Apple's iLife Overhaul Proves Worthwhile

New GarageBand, iMovie and iPhoto offer improved editing and sharing options.

Any business or other organization of size will over time build up a substantial library of media depicting and supporting its activities. Sometimes that media is just a historical record of activities and events. These used to be kept in dusty file cabinets in a corner of a marketing or PR department, but today they are more likely to take digital form. The nice thing about digital archives is that they are easy to catalog, distribute and use, with the right tools.

A simple solution for some outfits may be iLife '11, the latest version of the Apple creative tools for nonprofessional use. Despite the consumer-oriented focus of the iLife suite, it's suitable for all but the most demanding business uses. The suite's primary components include GarageBand for audio editing, iMovie for video editing, and iPhoto for managing collections of still images and videos.

GarageBand '11 provides a basic set of audio editing features, along with a polished collection of music creation tools. New in this release are Flex Time, which allows the user to change individual notes in a track by clicking on the audio wave-form, and Groove Matching, which allows one to select a given track and match that track's rhythm to the other tracks of a project.

GarageBand '11 also includes new guitar amplifiers and stomp-box effects, 22 new basic lessons for guitar and piano, and a "How Did I Play?" feature that monitors one's progress through a lesson. I found it relatively easy to use GarageBand's editing tools to add a bit of conga drumming as an introduction to a ringtone, and to adjust other properties of the music.

For simple video editing, iMovie '11 presents users with a fairly intuitive interface that allows users to work with a project as a single entity, as well as individual media files. A new People Finder feature scans videos to mark sections containing faces to find suitable clips for movies or trailers, while new themes that add the feel of professional news or sports presentations are included as well. On the subject of trailers, this release of iMovie offers 15 genres of trailer themes, complete with graphics and titles, and an appropriate soundtrack. It took me just a few minutes to stitch together some movie clips that I had shot earlier this year, and add openings, transitions and background music to the project.

Image file management is the province of iPhoto '11, which adds new sharing features, including one-click posting to Facebook, and improved tools for creating professional-looking cards and books from one's photo library. Full-screen views of the library now include options for viewing by recognized faces, tagged places or date-sorted events, and new slideshow themes allow users to show off their photos with even more style than before.

One important issue turned up in the middle of my evaluation of iPhoto '11. When it is installed as an upgrade, the data that defines the existing photo library must undergo a format conversion; users should download the iPhoto 9.0.1 update from Apple before trying to use a "very large" library with iPhoto '11, to avoid what the company calls an "extremely rare" chance of data loss.

What Apple means by "very large" isn't clear; I can only infer that this means a library with hundreds of thousands of photos. In comparison, my largest library holds a relatively modest 25,570 images, and the upgrade took less than eight minutes; extremely large libraries can take an hour or more, according to the installation dialogs.

Apple includes as part of iLife '11 what appear to be the final (or near-final) versions of its tools for putting one's finished projects into distributable form: iDVD 7.1 for disc-based video, and iWeb 3.0.4 for managing Web-based content. Owners of iLife '09 will recognize iWeb 3.0.4 as the current release of that suite's iteration of iWeb, while the iDVD included with iLife '11 is a minor update to the iLife '09 version of iDVD.

Apple bundles iLife with Mac hardware at no additional cost; for upgrades or fresh installs, single-user licenses are available at $49, and five-user Family Packs, which are restricted to a single household, are available at $79. Strangely, Apple does not offer a download-only option; all sales involve physical media, even when one orders the software online. The Mac App Store, scheduled to debut in November, is expected to rectify this shortcoming in Apple's fulfillment methods.