Review: iPhoto ’11

Apple’s new version of iPhoto recently launched as part of iLife ’11 (see Back to the Mac). Although a relatively small update, it brings many welcome changes, and demonstrates Apple’s new direction, which will culminate in OS X Lion (due for release this summer).

Perhaps the most important update is the new full-screen mode. This looks nice and works quite well. One minor annoyance in the fullscreen mode is that the menu bar is not integrated; hovering the mouse at the top of the screen somewhat awkwardly brings it down. Also, Devices, Trash, and other sections of the app cannot be accessed from the toolbar-less fullscreen view. On the whole, I liked the fullscreen mode, and found it an interesting new way to interact with iPhoto. Especially in this mode, many of the new interface features resemble a pleasantly magnified version of the iPad’s UI.

Version 3 of Apple’s Aperture introduced a similar fullscreen feature, which seems to have been brought back to iPhoto and updated. That version, which added the Faces mode from iPhoto ’09, featured a new Find Faces capability. This, too, seems to have been re-injected into iPhoto. A new view, somewhat reminiscent of the shiny Carousel for choosing book or card themes, shows detected but unidentified faces. It sometimes, however, presented blank boxes as faces, and the Delete button didn’t work perfectly.

Another iPad-like feature is the in-app emailing. This looks somewhat clumsy in window view, but simple and efficient in fullscreen. A great idea taken from iOS, in-app emailing allows users to mail photos without having to switch back and forth between applications. The only options, though, are Apple-created templates; there’s no option to just send the picture, so this isn’t a complete replacement for the previous Email feature. However, it worked fairly well for me. This seems more of an indication of what is to come in Mac apps: soon, most programs will allow for the same kind of in-app emailing.

UPDATE: Apple just released iPhoto 9.1.1, a minor update that brings a few enhancements. Now, email options include a Classic template, containing just the images and text. Another needed enhancement is that the size of emailed images can be controlled, and the message size displayed, just as with the Mail app.

Along the same lines, in-app uploading has been improved. Photos can be shared to any Facebook album, comments on the photo are viewable without a browser, and one’s profile picture can even be changed. I haven’t been able to try this, but it seems a move in the right direction: online features integrated into apps provide a more elegant solution than repeated web browser use.

Something that threw me off a bit was that the Escape key no longer exits from picture preview to event view, or from an event to the master list. Somewhat clumsily, it either ends editing or exits fullscreen mode. As I generally like to spend my entire session in fullscreen (and Jobs even mentioned this would now be an option), this doesn’t feel natural. The Escape feels like it should take me back to the previous location. It only feels right as the key for exiting fullscreen mode when that view is meant to be a temporary preview.

When viewing a photo, a horizontal navigation bar, with thumbnails, appears at the bottom of the window or screen. The shiny, iPad-reminiscent pane fits in much better in fullscreen mode, but I actually preferred it in window view, as it looks (similar to iTunes’ toolbar mini-display) like a high-tech console embedded in steel. It’s one of the many snazzy new interface additions that I find welcome, though some might think them superfluous (more on those later).

The app leaves some room for improvement. The editor tools still aren’t comprehensive, and Effects, though its interface has been improved, remains limited and somewhat unpolished. (Filters such as Matte and Vignette remain so garishly strong as to be virtually useless, and the method of applying them stays clunky as well.) Throughout the app, scrolling often felt quite rough. The transition to fullscreen feels jarring. A more specific quibble is that the Faces screen provides no indication, unlike the helpful fade-in numbers in Albums, of how many photos belong to each Face. Finally, something small but nonsensical: why is Trash under Recent in the toolbar?

iPhoto ’11 introduces several new subtle UI changes. First, selected text fields, in most cases, are outlined with darker blue, which looks much better. Contextual menus have changed to a dark background with white text, like the Dock menus in Snow Leopard. This, too, looks better in my opinion, but the text is a little thin, and the menus don’t fade away perfectly. The toolbar’s new Share Button is almost identical to iOS’s (and that of QuickTime X, which debuted with Leopard). Text buttons (such as the Import buttons for a camera) have become darker and shinier. Lastly, the toolbar at the bottom of the window now contains no color (like iTunes 10’s). Some dislike this change, but I prefer the sleeker new toolbar.

Altogether, iPhoto’s clever interface demonstrates how buttons and toolbars can be used to their full extent. Menus seemed an outdated, inelegant method, and I almost never touched them. This change happened mostly without my notice (admittedly, I didn’t use menus much in previous version, either). None of these buttons were small or crammed together (very much unlike Office for Mac’s cluttered Ribbon). Menus will remain very useful for many tasks, especially for power-users. But iPhoto ’11 has begun the process of bringing some of the magic of the iPad back to the Mac.

Despite some small annoyances, iPhoto ’11 is a very strong application. It still does what it’s meant to do and does it well. The update contains few major additions, but introduces many positive interface changes and some fundamental features, both of which will help pave the way for future Mac OS X apps. If you have a previous version of iPhoto, you should definitely upgrade; after all, iLife ’11 costs only $49 (previous versions went for $79). And if you don’t yet use a Mac, there’s never been a better time to buy one.

 

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