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

iPhoto now scans photos for faces and uses geotagging to organize albums

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.

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.

iPhoto uses facial recognition technology to help organize photo libraries by faces you identify.

iPhoto uses facial recognition technology to help organize photo libraries by faces you identify.

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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.

Once a face is identified, iPhoto looks for that face in other photos and groups them together.

Once a face is identified, iPhoto looks for that face in other photos and groups them together.

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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.

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.

Another new iPhoto feature allows pictures to be grouped using GPS-like geocoding.

Another new iPhoto feature allows pictures to be grouped using GPS-like geocoding.

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Google maps built into iPhoto can help you track where photos were taken.

Google maps built into iPhoto can help you track where photos were taken.

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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.

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-fiction0-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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