Apple iphoto '11
The new version of Apple's entry-level photo app, iPhoto '11, adds a better-to-work-in full-screen view, impressive new photo e-mailing, and remarkably tight Facebook integration. It also delivers some of the best output options—slideshows, cards, calendars, and books. As part of the bargain-priced $49 iLife suite, iPhoto is hard to resist, but competition from Google's Picasa 3.8 (Free, 4.5 stars) may turn some heads away.
iPhoto already had one of the slickest photo app interfaces around, and the '11 version's full-screen mode, along with some other helpful tweaks, takes a step further in usability. Installation is a snap, but if you have a large library of existing images, they need to be updated for the '11 version, which can take a while—mine took about 15 minutes on a 2.4-GHz MacBook. I had 4,000 images to process, though, so I'm not surprised that it took a while.
iPhoto presents an intuitive three-panel view, with source sidebar at the left, the main viewing area in the middle, and info and adjustments on the right. The Library views take advantage of the slick Apple trick of letting you skim through all the thumbnails in a group by sweeping the mouse cursor across the group's entry. And the new button color scheme is subtler, with its dark gray on light gray giving more emphasis to your photos, but the colorful old logoed sharing service icons made your sharing options more obvious, so that one's a bit of a trade-off.
The biggest interface change for version '11 is that you can use a full-screen view for every function of the program, letting you focus on the images rather than being distracted by surrounding interface elements. iPhoto '09 already had some full-screen views, but in '11 you can use any mode in the view, whether in Event view, Faces, Places, or Edit views. You can always easily leave or enter this mode with a button press or keyboard shortcut. In full screen, the buttons switch to an even subtler, less distracting gray on black. This new full-screen view is a definite boon on Macs, though Picasa on Windows can already display fullscreen.
Other slight interface changes have been introduced as well: The zoom slider moves to the left, but I was disappointed that it was only present when you're in Editing mode, rather than being available all the time as it is in Windows Live Photo Gallery 2011 (Free, 4 stars). Search works well; drop-downs let you search by date, keywords, and ratings as well as filename text. But I kind of like a single button to show all photos of a certain rating or flagged photos, rather than having to go through the dropdown.
One area for improvement: Unlike Apple's prosumer photo app, Aperture 3, iPhoto's interface is a bit "modal" for me—meaning you can only do certain things in, for example, the Edit mode versus the Info or photo-view mode. Why can't I zoom in when in viewing mode? Why can't I flag or caption a photo in Edit mode (as I could do in Picasa)?
Import and Organize
iPhoto smartly snaps into action whenever you plug in camera or media, and you choose a name for the import and whether to split the photos into "Events," or photo sessions. You can't, however, apply tags at import the way Windows Live Photo Gallery can. iPhoto has no trouble with the popular RAW file formats, rendering them beautifully and letting you make edits and adjustments. Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG) can't edit raw image files, though Picasa can.
Picasa also helpfully shows a text overlay saying "Rendering" when the image hasn't displayed to full resolution, but with iPhoto, you have to eyeball and guess when the image has reached full res. For large RAW files on a less powerful machine this can take a while, so you may think a shot isn't in focus, only to see it really sharpen up a half minute later.
Once you've gotten images into iPhoto, there are numerous ways to organize them. Off the bat they'll be organized into Events, which groups photos based on when they're taken. You can also create Albums to group selected photos for use in a project later. To add a photo to an Album, I had to click the lower-right Add, and then navigate to the album I wanted to add it to. More use of right-click options for things like this could streamline the app in places.
Easily the most impressive way to organize photos is by using iPhoto's Faces, which is much improved in version '11. You click on the Faces Library choice, the program finds pictures with faces and you just start tagging; you don't have to hunt for pictures like you did in iPhoto '09. After you've identified people in your pictures, the source Faces option lets you view all images of a face's owner. Here, too, you're offered more potential pictures to confirm the presence of a face.
In my tests, though, I found Picasa's similar People feature (and Windows Live Photo Gallery's, too) made good guesses about people's identities earlier than iPhoto, and its process of confirming faces was slightly quicker. In iPhoto, I was also presented with more inanimate objects that looked like faces. iPhoto, Photo Gallery, and Picasa all let me play slideshows of just pictures with a selected face. Picasa did offer a unique, cool feature: A "Face Movie" of images zoomed in to show just the faces.
The geotagging Places feature is also enhanced in this version of iPhoto. The new version opens a full-screen map with pushpins showing where in the world your images were shot. Hovering the mouse over a pushpin displays large thumbnails of pictures shot there, along with a smaller map showing more precise location pushpins. The app gets location from embedded GPS data if your camera offers that, or you can click on an Event, photo, or album, and assign a place from the right-side Info panel. Apple has made this easy by creating a database of places, letting you type in the name and choose the correct destination.
In-app, iPhoto's is probably the coolest geo-feature in an entry-level photo app, though Picasa does a better job when it comes to transferring the geo-talents to online galleries. In the pure online world, I also prefer Flickr's map views, which show thumbnails of pictures pegged to cities and let you see other's geo photos. When I uploaded iPhoto geotagged photos to Flickr, the location wasn't preserved, and MobileMe doesn't have maps. Picasa, on the other hand, preserved faces and geotags for photos uploaded to its Web Albums, while WLPG also lacks geo-tagging in it online SkyDrive galleries.