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Sorting through the many options for photo and video editing

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 3:57 PM

In the dreams of people who write photo- and video-editing software, we all take time and care to edit our multimedia output into thoughtfully curated productions that strangers willingly sit through.

That must be a nice universe in which to live. Unfortunately, in this one things are a little messier. Picture and movie files pile up on our hard drives just as their analog equivalents did in shoeboxes; a photo or video editor for busy home users needs to be more concise than complete.

Apple has been providing one answer to that need since 2004 with its iLife set of multimedia applications; in October it shipped iLife '11, free on new Macs, and $49 for older models running the 10.6 Snow Leopard release of OS X.

Then, in 2008, Microsoft jumped into the game when it began offering a free array of media and Internet programs under its Windows Live brand. Its latest, Windows Live Essentials 2011, shipped for Windows Vista and Windows 7 in September and comes preinstalled on many new computers.

Both iLife and Windows Live Essentials do far more than edit photos and videos. Apple's suite adds the GarageBand music program, the iDVD disc-authoring software and the blog app iWeb (the last two offer no meaningful changes). A full Windows Live Essentials installation will throw in such optional components as Windows Live Mail, an online file-syncing tool called Windows Live Mesh, the Writer blogging application and Family Safety parental-control software.

For many home users, Apple's iLife and iMovie and Microsoft's Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker define these bundles - with the photo applications taking precedence.

Apple's iPhoto does more, overall, than Photo Gallery. Its recast interface makes organizing pictures a little easier by surfacing such details as the people and geographic locations tagged in a photo that formerly resided in dialog boxes. (As before, iPhoto will offer to label faces for you after you've identified a few.)

Other functions lost out in Apple's iPhoto rearrangement. Two important ones, rotating pictures taken with the camera held vertically and splitting "events" (iPhoto's automatically-generated groupings of photos taken in the same period of time), require additional clicks. And iPhoto '11 doesn't offer any new editing tools beyond an extra set of graphic effects.

Apple seems to have put most of its effort into iPhoto's sharing software. You can use it to post pictures to your Facebook profile, and then watch friends add comments while still in iPhoto. If you'd rather stick to print, you can order fancy, but pricey ($2.99 each), "letterpress" greeting cards in addition to iPhoto's usual menu of printed products.

Microsoft's Photo Gallery doesn't stress organization, assuming that you're usually content to view photos by date. Although it catches up to iPhoto with its own face-detection and geotagging features, the latter only lets you type in a place name instead of selecting it from a map.

Aside from a red-eye-removal tool that, unlike Apple's, can't fix every eyeball in a shot at once, Microsoft's editing features stand on a par with Apple's. But a "Create" menu hides two thoughtful features absent from its competitor: Panorama stitches together multiple photos into a larger, single image, while Photo Fuse lets you merge shots of the same subject to combine their best parts.

This year's version of Photo Gallery expands its sharing options, but its clunky Facebook-uploading feature requires you to log into a Windows Live account first. In a test upload, it volunteered to make my pictures visible to everyone on the site.

Printing remains a weak spot for Photo Gallery. Although Microsoft gives a choice of five print-ordering sites (CVS, Fujifilm, Snapfish, Kodak and Shutterfly), it provides scant information about their pricing or what sort of books and cards you can order.

Apple has a bigger lead in video editing - among people inclined to put time into that task. With its latest update to iMovie, it may be nearing the depth of features it provided in this program before delivering a rewritten, far simpler version in 2007. The new iMovie '11 allows you to add slow-motion, fast-forward and instant-replay segments; make far more precise adjustments of the soundtrack (including such silly effects as "Multi-Tune," which imitates the pitch-distorting tricks of the commercial Auto-Tune program); and even create Hollywood-style trailers to advertise your masterpiece.

I suspect most users will get more out of its Themes feature, which includes prefab collections of title screens, visual effects and credits that let you quickly dress up a clip.

IMovie '11 can upload to more sites than iPhoto, from Facebook to such less-obvious choices as Vimeo and CNN's iReport. But test uploads to YouTube and Facebook required two tries to go through.

Windows Live Movie Maker - which got a major upgrade just last year - is plainer by comparison. There are fewer visual effects to play with and no audio tweaks at all, and it provides no useful layer of organization beyond standard file folders.

But to slap together a clip, add opening and closing credits and upload the file - to Facebook and Yahoo's Flickr in addition to YouTube and SkyDrive - this program will do fine. If only Microsoft were as open-minded with this program's mobile-device export options: It comes with presets to save a file for Windows Phone and Zune devices and nothing else, a choice that suggests that Movie Maker's developers should spend some time outside Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus.

Which suite should you get? Whichever one will run on your computer. But be aware of what features each contender leaves out - and hope that the developers do some judicious borrowing in their next release.

robp@washpost.com

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