The most important letter in Apple's alphabet must be "i" -- not just for its iMac and iBook computers, but for its flock of i-named multimedia applications. ITunes, iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD -- sold with the Garage Band music mixer in a bundle called iLife -- turn a Mac into the center of a digital lifestyle, letting people tap into digital music, photography and movies with uncommon ease.
Apple updated this set of programs last month with the release of iLife '05 and added a second set of "iApps," called iWork '05. Like many software-suite updates, these two only offer sweeping changes in one of their constituent applications. In iLife, the signature release is a much-improved iPhoto; in iWork, the marquee attraction is Pages, Apple's first new publishing program in years.
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___Personal Tech E-letter___ Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro answers reader e-mail and expands on themes he touches on in his weekly newspaper column. The e-mail version of this weekly feature includes links to the latest gadget and software reviews.
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The new iPhoto is by far the better of these two additions, mending three of the bigger failings of this otherwise excellent picture-album application.
First, it is now much easier to sort and find your pictures: You can group albums in folders, assign keywords to pictures with a simple drag-and-drop step, and browse your entire collection in a calendar view that arranges pictures by the year, month or day they were taken. These changes may only catch up to features in Adobe's Photoshop Album and Elements programs, but at least Apple knew enough to borrow wisely.
Second, iPhoto 5 includes far more useful image editing tools. Instead of just applying automated fixes, you can correct a variety of flaws -- from skewed alignments to mis-timed exposure -- with simple slider controls. These take away most of the reasons to use other picture editors. (If you don't have a widescreen monitor, however, the button to access these controls can be obscured; click on an arrow icon in iPhoto's toolbar to expose it.)
Third, iPhoto has caught up to the prices and options of other photofinishing sites. You can buy 4-by-6 prints for just 19 cents each and can select from a bigger variety of softcover and hardcover photo books in three sizes, all of which (finally!) offer double-sided printing. Choosing from all these options and tweaking your book's layout, however, can eat up a huge chunk of time, thanks in part to the sluggishness of this part of iPhoto on older Macs -- and the buggy behavior I saw when I changed the typefaces of a book.
Slideshows also get a decent upgrade in iPhoto 5; you can add a wider range of transitions between slides, time them to match the length of a soundtrack, and copy them to Apple's iDVD program with one click.
Apple forgot to put the same effort into upgrading iPhoto's Web-publishing features. You're still restricted to using Apple's $99-a-year .Mac service, even though the Web hosting service offered there lacks the essential option of restricting access to your photo albums. If you don't want the world gawking at the pictorial record of your fantasy-football draft or bachelorette party, you'll need to use other services, many of which are free but don't offer the same ease of uploading from within iPhoto itself.
The rest of iLife offers minor improvements in comparison. If you can drop $3,300 and up for a high-definition camcorder, iMovie HD's support for high-def video will be welcome, but otherwise it's at least a year from relevancy. (The "Magic iMovie" feature, which automatically assembles footage into a flick, should be more useful in practice.) IDVD now supports DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-R and DVD-RW recordable media, not just DVD-R, and lets you dump camcorder footage straight to a disc, but otherwise functions much like its predecessor. Garage Band can now record multiple tracks at once and produce musical notation of the results.
If you buy a new Mac, iLife '05 comes free. Otherwise, it costs $79, $30 more than last year's version -- if you don't make movies or record music at home, that's a lot to pay for a better iPhoto.