Apple's Upgraded iLife Has Benefits, but It's No Bargain

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Not that many companies manage to persuade customers to pay for upgraded versions of their software every year. Tax-software developers always get away with it because Congress can't resist tinkering with the tax code. Makers of sports-simulation games usually do, thanks to the need to update player rosters and add new stadiums and arenas.

And though personal-finance developers try to pull this off, most users ignore them. When does anybody care if you're using Quicken 2005 instead of Quicken 2006?

Apple Computer Inc. accepted this challenge in 2004, when it began charging $49 for its multimedia programs with the release of iLife '04. Last year, it shipped iLife '05 and upped the price to $79. And now, iLife '05 has been retired by iLife '06, also $79.

This year's model has much in common with the last two: It brings major upgrades to iPhoto while making relatively few changes to iMovie, iDVD and GarageBand. But iLife '06 also adds one new program to the bundle, a blog- and home-page creator called iWeb. (iTunes, however, is sensibly gone from the bundle; Apple updates that free download far more than once a year.)

As a freebie on new Macs, the 2006 edition of iLife (it requires a G4, G5 or Intel-processor Mac running Mac OS X 10.3.9 or newer) is a pleasure overall, despite bugs and missing features. But as a $79 purchase -- especially if you anted up for last year's version -- it only makes sense in a handful of circumstances.

The most likely reason to upgrade would be if your old copy of iPhoto has begun sinking under the weight of your accumulated pictures. Apple says iPhoto 6 can store 10 times as many images as its predecessor, up to 250,000 photos. Even on a four-year-old iMac G4, iPhoto 6 felt distinctly swifter in everyday sorting and editing operations.

It also looks more streamlined, with a new interface that trims the old brushed-metal frame, leaving more room to inspect your photos. A full-screen mode wipes away even that minimal chrome, letting you eyeball and edit photos against a no-distraction black background. That mode also reveals an extraordinarily useful "compare" button to line up two to eight photos for inspection.

Although the new software doesn't offer new ways to sort or find pictures, it adds some ways to edit and share them. A new set of visual effects (for instance, selective blurring and color fading) catches up to those in such Windows-only programs as Google's Picasa, and you can now make and order calendars and greeting cards from Apple's site.

That calendar template shows off what Apple does better than most other computer companies -- orchestrating an array of software programs. Not only can you feature your own photos above each month or on any single day, you can also include friends' birthdays (as noted in Mac OS X's Address Book) and any personalized calendars (as stored in OS X's iCal).

IPhoto 6 adds a "photocasting" feature to share pictures online, but Apple's boneheaded implementation of a popular Web-publishing standard called Really Simple Syndication trips up most non-Apple software. Three RSS-compatible Web browsers (Firefox, Opera and a test release of Internet Explorer 7), two desktop RSS programs (Google Desktop and FeedReader) and RSS readers incorporated into Yahoo and Google's Web sites at first displayed only error messages. It took tweaking, sometimes non-obvious, to see the photos I'd published.

Photocasting requires a subscription to Apple's $99-a-year .Mac online service, as do many of iLife '06's new parts -- in particular, iWeb. This program's clean, classy templates make creating photo galleries or starting a blog a matter of dragging pictures into designated spots, substituting placeholder text with your own words, and clicking a "Publish" button. (Without a .Mac account, you need to use a separate file-transfer program to publish a page.)

The results look fantastic -- but they might seem less so once other Mac-folk start whipping up iWeb sites with the same designs as yours. IWeb can't create a page from scratch, edit one created in another program or even just save a customized copy of Apple's templates. The results feel like a frozen-dinner approach to Web design: You can jazz things up with some spices and herbs, then serve it on a nice plate, but it's still the same meal.

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