Apple iLife '09

27th Jan 2009 | 16:13

Apple iLife '09

Preview: The latest version of Apple's creativity suite gets the hands-on treatment

Hands-on preview: By far the most exciting announcement during Phil Schiller's Keynote address at the 2009 Macworld Expo & Conference in January was the new '09 version of iLife.

While it's not been the most equally balanced of updates we've seen in the suite's long history (with some iLife apps getting major enhancements and others remaining relatively untouched), it once again pushes the boundaries of what's possible on your Mac.

In the '09 edition, iPhoto and iMovie both get the lion's share of the cool new features. GarageBand, meanwhile, comes in a close second and iWeb gets a small, but necessary, enhancement. iDVD however remains unchanged, which is perhaps indicative of the way everyone is moving towards online services, such as MobileMe, as a better way to share their creations.

The final version of iLife '09 was due for release at the end of the month, but we hunkered down and spent a good couple of hours on the Apple stand, where we could get hands-on with an almost complete preview version.

You can expect our full review next month once we've had longer to test the product, but for now let's start with a look at the new version of iPhoto…

iPhoto '09

iPhoto '09 introduces two new additions, called Faces and Places, which help you organise and search for your photos. These join Photos and Events in the Library section on the left of the main screen.

Faces uses face-detection technology to identify people in your photos, and then goes through your photo library organising all the shots containing the selected faces into albums.

The Faces albums don't move the actual photos, which remain in whatever album they lived in before, so they function effectively as smart albums.

As you'd expect from Apple, Faces is extremely easy to use. Simply find a good photo of somebody in your library, say it's somebody called Amy, and click on the Name button in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. iPhoto will place a square around every face it recognises in the photo and invite you to enter their name.

You type in 'Amy' under her face, and now when you click on Faces a smart album called Amy can be seen.

Inside Amy's smart album you'll see photos from your whole iPhoto library that iPhoto thinks are also of Amy. To help iPhoto get accurate you can confirm whether the first few photos are correct or incorrect. This can lead to more matches appearing straight away.

Click Done and iPhoto goes through your entire photo library looking for photos that it thinks are Amy. Of course, you can remove incorrect matches manually. The keen-eyed observer will have noticed that during Phil's keynote he demoed Faces using well-taken shots of people looking directly at the camera. Our first thought was that it probably wouldn't work so flawlessly with our own, slightly worse, pictures!

To get a feel for how well Faces would work on 'normal' photos we found a few pictures of a skater in the iPhoto library, on the iMac we had access to, and tried it on him. He wasn't looking directly at the camera in any of the shots, and also wore a helmet. Unfortunately, Faces failed to work at all on him.

Just for fun we also decided to experiment with a picture of a dog with similar results, so don't expect to be able to start cataloguing your pets any time soon. So, at this point we expect Faces to only work well on photos of people looking at the camera.

Going Places

Places is a feature that makes use of the geotagging information included in many photos these days. You can add location information to your photos, but to get the most out of Places you need a camera that includes a GPS chip, like the Nikon D3 or the iPhone 3G, that automatically puts the GPS location details into your photos.

Click on the new i (for 'information') icon at the bottom-right of any photo containing GPS data and you will see a map showing where it was taken. The same thing works for Events too, and you get to see where all the photos in that event were taken on the map.

Click on Places in Library and you'll see a map of the world with pins showing all the locations you've taken shots in. Pan around and zoom into this map with ease and click on the pins to see the photos. It's a great way to find photos from your holidays, and there's also a column view that enables you to narrow your search down by the locations available in your photo library. This is the real use of Places – a great new way for finding your photos.

Faces and Places are the big new features of iPhoto '09, but there's also a few new buttons to be found on the main interface in the form of MobileMe, Facebook, Flickr and Email, which provide you with integrated upload to the various galleries, and quicker access to emailing photos.

These seem to work well, and uploading was simply a case of selecting a few photos and hitting the button. Our pictures were then online in seconds. A really great feature is that the Facebook uploader also retains any Faces information you've already added to your photos, tagging the name on the Facebook page, which cuts down on the amount of work you'd need to do later.

If somebody else then identifies other people in the photos this information is brought back into iPhoto the next time it syncs with Facebook and your Faces are updated – very impressive!

While we're on the subject of being impressed, the new enhanced full-screen Slideshow themes are definitely in the same ballpark, particularly the punchy Shatter effect, which generated a well deserved round of gasps and whoops during Phil's keynote.

There are several themes on offer – Shatter, Classic, Sliding Panels, Snapshots and Scrapbook – and they all offer exciting and vibrant new ways to show off your photos to friends. With these themes at your disposal your slideshows aren't going to put anybody to sleep anymore, especially when combined with a rocking soundtrack.

We particularly liked the ability to use a filmstrip at the bottom of the screen to jump to any photo in the slideshow. Another feature we especially liked was the ability to sync your slideshows with your iPod touch or iPhone complete with Themes, so the next time you want to show people your latest family photos you can do it with a proper slideshow, instead of having to fumble your way through your photo gallery manually.

iPhoto Books

Finally, there's an update to iPhoto's Books. These are the gorgeous bound photo books that you can create in iPhoto and then order from Apple. In the '09 version of iPhoto you can now print onto the hard cover of the book itself, not just the dustflap.

If you use the Autoflow button to automatically populate your book with your photos, then you'll find that iPhoto automatically adds in a map showing where your photos were taken, provided they had location data. Alternatively, in the Layout menu you now have the option of adding a Map – perfect for books of your latest holidays.

You can search for pretty much any location in the world and just drop a pin on it, much as you would on Google Maps. There's also an option to draw lines between locations on your map, indicating where your trip started and where it finishes.

We also found that the Adjust panel in iPhoto '09 has had a few new features added, including a check-box called Avoid saturating the skin tones, which prevents users from ruining their photos when they're playing with the levels.

Read our full review of iPhoto '09

iMovie '09

While iPhoto '09 may have got the most crowd-pleasing new features, iMovie '09 has had the most additions. First a little bit of history. With iMovie 7 (also called iMovie '08, confusingly) Apple introduced a new way of editing your video clips compared to the previous iMovie 6 HD, and was completely re-written from the ground up, making it effectively the first version of an entirely new product, rather than version 7 of an existing project.

Like most first versions it was somewhat light on features. The new way of working was certainly quicker, if all you wanted to do was make a simple movie of your last holiday, but it lacked some of the finesse, like video effects, which iMovie 6 HD was famous for. Well, the good news is that now effects are back.

You'll find old favourites like Aged Film and X-Ray on offer along with some new ones. Even more impressively, the video effects don't take any time to render, like they used to, now you simply add them to a clip and they're applied instantly.

Also making a re-appearance from iMovie 6 HD in iMovie '09 are Themes. These make it easier for you to create a great looking movie without having to know too much about titles and transitions, since they are all worked out for you. There are six themes on offer, and you simply apply the theme to your current project and iMovie puts in transitions between your clips and a great opening title. You can, of course, still edit your project and add in more theme-specific effects and transitions. You can also change your theme using the Set Theme button.

Even more eye-candy is provided by the introduction of Maps. These provide gorgeous animations of start and end points on a globe, making them ideal for your holiday movies.

Cover Flow has been added to iMovie '09, so you can browse through all your video projects as easily as you can browse through albums on iTunes. There's also support for greenscreen. Shoot something against a green background, then drop it onto a clip and it plays as an alpha channel over the top of the original clip, a bit like the background effects in iChat.

The most dramatic improvement to the way the program works though is in editing, an area that many people found fiddly in iMovie '08. Now, if you drop one clip on top of another you get a new menu with the options for Replace, Insert and Audio only. Replace replaces the original clip with the new one, while Insert splits the original clip at the point of your cursor. Insert is going to be useful, but the Audio only option is even more interesting. Using Audio only you can add just the audio from a clip to the original video. So, what used to be a lengthy process of extracting audio files from clips then adding them to others is now a simple case of drag and drop.

iMovie '09 is a lot easier to work with in other areas. Instead of all the confusing array of different buttons that appear on a clip in iMovie 7, like trim, fine tune, crop, audio adjustment and video adjustment, there's now only one button to press on each clip, which gives you access to an Actions menu that contains all these choices plus the new Precision Editor.

The Precision Editor opens up a new window that occupies the bottom half of the screen, showing the start of your selected clip and the end of the previous clip. You can now fine-tune the exact point of transition between the two clips.

At first glance you think the Precision Editor is going to be horrendously complicated to use, but really it's simplicity itself, and we felt at home with it in minutes. You can also click the Audio button inside the Precision Editor to adjust the audio of the clip separately, so the audio from the first clip can continue past the video cut-off point. You can also use the Precision Editor with transitions too.

We're impressed with this new tool, since it cures one of our biggest bugbears with iMovie '08 – the clumsy way we had to trim clips to achieve the same results. It's not quite multi-track video editing (for that you still need to step up to Final Cut Express), but it's the next best thing.

The rather slim selections of Titles in iMovie '08 has been increased in iMovie '09, and they now come with a selection of nicely animated backgrounds. There are also new options accessible via the new Actions menu for adjusting how fast a clip plays, and for playing it in reverse.

Finally, we come to perhaps the most impressive new feature of iMovie '09 – video stabilisation. When shooting video on the move we occasionally end up with footage that's ruined because the camera is bouncing around. Video stabilisation corrects this using special technology that compares each frame of the video to the previous frame and the subsequent frame to work out how best to remove the camera shake. In the examples we saw it worked well, but bear in mind that unlike the video effects you can't apply video stabilisation instantly. It will take four times the length of your shot to render the video stabilisation onto it.

You can also add video stabilisation as you are importing your footage from your camcorder, rather than afterwards.

Read our full review of iMovie '09

GarageBand

GarageBand is perhaps the most powerful application in the iLife suite, and it's got an exciting new addition in the '09 version – Lessons. These come in two forms: Basic Lessons and Artists Lessons.

Basic Lessons offer 18 free videos that will teach you how to play guitar and piano, while the Artist Lessons cost $4.99 (UK price is still to be confirmed) each and can be downloaded from the iTunes Store.

The famous artists who will be on hand to help you include Sting, Sarah McLachlan, Fall Out Boy, Norah Jones, Colbie Cailllat, Sara Bareilles, John Fogerty, OneRepublic and Ben Folds.

We had a lot of fun playing around with the Artists Lessons – you can choose the view of the guitar they're holding and once you get to the stage of playing the whole song along with them (and their band) you can access a mixer to take different tracks out of the audio mix, so you can silence Sting's voice and just listen to his guitar if you really wanted to (something we're sure many readers will have wanted to do for years!).

There's also an intriguing Open in GarageBand button you can press, but in the Preview version we tried this wasn't functional, so it wasn't clear if you got access to the entire song in GarageBand, to re-mix, or not. Either way, it looks like it will be possible to record yourself playing along with the legends.

Finally, added to this latest version, are some new guitar effects, that recreate five classic guitar amplifiers. You'll also notice that the splash screen opener in GarageBand has also changed, making RingTone options for your iPhone much more accessible and easy to create.

Read our full review of GarageBand

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