Gone are the days when the iLife programs went under the clumsy collective term of iApps and had everyone confused as to whether they were free, cheap or expensive. Since iLife '04, the bundle has had a clearly defined position in the market and a warm regard from its users.

Building on this stability, we now have iLife '05. Most of the changes seem to be for automation or services, rather than actual new functions, allowing beginners to get 'hands off' project results. There are also a few tools designed to make applications such as iPhoto and iTunes a one-stop solution for music and photography requirements, rather than just a link in the chain.

We were quite surprised to discover that a big fat PowerMac G5 running OS X v10.3 still wasn't quite up to the system requirements of iLife '05. Instead, we had to download a 79MB combined update to OS X v10.3.4. Not too much of a problem if you've got broadband, but quite a hefty chunk if you haven't.

As you'll have guessed by the suffix, iMovie HD is now capable of working with either 1080 interlaced or 720 progressive high-definition video. You'll also notice another new feature when you start up. Where iMovie used to ask you whether you wanted a new or existing project, iMovie HD adds a third option: Magic iMovie.

Click yes and you'll be presented with choices of title, soundtrack music (from your iTunes library) and default transitions. Once you've made your choices iMovie automatically takes control of your camcorder, imports all your footage and cuts it together. It can also send the finished product directly to iDVD for burning should you want it to.

So simple

For absolute novices or those simply looking to archive footage, it will be a comfortingly easy method of getting footage from tape to other formats. Unlike most other automated edits available on the market, a Magic iMovie can be altered after its creation, letting you re-order clips and add different transitions.

The interface is the old familiar iMovie all-in-one, as simple and intuitive as ever. It has a large viewer window at the top left, a pane to the right that displays clips, transitions, effects and the like, and a Timeline across the bottom that can be toggled between storyboard and Timeline style layouts.

Importing footage to iMovie is as simple as always, and offers you the options of DV, DV Widescreen, MPEG4 and iSight (footage from Apple's own webcam), as well as the progressive and interlaced HD options that are the new version's major selling point.

The other important new feature is the ability to cut and paste clips from one project to another. It's not an incredibly creative feature, but it is one that will save you a lot of time as you avoid having to sift through the clip library on your hard drive.

Synchronisation with other programs in the iLife bundle is an important factor for iMovie. Using the tabs beneath the clip window, you can access your iTunes library and iPhoto albums with a single mouse click, or send your project straight from iMovie into iDVD, complete with chapter markers that you've dropped into your Timeline for incorporation into your DVD menu.

When it comes to output options, you've got a nice range of choices: you can send finished projects back to the camcorder, reduce the frame-rate and resolution for email or web posting, convert it to QuickTime for burning onto a CD, or even export it to a Bluetooth device.

There aren't a great deal of new tools in iMovie, nor has the method of working changed significantly, but you can't sell it short for that. It's still the easiest to use and most impressive of all the entry-level editing software packages out there. What can you say about a program that allows an absolute beginner to start producing good work within minutes without even consulting a manual?

iDVD

Like iMovie, iDVD now has a one-step DVD function that automatically copies an entire tape from camcorder to disc without needing any great deal of operator input - ideal for beginners and people with piles of old DV tapes to archive.

iDVD itself retains the mixture of simplicity and performance that makes it a favourite for ambitious amateurs. If you want copy protection, surround sound and millions of encoding options then you go out and spend several hundred pounds on a prosumer authoring program.

What iDVD offers is something far simpler: it makes it easy to produce great-looking DVDs. Few entry-level authoring programs let you put as much polish on your productions with such little fuss.

The main iDVD window displays your menu as it will eventually be seen on a TV screen, with controls at the bottom for adding new menu buttons and slideshows. Click the customise button and a tabbed pane appears at the side of the window that gives you control over all the elements appearing on your menu.

The Themes menu contains all the main motion backgrounds you can choose from, although you can, of course, import your own. The backgrounds are divided between the dozen or so that are new to this version of iDVD, those that were new to the '04 version, and all those that were available with previous editions.

Click into the Settings pane and you get control over the loop length of your background video and the characteristics and functions of your buttons. In the Media window, the iLife cross-compatibility comes into its own again, giving you access to iPhoto, iMovie and iTunes folders so that other media can be brought into iDVD without all the tedious browsing through your hard drive. Finally there's the Status box, showing you a breakdown of the disc capacity you've used.

The simplest yet best new feature in iDVD is the disc map tool, which displays the contents of your DVD from menu to submenu to media in the form of a flowchart. Everything from pre-menu first-play footage such as copyright warnings through to the main contents of the disc is shown in one place, allowing you to see how your disc is laid out. It's ideal for keeping things streamlined and balanced.

The actual encoding and burning process for your final DVD is a lengthy and not particularly customisable process, but the value of iDVD is that you can create professional-looking discs without dealing with all the underlying complexities of a professional authoring system.

For this reason, we won't quibble over bitrates or compression speed. Instead, we'll sing the praises of the excellent results that can be burnt to DVD or -R/RW and played on all four test players, from the latest pricey models to two-year-old budget no-brand machines.

iPhoto is certainly our first choice for organising and tweaking digital stills, but whereas most of iLife is about creativity, iPhoto is about organisation, and it's difficult to get to excited about a neat set of files.

That said, it's a doddle to use, and there are also some photo editing tools. It can now handle RAW uncompressed photo files and motion clips from digital cameras, as well as offering the opportunity to create photo albums from your images and templates that can be ordered online and sent to your door for as little as three quid.

A combined effort

Combining a recording studio and a sequencer in one, GarageBand lets you create music by combining hundreds of built-in loops or by recording real life instruments and midi files. You can even build-up compositions track-by-track using software instruments played via your Mac's keyboard.

GarageBand can display the music you've created in proper musical notation, can record eight tracks at once, and can alter the timing, pitch, tempo and key of your music. Of all the iLife applications, GarageBand is probably the least intuitive. That's not to say the basics are difficult to get to grips with, and you'll be recording stuff within minutes of starting up, but it's certainly a program that has musos in mind.

Now at version 4.7, iTunes will let you print CD labels using original artwork, share playlists via the iTunes website, and create automatic playlists using various criteria. That's about it for new features, but we still think it's the best MP3 manager on the market.

Well worth 50 quid, iLife '05 remains the simplest way of creating professional-looking results without a professional level complexity. The improved integration between the different programs means that the more you use one application, the more you get out of the bundle as a whole.

This latest version may be more services and automation based, but the bundle is so far ahead of the field that it can afford to turn its attention to such things without losing ground to its rivals. Jamie Ewbank

FOCUS ON FEATURES:

The main interface for the iMovie program. Here we've imported a selection of clips and are ready to start editing our home movie

Here you can select to give your movie a title, plus make a decision on whether you want to have a song from your own CD collection as the soundtrack

You can add your own soundtrack - it's a simple drag and drop approach - and the program will attempt to fit it to the length of the video clip you are working with

FEATURES:

iPhoto: import, organise and edit photos captured in RAW format; advanced editing tools; slideshow editor; store multiple albums, slideshows and books in hierarchical folders; Calendar View for locating photos.

iMovie HD: non-destructive editing; import and edit high-definition video, Magic iMovie wizard; rearrange clips in the Timeline, trim both audio and video clips, set bookmarks and chapter marks, fade audio in or out, increase or decrease speed of clip; add high-res photos from iPhoto to the Timeline; copy and paste clips between movies.

iDVD: customisable animated dropzones; 15 new themes; OneStep DVD transfers unedited footage direct from cam; compatible with DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD R, DVD RW.

GarageBand 2: record up to eight audio tracks at once; real-time notation display; timing and tuning enhancements; turn recorded tracks into Apple loops

iTunes 4.7: create 15-minute Smart Playlist for iPhoto; print CD labels of original artwork; share playlists via iTune website