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Review: iPhoto '11 is a very mixed bag

When iLife '11 was announced, I was quite excited to hear there was an update to iPhoto, and even more surprised to learn my local Apple Store had the software in stock the day after the "Back to the Mac" event.

The feature list for the latest version of iPhoto is impressive, and since I do so much photography it seemed a no-brainer to get it. New features include:

  • Full screen mode
  • A direct link to Facebook for posting comments and pictures
  • New slideshow templates
  • New book designs
  • Enhanced templates for emailing photos
  • Letterpress Cards for sending to family and friends

For US$49, with GarageBand '11 and iMovie '11 in the mix in addition to iPhoto, I was ready to buy iLife. Let's go over the changes, then deal with some of the ugly truths.

Full screen mode

Full screen mode is a very good feature. I spend a great deal of my time editing photos, and I don't like the distraction of the Mac OS X Dock and other things going on while I work. This is a long overdue addition. It feels a bit like working on an iPad app, although my screen is a bit more roomy. With a consistent background you are able to judge color a lot better, and I'll generally use full screen when I use iPhoto '11.

Sharing options

I'm not a Facebook maven, but for those who spend a significant amount of time using social media, Facebook integration is a win. I was able to confirm that it worked as advertised. Flickr sharing is also improved over previous versions of iPhoto.

Slideshow templates are also beefed up. Rather than simple fades or the over-used Ken Burns effects, you can use some very well-produced animated transitions. Slideshows use face detection, so people generally get centered. Like previous versions of iPhoto, slideshows also have some included music, although I prefer to use my own -- the entire iTunes library is available with a few clicks.

Slides can be auto-timed to fit with a particular musical selection, and that feature works very well. Of course slideshows can be exported to MobileMe, viewed on the new or old Apple TV, or played back on your own computer in a number of sizes.

Book designs are very commercial looking and are closing the gap between what Aperture can do and what iPhoto can create. Books are easy to make, and iPhoto can make a lot of layout decisions. Naturally, you can change the standard layouts and create a book that is to your liking.

The automatic layout tools also use face detection to control framing and cropping. Those are things I'd rather do myself, but I can attest to the fact that the software makes pretty good choices. There are third-party methods of creating books, but the easy integration with your photo library makes this a very useful feature.

Emailing photos is improved, but you give up some control. Rather than emailing a single picture or a list of photos as enclosures (which is how iPhoto '09 worked), you have to use templates to create a graphical email with room for up to 8 photos. The photos are reduced in size by default, but you can attach full-sized versions.

Of course, nothing prevents you from emailing photos the old way, by simply dragging them into your mail client as attachments. I think a lot of people will appreciate the slickness of the mail templates, and will wish for more. There are 8 that are built into iPhoto '11 with some generic themes, as well as one designed for sending invitations. If you don't like this feature, just drag and drop your images directly into your mail client.

Finally, iPhoto '11 offers Letterpress Cards. With almost everything digital these days, it's nice to see the ability to send something physical. Your photos can be incorporated into Birthday, Holiday, New Baby and other themes and printed as mailable cards; we haven't tested the service yet, but if it's consistent with past iPhoto printables they should turn out quite nicely. Sizes range from 4x6" (10.15 x 15.25 cm) to a poster that's 20x30" (50.8 x 76.2 cm). They are not cheap, but if you need the service it's there with a few clicks.

Editing tools

Editing in iPhoto hasn't changed much. There are simple but effective tools to get rid of red eye, sharpen images, straighten, and crop. There are also effects like sepia toning and turning color images into black and white.

You can edit in your own favorite editor, like Photoshop, or rely on the simpler iPhoto tools. One problem: if you use an external editor and save the changes, two photos will show up in your iPhoto album, the original and the one that changed. That's not the way iPhoto used to work, and it needs a fix.

Bugs and glitches

So with all these new features, why am I not jumping up and down with excitement? One big reason: iPhoto '11 is the buggiest piece of software Apple's delivered in my memory.

Apple's support boards are overflowing with unhappy upgraders. Many claim they have lost all of their photos, which could be true in some cases. It's also possible something went wrong with the library upgrade, and the photos are there but the database has become corrupted. Reportedly Apple is working on a fix, and if true, it needs to be a fast one. Make sure you have a good backup before you install.

In my experience, the program behaves very badly. I've seen iPhoto '11 inexplicably stop running, and when that happens it ties up my whole Mac. The menubar clock stops, the Finder is unresponsive, and the freeze can last for up to 5 minutes. I've seen this several times, and there's plenty of chatter about it on the Apple support boards. I've tried rebuilding my iPhoto library, tossing preferences, and rebooting my Mac Pro (it's fast, has plenty of RAM, and 500 GB of free hard disk space). Nothing seems to fix the problem. Aperture, Apple's high-end photo application, works just fine on my Mac, so something is terribly amiss with iPhoto '11. Not everyone is experiencing this epic slowness, but enough are seeing it that it needs to be noticed and fixed by Apple.

Often when you just click on the already-open iPhoto icon in the dock it freezes again; one to three minutes later iPhoto appears, with all the images that were visible on screen visually corrupted. I get the spinning beach ball so frequently that if I could count the rolling mileage it would probably have made it to Chicago. I got some relief by selecting every option in the rebuild library dialog, but iPhoto is still dog slow. If you'd like to try, just hold down command-option and then launch iPhoto. Tick every option in the menu that appears, and cross your fingers hoping it helps. Even if the rebuild helps, Apple customers should not have to put up with these extra steps. If you do rebuild the library, be sure to have that backup and do this at your own risk.

One last minor issue: under Preferences I clicked on "Accounts," which showed I had 1 GB available to use in MobileMe. I have 9.5 GB available, not 1 GB.

Wrap-up

It's frustrating that a program with so many compelling new features is so buggy for so many users. With the advent of digital photography, we are collecting more and more pictures. Decent cameras like the iPhone and my high-quality DSLR close at hand mean that the number of stills I have is growing rapidly. iPhoto has advanced steadily since its first release in 2002, and it's become a primary place for Mac owners to go when they need to deal with their collected images.

I hope Apple can sort out the issues with iPhoto '11. If you take the plunge and upgrade to iLife '11, make sure you have a good backup of your iPhoto library. It's in your home directory, in the Pictures folder. I'm confident many of these issues will be fixed in an update, but until then I'd advise users to hold off on upgrading, or use caution if they do. Many people are using this latest, greatest version of iPhoto without issue, but that's always the way with new software. It works great for some, even many users, but is a disaster for others. Something is making it go haywire on enough Macs that Apple should be concerned, and you should be too.

[Note: Late today Apple issued an update to iPhoto, version 9.01. To get it run the software update process from the Apple menu. On my Mac the update did not appear from within iPhoto '11 when I toggled 'check for updates'. Here is some more info on the update in the form of an Apple support document. It deals with potential data lose during the library upgrade process. It doesn't appear to address any of the other issues users are reporting, but I'm sure we'll get good feedback from our readers. Leave your comments and experiences to share with others.]



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Software Features Mac

When iLife '11 was announced, I was quite excited to hear there was an update to iPhoto, and even more surprised to learn my local Apple...