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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.

The next most significant upgrade in iLife '06 comes in GarageBand. This music-mixing program's new podcast studio lets you produce your own podcasts, including sound effects, background music and artwork, then publish them online (with a .Mac account) in just a few clicks. You don't even need a special microphone -- the one built into a new iMac sounded fine. But you do need to learn the vocabulary and grammar of GarageBand's complex interface.

The video half of iLife -- iMovie HD, which edits video footage, and iDVD, which creates DVDs of your iMovies and iPhoto albums -- didn't change much in last year's release and doesn't advance much this year, either. The new iMovie '06 can create video podcasts, apply some Hollywood-grade visual effects and open multiple projects at once.

But it's also picked up stability issues in this release. IMovie HD crashed several times on one of the new Intel-powered iMacs and also exhibited bizarre but ultimately harmless visual glitches, such as when video being copied from a camcorder appeared in a ghostly, see-through shade of blue -- but looked fine in editing and afterward.

IDVD can now produce widescreen-formatted DVDs and includes a fresh set of Apple's beautiful DVD-menu themes. Busy videographers can use a "Magic iDVD" command to have the program automatically cook up a DVD for them. But the real draw here is iDVD's new support for non-Apple DVD burners; if you've added one to your Mac, iDVD won't ignore that hardware anymore.

The basic promise of iLife remains intact in this version: It lets you turn a hopelessly confused set of photos, video clips and words into creations -- photo books, blogs, Web pages, podcasts, home movies -- that have people saying "You really made that? Wow." These are the programs that most other developers try and fail to match; a Windows refugee who buys a new Mac and starts discovering iLife '06 will probably be delighted.

But if you've already paid for iLife '05 and don't have a hankering for podcasting or blogging, you should think hard about jumping on this year's release.

The new version of iPhoto provides real benefits, but you can't buy that separately from the rest of the suite. Meanwhile, Apple doesn't offer any discount to buyers of older versions (only people who bought a new Mac Jan. 10 or later are eligible for a cheap $10 upgrade). And the company isn't cutting any breaks for subscribers to .Mac, even though much of iLife '06 doubles as an ad for its service.

Instead of upgrading to iLife '06, you could add a few cheap shareware or freeware media programs to fill in the blanks of older versions of iLife -- for instance, iPhoto utilities can split up a too-large iPhoto library, speeding up that program's performance, while non-Apple Web editors offer far more design creativity than iWeb.

Or you could just wait until the inevitable iLife '07 arrives.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.

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