At MacWorld San Francisco 2004 last month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the company's latest suite of multimedia tools, dubbed iLife '04. Apple markets the $50 product as being "like Microsoft Office for the rest of your life," which is a cute way of saying that you'll need the applications in this suite as much as you need products like Word and Excel when you've got to get work done. Frankly, there's some truth to that, and though iLife '04 isn't perfect, it's a stunning value for the money and a must-have purchase for every Mac OS X users. Not running Mac OS X? Fear not: I'll explore some related offerings for PC users as well. Let's take a look.

Apple iLife '04 includes five brilliantly integrated applications, and at least three of them are best-of-breed:

iTunes 4 - Digital music organization, sharing and iPod integration.
iPhoto 4 - Digital photo organization, sharing, and basic editing.
iMovie 4 - Digital video editing and sharing for home movies.
iDVD 4 - Create DVD movies.
GarageBand - New to this version, a music creation application with limited appeal.

Let's take a look.

iTunes 4

Apple didn't actually update iTunes for iLife '04, but this version of the company's excellent media player is the best yet. Apple iTunes 4 features a simple user interface, blazing search speeds, integrated album art (but only for albums you've downloaded from Apple's music store), normal and "smart" playlists, free Internet radio, iPod integration, and, of course, access to Apple's excellent iTunes Music Store, which was just updated with a host of useful and fun new features, including Billboard music charts and Audible audio books.

For my money, the best iTunes feature, however, is its sharing capabilities. You can optionally set up your Mac- or PC-based iTunes music collection to be shared among any computers in your home, via wireless or wired networking. I use this feature all the time to play music from my home office-based iMac through a laptop while I'm upstairs, which is both handy and surprisingly fast. Also, you can share music you've purchased from the iTunes store with up to two other computers (again, Mac or PC). Music you've ripped from CD yourself can be shared with as many computers as you own.

For Mac users, iTunes is just about perfect, and a great example of the fit and finish Apple fans expect from their favorite company. On the interoperability side, things are a little murkier: Though iTunes integrates easily with the award-winning iPod, it doesn't support any of the hundreds of other portable audio players on the market, or Microsoft's pervasive Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which is used by most other music stores. On the PC, there are several media players to choose from, but none are as simple and elegant as Apple's offering, which also ships in a free PC version. For the best music store experience on the PC, look into either Napster 2.0 or RealPlayer 10 - currently in beta), the latter of which is also a great media player. Windows users that need WMA compatibility will be best off with Windows Media Player 9 Series.

iPhoto 4

Apple's previous iPhoto versions were simple and well designed, but suffered from alarming performance issues, especially for users with large photo collections. The application tried to hide its performance issues by first rendering low-res versions of each photo preview, and I think Apple engendered some good will by equipping iPhoto with some killer features like photo book creation, red eye removal, and a nice slideshow. In iPhoto 4, Apple somewhat fixed the performance issues, though I still find the application hamstrung on my 1 GHz 17-inch iMac. But again, it's the little things that count, and this version adds a host of small changes that really make it a delight to use. For example, you can now directly assign a photo in iPhoto to the Mac desktop, which was more convoluted in previous versions. And because it's more closely integrated with iDVD and iMovie this time around, your photos and photo albums (essentially playlists for pictures) come up directly in these other applications, which is a nice touch.

Despite these changes, iPhoto still gets beat handily by the PC-based competition. There are two standouts on the PC side to consider, Adobe's excellent PhotoShop Album 2.0 ($50) and Picassa, a relatively inexpensive newcomer at $29 with lightning-quick performance. Adobe's offering includes better editing tools and killer timeline and calendar views, but either of these applications could show iPhoto the door.

iMovie 4

When Apple shipped iMovie 3 last year, I was shocked by the horrible performance and the poor execution of the otherwise cool "Ken Burns effect," which lets you create animated photo slideshow movies. This year's iMovie 4 fixes both of those problems, and introduces a bunch of new features that make this release a winner. First, and most importantly, when you trim clips in the timeline, the trimmed pieces aren't confusingly relegated to the trashcan. Instead, when you make an editing mistake, or simply want to restore cut footage, you can actually go back to the edited clip in the timeline, re-expand the clip, and ... voila! ... it's back.

Despite the performance improvements, iMovie still falls short in a few key areas. Most titles, video effects, and transitions still have to be rendered, and that takes a lot of time on my suddenly lowly G4 system. During iMovie testing, I applied the "Adjust Colors" effect to 7 minutes of DV video, and it took the application 45 minutes to render it. Yikes.

In the PC world, we finally have decent and even superior alternatives to iMovie 4. The best is Microsoft's free Windows Movie Maker 2, which includes a stunning set of titles, video effects, and transitions, and none of them need to be rendered. Movie Maker 2 also works with a variety of video sources, and not just DV, like iMovie. For a much better take on the Ken Burns Effect, consider Plus! Digital Media Edition (XP only), a $20 download that includes the amazing Plus! Photo Story 2 tool.

iDVD 4

When iDVD first shipped a few years back, it was a shot heard 'round the world for home movie fans. Not only was it possible to create home movies on a computer, it was now possible to share them with standard DVD movies. Apple's excellent iDVD has always featured a simple interface, professional themes, and decent integration with iMovie, but this time around, Apple has really raised the bar; iDVD 4 is a fascinating and fun product, almost without parallel in the PC world.

In version 4, Apple added the ability to create DVD movies up to 2 hours in length; previous versions, and all PC-based solutions I'm aware of, are limited to just 1 hour of video. Apple achieves this new length by compressing the source video, and the company wisely varies the compression by the amount of video you need. That is, the more video, the more it will be compressed. Also new to this version is support for DVD autoplay, allowing you to specify a pre-menu event that occurs when the DVD is inserted; a new DVD Map feature which provided a graphical view of the DVD's layout; better iPhoto integration for in-application slideshow creation; and a host of new slideshow transitions (all stunning) and themes.

What can I say? I love iDVD and wish we had something as nice on the PC side. What we do have is slightly less elegant but somewhat more full-featured products. The best of the lot are Sonic MyDVD Studio 5 ($100) and Nero 6 Ultra Edition ($80), both of which feature a wide range of non-DVD movie functionality.

GarageBand

Like most people, I'm not a musician, so I question the value of including an application like GarageBand in iLife '04. GarageBand is essentially a low-end software-based recording studio, with dozens of software instruments that you can play together over a moving timeline, ala iMovie. Of course, music is a different media than movies, so the details differ somewhat. For example, you will often want to repeat, or "loop" musical selections, such as a drumbeat, over the course of a composition.

I've tooled around with GarageBand a little, and don't really feel qualified to give it a full review. Furthermore, as I'm not very experienced in this area, I can't really recommend any PC-based choices, though I'm listening if you have any advice. In short, iLife '04 is a great value even without GarageBand, so this application is really just icing on the cake.

Conclusions

Apple's amazing iLife '04 isn't perfect, but it is an amazing software value and a must-have application for all Mac users. Run, don't walk, to your nearest Apple Store, CompUSA, or Apple dealer, and pick up this package immediately, assuming you meet the modern Mac system requirements (or grab a copy from Apple's online store).

For PC users, the story is a bit murky. While we can often surpass the features and performance of iLife through separate applications, trying to put together a software package that rivaled iLife '04 would cost many times the price. I've often argued, logically, that the Mac is a somewhat expensive proposition, but this is one case where the Mac has the PC world beat cold. Please add my voice to those clamoring for an iLife for Windows. I'd love to see it happen.