When Apple Computer introduced iMovie back in October 1999, few could have foreseen the wealth of exceptional multimedia applications that would follow, most of them embodied in its "iLife" software collection.
Apple's iLife '04 bundles new versions of iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto and iDVD, along with a new music creation application, GarageBand. All run exclusively on Macintosh computers, although a Windows version of iTunes is available separately as a free download from Apple's Web site.
The Mac version of iTunes included in iLife '04 is the same version that was released in December; it remains a free download, almost certainly because it connects Apple's iTunes Music Store with its popular portable iPod music players.
However, Mac users can no longer download iMovie and iPhoto for free. Except for iTunes, the only way to obtain the rest of the suite is to pay the $49 for iLife. That's the same price as last year's version of iLife, but only iDVD could not be downloaded for free.
While some Mac users have complained about the loss of the free software, one can hardly blame Apple for charging for it. Development of such programs is not cheap. Honestly, iLife '04 easily is worth far more than $49. And the package is still included free with every new Mac.
Another twist is the installation: Both iDVD and GarageBand come on a DVD and require a DVD drive to install. The other three "iApps" can be installed with a CD-ROM. A full installation on my 867 megahertz G4 Quicksilver tower took about 20 minutes.
Whereas the big news in last year's version of iLife was the tight integration between the various programs - the ability, for example to select and import music from iTunes and images from iPhoto directly from menus within iMovie - this year the all-new GarageBand steals the spotlight.
Just as iMovie enables those with digital video cameras to edit their own professional-looking movies, GarageBand allows anyone, even one who lacks any musical sensibility whatsoever, to create professional-sounding music.
This is made possible by the inclusion of about 1,000 musical "loops" ranging from percussion and guitars to pianos and horns. If you desire a bigger selection, 2,000 more loops are available in Apple's $99 Jam Pack.
The loops can be stretched to fill as much time as desired. And because they're designed to sync with one another, merely snapping them into place ensures a smooth, coordinated sound.
The program is so intuitive, one can start composing almost immediately. A lower window pane contains the library of loops. To add a loop, you just drag it to the upper pane, where it becomes a track in a timeline. To the left is an image of the instrument you chose and controls for adjusting such details as the track's volume and place in the stereo field. To the right is the timeline where you can stretch the loops and arrange them into your composition.
Those with musical talent have more options than playing with prerecorded loops. With the addition of a USB keyboard (you can buy one from the Apple Store for $99) or even just a microphone, you can record music into GarageBand. The keyboard opens up far more options; with it you can tap into Garage- Band's more than 50 software instruments, including horns, strings, drums and even a grand piano.
Better still, if you record some music in one instrument, then decide you'd rather hear the passage played by another, you can switch to a different instrument with a simple click of the mouse.
After you've arranged your tracks, you can play sound studio engineer and add such effects as reverb, chorus and echo. If such tinkering doesn't thrill you, you can always choose from the included presets. Finished songs, of course, can be exported right into iTunes where they'll be available for use in iMovie and iDVD.
All that said, professional musicians will not find GarageBand a substitute for professional audio editing software such as Apple's own Soundtrack and Logic because it lacks such features as multitrack recording. Like iMovie, this software is geared to beginners and nicely rounds out the iLife family.
One more thing: GarageBand can tax somewhat older, less powerful Macs; the minimum is a 600 megahertz G3, but a G4 or better is recommended. Increasing the number of tracks slows performance, but the point at which it becomes a problem varies with your Mac's speed. Users will have to learn their machine's limits through experimentation.
iMovie 4 and iDVD 4
Several new features make the oldest of the "iApps" even better at editing movies. For example, you can now edit your movie in the timeline, trimming the clips from the edges as needed. And the edited parts aren't deleted but can be restored without re-importing the video.
The audio tracks now have waveforms, making it easier to line up the video with sound effects and songs.
I used some footage shot during a recent visit to SeaWorld in San Diego to test out some of iMovie's new features. While I noticed some speed improvements, I was disturbed that the program crashed on me several times, which older versions rarely did.
I appreciated several of the new title options. I used the "Clip Video" title to make the sparkling water of the SeaWorld become the letters in the title, a pretty nifty effect.
Apple has also simplified sharing your finished movie. The sharing menu offers presets for sharing via e-mail, to iDVD, to space on your .Mac HomePage or saving back to a tape in your video camera.
I exported my SeaWorld video to iDVD, and took advantage of one of the many excellent new themes.
Not surprisingly, Apple has made iDVD easier to use, primarily through the inclusion of a project map that displays the hierarchy of the various elements flow-chart style. Apple has also doubled the amount of content one can burn to a DVD from one to two hours.
My only qualm with iDVD is its often sluggish performance in preview mode on my Mac tower.
By far the best change to iPhoto is its newfound speed. Since it costs nothing to shoot countless digital photos, it's very easy to rapidly accumulate a collection numbering in the thousands.
My own collection exceeds 2,000 images, enough to cause frequent appearances by the spinning rainbow disk that appears whenever Mac OS X is chewing on a process. Worse, every fresh batch of photos exacerbates the problem.
Apple says iPhoto 4 can handle up to 25,000 images with ease. It certainly remedied my performance issues, particularly with scrolling through my library and opening images for editing. The spinning rainbow disk has been banished. In addition to speed, iPhoto 4 boasts a number of nifty enhancements, including a couple borrowed from iTunes.
Now you can share images in your iPhoto library just as you can share music in your iTunes library, with Mac OS X's Rendezvous technology automatically discovering shared images on other Macs over a local network.
Another iTunes-like feature is the ability to rate your photographs from zero to five stars, which works well with the "Smart Albums" feature.
"Smart Albums," like "Smart Play- lists" in iTunes, allows the user to organize collections of images by such criteria as keywords or rating. When a new image is added to the collection that fits the criteria, it is added automatically to the Smart Album.