The hidden features in Apple's latest iPhoto update

With little fanfare from Apple, iPhoto's Faces and Places get some needed improvements.

Improved Address Book integration

iPhoto now integrates with Mac OS X's Address Book and offers autocompletion of names based on your contacts. This is similar to the way Faces operated before, except that until now, the autocompletion options were limited to people you'd already named in iPhoto. (Those names are still included in the autocomplete results, but so are any matching names in Address Book.) And as a visual cue, any names originating in Address Book are indicated by an Address Book icon.

This is a great feature, and it really should have been in the initial iPhoto release. If, like me, you've already tagged a number of faces, there is no way to combine the database of people created by iPhoto with the results pulled from your contacts. That means if you've already tagged someone -- and they also happen to be in your Address Book -- you'll now see two results for them when you go to tag them in another photo. Thankfully, that's not an issue for any new photos.

But I'm hoping that the next iPhoto update will include a tool for managing or merging names of people tagged in Faces.

Places and Points of Interest gain

Faces isn't the only part of iPhoto that saw changes. Places also got some important updates, the first and simplest of which is scroll wheel support for zooming in when you're using map views. Apple also seems to have expanded the points-of-interest database that allows you to view not just a location but specific landmarks -- for example, Times Square -- when browsing with Places and/or adding location information to photos that do not include geocoding data. (Photos taken before the advent of camera phones or digital cameras with GPS capabilities wouldn't have geocoding information.) It seems logical that Apple will continue to build and refine this database over time.

More importantly, the dialog box used to manage custom Places -- those that are not part of the greater points-of-interest database, but which you identify (like "Grandma's House") -- offers more options. It can be accessed from the Get Info dialog for any photo and now allows you to view custom Places by name, modify them, and view them via Google Maps.

While iPhoto already allowed users to work with custom Places, accessing the option and using it was awkward and made assigning locations to photos cumbersome. Since a lot of people will likely use a number of custom Places -- either with photos that include geolocation data or by adding location information for existing photos -- this is a helpful and needed tweak.

Third-party tools that allow you to add geocoding data to photos are available for Mac OS X, even if you're adding information to images after they have been imported into iPhoto. When iPhoto was first released, adding location data to a previously scanned photo didn't update the location information in Places. A new contextual menu item allows you to rescan a photo for data added after import or if you chose not to scan for location data when updating the iPhoto library. Although it's not something every user will need, this is a nice feature for those who use third-party geocoding tools.

Places also now supports entering direct longitude and latitude data when adding location information to existing photos. Services such as Flickr and iTouchmap allow you to retrieve this information, and it can be helpful if you used a GPS device separate from your camera when taking photos -- particularly if you were away from a known intersection. With the latest update, iPhoto can accept the addition of direct location data and includes address support via Google Maps or existing points of interest.

Final thoughts

I was already a fan of iPhoto, and many of these unannounced updates make it an even more impressive app -- particularly the updates to Faces and the new custom Places interface. So, if you're an iLife '09 user and you haven't installed the update, definitely do so. Even if you're not doing much with Faces and Places now, as digital data becomes ever more mobile, I expect you'll find them useful in the months ahead.

And if you're already sorting through thousands of photos of friends and family looking for someone in particular, or if you like geotagging pictures or sorting photos by location, the updated version of iLife '09 can save you time. Now that you know what to look for, have fun.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.

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Ryan Faas

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