At last month's Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iLife suite, which includes updated versions of iDVD, iPhoto, and iTunes, as well as the iMovie 3 release that debuted this past summer. I'll evaluate all these applications in the weeks ahead; today, I take a look at iMovie 3.

The first thing I noticed was the tweaked UI. Whereas earlier iMovie releases used nonsizable, nonstandard windows, iMovie 3 uses a standard, resizable brushed metal window. The upgrade means that iMovie now interacts better with the system, although you'll need copious amounts of screen real estate to take advantage of iMovie's new sizing options. But iMovie's basic layout is identical to earlier releases--a complicated mishmash of controls, wells, and sub-windows that offers little in the way of an obvious starting point. People who are familiar with iMovie 2 will feel right at home with the new release, but iMovie 3 is still the most complicated and unintuitive of the iLife applications.

Workflow in iMovie 3 is also unchanged from the earlier release and is just as confusing. Rather than support the standard Open and Save terminology other applications use, iMovie's minimalist menu system uses Import and Export. You can acquire video from a digital source such as a Digital Video (DV) camera or import one or more media files, assuming you have compatible file types--iMovie 3 is compatible with Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) and MP3 audio; .jpeg and .gif still images; and DV, MPEG-4, and Apple's QuickTime video formats. When you're finished editing a movie, you don't "save" it to the hard disk; you "export" it in a variety of ways. iMovie 3 supports export to DV camera, iDVD (which is new to this version and quite convenient), and DV or QuickTime format. But iMovie 3 also adds a new MPEG-4 export option (assuming you have QuickTime Player installed) that's difficult to find and, sadly, limited only to 320 x 240 resolution. So MPEG-4 remains, at least for iMovie users, no real competition to the powerful WMV 9 format that Windows Movie Maker 2 offers on Windows XP. If you want full-screen, full-quality video, you're still forced to use the disk-hungry DV formats. And any Macintosh video user will tell you that means a lot of writing back to tape for archival purposes, which is a bummer.

iMovie 3 does offer new integration features with iPhoto and iTunes and can create chapter markers that are compatible with iDVD; all these features make the product much easier to use. If you want to add photos to your movie, for example, you simply select the new Photos button, which displays the contents of your iPhoto photo library right in the iMovie interface; this feature is definitely a time-saver. Likewise, if you want to add background music, select the new Audio button, which displays the contents of your iTunes music library. Unfortunately, the iTunes integration doesn't extend to fine-grained control over the songs in the library. You can play or pause tracks, but you can't skip through them until you import them into a project.

iMovie 3 also suffers from performance problems, especially on the G3-based iBook with 384MB of RAM that I typically use. The slowdowns are miserable and everywhere: Every photo you import is modified with the so-called Ken Burns Effect, which creates a zooming, panning animation out of a still image whether you want it or not. You therefore need to render each image--in agonizing slowness--to create the effect that Microsoft Plus! Photo Story renders instantaneously, albeit at a cost of $20 for the full Plus! Digital Media Edition (Plus! DME) package, on any XP-based PC. (If you don't want the Ken Burns Effect, you must import photos the old way, using the Import function, which negates the benefits of iPhoto integration because importing uses a standard dialog box.) But panning photos isn't the only thing that renders slowly in iMovie; transitions, titles, and video effects are all slowly rendered as you add them to your movie, adding to the time it takes before you can start viewing your partially edited film or continue working. It's frustrating and unfortunate, and one of the problems I had hoped Apple would resolve in this release. In Windows Movie Maker 2 on XP, all these tasks occur immediately, with no rendering delay. That's a huge time-saver.

iMovie 3 offers excellent audio-editing capabilities, however. When you switch to iMovie's timeline view, you can choose to edit the sound level of any video or a discrete audio track in the movie by using a new, liquid volume-level bar. You can perform this action per clip or per track, and it's almost infinitely configurable and far more powerful than anything available in Windows Movie Maker 2. For example, you might want to fade in audio from the beginning of a track by using a smooth, curving line or adjust the volume of the entire background music track to a certain level. This feature is powerful and well designed.

iMovie 3 includes new transitions and effects, and although these functions are the same professional quality of previous transitions and effects, none of them are particularly notable. Overall, iMovie 3 is a minor upgrade to iMovie 2 that has disappointing performance and MPEG-4 support but top-notch audio editing capabilities and good iLife application integration. Although iMovie 3 still doesn't present a challenge to Windows Movie Maker 2, the product is nonetheless an excellent video-editing package for Mac users, although I recommend that you have a powerful G4 machine.