iLife ’04 The Missing Manual "the book that should have been in the box" by David Pogue, ISBN 0-596-00694-2

Reviewed by: Lianne Reitter, January 2005, send e-mail
Published by: Pogue Press/O’Reilly Publishing, go to the web site
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$29.95, CAN$43.95

Did you read the manual? Did you know that North Americans are so notorious for not reading manuals that some technology companies in Europe won't sell their stuff to us as a result? That their software and hardware may be overly complex or poorly designed in some cases is beside the point. So why do we insist on running new software with absolutely no foreknowledge about how it should work? This attitude is so prevalent that a lot of software manufacturers aren't even printing manuals any more. They publish online documentation that you can access from the program's help menu. They may go even further and decide that including an online help system is too much trouble and instead maintain only a web page with simple instructions, including a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) area. Why is it that my question is never in the FAQ? But I digress.

I have no idea why you are so bad at reading the manual. I for one crack the manual open before I do anything else. I don't always read the thing cover to cover mind you, but I always skim everything, paying special attention to the illustrated instructions and screen shots. While I'm using the software I inevitably run into something that I remember reading about, and then I turn to the manual for the details.

Recently, I purchased an Apple iMac G5. It comes with a comprehensive suite of integrated software for organizing my music and pictures, creating movies, and burning stuff to DVD. I can even record a song if I'm so inclined. This is great, but the software manuals are strictly online. There is an online overview that gives you hints as to where your creativity can go but it doesn't tell you how to do it. The more detailed tutorials are also online, either by way of a PDF file or on an Apple web site, and while helpful, they leave a lot to be desired. It’s all too linear, offering no dynamic way to jump from topic to topic or page to page. I need to be able to dog ear a page, slip in a bookmark or slap on a post-it note so that later, with both software and book open, I can follow the steps to achieve the goal; I don't want to have to look for the instruction online every time I need it. What I really need is a comprehensive printed manual.

Thankfully, I'm not alone. David Pogue along with the good folks at O’Reilly have published iLife ’04, The Missing Manual. It is everything I need and more. The book is divided into six parts, one for each piece of Apple software in the suite, plus a troubleshooting section at the back of the book. Unfortunately, I have a small criticism right off the bat and that is without looking at the Table of Contents I can't tell where in the book each piece of software is covered. O’Reilly does provide edge banners, but they're all black and printed in the same location on every page, instead of staggering each section's banner. All you can see when the book is closed is a solid black bar. It would be nice to be able to access the iTunes section, for instance, simply by opening the book at the appropriate colored banner. If O’Reilly Publishing is reading this, I'd appreciate the consideration for future issues.

The best thing about this book, is that it has clearly been written by a user of the software, not a programmer or some novice writer hired by Apple to quickly get an aftermarket how-to down on paper. Having read many manuals written by both kinds of authors, I know a user when I read one. For instance, Pogue not only includes the how-to's but a lot of otherwise undocumented hints and tips as well. Let's say you have just finished putting together a family epic using iMovie and you have included some still shots along with your imported video clips. You burn the whole thing onto DVD only to find out that iMovie has rendered your high resolution stills so poorly that they look jagged and useless. You would have known how to avoid the problem if you had a copy of iLife The Missing Manual at your side and you won't find even a mention of the problem or the fix in the iLife online help.

Flip through the pages of iLife, The Missing Manual and you will find lots of call-outs meant to bring to your attention to particularly useful information: frequently asked questions, workarounds and what Pogue refers to as a Gem In The Rough. These are the things that are missing in online help systems; these are the ways that printed manuals become dynamic as they include not just the plain instructions, but the tangents as well, the things that come to users' minds as they work with a piece of software; the afterthoughts (or beforethoughts?) that don't necessarily fit into the stream of the topic but are related and just as important.

Pogue also includes workarounds for features you might not even know were missing. These are things that are not included in the software’s main interfaces but are possible because of the fact that you are using a computer, and that computer offers complimentary functions of its own. As an example, iMovie unbelievably does not allow you to save multiple versions of your creations. In other words, there's no Save As function—go figure. Well, it’s a bit of a bother, but saving multiple copies of working iMovies can be accomplished by going into the OS X file system, making a copy of the folder in which the movie is stored, renaming the movie in the copied folder and then continuing on with your original production. It’s not pretty, but it works. You might not think of these workarounds yourself and that makes this missing manual a must-have.

One very important feature of good documentation is fully present in iLife the Missing Manual—illustrations and screen shots. Pictures are very important to me. I'm a graphical user interface fan and I need to be able to orient myself to a topic by seeing the signposts. This book contains page after page of signposts. Just about every menu and software window is shown, in black & white mind you, but at a high enough resolution that even the small print is clearly visible.

Whether you are a new Mac user like me or a seasoned veteran of the platform and its software, iLife ‘04 The Missing Manual will have something to offer. For more reasons than just having the comfort of a well written and well organized book at your side, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

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