by: Josh Lowensohn on October 21, 2010
The bottom line: iLife '11 is a welcome and long-overdue update to Apple's suite of digital media applications. This year's version adds a handful of advanced features to iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand without making them more difficult to use. It's a shame iDVD and iWeb did not receive updates with this year's version, but with a slightly lower price for upgraders than in years past, iLife '11 still represents a good value to consumers looking for a set of tools for editing and sharing media. At $49, and close to two years since the last major update, we can easily recommend picking this up.
Editors' note: The initial version of iLife '11 had given some users problems, specifically with iPhoto '11 library upgrades. Affected users had lost some or all of their photo libraries. The initial version had also shipped without the calendar-making feature in iPhoto. Both of these issues have since been addressed with software updates. Also, iLife '11 contains upgrades of iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand, but not iDVD or iWeb. For the purposes of this review, we're not including those two in this write-up.
Apple iLife '11
Setup and interface
As usual, iLife comes preinstalled on new Mac computers, so if you just bought one of the just-introduced MacBook Airs, you already have the suite. Otherwise, Apple is offering an up-to-date program that lets recent buyers pick up the disc at a discounted price. Installation on our test machine, a recent-model unibody MacBook, took just less than 20 minutes and required no extra attention or restarts after beginning the process.
iLife '11 requires a Mac computer with an Intel processor, 1GB of RAM, Mac OS X 10.6.3 or higher, and 5GB of disc space. In reality, our upgrade required just over 4.2GB. As with previous versions, you can pick which applications you want to install, and which you don't, cutting down on installation time and disc-space use. This year's version cannot be installed on machines running Leopard, so you'll have to upgrade to the latest point release of OS X to put iLife '11 on your machine.
iPhoto continues to live on as Apple's consumer-oriented photo-editing software, second only to Aperture, which shares many of the same features, but is aimed at professional photographers. iPhoto, along with iMovie, GarageBand, iDVD, and iWeb, make up iLife as a suite of software that can be used to manage, edit, and share digital media.
iPhoto '11 hasn't changed much since the '09 version of the suite. Its core user interface remains largely unchanged except for an optional unified full-screen mode (letting you view events, faces, places, and your albums with fewer visual distractions) and more opportunities to share your work via Facebook or e-mail.
Veteran iPhoto users will enjoy iPhoto '11's thoughtful tweaks to the editing tools and the slideshow maker. Editing now gets handled in a sidebar that breaks down tasks into "quick fixes" and "effects," but keeps the "adjust" menu from previous versions. This tabbed interface makes it easy to hop around to different settings--a substantial change from the previous method, which had all of the controls underneath your photo or in small, floating menus. Though the new system takes up more screen real estate than the old one, it makes for less mucking about with menu placement.
The slideshow editor now has twice as many themes as iLife '09's version. The new themes, which include two variations of a 3D-ish hanging mobile, an aged look called Vintage Prints, folding picture origami, and a GPS-friendly theme called Places, all take advantage of Apple's Core Animation technology to bring some smooth-looking effects to your photos.
Out of the bunch, the Places slideshow is one of the most visually interesting additions. The slideshow scours the GPS data in your photos and downloads corresponding map tiles, then places your photos on top of these maps and adds a neat zooming effect as you move from place to place. This is a good way to encourage people to geotag their photos, which is done automatically on some cameras (including the iPhone), but which can also be done after the fact using iPhoto.
iPhoto '11 also gives sharing a healthy boost. Facebook integration, introduced in the previous version of the software, now runs much deeper. Besides allowing you to post a shot to a Facebook album, you can also very quickly post to your wall, make a new album, or make a shot your profile picture. However, you still need to log in to Facebook back on your browser to do things like reply to comments from other users.
Apple has also revamped iPhoto's photo e-mailing tool, which now mimics what you'd find in its iOS mobile software. Now, if you want to e-mail a photo, you compose your message right in the iPhoto software so that you don't have to fire up the standalone Mail application. Included are eight themed templates that automatically arrange any photos you've selected into a message. You're also given the option to simply add these photos as attachments.
In-app e-mailing works with all the same services you get in the standard Mac Mail application, including Windows Live Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and AOL Mail. You can even set up your e-mail account credentials from one of these places from within iPhoto. We can only hope more of Apple's applications adopt this simple addition.
Analog sharing has also been improved with a totally new bookmaking experience. To aid in book creation, Apple now uses its face-finding and photo-rating technology to help pick what photos belong in what parts of a book. For instance, if there's space in a book for a shot that spans two pages, iPhoto will automatically pick a photo that's rated highly and does not have people in it. It also breaks out photos from different days into different sections of the book, which is a small, but nice organizational touch for creating books of long trips.
iPhoto now also lets you print cards through Apple's printing service. These run the gamut from flat and folded photo cards, to the more expensive, but quite pretty, letterpress cards. No matter which version you pick, they can be customized and previewed within iPhoto, and ordered the same way as books. One thing to note here is that you are still limited to printing out your work through Apple, and not through third parties, as you can with plug-ins in Aperture. Though on the plus side, with iPhoto you can export a photo book as a PDF.
iPhoto continues to compete against a handful of competitors, notably Google's Picasa, which is offered up for free on both the Mac and PC, as well as a beta version for Linux users. This year's iPhoto additions arguably give it the edge in continuing to offer a more full-screen photo-viewing experience, and deeper online integration out of the box. That said, Google's integration of Picasa Web albums and the recent addition of Picnik's online photo editing mean you can do a lot more with your photos even when you're away from your computer.
Much like iPhoto, this year's version of iMovie looks a lot like the old one, but with the addition of some extra creative options, the biggest being movie trailer templates. These templates help you create short, thematic videos of friends, much like what you'd see in theaters. Other additions include sound-editing tools, a people finder that does a good job at spotting when people are in your shots, and new effects tools.
Movie trailers now exist alongside project themes, and as with the themes, the trailers provide a quick preview of what your movie will look and sound like with an example provided by Apple. Unlike basic themes, trailers are custom-tailored for a specific number of people based on how many the template has been made for. This runs from one person, all the way to six. You can, of course, go off script without the program chiding you.
Each template breaks down what kinds of clips you need, as well as how many people you need for each shot. A people detector scans your video to see who's in it and figures out how much of a person is in a shot based on how close you are to them, which is very helpful considering some shots are scripted for close-ups, whereas others need something farther out. Just like the image stabilizer, running the people finder tool on your videos can take some time, but if you plan on making movie trailers, it's well worth it.
We found trailers easy to create, as long as you have the right source footage. If you keep in mind that you might want to make a trailer while you're out shooting, you can plan those shots ahead of time. Even so, once iMovie has scanned your footage, you can turn just about anything into a trailer, even if it's slightly off from the storyboard. Expect to see a ton of these on YouTube.
What may end up being a much more well-used feature than movie trailers for most people are the new audio-editing controls, which Apple says was the top user-requested feature. This has been introduced to the program quite gracefully, with a button to toggle them on and off, and an audio waveform that highlights sections that are too loud. Balancing these high levels can be done in one of two ways: either dragging down the main volume for an entire clip, or selecting the segment of the waveform you want to change, and moving the level up and down.
Alongside the audio adjustments are a fun set of 19 audio effects that can be added to just one section of your audio, or the entire movie. These range from the rather mundane of making people sound like they're on a telephone or a shortwave radio, to giving them a robot or alien voice. You can also adjust their pitch up or down, which lends itself well to video high jinks.
This year's iMovie brings with it a few more visual effects and two new themes: one for sports and another for a news event. Much like the movie trailers, the themes include templates that let you add in things like reporter and player names that pop up as onscreen overlays. The new special effects join existing effects and transitions, and offer up instant replays, flash and holds, and jump cuts at music beat markers. This last one is one of the most fun to use, as you can create markers that match up to your background music. This only takes a few seconds to set up, and has a neat end effect. We can easily see the replay feature getting much more use, though, especially for parents who use the sports template, or people making videos of friends and family members wiping out.
When it comes time to export your masterpiece, iMovie provides a handful of new, online options that join YouTube, and MobileMe. These include Facebook, video host Vimeo and CNN's iReporter. All of these require a log-in, which then gives you service-specific options on privacy, export quality, and categorization.
GarageBand remains one of the most creative tools in the iLife suite, and the '11 version follows suit. New to this year's version are features that better teach you how to play, as well as fix any mistakes you might have made when using it as a music editor.
On the learning front, GarageBand has tweaked its lessons system to give you feedback on how well you did. If you're playing along with a song with an attached instrument, it now listens and gives you both real-time and post-song reports. Notes you miss are highlighted in red, and can be relistened to and replayed until you get it. The application also keeps a history of your practice sessions, and it can show you how your accuracy is coming along on any particular lesson.
Apple has also expanded the number of lessons available, and it has changed how you can approach them. Instead of having a system where you play through from the basics to the advanced items, you can pick whatever lesson you want, as long as you've downloaded it from the integrated music store. There are also new lessons available for the piano, which now includes pop and classical lesson packs.
These lessons are free of charge, they just take up disk space and time to download. The celebrity-guided lessons, on the other hand, run $5 a pop and walk you through how to play certain songs directly from the artist. This is no different from the '09 version of the software, with the exception that you can now get a rating of how well you did going through it. We'd definitely like to see more celebrity lessons in the GarageBand store, though, as they bring not just instructional value, but entertainment value, too.
Another neat addition to the learning aids is something called the Chord Trainer, which listens to how you're playing an attached guitar and can tell you whether you're hitting the right chords. It can run through minor and major open and barre chords, and lets you know if you hit it (or not) almost immediately. The chord trainer works hand-in-hand with the built-in guitar-tuning application. Using both of these in tandem, you can fairly easily learn what your fingers should be doing before moving on to the lessons section.
Even if you've had lessons, though, you might have a recording with a mistake or two, which is where GarageBand '11's other new features come into play. Apple has introduced Flex Time and Groove Matching, both of which let you make quick corrections to the timing on your recordings.
Flex Time lets you drag an element of a waveform to move it, or even extend it out. This lets you do things like change when a guitar note is strummed, or take that same strum and stretch it out. In practice this ends up working out well for notes that are reasonably spread apart, but less so for the ones that are close together. Nonetheless, GarageBand does a good job letting you make the adjustment, see how it will affect nearby notes, and letting you take a listen immediately afterward.
The other new feature that works with Flex Time is what Apple is calling Groove Matching. This takes all the tracks and matches them up to their rhythm to whichever one you designate as the groove track. Doing this is as easy as hitting a little star icon on the far left side of any track. You can then listen to the results and go back into any of the other tracks to make adjustments with Flex Time.
Together these two tools represent a remarkable addition to GarageBand's post-processing capabilities, and a new avenue for casual home musicians to take what could be a very rough recording that they may not have the time or resources to rerecord, and turn it into something that sounds quite good.
Though this iteration of iLife may not have the flash of some previous releases, it brings each of the updated applications closer to professional-grade software-editing tools without making them unnecessarily complicated. If you're a frequent iPhoto user who does a lot of sharing, the updated Facebook and e-mail enhancements are must-haves; with iMovie's new movie trailer feature, you can turn scattered bits of vacation footage into something truly compelling that friends and family will want to watch. GarageBand's updates also bring a number of pro quality features to the table, while offering people who have little to no musical training easier ways to learn how to play.