iPhoto once again took a co-starring role in the latest iLife update along with iMovie and GarageBand. Unlike the groundbreaking iPhoto '09, which introduced Faces, Places and social networking connectivity, iPhoto '11 is more of a reflection of Apple's desire to integrate iOS innovations into Mac OS X applications and refine the user experience. That doesn't mean that iPhoto's changes are lightweight by any means. But overall, new features can be categorised as polishing rather than as breakthroughs.

Under the hood, for example, Apple now uses Core Animation throughout the app. You'll notice this upgrade in performance throughout iPhoto, for example in the smoother scrubbing through Event windows. iPhoto '11 is also gesture-aware, providing two finger scrolling on a laptop and 3-finger photo-to-photo browsing. Gestures also work on the Magic Mouse.

But how the application looks is what really jumps out at you when you first launch it. And the most impressive interface change is Full Screen Mode.

Get the big picture with Full Screen mode

The new Full Screen Mode is a perfect example of iPhoto's UI fine-tuning. In iPhoto '09, Option-Command-F displayed a single image in Full Screen Mode. Now, your entire workspace can occupy every pixel on the display. Combined with the other cosmetic modifications such as the buttons, Full Screen mode almost feels like you're working on a big iPad instead of a traditional Mac. Again, consistent with the theme of bringing what's been learned during iPhone and iPad development back to the computer.

Once you've entered this mode, working with it is fairly intuitive. Arrow keys move you from one thumbnail to the next. Double clicking on an image enlarges it to dominate the display with the other thumbnails lined up neatly at the bottom of the screen. Navigation remains at the top and a handful of tools are parked at the bottom. While browsing your thumbnails, you can easily change gears into slideshow mode by clicking on the Play button at the bottom of the interface. There are some new slideshow themes too, including Origami, Reflections, Photo Mobile, Holiday Mobile, Vintage Prints and Places. Overall, however, the slideshow controls remain similar as before.

To exit Full Screen Mode at any time and return to the traditional interface, click the Full Screen icon in the lower left corner, press Option-Command-F or hit the Escape key.

Subtle design and tool changes

Even though Full Screen Mode is the most notable UI change, there are visual refinements throughout the entire application. The toolbar at the bottom of the iPhoto window is more streamlined with sophisticated charcoal gray icons. And areas such as Book, Card, Albums and Places also received nice facelifts, not to mention the new Projects bookshelf, which is beautiful. Other functions, such as editing and displaying meta information have also changed appearance in both views. If you want to see image metadata, click on the info button (i). The thumbnails slide to the left allowing an information panel to appear on the right. Note that you no longer have the additional Extended Photo Info pane as before.

iPhoto 11

Image editing behaves much the same as it did in iPhoto '09. Hit the Edit button to reveal a panel with three tabs: Quick Fixes, Effects and Adjust. The editing controls themselves remain virtually the same, but the interface is more appealing.

You do get a few more goodies in the Effects tab. There are six icons at the top of the pane: Lighten, Darken Contrast, Warmer, Cooler and Saturate. They don't replace any of the slider controls in the Adjust pane, rather they are placed here for convenience.

Speaking of the Adjust tab, there are no new sliders unfortunately. But three buttons from iPhoto '09 are no longer there: Reset, Copy and Paste. Reset seems to be gone all together, but Copy and Paste Adjustments have been relocated to the Edit menu that's only visible in traditional viewing mode. In both modes, they can also be accessed from the contextual menu that pops-up when you right- or control-click on your image or via their keyboard shortcuts: Option-Command-C (copy adjustments) and Option-Command-V (paste adjustments).