Center of Attention

With a mix of powerful hardware and innovative applications, the Mac has firmly established itself at the center of our digital lives. Got a digital camera? iPhoto can import, organize, edit, and share all your images. Been videotaping birthdays and vacations on your DV camcorder? Use iMovie to edit your footage into a home movie, and then burn your movie onto a disc with iDVD. Now, thanks to a spate of new products, Apple's digital hub is extending its reach. A slimmed-down version of the iPod has the potential to enlarge the music player's appeal, while the iLife '04 suite includes updates to three popular i-apps and introduces an entirely new program that puts music creation at your fingertips. Here's a closer look at Apple's latest hardware and software -- these products promise to make your digital hub the place to be.

A LITTLE MUSIC

by Philip Michaels

Pop singers should envy the way the iPod has rocketed to the top of the charts. The portable music player debuted with a splash more than two years ago, and the hits have kept on coming ever since. Apple says that from October 2003 through December 2003, it sold 730,000 iPods -- enough to give it a 31 percent share of the MP3-player market.

But as the iPod's capacity has grown -- the smallest model now has 15GB of storage -- folks with modestly sized music libraries have had less reason to sing the device's praises. Users without thousands of songs to store have little need for all that space.

Faced with this big problem, Apple came up with a small solution -- the iPod mini. Basically a slimmer version of the iPod in a more colorful package, the iPod mini rounds out Apple's digital-music–player offerings (see "iPod Playlist"). More importantly, anyone looking for a lower-capacity music player now has an option that not only features Apple's stylish design but also seamlessly integrates with the iTunes jukebox software.

Mini to the Max

While the regular iPod is about as big as a deck of cards, the iPod mini is the size of a business card. The smaller iPod is 3.6 by 2.0 inches, compared with the 4.1-by-2.4-inch dimensions of its larger sibling.

To shrink the music player into such a small package, Apple's designers made some changes to the face of the iPod. Buttons found above the scroll wheel on the original iPod have moved onto the iPod mini's wheel itself. You can scroll through your iPod mini's music library with the touch of a finger; click on the scroll wheel's menu, play/pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons to access those functions.

The rest of the iPod package is unchanged. The iPod mini retains the Hold switch, remote port, and headphone jack on its top side. The FireWire–USB 2.0 connector on the bottom is also the same, so most accessories that work with the regular iPod will also work with the iPod mini. (Two notable exceptions are the Belkin Voice Recorder and Belkin Media Reader, which were introduced last fall. They aren't supported by the iPod mini's software.)

The Color of Music

Apple is also injecting some color into the iPod line -- five colors to be exact. The iPod mini comes in silver, gold, green, pink, or blue, on an anodized aluminum case that resists stains and scratches.

The iPod mini's screen resists scratches, too. It's recessed in the case, so if you set the iPod facedown on your desk, the screen never touches the surface.

Priced at $249, the iPod mini costs $50 less than the least expensive iPod (see "Music Player for a Song?"). But Apple is gambling that the combination of form and features is enough for another number-one hit.

Music Player for a Song?

Forget the iPod mini's compact size and its assortment of colors. The feature that's really got people talking about Apple's miniature music player is its $249 price. And the chatter hasn't exactly been enthusiastic.

When Apple unveiled the iPod mini, it positioned the slimmed-down iPod as a rival for small, flash-based music players. Apple CEO Steve Jobs compares the 4GB iPod mini to SonicBlue's 256MB Rio Chiba and Rio Cali. While those $199 devices cost less than the new iPod mini, they also hold far less music than the 1,000 songs Apple's smaller music player can store. "That's the best $50 you'll ever spend," Jobs said at January's Macworld Expo.

But critics of the iPod mini's price argue that for another $50, iPod users can get even more storage -- 15GB worth, now that Apple has upped the capacity of its $299 iPod. While paying $249 for 3.7GB more storage than you get from a $199 flash-based player may be a good deal, some analysts and Mac users contend that paying $299 for 11GB more sounds even better.

Of course, a comparable music player -- the Rio Nitrus 4GB -- also sells for $249. And Stan Ng, Apple's senior product manager for the iPod line, believes that the iPod mini will appeal to different users. Some will appreciate its colorful look and portability, while others -- who don't have anywhere near 15GB of music -- will find the iPod mini's smaller capacity provides more than enough storage.

Besides, Ng adds, the iPod released by Apple in 2001 offered only 5GB of storage, and it cost $399. "And people thought that wasn't going to sell well," he says.

Pod Partners

First the iPod went cross-platform. Now it's going cross-company. Apple has struck a deal with Hewlett-Packard, which will deliver digital-music players based on the iPod but sold under the HP brand name. (Details -- such as the product name and price -- weren't available at press time.) As part of the deal, HP will also include the Windows version of iTunes on its Pavilion, Media Center, and Compaq Presario desktops and laptops. As of December 2003, the iPod enjoyed the biggest share of MP3-player sales in the world, and Apple's dealings with HP make it clear that the company intends to keep things that way.

Small Device, Big Accessories

So what will $249 buy you these days, besides 4GB worth of storage in an anodized aluminum case? The iPod mini ships with earbud headphones, an AC adapter, and cables for FireWire and USB 2.0. The music player also ships with its own belt clip. Optional accessories include the $39 dock for charging and synchronizing the device, and Apple's new $39 in-ear headphones. iPod mini users on the move should be interested in the optional $29 neoprene armband, for holding the music player in place while you're working out at the gym.

iPod Playlist

With the addition of the iPod mini, Apple now offers four digital-music–player configurations.

IN MY GARAGE

by Jonathan Seff

iTunes has made listening to, burning, and buying music a part of the digital lifestyle of Mac users. But something has been missing from Apple's musical equation -- music creation. We have the $199 Soundtrack and the $699 Logic Platinum, but the former relies on sound loops to create background music, while the latter is a professional-level -- and complicated -- audio and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) music-creation application.

Somewhere between the extremes of Soundtrack and Logic lies GarageBand; the latest addition to Apple's family of iLife apps, it's included in the iLife '04 suite. With GarageBand, you can layer prerecorded loops, play software instruments via a MIDI keyboard, and record live instruments -- all in one project.

Loops

Anyone who has seen Soundtrack (which comes as part of Final Cut Pro 4 or can be purchased separately) will be familiar with the concept of loops -- short, prerecorded sounds designed to repeat for as long as needed.

Apple includes more than 1,000 loops in the Apple Loop format, the same format used in Soundtrack. In fact, many of GarageBand's loops come from Soundtrack -- which ships with more than 4,000 loops on two DVD discs -- while other loops have been created specifically for GarageBand. All are royalty-free, so you can use them to create music that belongs to you.

Loops are easily accessible via the Loop browser, and they're organized by instrument (mandolin, organ, acoustic guitar, and trombone, for example), mood (distorted, cheerful, grooving, and processed), and genre (orchestral, rock/blues, and cinematic). Clicking on a button brings up a list of loops, presenting you with the loop's name, tempo, key, and number of beats per loop. You can also type in the name of your desired loop via a search box similar to the one in iTunes, Safari, Mail, and other Apple apps.

Once you find the loop you want, you can drag and drop it into GarageBand's main window to create a new track. Want to lengthen or shorten the loop? Click and drag the loop in the timeline until it reaches the desired length. As you add other loops, GarageBand will adjust the tempo, key, and beats so everything matches. (Loops with green icons are MIDI generated, while those with blue icons are recordings of actual performances.)

If the included loops aren't enough, several third-party sound companies have started selling Apple Loop libraries that you can add to GarageBand (not to mention Apple's own $99 GarageBand Jam Pack, which has 2,000 more loops). Acid Loops -- a popular format in the PC world -- won't work directly with GarageBand. However, you can use the Soundtrack Loop Utility -- part of the Apple Loops SDK -- to convert them (visit http://developer.apple.com).

Software Instruments

If the thought of making music appeals to you, you'll probably want to do more than just fiddle with someone else's loops. GarageBand obliges you by giving you access to virtual instruments -- or Software Instruments, as Apple dubs them -- for your own personal jam session.

With Software Instruments, you can "play" more than 50 different instruments that exist only as software code within the application. GarageBand includes an on-screen keyboard you can use to enter notes and chords, but to get the most out of GarageBand's Software Instruments, you'll need to add a MIDI or USB keyboard. Connected to your Mac, these keyboards let you play and record more-complex arrangements of piano, horn, drum, string, and choir sounds (to name just a few).

Instruments such as these can sell for hundreds of dollars apiece. Apple says that Software Instruments produce the same high-quality sounds as other virtual instrument products do -- for example, a guitar sounds like a real guitar -- but have fewer parameters that users can control.

That doesn't mean you need to take sounds as they come. GarageBand has more than 200 effects presets for adjusting compression, equalization, echo, reverberation, and more. By combining different effects, you can create custom sounds and save them.

Live Recording

After layering loops and generating sounds with Software Instruments, the third leg of GarageBand is live instrument recording.

Whether you play an instrument, such as an electric guitar or a bass, or sing vocals, you can record your live audio as tracks into GarageBand. The application has preset effects for effect combinations -- for example, Bright Bass, Female Basic, and Crunchy Drums settings. When it comes to playing a guitar, GarageBand includes several vintage amplifier sounds -- with one of these chosen, playing a guitar through GarageBand will sound as if you were playing through a classic guitar amp.

Just as with loops and Software Instruments, you can record different live tracks in GarageBand, one at a time (rhythm and lead guitar parts, for instance). Your Mac's speed and your hard drive determine how many tracks you can play back at once.

Getting Connected

To connect an electric guitar (or a professional mike, for that matter), you'll need additional hardware. Apple sells the $19 Monster Instrument Adaptor, which converts a guitar's 1/4-inch plug to a standard 1/8-inch minijack plug that you connect to your Mac's analog audio-in port (although you can pick up a similar adapter at your local electronics store for less than $5). Apple says this is all you need to get guitar sound into a Mac, but for optimal sound levels and quality, you may want to consider a preamplifier such as M-Audio's $180 MoblePre USB.

Mix Down

After you have all the tracks you want, you can tweak both volume and panning (left to right) settings by track, add and change effects, and more. In all, you can layer 64 instrument tracks, and even more for digital audio.

When you're happy with your results, select File: Export to iTunes. GarageBand will mix all your tracks down to a 2-track (stereo), 16-bit, 44.1kHz AIFF file -- a full CD-quality song. Then GarageBand will send that file to iTunes, and you can compress it to MP3 or AAC format to put on your iPod or Web site, or keep it in full quality to burn to a CD.

I'm with the Band

GarageBand joins Apple's iLife suite -- now dubbed iLife '04 and featuring updates of iDVD, iMovie, and iPhoto, as well as the latest version of iTunes. The suite ships on all new Macs and is also available as a $49 boxed set. Unlike the other iLife programs, iTunes remains a free download (Mac and Windows versions).

All of GarageBand's loops and instruments should keep you busy for a while, but for when you want even more choices, several add-on options have emerged. Apple has the $99 GarageBand Jam Pack. This add-on contains more than 2,000 additional Apple Loops, another hundred or so Software Instruments, 100-plus more effects pre-sets, and 15 more guitar-amp settings. Although you can use any MIDI keyboard with GarageBand, Apple sells M-Audio's $99 Keystation 49e and Edirol's $199 PCR-30, two USB keyboards, as accessories at the online Apple Store. And since the built-in sound output on your Mac probably won't be good enough for you when playing and recording music, consider purchasing a good pair of headphones or computer speakers.

iMOVIE'S LATEST EDITS

by Jason Snell

As far as sequels go, iMovie 3 was a disappointing follow-up to its predecessors. Last year's update to Apple's consumer video-editing program offered tons of interface and behind-the-scenes changes. But after discovering that iMovie 3 ran much slower, many people stuck with iMovie 2. Now with iMovie 4, Apple has not only added more features but also addressed iMovie 3's biggest problem -- speed. The updated app is part of the $49 iLife '04 suite; it's no longer available as a free download.

Faster, Faster!

iMovie 4's interface is much more responsive than version 3's. Video starts playing almost immediately after you click on the play button -- iMovie 3 just couldn't do this. But Apple's engineers have also pepped up the rendering of titles, effects, and transitions, so you won't have to wait as long to see if a cross-dissolve effect is really in the right place.

iMovie 4 also includes several new features designed to speed up your workflow. You can now select multiple, noncontiguous clips in the timeline. Say you decide that all the transitions in your project need to be one-second-long cross-dissolves. You can now select them all and change the cross-dissolve length in iMovie's Transitions panel; the program will re-render every transition with the new settings.

The new Bookmarks menu allows you to mark key spots in your project and then move between them with a keystroke. In a similar time-saving fashion, the View menu now lets you quickly move the Timeline or Clip Viewer to the current location of the playhead, saving you the trouble of scrolling through the viewer to figure out just what you're looking at.

Editing Made Easier

You can edit clips just as you've always done in iMovie. But the new Direct Trimming feature lets you shorten clips directly in the timeline.

When you first enter iMovie's Timeline view, you'll see a subtle change -- untrimmed clips have slightly rounded edges, while trimmed clips are perfectly rectangular. When you click on the edge of a clip and drag it, you automatically trim the clip. iMovie's main window shows you just what video you're removing. You can also drag out blank space in the timeline to use for inserting other material, such as a Color Clip -- a new feature in iMovie that lets you insert a blank clip of any solid color, for use with transitions or titling.

Productive Changes

iMovie 4 features numerous other improvements that can bolster editing productivity. Press the option key while you're clicking in the timeline, and you can drag the playhead back and forth while listening to your project's audio -- a great way to make sure your soundtrack and video are synced properly.

This version also provides direct support for Apple's iSight video camera, so you can capture video from the iSight directly within iMovie. The new Share command provides expanded exporting options, including the ability to automatically compress and e-mail movies, publish them to the Web via .Mac's HomePage feature, or even send them to a Bluetooth-enabled portable device.

iDVD 4: MATURE THEMES

iDVD's assortment of prebuilt themes -- which provide attractive menu designs for DVD projects -- is arguably the program's biggest asset. So while iDVD 4 introduces several new features, its most important addition is its 20 new themes. The program now features more than 40 high-quality templates for your DVD projects.

Beyond themes, though, are several other refinements that can make iDVD-built discs more closely resemble Hollywood productions. You can now create a movie that plays when someone inserts your disc, making it just like commercial DVDs that feature the FBI and Interpol warnings.

iDVD can also build video transitions between your menus, so you can move from one menu to another with the flip of a page or the twist of a cube, for example. (Those dynamic, Keynote-style transitions are also available in iDVD's Slideshow feature, adding some variety to the simple cross-dissolve feature of iDVD 3's slide shows.)

iDVD's new Map button lets you view the structure of your disc as a flowchart, which is quite useful for large, complicated projects. Anyone facing hardware limitations will especially appreciate iDVD 4's Save As Archive command, which, for the first time, lets the program run on Macs without SuperDrives. You can build your DVD project on any iLife-compatible Mac, choose Save As Archive, and transfer the resulting archive file to a SuperDrive-equipped Mac for burning. You can also now fit more on one disc. Using the same MPEG-2 compression engine used in Apple's DVD Studio Pro, iDVD 4 can fit two hours of video on a disc. (If you don't have a lot of video, you can opt for higher-quality compression that can fit as much as one hour on a disc.)

FINAL CUT EXPRESS 2

by Jonathan Seff

iMovie 4 may add welcome features such as improved trimming and enhanced titles, but it remains an entry-level editing program. Video editors looking for more power -- without Final Cut Pro 4's $999 price -- should be pleased with Final Cut Express 2, the latest update to Apple's midlevel video editor.

Based on the Final Cut Pro 4 code, the new version of Final Cut Express ($299; upgrade, $99) has many of the same features as its more robust sibling. The biggest addition is RT Extreme, the same real-time architecture that's in Final Cut Pro. It provides more effects, transitions, and simultaneous layers in real time, without the need to render.

Real-time benefits even carry over to audio volume and filter adjustments. Additionally, the new version has other audio improvements such as automated audio keyframe recording and support for Apple's Audio Units plug-in format.

Another welcome pro-level feature is Final Cut Express 2's ability to capture footage across time-code breaks, helping users save time by capturing footage in one automated session. There's also tighter integration with other apps, in the form of scoring-marker export for Soundtrack, chapter-marker export for iDVD and DVD Studio Pro, and compression-marker export for Compressor.

FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY

by Kelly Lunsford

Two years and several thousand photographs after iPhoto's debut, Apple's image viewer is experiencing growing pains. These days, you may spend as much time waiting for iPhoto to catch up to commands as you do showing off photos.

So the fact that Apple has addressed these speed issues in iPhoto 4 should come as a relief to avid iPhoto users. (As with iMovie 4, this version of iPhoto comes only as part of the iLife '04 suite, not as a free download.) The update makes iPhoto more responsive when scrolling, dragging, and resizing, but it also offers a host of organizational tools that simplify the process of finding photos.

Find Photos Faster

Consider the dilemma of the iPhoto Library, a repository that displays every image ever imported into iPhoto. To find a recently taken photo in version 3, you had to scroll past every image that surrounded it -- a tedious task, even with iPhoto's souped-up scrolling performance.

In iPhoto 4, however, Apple has made it much easier to find the photos you want. To quickly find a photo you took last year, you can click on a small disclosure triangle next to your Photo Library to see a new collection of photo albums organized by year. Each album contains only photos taken during those 12 months. Every time you import a new roll, iPhoto automatically adds the photos to the appropriate folder, keeping everything up-to-date.

If you want to see your most-recent photos, you can still click on the Last Roll menu item to view them or use the new Last 12 Months option to view everything taken in the past year. If these settings are too broad or too narrow, you can adjust them in iPhoto's preference pane.

Adapted from iTunes

Of course, sometimes you want to find photos featuring specific events, people, or other characteristics. iPhoto offers help in the form of Smart Albums, a feature similar to the Smart Playlists in iTunes.

Smart Albums automatically organizes photos into groups according to criteria you specify. Say you wanted to create an album containing all your family photographs. You could set up a Smart Album that automatically included any photo with the keyword family. You could further narrow down the collection by setting criteria such as dates, comments, file names, rolls, titles, assigned albums, or iPhoto 4's new rating system -- another feature taken from iTunes -- which lets you identify your favorite photos by applying as many as five stars. Once you've created a Smart Album, iPhoto will automatically add any future photos that match its criteria to it.

A third iTunes feature that made its way into iPhoto is Rendezvous integration. Now you can use Apple's zero-configuration networking technology to share your entire photo library or selected albums across a network. You can password-protect shared albums to control who sees what. There's one key difference from iTunes' Rendezvous implementation, however: downloading photos from a shared album is simply a matter of dragging the photo to your own library.

The Song Is Not the Same

Other improvements to iPhoto 4 include new slide-show transitions and tighter integration with iTunes. Older versions of iPhoto let you select a single song to play over slide shows -- meaning that the same song would play over and over again as you cycled through photos. Now you can select entire iTunes playlists for greater musical variety.

With the speed improvements in iPhoto 4, though, just make sure you pick an up-tempo song.

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