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

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

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iMovie includes new transitions and screen effects for even better-looking movies.

iMovie now includes new transitions and screen effects for even better-looking movies.

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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 $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.

You can purchase Learn to Play lessons from well-known artists through the GarageBand Lesson Store.

You can purchase Learn to Play lessons from well-known artists through through the GarageBand Lesson Store.

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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.

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.

GarageBand can create music for you based on instruments and genres you pick.

GarageBand can create music for you based on instruments and genres you pick.

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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.

GarageBand gives you a chance to tweak your songs with virtual amps and other equipment.

GarageBand gives you a chance to tweak your songs with virtual amps and other equipment.

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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.

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.

The best addition to iWeb is the ability to easily FTP files without needing a third-party app.

The best addition to iWeb is the ability to easily FTP files without needing a third-party app.

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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.

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 $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 $79 price.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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