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TUAW Review: iPhoto '09 is a pretty picture

As noted by Robert yesterday, the first boxed copies of iLife '09 reached users today. The two iLife '09 apps that have changed the most are garnering the lion's share of excitement this week. iMovie and iPhoto have some rather dramatic improvements, and I'll detail the iPhoto changes here.

Before you install, please note that the iLife '09 setup will nuke your older iLife apps. You'll need your original install disc to revert. I ran a Spotlight search and those old iLife apps are nowhere to be found. If you think you might want to roll back, be sure to back up your apps and your iPhoto library beforehand.

When you start up iPhoto for the first time it updates your libraries and starts an immediate search for faces in your photos. That search goes on in the background, so you can do other things with iPhoto at the same time.

Here's a rundown on the new features:

The most technically advanced feature is Faces. iPhoto now does some face recognition to help you automatically find people in your bushel of images. You start by identifying a face, and you enter the person's name. iPhoto will then suggest matches in your library, and you can confirm them with a click. iPhoto generates a cork board where you can see one example of each face you have identified. Double-click on that face and it displays all the other faces that match.

The technology is not perfect. It didn't get all the matches right, but when it was wrong I'd have to admit the person it found had a similar face. To try and trick it, I showed it a picture of a parrot. Although there were many similar shots of the same parrot, iPhoto utterly failed to match any of them. I think Faces wants human faces (although there are examples of penguins being recognized, and Mac|Life has tested it out successfully on feline faces).

Check out the gallery for some close ups of iPhoto features and controls, and read on for more notes on the updated features.


Next on my testing list was Places. This new feature lets you tag your photos with geographical information, and displays the location of the photos on a map. The software automatically went through my library and identified the locations of photos taken with my iPhone, and then I could see those locations on a built-in Google Map. For photos you geotag manually, you can look under 'extended photo information' and you will see that the location data, including latitude and longitude, have been added.

I had some trouble selecting a group of photos and applying a single location to all of them. It may be something I did, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. I couldn't find any way to take the info from one photo and apply it across a group of photos. That will be a weakness for some people.

The advantages of geotagged photos are evident in iPhoto's UI. You can look at a map of the United States, for example, see the red pins where photos were taken, click on the pin and see all the photos that were done there. The integration with Google Maps is very powerful, because when you are looking for a location, it is likely Google Maps already knows about it. While it's not a perfect feature, Places is very powerful and a welcome addition to the software.

iPhoto has also added Travel Maps. This feature allows you to enhance photo books that you buy from Apple. The maps can show where you have been, along with the photos from those destinations. It all looks quite professional, and is far beyond the capabilities of other programs.

Themed slide shows are very nice. They allow you to chose a style of slide show and select music as well, either built-in music in iPhoto or anything from your iTunes library. I especially liked the 'Snapshot' theme; that puts a white border around your photos, moves them smoothly across the screen, and as it brings up a new image, fades the older images to gray scale. When you have a slide show tuned the way you like, it can be exported as a movie to be viewed on an iPhone, iPod or an Apple TV.

iPhoto has beefed up the sharing options. You can upload photos to Flickr and Facebook; names of tagged people in the photos will go along with your Facebook upload. Location information will upload to Flickr and appear on Fickr photo maps. iPhoto will create Flickr and Facebook folders in your source list, so if you update or add pictures they will be updated on those photo services.

Finally, the new iPhoto offers some improved photo editing tools. It's not Photoshop, of course, but it can do quite a lot of cleanup and enhancement of photos that need it. The red-eye tool has been improved by using face detection. The retouch tool does a much better job of hiding artifacts, and an improvement in the saturation tool increases the color of images without messing up the face tones. I verified that this worked well. In fact, you could almost lose all the color of an image by reducing saturation, but the face tones stayed the same. Impressive.

Some users will still have some disappointments. You still don't seem to be able to group images by date added, a feature that was lost in iPhoto '08. There will likely be some things I've missed even after spending several hours with iPhoto today. A good sized book could be written on how to use this application, and certainly those books will appear.

iPhoto '09 is just one component of the entire iLife suite, but for many it will be worth the $79 US for iPhoto alone. There are a few rough edges, but it is a solid update of an already wildly popular program. I'm sure we'll hear users of Aperture clamoring for Apple to add similar features to the professional photo app.

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