Review: iWeb '08

The first iteration of iWeb (   ) appeared a little more than a year and a half ago, giving iLife users a quick way to publish Web sites via their .Mac accounts. Designed with family users in mind, iWeb took the guesswork out of Web publishing. Without any knowledge of HTML, CSS, or JavaScript, Web novices could publish home pages as well as beautiful, professional-looking online photo albums and video pages, and get started with simple blogging and podcasting.

However, the program had some notable flaws: it was a less intuitive process to publish to non-.Mac Web servers; it tended to create image-heavy (slow) pages; it didn’t allow for easy site synchronization between different Macs; and it gave users no easy way to add custom HTML to their pages.

In iWeb ’08, Apple has concentrated primarily on improving its photo gallery functionality, incorporating community-oriented features for sharing and feedback, and adding Web 2.0 technologies that make your Web site an interactive and engaging experience. Some of the old flaws remain, and at least one seems worse.

Plays well with iLife

In iWeb, you use the media browser to access any photo, audio clip, or video clip created in or imported into another iLife application, and quickly drag it into an iWeb page template. With iMovie, you must first share the video to the media browser before you can access it from iWeb’s media browser. From iPhoto, you can send photos directly to an iWeb photo page or blog entry page by using the commands in the Share menu.

One click to the Web

So, let’s say you’ve assembled your photo albums in iPhoto (   ), edited your videos in iMovie (   ), and composed your podcasts in GarageBand (   ). Now the question is, how do you share all of this material with your friends and family?

In iWeb, pages seem to build themselves. Just choose a theme (from the 26 provided) and page template (such as photo, movie, blog, or podcast, some of which are pre-coded to publish rich media), drag and drop images and other media you want to use into the template’s placeholders, type in your own text, and you’re ready to publish. All you have to do is click the Publish button in the bottom left-hand corner of the iWeb window, and within a short while everyone can see your site on the Web.

iWeb ’08 comes with eight beautiful new themes (14 if you didn’t get the iWeb 1.1 update). However, if you customized your Web pages extensively in the previous version, be aware that iWeb ’08 reapplies default versions of the themes, which may cause your well-crafted pages to go askew. Make sure to duplicate any pages, or better, the whole site (copy the file: Library/Application Support/iWeb/Domain.sites) before applying a new theme. Apple has released an update to iWeb ’08 to help address this problem.

It is also possible to create your own iWeb themes or purchase third-party themes (although third-party iWeb ’06 templates (version 1.0.1) will not work in ’08). That said, iWeb does not directly support importing themes, and adding them requires knowledge of how to edit the iWeb application package (if the template installers fail). Within iWeb, you can choose a Blank template (a new page style in iWeb ’08), customize it, and save your design for future use, but you will have to use the Duplicate function to create new pages. In addition, vendors such as 11mystics.com, are already updating their iWeb 1.x templates for version 2.x. Most iWeb users crave variety, but will be unlikely to take the time and effort to construct or buy additional templates.

To keep things as simple and versatile as possible, iWeb automates some more-advanced functionality, such as image optimization. This is a double-edged sword, though, since in order to achieve many of the effects needed for its page designs (which often use masking, transparency, reflection, and rotation), iWeb uses the PNG-24 format instead of the more-efficient JPEG image format. This can mean larger image sizes and slower page downloads. For example, to create a non-rectangular photograph in one of the template designs, iWeb outputs a 328KB PNG-24 image. If you take that same image and save it as a JPEG at 100 percent quality, the size is reduced to 134KB, and you can get a much smaller file size if you reduce the quality even slightly. Of course, then you won’t be able to reproduce the decorative image shape. The tradeoff for design is often larger page sizes and slower downloads—a common complaint about iWeb.

Media mogul

If you want to share more than just your pictures, iWeb also lets you create your own blogs and podcasts on pages designed to hold such content. Blog and podcast pages are automatically indexed, searchable, and include an RSS Feed that allows readers to subscribe. Readers and listeners can add their own comments and images if you let them, but be careful: although you can turn the commenting feature on and off, and can receive a notice when comments are made and delete them after the fact—a real advancement over the last version—you cannot moderate comments and approve them before they are displayed. Unfortunately, iWeb does not include several common blog features, such as tagging, e-mail to a friend, or back-linking controls to Digg, Del.icio.us, or Reddit. While these features would not be of much use to anyone creating a family Web site, I would say that a significant number of iWeb users are amateur blog enthusiasts or small business owners who would be very happy to have such features.

Another problem arises if you are working across multiple Macs. You may have a home machine, a work machine, and a laptop, all grooving off of the same .Mac account to keep them in sync. Unfortunately, when it comes to iWeb, none of these machines will know what the other is up to. There is a workaround, but it requires that you manually copy the Domain.sites2 file (User/Library/Application Support/iWeb) and carry it around with you, or copy it to your iDisk. Of course, that means always having to remember to copy the file, when Apple could have allowed for syncing in the .Mac preferences just like it does for Mail, Address Book, and other applications.

Galleries galore

One problem with the previous version of iWeb was managing all of your photo albums and movies. You could create dozens of different albums and movies for various events (one for your kid’s birthday, one for your beach vacation) but to keep track of them, you had to manually create and manage an index page. The new version of iWeb automatically indexes all of the photo albums you post into a My Albums directory—and each has an animated cover. A photo album can contain up to 500 images, and you can define how many images appear on each page.

In addition, you can now turn your photo albums into an online community area, allowing visitors to subscribe to an RSS feed of your gallery, leave comments about individual photos, and even upload their own photos via e-mail to the gallery (with your permission). This last feature will be especially useful for groups wanting to share photos, since you can now upload and download high-resolution images suitable for printing. For example, you might set up a wedding photo page where guests can upload their own photos of the event.

Web widgets

The Web is full of widgets—small chunks of code that anyone can use on their site to add content and functionality without having to write code themselves. You don’t have to be a programmer to copy and paste Web code from YouTube, MySpace, and other social networking Web sites to add video, RSS feeds, or maps to your Web pages. New in iWeb ’08 is the ability to add three different flavors of Web widgets to your pages.

HTML Snippets allow you to copy Web code (HTML, CSS, or JavaScript) from any Web site and paste it into a layer on your page, which you can then position wherever you want it. This can be used to add a video, stock ticker, weather map, or news headlines updated live on your Web page. Of course, if you know any code, HTML Snippets can be used to add whatever code you want to your pages. Go crazy.

Google Maps and Google AdSense, two of the most popular Web widgets, allow you to add interactive maps or profit-generating advertisements to your Web pages. For AdSense, you will need to set up an account with Google, and iWeb can help lead you through that. Incorporating Maps is as easy as entering an address and then resizing and positioning the map on your page.

Web Galleries are photo albums or videos that can be published directly from iPhoto or iMovie to be viewed on your .Mac account or your own domain. The .Mac Web Gallery feature allows iLife users to get content online fast without using iWeb. However, iWeb allows you to add a mini-version of any of these Web Galleries to a page on your site as a Web widget with a link to the full photo gallery or video. The interface for the photo mini-gallery may take some getting used to—you have to roll your mouse back and forth over the image as it changes, much like the preview in an iPhoto event, only smaller. And the small size is a problem because even the slightest movement of the mouse initiates the skimming action. However, the interface for the full gallery makes up for that.

Keep in mind, though, that the Web Galleries generated from iPhoto and iMovie are different from photo albums and video pages created by iWeb. Web Galleries take you straight into a robust image-browsing interface using Flash, while iWeb creates HTML pages with photos and videos on them and a link to a more limited browsing interface.

Master of your own domain? Maybe.

One of the most eagerly awaited new features in iWeb is the ability to view your .Mac iWeb site by typing in your own registered domain name (for example,

www.mydomain.com
). However, this new capability is disappointing and can be hard to set up. Rather than simply allowing you to enter FTP information for your domain and publish directly to it, iWeb’s Domain Forwarding feature has you publish the site to your .Mac account and then uses your domain name as an alias for your Web site. In your .Mac Account Settings, you set the Personal Domain to your own registered Web domain. Now for the tricky part, which requires you to get your domain registrar to point to your .Mac account. This generally involves using your domain registrar’s Web site to set an alias, called a CNAME , to web.mac.com or contacting your registrar to make the change.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Even if you have some experience with your domain registrar’s control panel, changing the alias may prove an imposing task. Then too, many iWeb users may not even know who their domain registrar is or even what one is. My main issue with the Personal Domain feature is that it places the burden of making the switch on the user, and it is far from a straightforward process. Because setting up domain forwarding requires dealing with the arcane underbelly of domain registrars, it can be a more confusing process than anything else you’ll do in iWeb. Apple could help by publishing more thorough instructions on how to set it up using the most popular domain registry services. As it stands, the instructions from Apple are extremely vague, mostly advising you to contact your domain name registrar. They give no indication of what to expect or do if things aren’t working correctly. Many iWeb users may have their own domains, but I doubt that many of them will be able to get this functionality working right the first time out—which really should be the standard for a consumer program. Apple has a lot of work to do to smooth out this process.

Alternatively, if you want to publish directly to your own server, you can output your site to a folder (File: Publish to a Folder), but you will need to use your own FTP software to upload it, which kind of defeats the purpose of one-click publishing. And, you won’t get the flashy special effects that you get from posting your site to a .Mac account, such as blog comments, podcasts, and searching.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you want to build a Web site to share your life with friends and family, then there is no doubt that iWeb ’08 will do everything that you need it to do. Its integration with the rest of the iLife suite ensures that it will be the swiftest path from your screen to the screens of others. It also provides some really nice new template designs; unfortunately, getting the right effects often means having slower pages. There is no automatic syncing between your different computers. The new photo gallery indexing feature is sure to be a hit with anyone who creates more than a few photo albums a year, and you can also quickly serve up a simple blog or podcast.

However, if you are an organization or small-business looking for iWeb to do anything more than the basics, and particularly if you are not a .Mac customer, you will be disappointed. The blogging feature still lacks some standard features found in other common blog products, but it will do for most personal use. For more advanced users, this version’s biggest shortcoming is if you want to publish a site to your own Web server. You will still have to bring your own FTP software, and you will miss out on many of the capabilities that iWeb offers. Moreover, Apple still has not addressed the problem of page bloat, something that will affect all users no matter how or where they publish their site. And if you’re OK publishing to .Mac’s server, but want to use your own domain name, prepare to do some research and head-scratching to get it all working.

[ Jason Cranford Teague is the creative director for AOL RED and regularly blogs about technology and culture at webbedENVIRONMENTS.com. ]

Access your photos, movies, and music through the iLife media browser. Just drag and drop files into your Web pages.Just click on the Publish button at the lower left-hand corner of iWeb’s work area and your Web site is visible online.Add a Google Map Web Widget to your page to show viewers a geographical location.

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