Review: Hands on with iLife 11

I've just looked up from my monitor for the first time in about six hours and realised it's dark outside.

The last time I missed such a large chunk of a day was playing through the final levels of Fallout 3.

I received a copy of Apple's iLife 11 this morning and told the editor I would do a quick hands-on review of the latest version of the often overlooked suite of media tools.

iLife has been installed on all of the Macs in my life for as long as I can remember. I have occasionally fired up all of the component parts over the years but have never really got to grips with any of the applications beyond a bit of tinkering in iPhoto or some boredom-fuelled unfinished symphonies in GarageBand.

The problem is, I'm a bit of a software snob. If I want to manipulate a still image I use Photoshop. If the muse takes me and I want to write a nice little pop tune, I fire up Logic. And if I feel the need to edit together some video I turn to Final Cut Pro.

As a writer who makes a large part of his living writing about Apple and its products, I am lucky enough to have access to all of these bits of expensive software. Which is why I have pretty much neglected iLife and its manifold offerings.

For those of you not in the Mac Club, iLife is a collection of applications which come installed free on every Mac sold. I say free... but there is an argument that the cost of iLife is included in the price of a Mac, which for those of you who spend their lives scouring the pages of DABS trying to work how much cheaper you would be able to cobble together comparable hardware often dismiss.

Each of the components of iLife, which I will address individually in the fullness of time, have evolved beyond recognition since they were first launched. And with each new iteration the software becomes more and more sophisticated to the point where, if you looked back just a few short years you would have to pay many hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to replicate the kind of functionality on offer.

iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand, the three main pillars of iLife, have now come to a stage where, in the right hands they could quite easily make the likes of Photoshop, Logic and Final Cut redundant. At least for people who are not making a living from photography, music or film-making.

It's very true that these elder siblings have a massively greater depth of functionality, and come equipped with a veritable chest of tools for creating broadcast-quality end results, but sometimes a Swiss Army knife is just the trick.

Let me offer a fine-art analogy. iPhoto is a bit like a sketch book. You might eventually get to the stage where you want to commit your artistic vision to an artisan-stretched canvas using the finest oils paints and sable brushes, but until that day arrives, a pencil and a few well-chosen watercolours will allow you to let your creativity flow. What's more, when you do finally find yourself standing before that canvas with your pallete and paints, you will have a book full of easily transferred sketches to help you realise your visual opus.

Grown-up software can, in some cases, be detrimental to creativity. If you have to consult a manual every time you want to tweak a colour, or add an effect, or apply a filter, it is all too easy to find yourself buried in technical jargon rather than exploring your hidden talents.

Painters learn to paint my painting, not by reading books about painting, after all.

iPhoto is a useful tool for anyone who has a half decent digital camera and wants to be able to organise, edit and share their photos.

And if that's all you want to do, it can be achieved with a minimum of fuss. A few simple clicks will allow you to group all of your pics into events based on the time stamps embedded by your camera, identify all of your friends using clever facial recognition algorithms, remove red eye and other unsightly blemishes, and turn your photographic memories into stunning hard-back books.

Dig a little deeper and you can share your pics as animated slideshows on just about every social site known to man without breaking stride, colour correct wayward exposures, sharpen fuzzy snaps and sync your entire digital collection with the cloud.

Everything is wrapped in the kind of elegant simplicity we have come to expect from Apple, a company which wants you to have fun with your computer, not spend days wondering where on your 12 hard drives you saved that picture of the dog chasing a squirrel.

GargeBand is much of the same but for those with ambitions of a musical nature. Using a simple interface, you could cobble together a serviceable tune by simply dragging and dropping one of thousands of pre-recorded or sequenced loops into a grid.

If you're totally tone deaf you'll never come up with a masterpiece, but making a quick floor-stomper is a job of minutes for anyone with a modicum of musical nous.

iMovie panders to the budding Bertolucci in all of us. Once installed it will happily go off and find every usable video clip on your entire system and place them within reach of your mouse pointer. Editing them together is as simple as dropping clips into a time-line, adding some music from your iTunes collection and hitting the play button.

As with all of the iLife components, iMovie has hidden depths. Beautifully designed themes add a professional touch, as does the ability to add captions and credits. The new function to create trailers has to be seen to be believed.

I'll be doing full in-depth reviews of each of the three main applications in the next couple of days and even sharing by musical noodlings, movies and slideshows so you can see what can be achieved. But until then you all want to know whether iLife is a sensible purchase.

As I mentioned before, iLife comes pre-installed on every new Mac. The current version will only work if your 're running OSX 10.6 or later and have an Intel processor, so for those of you with older machines it's a moot point.

If you have the requisite hardware chances are you are already running iLife 09, in which case forking out £45 for an upgrade is a sticky choice. Is there enough in the new version to warrant the expenditure for someone who is already a regular, keen user of iLife? The simple answer is... probably not.

If, like me, you have infrequently dipped your toes into the iLife pond and want to see exactly what can be achieved using Apple's simple, intuitive, yet extraordinarily powerful suite of media tools, £45 is a small price to pay for hours and hours of productive fun.

There just about enough new bells and whistles to warrant the outlay which is - let's face the facts here - little more than you would spend on a console game which will give you nothing more than sore thumbs and a growing sense of social inadequacy.

The bottom line is... if you are willing to put in a bit of work, and actually learn how to use the software to the best of its ability, the rewards are plentiful.

Or you could just upgrade your hardware and get it free... which would make Steve Jobs very happy indeed.