All during 2002, I expected Apple to announce a new version of iMovie. After all, the last major update to the free video editor happened way back when iMovie 2 was released in July of 2000. By the time Macworld Expo San Francisco 2003 rolled around, I wondered if Apple had forgotten about its original iApp. Apparently not: Steve Jobs showed off iMovie 3 during the Macworld keynote, and the program was released late last week as part of iLife. iMovie is available now as an 82 MB download via Software Update or from Apple's Web site.
A New Scene -- Apple couldn't update iMovie without changing its interface somehow, and the adjustments in iMovie 3 are mostly good news. The program finally runs in its own window, rather than monopolizing your screen. This lets you not only resize the window, but also drag in other media files such as photos or movies. Unlike earlier versions, iMovie 3 can import QuickTime movies that aren't specifically formatted as DV media.
iMovie's interface now offers only three playback controls while editing: Rewind, Play/Stop, and Play Full Screen. Also, the timeline viewer and clip viewer share one space, called the Liquid Timeline because of the way it morphs from one to the other when you switch between them.
I've run into at least one interface annoyance, however. Because the entire window uses Apple's brushed metallic texture, clicking anywhere that's not specifically a control can move the entire window. If I accidentally click a few pixels above the playhead, iMovie 3 can fly partially off the screen. Also, iMovie 3 requires a minimum resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels, meaning that owners of clamshell-style iBooks can't use the program on the 800 by 600 pixel display.
Sound Decisions -- One of my favorite new additions is more control over editing audio levels. Clicking the Edit Volume button in the timeline view displays audio lines that you can click and drag to change volume levels within a clip. This is great if, for example, you want to lower background music without completely fading it out. The Audio pane also accesses your iTunes library, which makes it much easier to add music clips.
Burn(s)ed -- One of the splashiest new features is the Ken Burns Effect, so named because of the way documentary filmmaker Burns animates still photos by zooming and panning across them. In iMovie 3, these still photos come from your iPhoto photo albums, which show up in iMovie's new Photos pane. You simply set the clip's duration and a zoom level and position for the start and for the end of the animated clip; iMovie calculates the images in-between.
Unfortunately, Apple is too enthusiastic about its new effect, resulting in more work for the user. Any imported photo, even if it didn't come from iPhoto, gets rendered as a movie with the Burns treatment applied. The workaround is to type Command-period before the clip renders; only then can you change the clip's duration by double-clicking it and entering a new time in the Clip Info window.
Outtakes -- iMovie 3 sports a few other notable features. The new sound effects from Skywalker Sound have the potential for actually being useful; there are new titles, transitions, and effects; and I'm looking forward to setting chapter markers for later import into iDVD when I get my hands on the full iLife package.
However, iMovie 3 suffers from degraded performance on some systems. On the two machines I've tested, a 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 and a 600 MHz iBook, playback stutters noticeably, with audio and video frames dropped at random (other users report similar problems at Apple's iMovie discussion forum). The problem could be a matter of system tuning: some people have reported improvements by manually performing some of Mac OS X's background maintenance tasks or fixing permissions using Disk Utility (though I experienced no improvement); see Dan Slagle's "Unofficial" iMovie FAQ for more details. Given that I can smoothly play back video in a more complex application such as Final Cut Express, I doubt the problem is related to older hardware. If you're seeing the same problems, I encourage you to take advantage of Apple's iMovie feedback Web page or by choosing Provide iMovie Feedback from the iMovie menu.
Overall, iMovie 3 is a promising update, offering new features that give amateur video editors more options. With more work and some dedicated attention to fixing some glitches and performance issues on Apple's part, iMovie 3 could become the update I've been waiting for.
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