For Popular Mac Bundles, Update Not an Upgrade

Thursday, February 5, 2009; Page D02

One of the better reasons to buy a Mac isn't Apple's computers or its Mac OS X operating system. It's iLife, the bundle of photo, movie and music programs that's been making most PCs' cobbled-together multimedia tools look obsolete since 2003.

A few years ago, Apple tried to repeat its success with iLife by launching a companion product, iWork, that ably combines word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. Now both iLife and iWork have received a round of updates, but the new versions don't yield the same satisfaction.

The new iLife '09 (free on new Macs and $79 otherwise; it requires OS X 10.5) features smart, if occasionally glitchy, upgrades. But iWork '09 ($49 on new Macs and $79 otherwise; it runs on the past two OS X editions) undermines less notable additions with an inept Web-based document-sharing feature.

With iLife, the headline attraction remains iPhoto, the album and editor that can now sort pictures by place and face.

The new iPhoto '09 can read "geotags" set by GPS-enabled cameras and lets you add your own with a Google Maps-driven interface. You can then try to identify friends; iPhoto will detect faces automatically, invite you to identify them and then look for people you've tagged in other photos.

That Faces feature, however, exposes how dumb computers can be at tasks humans handle effortlessly. IPhoto suggested that three clumps of rocks represented faces, while it missed mug shots of people wearing hats, sunglasses or ski goggles. It was even less accurate at finding photos of people I'd identified; it somehow thought it saw me in a shot of three bridesmaids. This program may get smarter about these things after a bug fix or three, but for now, be prepared to spend time correcting it.

The online sharing options added in iPhoto '09 -- this release now supports Facebook and Flickr-- could also use some fixes. For example, iPhoto repeatedly failed to read name tags set by Facebook friends on shots I'd uploaded to the social-networking site.

After iPhoto, iMovie gets the most attention in iLife '09. This update restores many features Apple took out of the video editor when it shipped the previous version; for instance, you can once again send a movie to iLife's iDVD (itself unchanged from before).

A new "stabilization" feature tries to smooth jitters caused by handheld recording but can't work miracles. After 22 minutes of processing, a two-minute clip shot with a digital camera's video mode still exhibited plenty of wobbles.

GarageBand, iLife's music editor, can now be a music teacher, too, thanks to a series of lessons in basic guitar and piano playing. (They require a Mac with a dual-core Intel processor.) You can also buy extra lessons for $4.99 each from such name-brand musicians as Sting and Norah Jones, although tutorials in other instruments (bass guitar, drums, kazoo, etc.) might have been more practical.

The iWeb home-page editor offers only two notable changes from previous releases: support for uploading a page to a site besides Apple's MobileMe and a wider set of "widgets" to a page to add such interactive functions as RSS news feeds and countdown timers.

In iWork '09, the Pages word processor got the most attention. It borrows two useful features -- an outliner and a full-screen mode that blocks out distractions by hiding other applications and even Pages' menus and toolbars -- from competing programs. Smaller but still thoughtful changes to its interface include a live word count at the bottom of each document and a fonts menu that displays each item in its own typeface.

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