Apple iLife test

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Apple iLife

It's been a while since we saw any substantial development with Apple's iMovie DV editing software, but version 3 has finally arrived, along with updates for iDVD, iPhoto and iTunes

Since the integration of Pioneer DVD burners into top-end Mac systems almost two years ago, Apple's development of iDVD has been speedy and impressive. But the company's entry-level DV editing software, iMovie, has remained largely unchanged since V2 was launched in the winter of 2000. Now, though, V3 of iMovie is here and available free over the net if your connection can handle an 86MByte download. The launch of iMovie 3 also coincides with updates of iDVD and Apple's other consumer media applications - iTunes and iPhoto. All four are available in a single bundle for Mac OS X called iLife, costing just £39.

With iLife, Apple promises tight integration between applications - making iTunes' music database available in iMovie, for example. There's also the appeal of exporting iMovie projects directly into iDVD, with ready-marked chapters if required. Great as it sounds, iLife isn't for everyone. There are many Mac users still reluctant to adopt OS X - and that's a problem, since Apple appears to have ditched all plans to develop media software for OS 9. iLife requires OS X version 10.1.5 or later, and comes as a boxed product. The box is ridiculously oversized for the two CD-ROMs and four A4 documents it contains. Surely an Amaray-style DVD case would be more appropriate?

iMovie 3

The first thing we noticed about iMovie 3 is its subtle facelift, looking harder-edged and slightly more businesslike than previous versions. The basic layout is the same though, with a clip bin (known as the Shelf), a preview window (the Monitor) for playback and clip trimming, and a storyboard, which can be switched to timeline mode for more controlled editing. Beneath the clip bin are buttons providing access to different libraries or toolkits. Along with the old options of Clips, Transitions, Titles, Effects and Audio, iMovie 3 provides a separate tab for still images, and an iDVD option, in which chapter markers can be placed during editing. The timeline appears slightly smaller than in version 2, but is otherwise the same, with a main video track and two dedicated audio tracks. Below the timeline are sliders to zoom in or out of the timeline, apply fast motion or slow motion effects to clips, and adjust a clip's overall audio levels.

iDVD 3
While iMovie's progress has been slow in recent years, iDVD has come on in leaps and bounds. Version 2 last year added motion menus to the program's toolkit, but lack of support for chapter markers was still a huge limitation. Fortunately, chapter support is one of the key features of iDVD 3, and the program also now boasts better menu design tools, as well as much closer integration with other applications in the iLife bundle.

As we've already pointed out, iDVD's relationship with iMovie is an extremely strong one, with chapter markers being applied to video in iMovie before the finished edit is launched in iDVD. It's also no longer necessary to go through the separate steps of exporting a DV file to the hard drive, closing iMovie, launching iDVD and importing the movie. In fact, there's no intermediary file used at all - iDVD works directly from the iMovie project files, saving time and hard drive space.

When launched from iMovie, iDVD opens with a simple menu background with two thumbnail icons - Play Movie and Scene Selection. Scene Selection leads to secondary menus providing links to all the chapter points created in iMovie. Oddly, iDVD doesn't provide the means to mark up DV files imported directly.

iPhoto 2
iPhoto provides simple image manipulation tools and good file management features for digital camera users. Its feature-set is limited, but it provides a good way in to digital photography. iPhoto is supposed to recognise digital cameras the moment they're connected to the system and offer to import stills from them. According to Apple, there's no need for the camera's supplied drivers - assuming that the camera behaves as a normal USB mass storage device. For these tests, we connected a LaCie YD-8V14 Hexa Media Drive - a card reader that supports MemoryStick, MultiMedia Card, SD Card, Compact Flash and SmartMedia. When it was connected to the system, we found that Mac OS X accessed the card straight away, but iPhoto was unable to see it with its import browser. We later found that clicking a second Import button towards the bottom of iPhoto's interface provided instant access to connected cameras and card readers - displaying ours as a Silicon Media R/W. From here, iPhoto allows the entire contents to be copied to the system, but won't allow cards to be browsed or individual snaps to be imported. We opted to import the contents of the card, but no images came over, and we were unable to find out why. So, we pressed ahead with the stills we had copied over earlier.

iTunes 3
iTunes is a first-rate music player with a one-stop interface for playing CDs, MP3 files or tuning in to internet radio stations. As with iPhoto, it sports a main library folder which is used to feed personal playlists. Dragging a CD track over to a play list rips it to the hard drive in MP3 format. Alternatively, an Import button at the top right allows single or multiple tracks to be imported directly into the main Library. iTunes can be told to import PCM audio in WAV or AIFF format. This results in bigger files, but helps prevent compression loss.

We're pleased to say that integration between applications in the iLife bundle really is as good as Apple claims. While none of the programs is likely to satisfy the needs of professional video makers or advanced enthusiasts, there's more than enough here to keep the home user busy for a very long time.

The progression to iMovie 3 isn't as huge as the step from V1 to V2, but that's largely because the original iMovie was so limited and badly flawed. V2's only major problem was an occasionally awkward interface. The difficulty of insert editing and audio splitting still remains - and the destructive approach to cutting doesn't help - but rubber banding for audio and closer integration with iDVD make V3 a very worthwhile update.
iDVD 3 is a stunning piece of software - although V2 only really needed chapter support to become great. But the ability to work directly from iMovie project files without having to render out an entire DV movie is a massive bonus, and Apple's redesigned and easily personalised menu templates are first-rate. iDVD has a lot of very serious potential for freelancers, students, wedding video makers and corporate marketeers. We feel that Apple has succeeded in closing a substantial gap between iMovie and the company's far more expensive high-end application, DVD Studio Pro. That's important when there's nothing else at the consumer level for Mac users!

Contrary to what we'd expected, iPhoto and iTunes are useful to video makers. They're neat little programs in their own right, and help provide a comprehensive filing system for all media on the Mac platform. The ability to access albums and playlists directly from within iMovie and iDVD will be welcomed by many users. Overall, iLife is a great suite of software. We'd enthuse more about the price, but Apple has so effectively kept out all competition on the Mac platform that users have no choice.

Peter Wells

Read the full review in May 2003's Computer Video magazine.


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