updated 03:55 pm EST, Mon February 2, 2009
First Look iPhoto '09
The flagship title in the iLife '09 suite is arguably iPhoto '09. The original 2002 version helped to shape the way people store and organize digital photos, and the newest version carries on the tradition of making it fun and easy to generate personal libraries.
The software's most prominent features are two new organizational tools, called Faces and Places, which complement the Events tool. Where Events organizes photos by the times images were captured, Faces uses face-recognition algorithms to identify the same people in different pictures. If you've captured pictures of your grandfather over a span of several years for instance, Faces can relate all of these pictures so you don't have to search for them individually.
To use Faces, you first find a photo of a person's face, then tag it with their name. The clearer a person's face, obviously, the more accurately Faces can identify someone.
After you link a face with a name, the program displays all tagged faces on a corkboard interface. By clicking on one, you can see additional photos in your library that include the same person.
The Faces algorithms are remarkably accurate, as a whole. During testing, selecting a blurry face in the background did in fact find another picture with the same person in it. When the Faces algorithm does fail however, it tends to do so by omitting images, rather than by including them. After you let Faces run a scan, you may thus need to skim a library to make sure it didn't miss anything.
Although Faces is designed to recognize humans, you can also use it to identify animals with varying degrees of precision. To improve accuracy, it's typically best to start with a clear, frontal angle of a face; for animals, success is also helped by the presence distinctive light colors. Faces is generally unable to discern the face of a black cat.
The Places feature is meant to operate in tandem with the iPhone and other GPS-enabled cameras, which can tag photos with geographical metadata. If your pictures are missing the information for whatever reason, you can still assign locations manually.
One the metadata is in, you can then select only those images from a particular area by clicking its location on a map. The combination of automatically sorting pictures by people (Faces), locations (Places) and times (Events) gives you multiple ways to slice and dice a library, ensuring there will always be some means of hunting for an obscure photo.
Organizing pictures is, at best, only part of the fun of collecting them. The main purpose is typically to show them to others, so iPhoto '09 includes two sharing methods: slideshows and online distribution.
The slideshow feature offers several themes, complete with music, titles and visual effects. The bottom of the screen displays thumbnails, used to drag and drop slides into different orders. When you're happy with the way a presentation appears, you can export it as a QuickTime movie, so you can view it on a handheld or a computer.
If you have a Flickr, Facebook or MobileMe account, you can upload images directly to a website as a gallery. You can also attach a photo to an e-mail message; the default client is Mail, but you can modify the Preferences settings to use another one, such as Eudora or Entourage.
If you enjoy sorting, viewing and sharing photos, iPhoto's new features may offer a compelling reason to upgrade. Toss in the program's slightly enhanced editing tools, and you may find iPhoto alone worth the $79 price for the entire iLife '09 suite.
It should be noted that despite a greater emphasis on the Faces feature, its occasional omissions and inaccuracies make it less useful than Places, whether you use a GPS-enabled camera or not. If you already use iPhoto, you probably don't need the latest version -- but after seeing what it can do, you'll definitely want it.