The Way, the Truth, and the iLife?

A Closer Look at Apple's Suite of Digital Lifestyle Apps

by Robert Velarde (Posted: 2/16/04)



Consumers are an interesting bunch. Give us several quality applications for free, then decide to charge for upgraded versions for all but one of them and people are going to be upset to one degree or another. On January 6, 2004, at MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the release of iLife '04, billing it as "Microsoft Office for the rest of your life." Like Microsoft Office, iLife '04 is not free. Unless you buy a new Mac which comes with iLife '04 or can get an educational discount ($29), iLife '04 will cost you $49. So what does the hard working consumer get for $49? Let's take a look. The original iLife software package offered little to the average Mac user. Aside from an upgraded iDVD not available for download, every other app in the original iLife suite could be downloaded for free. Not anymore.

WHAT DO YOU GET?

First, iLife '04 includes iTunes. Big whoop. iTunes is still free (as of this writing), so that's not anything too stimulating. Second, the software package includes iPhoto 4. I guess they went from iPhoto 2 to 4 to catch up to iTunes, iMovie, etc. But GarageBand is only at 1.0, so my attempt at determining the logic of jumping from iPhoto 2 to 4 doesn't exactly work. Third, for those with SuperDrives, iDVD has been updated. Fourth, for the budding filmmaker, iMovie has been updated. Fifth, and for me the most exciting addition to iLife, Apple has included their new music-making app GarageBand. So, let's start at the end and see what GarageBand can do.

GARAGEBAND: RELEASE YOUR INNER MUSICIAN

Perhaps the biggest news in iLife '04 is the addition of GarageBand. (For some reason Apple decided not to use an "i" name. Maybe they ran out of ideas or all the good ones are taken. iPlay? iCompose? iMuse?). As an out of practice, but classically trained musician and composer, I've recently wanted to get back into writing some music. Unfortunately, most of my music hardware and software is outdated and runs only on Windows (I'm a switcher). So when I heard about GarageBand, I just had to try it.

GarageBand basically allows even the novice to create and record music. Several "Software" instruments are included, a lot of "loops" (see below) are also available and it even offers options for adding effects. I had originally ordered the new M-Audio 49-key MIDI keyboard from Apple, but canceled my order to save some money (and also because I am impatient). Instead, I opted for a $40 MIDI interface by Edirol and connected my old, clunky and heavy Roland ep7 digital piano to my TiBook 867. After downloading a more current driver for the Edirol from their web site, all I had to do was plug in the MIDI cables and I was off and running.

Apple includes some 1,000 "loops" with GarageBand. As they say on their web site, "Apple Loops are prerecorded performances ready to play second fiddle anytime you need them." As a composer, I dislike the idea of using music loops. Ethically, I fell as though I am ripping off someone else’s ideas. Creatively, using loops makes me feel unimaginative, but I can see why Apple has included them. Not everyone is a trained musician. The opportunity to use loops to create decent sounding music relatively quickly is appealing to the mass market. It does raise some philosophical issues, though. (Those of you who have read my previous articles know that I tend to throw in at least some philosophy. I can't help it—that, at least in part, is my educational background!) In our modern, fast-paced, fast-food culture (speaking for the U.S. anyway), people want immediate gratification. Our media culture is saturated with sound bites that lack the depth of proper analysis and, for example, Internet search engines that allow anyone to type a few key words and think they have found exactly what they need without taking the time to critically evaluate information. It is an "I want it now, but I don't want to think too much!" culture. Taking shortcuts is not always the best solution. Good musicians and composers don't just slap together some pre-recorded sound loops and come up with a masterpiece. Now, with that said, the loops Apple has provided are pretty good. For someone who just wants to play around a bit and make some acceptable sounding music, loops will definitely help.

GarageBand really deserves its own review—something I may pursue at a later date. But for now, there is just one more point I'd like to make: in many instances GarageBand needs a lot of power. I initially installed it on my TiBook 867 running Mac OS X Panther 10.3.2 with 512MB of RAM. On a couple of the demo songs with many layers, the program choked with some stutters. After I closed everything except GarageBand, the stutters went away. Apple has included a method of determining roughly how much processing power GarageBand is using. Watch the playhead (the little triangle that moves with the music), if it is white, processing power is minimal. Orange means more power is being used and red means a lot is being used. My system hit the red too much for my liking. I also tested performance on a PowerMac G4 (800MHz, Quicksilver 2002) with 1GB of RAM and GarageBand actually ran worse. I thought the extra RAM would help, but no such luck. I had similar results testing GarageBand on an 800MHz eMac (installing GarageBand on a CD only eMac was another adventure in and of itself, since GarageBand is only on the DVD included with iLife '04). Overall, GarageBand is a really fun application to use, but it is definitely a 1.0 application.

iPHOTO: ORGANIZE YOUR DIGITAL IMAGES—FAST

How many digital photos do you have in your collection? I have around 1,000. That doesn't seem like much compared to some people I know, but then I haven't been taking digital photographs all that long. I do, however, usually take my digital images at the highest resolution my 3.2 megapixel camera will allow. Even with less than 1,000 photos, the previous version of iPhoto took a bit longer than I'd like to open, display and scroll through my collection. The new version, as promised, has resulted in a significant speed bump. Other new features, such as the sepia option, are less than exciting. iPhoto functions well as a place to keep all my digital images, but for anything beyond very basic editing, I suggest programs like GraphicConverter, Adobe Photoshop Elements or Adobe Photo$hop (yes, the $ is intentional). Other new features in iPhoto 4 include what Apple describes as "automatic time-based organization." Basically, this lets users track their photos by date, including a "Last Roll" and "Last 12 Months" option, for instance. The "Smart Album" option is likened by Apple to the Smart Playlists of iTunes. Essentially, the user can create "rules" based on seven criteria that govern what photos will be included in a Smart Album. For instance, if you give several photos a five-star rating (another new feature in iPhoto 4) and create a Smart Album of all your five-star photos, any future five-star photos will be added to the album. iPhoto 4 also offers the ability to share your images over a Rendezvous network and has added some new effects to the slideshow including the fast-user switching effect (the rotating cube) of Panther. There's also an option to select more than one song for music playback during a slideshow.

iMOVIE: MOVE OVER PETER JACKSON ...

When I first switched to Macs a couple of years ago I rejoiced when I discovered all I could do with iMovie. It was quick, fun, and easy. Sure, I'm no Coppola, but at least I can try and do something better with all that footage of my family on vacations and such. The problem I have had is time. I don't have a digital video camera, so I have to convert analog to digital, which takes time and does not give me the quality that DV would, but that's not iMovie's problem. What iMovie does, it does fairly well. Apple is touting several additions to iMovie 4. This includes the ability to edit more than one clip or transition at once. Clips can be trimmed in the timeline now and users of Apple's iSight camera can capture live video from within iMovie. Additionally, movies can be shared through a variety of means (.Mac, DVDs, Bluetooth). iMovie is not Final Cut Express and it's definitely not Final Cut Pro, but it does pack a lot of power in a relatively simple interface. I have yet to see a similarly polished entry-level app on a Windows PC.

iDVD: MAKE YOUR OWN DISC

My TiBook does not have a SuperDrive (aka DVD burner) and neither does the eMac my kids use (if they could watch movies on their eMac that would be a problem, so I opted for the cheaper CD ROM only drive eMac. See my recent review of the eMac). Nevertheless, I have used iDVD in the past on a PowerMac G4 with a SuperDrive. It's a simple, but acceptably powerful consumer application that makes DVD creation relatively painless. The new version of iDVD includes 20 new themes. Another welcome addition is the ability to burn up to 2 hours of video on a DVD (the previous version maxed out at 90 minutes). The DVD map is another good improvement to iDVD. Like an organizational chart, the map view allows budding DVD creators to see every aspect of their project. As is the case with iMovie, I have yet to see a comparable consumer-level Windows application that does what iDVD does as well as iDVD. iDVD still needs some work, though. I've heard various reports of users not getting a proper time indication for when their disc burning will be complete, for example. Additionally, to my knowledge iDVD still does not play nice with external DVD burners. Still, it's a decent application for those who do not need (or can't afford) something on the level of Apple's DVD Studio Pro.

SHOULD YOU GET AN iLIFE?

Is iLife '04 really Microsoft Office for the rest of my life? Frankly, I'd rather live without Microsoft on my Mac, but as a professional writer and editor, I have yet to find an application that beats Microsoft Word. What I'd like to see Apple do is give a much needed overhaul to AppleWorks. iWrite, anyone? I have moved to a text editor (Tex-Edit Plus) to meet my note-taking needs—so that's a step away from Microsoft, I guess. Somewhere in this paragraph is the potential for an entirely different article, so let's get back to iLife '04.

Is iLife '04 worth $49? That depends on what you plan to do with it. GarageBand is really the application that convinced me to try iLife '04 (Well, that and my education discount price of $29). Would I have paid $49 for iLife '04? Probably—eventually, but I would have complained more about the price. Let's try to look at the $49 as a breakdown of the components (leaving iTunes out since it is currently free). For $49 you get four applications: iPhoto, iDVD, iMovie and GarageBand. That comes to $12.25 per application. That's quite a bargain, except for the fact that some people don't use all these apps—at least not regularly—so the mathematic approach to the cost of iLife '04 is not iron-clad. On the other hand, at least for me, GarageBand alone is probably worth $49 or close to it. For someone else, iDVD may be worth $49 by itself.

Overall, I think the $49 is relatively reasonable. It would have been nice to offer an upgrade path for those who spent their hard-earned dollars on the original iLife package, but, hey, Apple is out to make money. However, if there are major changes in iLife '05, it would be nice to know I could upgrade for say $20 or so. Until then, I'm off to lay down some tracks in GarageBand. It's not exactly a professional recording studio (to say the least), but it's technologically more than Bach, Beethoven and The Beatles had. And for now, that's good enough for me.



Robert Velarde, co-author of Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press), is a writer and editor. He received his undergraduate degree in music and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary.