After having been very impressed with the user experience that Apple has given the user with the Mac OS X and PowerBook G4 products, I started to try and do something useful with this platform. While I appreciate the lower-level, more hands-on aspects of some applications, I can also appreciate the effort that Apple has put into their tools to give their customers a straightforward and simple way to accomplish things like playing digital media, compiling music collections, and sharing photos.
The two programs that I evaluated are free Apple offerings for Mac OS X users called iTunes and iPhoto. These are available to users via Apple's website and through Apple's System Update utility. The versions that I'm reviewing in this article are iTunes v2.0.3 and iPhoto v1.0. iTunes is the more mature of the two applications, while iPhoto was debuted at the latest MacWorld Expo. The hardware that these are running on is an Apple G4 PowerBook with a 550 MHz processor and 256 MB RAM.
I will probably give iTunes a more rigorous review as I'm familar with the various personal jukebox programs available for the Windows platform. I obtained iTunes with my default OS X installation and obtained the latest updates via the System Update utility.
I am a user with many CD audios and for the past two years, I have maintained a collection of these songs using MusicMatch. For the most part, I have been very happy with MusicMatch and I wondered if Apple would be able to make me think about switching from MusicMatch to iTunes. The most obvious advantage that Apple has with the iTunes package is its ability to serve as a "docking station" of sorts for the iPod and other MP3 players. Since most of my money was spent on the Apple hardware, I do not have a personal MP3 player from which I can make any sort of meaningful comparison with. However, given Apple's typical way of doing things (and the Jeff Goldblum commercial), I suspect that this is a drag and drop affair.
In terms of music playback, iTunes is at the same plateau as almost every other MP3 player in existence. At the moment, I am piping the audio output from the Apple into my Creative Audigy soundboard on my PC, and it sounds fine.
I experimented with networking my collection on my Windows 2000 PC to the PowerBook. I used the built-in SMB support to map a network drive on the OS X desktop. After that, I started up iTunes and configured it to look at the network share for music files. I was slightly confused when the albums did not appear on the interface, but this was soon solved after I took the root folder of the collection from the network share and dragged it over iTunes. It took about ten minutes to import 172 albums worth of MP3's. After the import was complete, I was presented with two windows on the iTunes interface. One was for artist and the other for albums. Playing a single album was as simple as selecting the artist and then double-clicking the album to be played. Playback was instant, and just as I would expect playing from MusicMatch. (The files were played from the Windows 2000 PC over a 100 Mb network link.)
While it is simple to play complete albums, mixing and matching individual songs from different albums was a bit more difficult. I am used to MusicMatch's paradigm of being able to pick a song and drag it to a default playlist, or insert it in a currently playing playlist. The way to do this under iTunes is to create a new playlist and add the songs to that list. It is easy to add songs in between songs, but it is not possible to add songs to a playing playlist without double-clicking the playlist so that it has its own window and dragging from your library in one window to the playlist in the other. This is one area where a little more interface improvement might be made in later versions of the application. However, overall the MP3 playing experience was mostly straightforward and on par with most current jukebox programs.
I'm currently unable to comment on the CD-making aspects of the program as I'm without a CD burner in the PowerBook. I did rip a copy of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind. I was prompted to play the CD as I ripped it and elected to do so. It actually took about a minute for the audio to start playing (I assuming that iTunes was playing from the initially ripped parts of the disk.), but after that, it ripped at about 4.7x - 5.2x speed. This is slightly faster than my Windows box (PII 450 MHz). While the ripping was not as fast as I expected, it was very acceptable and timely enough. It also helped that I could listen to the album while ripping, something that I cannot do under MusicMatch.
The one area where iTunes soundly beats the competition is in the area of Internet radio stations. I had previously subscribed to MusicMatch's Radio MX service, but I had found that it was very sensitive to campus network congestion to the point of eventually being unusable. While I appreciated that MusicMatch included the functionality in the software, I was dismayed by the pseudo-browser pages that I had to sign on to every time to get CD quality radio. With iTunes, there are no embedded browsers to deal with because the interface for accessing the Internet radio stations looks similar to the playlist interface and is quite easy to use without having to log onto anything. While the iTunes radio functionality is more like a traditional radio station than MusicMatch (MusicMatch had an interesting feature where you could select several artists and it would generate a radio station with songs similar to and including the artist.), there is a good variety of station types to select from, and a respectable number of stations of each type. iTunes also lists the broadcast bitrate (from 24 kbps to 128 kbps) of each station. It is pretty simple to select a station that matches your bandwidth and then stream. While listening to the radio station (I'm partial to Wolf FM), I noticed that while there were occasional interruptions in the playback, iTunes was quick to notify the user and recover and resume playing. Thus far, I've been most impressed by iTunes radio functionality. (Plus, it is free!)
So, looking at the iTunes big picture, I'm pretty impressed with this application bundled with the operating system, and the radio in particular, at the moment I do not plan on migrating my entire MP3 collection to iTunes. Not that that matters as I can play them in both iTunes and MusicMatch. While it does not have the complete strengths and advantages to make me consider wiping out MusicMatch, it is a damn good application for this type of stuff for Mac-heads without something already.
iPhoto was one of the big things at this year's MacWorld Expo, and I thought that I would see if the hype was warranted.
Before I begin with iPhoto, let me explain my photo needs. I have a Kodak DC215 zoom digital camera with a 32 MB CompactFlash that have used for the past few years to take and archive digital photos. I use a PCMCIA adapter to connect the CompactFlash to my Windows laptop and I edit and resize photos in the venerable PaintShopPro 5. I have a large collection of photos that I've taken during the past few years and I'm currently using Yahoo! Photos to catalogue them and make them available to my friends and family.
That being said, I evaluated iPhoto from the perspective of it being a solution that I can run locally and be able to export my photos in a web-based format that I can make easily available. As far as I know, there are not any integrated solutions on either the PC or Mac side.
The first thing that I did upon starting the application was to attempt to dump the images that I currently have stored on my camera into iPhoto. Since I do not have the USB connector, I tried my PCMCIA CompactFlash reader and it popped up in OS X on the desktop as another hard drive. Good so far. I opened the drive, selected all of my photos (and an additional PSP browser file) and dragged them over into iPhoto. It took about five minutes to import about 70 640x480 photos of JPEG and Kodak format. After the import, all of my photos were looking at me from the "Photo Library" pane.
I like to separate my photos into smaller collections of 25 - 50 photos, and it took me a minute to realize that I needed to create an album to do so. I created the album and attempted to drag the photos from the Library to the new album. I was confused when I dragged them and they were still visible in the Library. I had expected them to disappear after being moved. What happened is that photos are always part of the Library and the albums are best thought of as filters that only show certain photos from the Library than being thought of as actual separate collections. After getting over this counter-intuitive hump, I created a couple of albums.
After creating a few albums, I experimented with the slide show functionality, which is very slick. It is a simple slideshow, but Apple provides some music to play while cycling through the photos. You can also elect to play your own music.
After tinkering with the slideshow, I attempted to remove some of the worse pictures that I had taken. I initially tried from the Album view, but only succeeded in removing the photo from that collection. In order to remove the actual picture from the library and disk, you must remove it from the Library view. This can be tedious if you have a non-trivial number of photos. After removing the more egregious photos, I played with the red eye remover. I had a couple of photos of my little brother with slight red eye. The remover worked okay in some cases, but in other cases, it made the picture worse. As far as other editing functions, there is a built in editor, but the extent of the tools are rotating, cropping, and monochrome conversion. Apple was smart in this area of the design as you may select an external editor to use in place of the built in editor. As Apple's editor is a bit too limited for me, I may elect to use the external option as soon as I find a decent editor under OS X.
From this program, it is also possible to make an actual book from your photographs which Apple sends to you. I did not make one, but there are handy pre-formatted pages that you can plug into your book and add text. It is also worth mentioning that Yahoo! is also offering a similar service. I think that it is pretty neat, but I will wait to experiment further when I have the actual intent to make a book. (It might make a neat gift for a loved one one of these days.)
The last facet of the program is the Sharing tab. From here, you can select to print, generate a slideshow, order actual prints, make a book, generate a homepage, or export the photos as a JPEG, TIFF, or PNG. Since I don't have a color printer and have described the book and slideshow, I'll get on to the homepage generation. One note... In order to use the homepage generator, you must be an Apple iTools subscriber. This is a free subscription and if you installed OS X yourself, chances are that you've already signed up. So, to make the homepage, you select an album that you want and click the Homepage button. Pretty simple. You are prompted for the type of frame that you want in your pictures and some text for the page and pictures that you can use to describe the images. This process is straightforward and after you are finished, you click the Publish button and the pictures are uploaded and you are given a URL for the photos. Here is a sample page that I generated. Now, these pages are not accessible through the iTools network drive, but they are accessible through the iTools web interface. This is very well integrated within the iTools hompage stuff. I thought that this aspect of the program was pretty neat, if a little bit limited at the moment.
Overall, I would say that iPhoto is a pretty good application given that it is currently at version 1.0. There are some areas where expanded functionality would be appreciated, and there are some places where the intuitiveness of the interface is lacking, but I expect these to improve as Apple receives customer feedback and updates accordingly. I look forward to the day where I am able to move my photo collection from Yahoo! to iPhoto.
I think that these two technologies, while catering to the ease-of-use crowd are good applications for the power users. They suffer from a few kinks in interface and functionality, but if Apple's past performance in updating and adding functionality is any record, I expect great things from these tools, not only for the grandmothers with cat pictures to put online, but also for the power users who want clean applications that do useful things without having to resort to writing them themselves.