Apple has focused on a digital-hub strategy since Steve Jobs' January 2001 MacWorld keynote address, but until this month's introduction of a new digital-media tool, logically dubbed iPhoto, the strategy wasn't complete. The company had racked up an impressive number of design wins for its movie-making, DVD-authoring, and digital-music applications—iMovie, iDVD, and iTunes, respectively—but the software Apple bundled in Mac OS X for digital photography—the misguided Image Capture—was light on features and capabilities. With iPhoto, however, the company now has a credible alternative to all Windows XP's digital-media capabilities. Also, Apple timed the release of iPhoto—a Mac OS X-only product—with the news that the company will install Mac OS X as the default OS on every machine it makes isn't a coincidence.

As its name implies, iPhoto is an all-in-one digital-photography tool with hooks to the Internet. You can use iPhoto (which is provided free to Mac OS X users) to acquire (import), organize, edit, and share digital photos using an attractive "brushed metal" interface similar to what other Apple applications, such as the QuickTime player or iTunes, use. Taking a cue from the Microsoft playbook, iPhoto integrates with online photo-printing services to offer a wide range of services, including a fairly unique service that prints gorgeous hardbound photo books that you can modify several ways. The end result is impressive and sets iPhoto apart from the competition.

How does iPhoto work? The interface is broken up into different views, or sections, which are labeled according to task (Import, Organize, Edit, Book, and Share)—a logical way to proceed.

Importing Photos


When you connect a compatible USB camera to your Mac, iPhoto automatically launches and displays the Import view. The application identifies the camera and the number of pictures it contains. However, unlike Windows XP's excellent Camera and Scanner Wizard, which launches when you connect a camera to your PC, iPhoto doesn't prompt you about acquiring photos. Instead, you must manually locate and click the Import button, which starts the process. You can choose to leave the photos on the camera or delete them during import (but you can't selectively delete photos, as you can in XP), and the Import button changes to Stop so you can halt the process if necessary. During the photo import, the application displays a small thumbnail of each photo. iPhoto falls short in this area as well, compared to XP: It doesn't let you view or work with the photos on the camera until you import them to the computer; XP lets you view, modify, selectively delete, and even print photos without first copying them to your computer.

Another weak iPhoto feature (compared to XP) is the way it names photos. In XP, you can choose to name each picture in a set in a logical manner (i.e., 2001 Vermont Vacation 001) as it's imported. iPhoto creates a directory structure under your Pictures folder that's based on the date you took the picture. So the 10th picture you take on January 11, 2002, is called 10.jpg and is located in the /iPhoto LibraryPictures/2002/01/11/ folder. Granted, most consumers aren't interested in dealing with the actual files all that often, but it's nice to have a photo-management choice. In iPhoto, you can only rename photo "titles" in the Organize view (albeit one at a time); you can't rename the file names.

When the import is finished, you can see all photos together in a thumbnail view. iPhoto includes a cool slider control that lets you resize the thumbnails on the fly, and it takes advantage of Mac OS X's Quartz display engine to provide smooth and speedy resizing, even on a low-end iBook. This feature is unique and visually impressive.

Organizing Photos


iPhoto's organizational capabilities are initially hazy. Every photo you import is stored in a Photo Library, but you can create your own custom Photo Albums and drag and drop photos from the Photo Library to any album. Doing so doesn't delete the original from the Photo Library, and editing a photo in an album doesn't change the original (in the Library), suggesting that iPhoto stores multiple copies of photos. This replication could result in a disk-space problem, but I think that's OK; you wouldn't want to ruin the only copy you have of an important photo because of an editing gaff.

In addition to creating albums and copying photos, you can perform organizational tasks while you're in the Organize view. You can view and edit information—such as title and text comments—about each photo, rotate photos, and even view a slideshow, complete with wistful music. And you can assign keywords to photos (built-in keywords include Favorites, Family, Vacation, and similar terms), making it easier to find similar photos later.

After you get used to iPhoto, using the application to organize photos makes more sense, perhaps, than the file-system-based approach XP uses. But until iPhoto offers a back-up capability, abstracting the photos from the files that store them makes it more difficult to back them up, so which method is preferable is a toss up.

Editing Photos


In addition to the simple rotating feature in the Organize view, you can double-click individual photos to display them in Edit view (or you can choose to display the pictures you double-click in a new window). In Edit view, you can crop individual images using a constrain tool that is particularly well implemented. You choose a photo size, such as "4 x 3" or "5 x 7" Portrait, then drag the mouse across the image to select the area you want to crop. You'd have to buy a third-party application to do this in Windows.

The Edit view also features red-eye removal and a Black & White mode that converts color photos to black and white. (I think this feature is curious.)

Sharing Photos


iPhoto offers several photo-sharing options, including local printing, slide show, online print ordering through the Kodak Print Service, online book ordering, home-page uploading, and various export capabilities. The expected single-file export is augmented by the ability to export entire albums as QuickTime movies. Overall, the photo-sharing capabilities in iPhoto are excellent.

iPhoto's best feature is making your own hardcover photo book. The first 10 pages cost $30, and each additional page is $3. But the results are impressive—the books are beautiful. You can choose from several themes (Picture Book, Catalog, and Classic, among others); determine whether to display titles, comments, and page numbers; design the cover, introduction, and individual pages; and preview the whole book before committing your credit card. It's easy, makes a great gift, and is great fun. This feature is the single best reason to use iPhoto, and although similar features are available online, none are as simple or elegant as the feature in iPhoto.

Conclusions


iPhoto is a winner, and although the application itself isn't a reason to switch to the Mac, working with digital photos is certainly one less thing to worry about if you're contemplating making such a switch. Apple deserves credit for creating such a pervasively integrated experience that simultaneously holds your hand and offers leading-edge features such as custom-book creation. If you're a Mac OS X user, download this wonderful program. And if you're still using Mac OS 9, here's your reason to upgrade.

Windows users, take note. iPhoto isn't a hands-down winner when compared to XP, but it does offer some features that aren't available on the Wintel side of the equation. When you combine these capabilities with the world-class digital-video editing features in iMovie and iDVD, Mac OS X is very much a force to be reckoned with, especially for anyone interested in digital media.