Apple's iLife '09 'a must-have update'

iPhoto now scans photos for faces and uses geotagging to organize albums

One final feature of iMovie is a must: image stabilization. Nowadays, video is almost always shot with a handheld device -- a camcorder, digital camera or mobile phone. IMovie '09 can analyze elements in a video clip to determine their positions from one frame to the next and can correct the shakiness that is almost unavoidable with a handheld recording. Analysis can be done on import or later, and it can take quite a bit of time to complete. Once your video has been analyzed, however, you can toggle stabilization on and off during the editing process. The feature works fairly well for most video, though it does require some consistency in footage to work perfectly, so don't expect it to completely correct things like a quick shift of the camera from the ground to the sky or from left to right.

As with the previous version, iMovie supports direct sharing via YouTube as well as Apple's MobileMe galleries. It also supports exporting projects directly to iTunes, iDVD and the iLife Media Browser, which can be accessed from Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, the various iLife apps, and a number of third-party applications. When exporting to iTunes or the Media Browser, you can include multiple resolutions appropriately optimized for different devices and systems such as an iPod, an iPhone or Apple TV.

Making music with GarageBand

It's easy to think of GarageBand as the most niche-oriented of the iLife apps. Unlike working with photos or video, GarageBand's primary focus has been making (or at least editing) music -- something not everyone has the talent or skill to do. Over the years, Apple has broadened the appeal of GarageBand beyond the musically inclined, first by making it into a tool for creating podcasts and then by introducing Magic GarageBand, a feature that allows users to choose a musical style and select instruments from which GarageBand will create a random piece of music that can be saved or edited.

With GarageBand '09, Apple has taken further aim at introducing the less musically skilled to the application and to music-making itself with a new feature called Learn to Play that's designed to teach novice musicians how to play either the guitar or piano. Learn to Play consists of nine basic lessons for each instrument; one of each is included with iLife, the others can be downloaded for free directly from within the application. Or you can buy a series of additional lessons featuring popular musicians teaching users to play one of their hit songs. The artist lessons cost US$4.99 each.

The basic lessons are surprisingly well done, consisting of a video presentation by "Tim" the instructor, who does a good job of teaching concepts like reading musical notation, locating notes and forming chords. The video includes on-screen representations of a keyboard or guitar fret board. Options include varying forms of musical notation and a practice session during which you play along with a prerecorded band. Practice sessions and the lessons themselves can be slowed to half-time, allowing novices to get used to proper playing techniques at their own pace. The work can be recorded by GarageBand for later editing into projects or to gauge progress.

The artist lessons are equally well done and offer the same on-screen and practice features as the lessons by Tim. Each song is taught in a basic version for less-experienced musicians and in a more advanced arrangement similar to that of the recorded version. There's also a Story section that features each artist telling something about the creation or the song or his experience as a musician. Some artists seem to be better at engaging users than others, and sometimes their instructions run counter to the basic lessons for things like finger placement -- though all seem to do well with the story track. If you're a big fan of any of the artists offering lessons, this will be a treat, even if you're not a skilled musician.

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