High-powered hardware and slick looks are nice, but computers should actually make things. Apple and Microsoft both offer software to organise photos, make movies and enjoy your computer. We compared iLife and Windows Live Essentials head to head from a first-time home user's perspective.
What iLife and Live Essentials Do: Make You Productive at Home
They're often worlds apart in how they actually do it, but both Microsoft and Apple's home software packages aim to fill the same role in your life. They want any computer owner to have all the tools for making nice digital things. Photo albums that are printed, emailed or just collected for review, amateur movies for sharing on YouTube or burned DVDs, blogs that share the story of your career or just your trip to Spain — the stuff that's not necessarily "productive" but a big part of modern-day life and human connections.
iLife comes bundled on most new Mac and MacBook models and is also sold as separate bundle for $69. The suite and its apps are updated about once a year — usually with a few new features and fixes here and there, but sometimes apps get an entirely new look.
Windows Live Essentials is a separate but connected piece of Windows, available as a free download in pieces or as a package. In previous versions of Windows, these kinds of applications came built in. It was a smart move to remove the bundle and pare Windows 7 down to a leaner, meaner system, but now it's Microsoft's job to make users aware of what they can still get with a free download. We've wondered what they're thinking when it comes to naming, but today we're focusing our gaze on the products themselves.
iLife comes with these key apps:
- GarageBand: Multi-track recording, audio processing and music lessons
- iPhoto: Photo importing and collection organising
- iMovie: Video importing and movie-style editing
- iDVD: Authoring DVD discs for photos or DIY movies
- iTunes: The music library that's kinda part of iLife — it's otherwise free
- iWeb: Visual website, blog and online photo gallery creation tool, limited in capacity
Windows Live Essentials offers these packages (each named "Windows Live Something", but we'll pare that off:
- Mail: Desktop email client
- Messenger: Instant message client with other social doodads.
- Movie Maker: Video importing and editing
- Photo Gallery: Photo importing and collection organising
- Family Safety: Utility for placing content and security restrictions on websites, files, applications and other computer aspects.
- Live Mesh: Connection tool for making use of 25GB worth of free cloud-based space: file syncing, photo sharing, Office Docs editing, etc
- Live Writer: Online and offline composing tool for blogs and journal services
iLife and Live Essentials, then, don't offer the same exact set of tools for a side-by-side comparison — in fact, they only directly "compete" in photo and video management. But let's look at the strengths and weaknesses of each platform.
I'm coming at both packages as a relative newcomer. I've only messed around with Live Writer here and there, and while I've used iMovie for work-related projects, I'm very vocal about its deficiencies — as my fellow editors will tell you.
The Uniques: Apps You Can't Get Elsewhere
There's a common thumbnail used to encapsulate Macs: it's the "creative" computer. Apps like GarageBand are the core truth at the centre of that generalisation. GarageBand is an essential piece of software if you record your voice, your instrument or any other audio you intend to distribute. It makes signal-processing and problem-fixing a breeze, and offers multi-track mixing tools that more than a few bands have used to do real work. As the cliché goes, it just works for those who like to talk, sing, play or make things sound better.
Live Writer (Live Essentials)
Microsoft doesn't own any of the major blogging platforms and in fact partnered with WordPress to move its Live Spaces users off their servers. So it's kind of surprising that their Live Writer app is the best desktop client available for writing blog posts on WordPress, MovableType, Tumblr and other blogging platforms. It takes the pain and code-checking out of composing, makes images easy to handle and even handles comments with ease on a number of platforms. If you're not always connected, or find a browser text box not the most inspiring space to write for the web, this is your app. (Ed note: This recommendation comes not so much from my own use, but the How-To Geek. He manages an entire fleet of blogs and writes for Lifehacker and his own sites primarily in Live Writer).)
iWeb/MobileMe or Live.com/Office Live/SkyDrive
If you're a front-to-back fan of all things Apple and Mac, the iLife apps offer all kinds of tight integration with the online space you pay $119 per year for. Photos, email, calendars, websites and everything else can trade back and forth through your Me.com space.
Microsoft's Live.com space is similar in some functions, doesn't cost anything and encapsulates the free web functions of Office. But the glue holding Live.com together, and having it all make sense, isn't quite there yet. Both ecosystems have their merits, but neither seems worth the effort and hassle, or simply cost, of getting tied into.
The Photo Showdown: iPhoto vs Live Photo Gallery
Talk to enough Mac owners, and a common gripe is with iPhoto. It's made quite a few improvements in openness and utility over the years, but it still feels like it's nobody's idea of a perfect system. Still, it's a nice-looking app, integrates well with the overall Mac OS X experience and has a pretty good facial recognition engine humming underneath.
• Better facial recognition and tagging:
Apple's vaunted focus on simplicity makes a lot of sense here. If you're going to let people point out who their friends are, you shouldn't make them hunt them down in photos, name them, then keep track of all their individual albums and constantly approve the software's best guess. iPhoto asks you for names and asks if it's right in a simple two-photo set that you can bang through in good time (I organised my 8GB collection in about 15 minutes on a train).
• Nice looks: Sometimes you print out, email or post your photos to Facebook, but just as often, you're showing them off right in your photo app of choice — or taking a trip down Nostalgia Lane yourself. iPhoto's black matte background and simple, photo-forward looks make it a nice app to spend time with, and it gives your photos the attention they deserve.
• Proprietary, risky data: Like iTunes, iPhoto keeps your metadata — thumbnail images, face tags, fixes and more — in a library file that's built only for its own use. You can export your photos, but don't expect another photo manager to pick up and run with your iPhoto database. All that is fine if you only plan to use iPhoto, but accidents do happen, even when upgrading between iPhoto versions. You should, of course, keep very diligent backup of all your photos in any case, but with iPhoto and other iApps, library loss seems particularly devastating.
• "Events", "Albums" and date grouping: iPhoto doesn't just organise your photos by the date they were taken; it also wants to understand the "Events" you shot at, offer "Albums" for grouping and also do a little date-grouping in the main window. Over time, it may start to make sense to you, but for newcomers it can be really frustrating to have no idea where certain photos are or why they're not where you think you just put them.
Live Photo Gallery
Live Photo Gallery hasn't been around long enough for any aggregate gripes to come up. It features many of the same selling points as iPhoto, like facial recognition and social network connections, and it comes free.
• Works instantly with Windows 7 Libraries: Windows 7's Libraries are a quietly great feature of the OS — put your media in any of the folders you select, and they're aggregated instantly for apps that need them. Live Photo Gallery doesn't require you to import folders or select "watch" locations for your photos. If a photo is in one of the folders you consider part of your Pictures library, Photo Gallery sees it, reads it and indexes it.
• SkyDrive and other social sharing: With all the online space Microsoft is giving Live Essentials users (about 25GB worth), you can fling pretty much as many pictures as you want online and share them with friends with a link. The online Live photo galleries themselves are pretty decent, but if Flickr or Facebook are more your bag, you can both send your photos there in high resolution, and/or have notifications appear on your social network pages when you've got something new up.
• Hit-or-miss interface: If you've had more than three conversations in which you've cursed Microsoft's "Ribbon" toolbar for newer products, Photo Gallery will not be your reprieve. Beyond the comparatively cluttered feel of the toolbars, there's selecting multiple photos. For something one assumes a photo browser would do quite often, Photo Gallery's disappearing check boxes and click-somewhere-else-and-they're-all-gone interface needs a good deal of finesse.
The Other Alternative: Picasa
Google's Picasa app is updated more frequently than either Live Essentials or iPhoto, offers great email and social sharing, has an interface that hits a nice sweet spot between iPhoto's simplicity and Photo Gallery's multi-function utility, and is pretty great at face recognition. It's the photo editor of choice for most of Lifehacker's editors, it serves as a good collection cleaner, and Picasa can probably find a spot in your own system too.
The Video/Home Movie Showdown: iMovie '11 vs Live Movie Maker
• Slickness, polish, details: A lot of care went into the defaults in iMovie. The title cards, stock music, transitions and other tools all have a fairly elegant touch to them and leave you free to focus on where to cut and how to sequence.
• The "Trailers" are great learning tools:
Generally, the new "trailer" tools built into iMovie '11 are just a set of templates you can built around. But that's exactly the kind of thing a brand new iMovie user needs — ideas, hand-holding instructions, and suggestions on what lengths, frames and progression they should be cutting to. You have, uh, probably seen the results of home videos put together on a devil-may-care attitude.
• Learning "The iMovie Way": iMovie sits between the simplicity of cut-and-paste video editors and full-scale tools like Final Cut Pro. In some recent releases — iMovie '09, I'm looking at you — the app shifted harder to the right, leaving many a user scratching their head as to how to do something like insert one video clip that uses the sound of a different clip. iMovie '11 has brought back some of the simplicity, but it's still far from obvious how to do some of the operations you'll want to pull off once you master the basic Clip 1, Clip 2, The End sequence.
Live Movie Maker
• Simple as you want to be: Live Movie Maker is a great place to head if you simply want to plug in your camcorder, offload your footage, cut it into a few pieces, then reassemble it and send it to your friends or relatives. There's a big window where you drop your clips in rough order, a corner window for previewing clips and finished product, and easy tools for uploading to social networks or exporting to a video file.
• Formats: Movie Maker doesn't recognise all the video formats that various phones, cameras, screen capture and webcam devices record to — and that's a bit of understatement, really. If your camera and phone work just fine with it, or you're good with a conversion tool like Format Factory or HandBrake, you're probably fine. For those who don't like to mess around, though, it's hit or miss.
• The interface: It's the same kind of gripe we had about Photo Gallery: a toolbar that's both tucked away and stuffed, a good bit of detail hidden in the right-click actions, and a few other gripes here and there. Which isn't to say that iMovie isn't its own kind of hide-and-go-seek game with certain functions; it's video editing, not crayon drawing, after all. But a bit more polish, please.
We didn't cover everything contained in Apple and Microsoft's home software packages, but we tried our best to give newcomers an idea of which suite would suit their needs best. If you've got your own take on what separates iLife from Live Essentials (and we'd guess you do), share it in the comments.