Mac, you should verify that you will be able to run the features you want. Though iLife '09 will run on many recent Macs -- a G4 Mac running at 867 MHz is the base requirement -- it does require an Intel Core Duo or higher Mac for some features such as Learn to Play, or a G5 or Intel Mac for others that are part of iMovie '09.

All in all, it's an upgrade that for most users is going to be well worth the US$79 price.