Charles Arthur on Technology

Songs in the key of iLife

So Steve Jobs has finally found a way to make Apple users pay for the company's "digital hub" strategy - the idea that its computers could be the axis for all sorts of other digital products in the home, such as your camera, camccorder, DVD player or CD collection. At January's Macworld show in San Francisco, he announced that the "iLife 04" package, this year's bundle of digital hub products, would cost $49 (or a whopping £39 in the UK).

The silence would have been as thunderous as it was in mid-2002, when Jobs announced that Apple was going to charge an annual fee for its previously-free "iTools" e-mail and webspace service (renamed ".Mac"), except for one thing: the new iLife contains an entirely new application, called "Garageband". It's aimed squarely at everyone who wants to make their own music.

If you don't, Garageband is just two gigabytes of dumb data, and you'll have to ponder whether it's worth the money for the updated versions of the film-making program iMovie, the DVD-authoring package iDVD, and the photo organiser iPhoto. (The latest version of the iTunes jukebox program is included in iLife 04, but it's also available free from Apple's website, because it's driving sales of the iPod.)

So, does it measure up? Let's look first at Garageband. Apple's surveys suggest that half of US households have a musical instrument lying about unused. The same probably holds true for the UK, so Garageband is here to unlock that music-writing talent.

What's remarkable is how much it offers you. There are hundreds of instrument effects, with dozens of drums and drum rhythms, and lots of preset "loops" (a few bars that can be repeated ad infinitum, or nauseam). You can play a guitar or keyboard through it (once you've hunted down the right cables - not an easy task). You can twiddle effects to a remarkable degree: phaser, flanger, fuzz, compression, equalisation, echo, and more, all individually tweakable. You can cut a section of music at odd numbers of beats and set those to repeat, giving interesting syncopation effects.

This is really a cut-down version of a professional-level loop and mixing program. Which isn't surprising: Apple has been buying music software companies over the past few years and Garageband sees those acquisitions leveraged to produce consumer-level software.

I did find it hard to understand some facets of Garageband at first: how to mute tracks; how to edit specific things about an instrument once I'd laid down a track with it; why I couldn't hear my guitar. These problems aren't helped by the OSX Help system, which is still geologically slow compared with that in Windows. But within an evening I produced a demo version of a song I wrote; given another day I might have shared it with others. I can imagine Garageband sparking off some great bedroom creativity - though in truth, there's still nothing like joining a band and working on songs to make you realise how good music is often a communal activity. And Garageband doesn't have any "groupie" settings, either.

You'll need a machine built in the past two years: anything else won't have the horsepower. It's a neat example of what marketers call upsell: make people want the cheap software, and buy expensive hardware to get it (it's pre-installed on new kit). But if your machine can run Garageband, and you think there's any chance you'd want to make music, iLife 04 is a must-have.

What if you're not a budding musician, or your machine isn't powerful enough for this new application? Are the new versions of the old ones good enough?

The answer is yes once again. The new iPhoto is not hugely changed from its previous incarnation; it's faster, has more useful features and is better organised, but flaws remain. The most glaring is that it's hard for two people sharing a machine to share a set of photos, as a couple would. This version is an improvement, but has some way to go.

By contrast iMovie 4 is very much better, with better editing and integration with the other iLife apps. One neat aspect is how easy it is to create a slideshow from photographs: simply drag photos in from iPhoto and edit to suit. I can't speak for iDVD, because I've never felt an urge to author a DVD. (Feel free to shout me down if you have three friends who use iDVD; otherwise, consider yourself unusual, in the nicest sense.)

The final word on the iLife suite is just that - it's a suite. The programs work together. While it's perfectly feasible to buy software for Windows that will do all these things, they lack the integration that lets you create a song in Garageband, export it to iTunes (and on to your iPod), then use it as the backing track for a slideshow you'd prepared using iMovie with photos from iPhoto, and burn it all to disc using iDVD. The nice thing about living at the digital hub is that you can flatter yourself that the world revolves around you. Even if it's not true, iLife 04 gives that impression. And every little counts.