With the release of iLife '04, Apple's iPhoto photo-management program made the leap from version 2 to version 4. However, its features didn't cross quite the same distance. Although iPhoto 4 offers significantly improved performance and some useful additions, it still lacks features you'd expect from a serious photo manager -- especially since you now have to pay for it.
Importing digital images into iPhoto can be frustrating; iPhoto's Import command automatically downloads every image on your digital camera's media card and places the photos under the heading of a single film roll -- even if those photos span several months of holidays, for example. iPhoto 4 addresses this issue by letting you edit your library's film rolls. You can drag photos from one film roll to another, or select several related photos and put them in a new film roll. However, iPhoto still lacks a quick and easy way to download just one or two photos from a larger set.
Once your photos are in iPhoto 4, the program lets you easily sift through the new additions. The new Display Slideshow Controls option in the Slideshow menu adds a subtle toolbar to your slide shows, letting you move between slides, rotate images, assign ratings, and trash worthless pictures (see "Slicker Slide Shows"). To eliminate the tedium of listening to the same song over and over, you can select an entire iTunes playlist to accompany your slide show. And a new Batch Change feature lets you quickly apply comments and change the names or dates of many selected photos at once.
On the downside, iPhoto 4 still doesn't offer a way to export metadata such as keywords or ratings -- so you can't back up data or transfer it to a different program. It's hard to justify putting work into creating metadata when you don't know whether you'll be able to use it even a few years from now.
iPhoto 2's performance was nothing short of lousy -- so lousy that many users divided their huge stashes of images between multiple iPhoto libraries, to help ease the program's burden. But thanks to some serious speed improvements, most tasks in iPhoto 4 are smooth and fluid. Unfortunately, Apple doesn't provide a built-in way to merge multiple libraries, for people who no longer require them.
To help you sort through your massive photo collection, iPhoto 4 has smart albums, special albums that constantly update their contents based on criteria you set -- including date ranges, personal ratings, keywords, and associated text. As interesting as Smart Albums are, selecting photos based on any criterion other than date or file name requires that you regularly file, rate, rename, or add keywords to your photos, which may be more work than you want to invest. More broadly useful are several built-in smart albums that organize your photos by date ranges you define.
Still missing from iPhoto, however, is support for hierarchical albums, which would let you organize subfolders of different vacation photos within a larger Vacations album -- similar to the Finder's nested folders.
One of iPhoto 4's most interesting features is Rendezvous-based photo sharing. Like iTunes music sharing, photo sharing gives other users on your network read access to your photos and lets them copy images to their own iPhoto libraries. iPhoto's photo sharing is ideal for people who want to retain sole control over their shared photo collections, such as office workers or dormitory residents. It's less successful in a family situation where photos are considered common property. Although all family members can see the shared photos, only the person sharing them can create albums, title photos, or assign keywords. There's still no way to give multiple users on the same computer read and write access to the same iPhoto Library; the best workaround remains storing the shared iPhoto Library folder on an external hard disk or other shared volume.
Macworld's Buying Advice
iPhoto 4 has some welcome improvements. But its new price and missing features won't woo users away from other photo-editing and cataloging programs. Still, even at $49, iPhoto 4 is an essential upgrade for anyone who relies on iPhoto to manage a large photo collection. People who use iPhoto only occasionally for its few unique capabilities, such as creating hardcover albums, may be happy staying with iPhoto 2.