All Mac users are familiar with iLife because it's included free with every new Mac. But the new version may surprise even the most stalwart Mac users. "This is the biggest jump in iLife since we introduced it." So said Steve Jobs when he unveiled iLife '08 last month.

Programs such as iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD, are the ideal tools for people who want to use their Mac to create and organise digital photos, music and video. This powerful, yet easy to use software suite is one of the key features that attracts new users to the Mac. But although Mac sales have flourished in the last couple of years, the iLife suite has actually been neglected during that time – with no significant updates since 'Life '06 was introduced almost two years ago.

Well, Apple's made up for that now with iLife '08. There are major upgrades for iPhoto, GarageBand and iWeb that make them more powerful than ever, as well as keeping up to date with new developments such as the rise of YouTube. This new release isn't without controversy, though – for with iMovie '08 Apple has gone so far as to scrap the previous program altogether and release something entirely new. So read on to find out if that two-year wait was worth it.

In the picture

In some ways, iPhoto has become a victim of its own success. The program makes it so easy to manage large collections of digital photos that, according to Apple, it's now quite common for people to load thousands upon thousands of photos into it. Managing such a large number of photos can be a bit of a chore – even with the program's ability to group photos into Albums, as you still have to sort through all those photos and choose the contents of each Album yourself.

So Apple has added a new feature called 'Events' that lets iPhoto do most of the donkey-work for you. The 'Source' panel has been reorganised so that instead of simply showing a 'Library' it now includes two new items labelled 'Photos' and 'Events'. The Photos item is the same as the old 'Library' – click on it and you'll see previews of every single photo stored in the program. However, when you import photos into iPhoto it will now automatically group all photos taken on the same day into a new Event. When you click on Events you will just see the first photo in that group, which now acts as a kind of preview for the entire Event. However, you can quickly skim through all the other photos in that Event simply by rolling the mouse gently over that first photo. This is a really clever idea, as it effectively means that iPhoto is doing all the work of organising your photos for you, while also making it easy to skim through your photos to find what you want.

If you've got a mixture of photos that were taken on the same day – perhaps a wedding ceremony and then a reception party afterwards – you can easily split them into separate Events. You can also merge multiple Events to combine sets of photos taken over a period of several days. We actually suspect that many people will now stop using the Albums feature altogether and just let iPhoto organise everything into Events for them instead. We also like the ability to choose exactly which photos you import from your camera, because this will save time weeding them out later.

The editing tools in iPhoto have been improved too. The Crop tool now displays a grid that illustrates the 'rule of thirds' (dividing the picture into a 3 x 3 grid so that you can centre the main subject properly), and there are also new tools for adjusting highlights and shadows. One nice touch is the ability to adjust settings such as brightness and contrast for one picture, and then copy those new settings onto other photos as well. This will be handy if you've got a set of photos that were all taken in the same lighting conditions, and which all need the same adjustments.

Unfortunately, some of the other editing tools – such as the red-eye removal – are still rather crude, and iPhoto is still no replacement for a photo-editing program such as Photoshop Elements. It's important to remember, though, that iPhoto is primarily a tool for managing your photo library, rather than a true editing program – and on that score this upgrade works extremely well.

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Going to the movies

"This one's really interesting…" said Steve Jobs when he introduced iMovie '08. "What happened is that one of Apple's video engineers went on holiday and when he returned home he decided that he wanted to knock up a holiday movie in just half an hour or so. After a few hours of working with the previous version of iMovie he decided it simply couldn't be done. So he wrote an entirely new program that offered a completely new way of editing video."

Well, there's nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that instead of iMovie '08, what we've got here is more like NewMovie 1.0 – and like any 1.0 product it has a few rough edges. More than a few, in fact.

The first thing you'll notice is that the interface actually looks more crowded and complicated than before, with the workspace divided into about half a dozen different panels rather than the three simple panels of previous versions. The Timeline panel has been replaced by a new Library panel that – like the Library in the new iPhoto – allows you to view all the video clips on your Mac at once, and also to organise them into 'Events'.

The most impressive feature here is the ability to 'scrub' through individual clips – just glide the mouse across any clip and you can instantly preview the entire clip to locate the scene you want. And, rather than laboriously trimming individual clips in the Monitor window, you can now just click-and-drag on a clip to quickly select a specific section of the clip. Once that's done you simply drag your selected clips up into the Project panel, which acts as a kind of Storyboard where you organise clips into the required sequence.

These particular new features do work well, but in other ways the new iMovie actually feels quite clumsy. We spent ages trying to figure out how to simply select a single clip in its entirety (it turns out there's an option for this tucked away in the program's Preferences panel). We were also frustrated by the inability to quickly select multiple clips simply by using C-Click.

The lack of the traditional iMovie Timeline makes it harder to zoom in on specific editing points, or to edit elements such as the audio waveform track, and the number of transitions and special effects available is really quite paltry. No wonder the internet forums are buzzing with complaints from iMovie users who see this as a 'downgrade'.

To be fair, features such as the scrubbing preview and click-and-drag trimming are genuinely innovative. Yet we can't help thinking that Apple has thrown the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning many of the features that made the original iMovie so easy to use.

NEXT PAGE: GarageBand > >

Musical genius

GarageBand was an instant hit with Mac-owning musicians when it was first released, due to the simple fact that it was a lot easier to use than most existing music software. However, GarageBand is still a little intimidating for those of us that don't have much experience of creating our own music.

So, to make it a bit more accessible to complete beginners, GarageBand '08 includes a new feature called 'Magic GarageBand'. Like 'Magic iMovie' and 'Magic iDVD' this feature is designed to help you create a complete GarageBand project in a matter of seconds. Click on the 'Magic GarageBand' option shown in the program's Welcome screen, and you'll see a list of nine musical genres, such as rock, funk, and reggae.

Each genre provides you with a readymade song that includes instruments such as guitar, bass, drums and piano. You can then modify that song by altering each instrument – perhaps using a thumb-slapping bass style for a funkier sound, or adding a twangy pedal guitar to a country song. The program's interface here is perfect – it simply displays a picture of a 'virtual stage' with each instrument in its place.

To change an instrument you just click on it with the mouse and select the new instrument from the options shown at the bottom of the screen. Apple says there are around 3,000 different permutations of instruments you can experiment with – just remember that the basic song you've chosen doesn't change. All that changes is the playing style of each instrument within that particular song.

On-stage magic

There's also a spot for you in this virtual band. Click on the spotlit area at the front of the stage and GarageBand will add another track to the song into which you can record your own vocals or instrumental parts. Finally, just click Create Project and GarageBand will assemble all the musical tracks and effects together and then display them in its main editing window so that you explore your new song and experiment with different sounds. This is a great idea for encouraging new users to experiment with GarageBand so that they can then move on and create their own original compositions.

However, GarageBand '08 also includes a number of new features aimed at more experienced musicians. The audio quality has been improved, with 24-bit recording options and a new visual equaliser that provides fine control over frequency adjustments. One clever new feature is the ability to record multiple takes within a specific marked section of a song. The program will automatically loop through this section over and over so that you can keep recording your vocal or your amazing guitar solo until you get it right. And once you've finished recording a song you can quickly divide it into sections such as verse and chorus and move these around to alter the structure of the song.

These new advanced features make GarageBand '08 a must-have upgrade for existing users, while Magic GarageBand will encourage even complete beginners to start making their own music. And that, after all, is what the Mac is all about.

NEXT PAGE: iWeb > >

Web-slinger

The first version of iWeb was very easy to use – as you'd expect from Apple. However, it was fairly limited in that it simply allowed you to create straightforward web pages containing text, photos and maybe a bit of video. But the web is changing rapidly, so previous upgrades have seen Apple adding new features such as blogs and podcasts to iWeb's armoury. That trend continues with iWeb '08, which allows you to add a variety of even more sophisticated content to your websites.

The most important new feature in iWeb '08 is the ability to add 'widgets' to your web pages. The term 'widgets' is intentionally vague, as it can include anything from Google Maps to YouTube videos or newsfeeds taken from other websites. If, for instance, you find a video that you like on YouTube you'll notice that the YouTube page also displays a little 'snippet' of HTML – the programming code used to design that particular page. You can now copy that snippet straight off the YouTube page and paste it onto a page in iWeb '08. That video clip will then play on your own web page, and you can even preview the video playing within iWeb simply by double-clicking on the video clip on the page.

As we just mentioned, you can include features such as Google Maps on your iWeb pages as well, and there's also an option for using the Google AdSense system to earn some cash by running ads on your website.

A simple 'Set Up AdSense' command in the File menu helps you to quickly sign up for an AdSense account. Once that's done you just need to design an interesting website that will attract lots of visitors and let Google automatically feed the ads to your web site (we suspect that this feature alone will sell quite a few copies of iLife '08).

Features such as these make it really easy to create exciting and professional (and hopefully lucrative) web sites without any need to master HTML programming. Other new features include the ability to use your own personal domain names with your .Mac account. So your website can have an address such as www.macworld.co.uk rather than www.mac.com/macworld. Previously you would have needed to pay for an account with a non-Apple web hosting company to use a personalised domain name like this.

iWeb '08 is both versatile and impressively easy to use, and can be recommended to anyone that wants to try and create their own personal website.

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iDVD is boring

Looking at the new iMovie and iWeb – not to mention products such as Apple TV – it's obvious that Apple is now focusing on enabling us to get involved in web 2.0-style creation – using the internet for sharing and viewing video, rather than burning videos onto something as quaint and old-fashioned as a DVD disk. As a result, iDVD has rather been somewhat overlooked this time around.

The one key improvement is the program's performance – it definitely feels faster and more responsive when editing or previewing your DVDs, even on a humble Mac mini. Apple also says that it has improved the program's video processing to provide professional level video quality.

There are some new themes and buttons for designing your DVD menus, and the Drop Zone Editor has been tidied up so that you can add multiple pictures or video clips to your menus more quickly. But that's about it – the improved performance is welcome, but there's nothing genuinely new in here. Which is a shame.

Apple iLife 08: Specs

  • Apple Mac OS X 10.4.9, Intel/G4/G5 processor, 512MB RAM, 3GB available disk space, DVD drive, QuickTime 7.2
  • Apple Mac OS X 10.4.9, Intel/G4/G5 processor, 512MB RAM, 3GB available disk space, DVD drive, QuickTime 7.2

OUR VERDICT

On the whole, we have very few criticisms of iLife. As ever, it represents superb value for money and the new versions of iPhoto, GarageBand and even iWeb are impressive (barring a few iWeb glitches of which you need to be aware). Even the minor upgrade to iDVD is worth having. iMovie '08, however, sticks out like a sore thumb. It may indeed offer a new approach to video-editing, but that doesn't alter the fact that – in its current form, at least – it simply isn't ready to act as a replacement for iMovie '06. Hopefully future iterations of this program will bring it up to scratch – and at least it doesn't erase the old version when you install it.

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