iPhoto: Pixel Imperfect

Last week, Apple dropped a few big products our direction. We saw a new AppleTV, 1080P video for true HD content, a new iPad and even more. And then there was iPhoto, the latest and greatest piece of software for the iPad that allows you to edit your pics right there on the device. Oh, and it’s a universal app too, so it’s on the iPhone! Yay!

But how would an app that’s built to perform well on the expansive screen of the iPad work with the iPhone? Let’s file down those fingertips and find out. 

Ideas, Ideas, Ideas

If you’re looking for the TL;DR version of this article, let me put it like this: iPhoto is not very good. A product has come out of the Apple camp that isn’t quite perfect; not as flawless as we all want and so on. Is that blasphemous to say?

As a product, iPhoto has a lot of things that it needs to cram into one application. It wants to be the app that not only helps you organize your photos better, but also edit and display them for everyone to enjoy. It seems like this is one of those scenarios where you’re trying to put 5 lbs of “product” into a 1 lb bag. It may work on the iPad, but on the iPhone, not so much.

An Overview

The app itself has a lot to do, which is ultimately part of the problem. Open it up and right away you’re greeted with a loading screen that reads, “Updating iPhoto Library.” Get used to this progress bar, because you’re going to be seeing a lot of it.

No seriously, you'll see this a lot.

No seriously, you'll see this a lot.

Right away you’re greeted with your Albums from your regular photo library. If you want to edit or view a picture, just open up the album and proceed from there. Note that there’s no way to add an album if you want, or at least no way that I could find. You can also view your photos individually, check out Events (if they’re synced with your iTunes) or create a Journal. See, there’s all sorts of stuff you can do — just none of them particularly well.

Editing Photos

The demo version that they did at the iPad keynote last week was spectacular on the iPad. On the iPhone, it’s time to start filing down those fingertips because everything is substantially smaller, and therefore, harder to manipulate.

Look at the cute little buttons! Hope you don't have sausage link fingers.

Look at the cute little buttons! Hope you don't have sausage link fingers.

Admittedly, there are some nice features in the basic area. The Auto-Enhance feature is nice, and being able to rotate your images to the proper perspective is also pretty cool. But the UI here is just so far away from Apple’s current scheme that you have to wonder what they were thinking.

For example, at the bottom of this shot there are a flag and a ribbon. Anyone want to tell me what they do? Well apparently, one of them flags the photo, which makes sense to me in an “this is how I tag things I like” kinda way. But the ribbon does essentially the same thing, marking it as a favorite. It’s just redundant and unnecessary.

Seriously, what's the difference?

Seriously, what's the difference?

Then there’s the toolbox icon which, when touched, will slide a new row of tools over the existing UI. It has a cropping tool, a tool for adjusting brightness, an art palette, brushes, and an effects picker. The art palette is a mess, with all these tiny sliders that require that finger shaving process Steve mocked years ago, and sliding them has no real preciseness to it. But if you really want to mess things up, go with the brushes. It’s so unintuitive to figure out that you can get lost just playing with buttons. It’s insane.

The buttons are far too small to work well on the iPhone.

The buttons are far too small to work well on the iPhone.

By the time you’re done, you’ve got a photo that you might have guessed your way into manipulating into something cool, but chances are pretty good that you won’t.

Other Stuff

What else is there? Well you can create a Journal if you like, and hey, that looks like fun, right?

So it makes your pictures into a book that you can only see in certain places?

So it makes your pictures into a book that you can only see in certain places?

Yeah, so that’s what a Journal looks like. Nothing too exciting, right? Yeah, I thought the same thing. All it really does is arrange your images into a neat little grid, and then you can view it in a slideshow or send it to iCloud or iTunes. Really, that’s it.


Holy crap is the “Updating iTunes Library” thing annoying. Edit an image, move a journal, create anything in iPhoto and expect that loading window to pop up again, ready to waste your time. I understand why it has to be there — it’s presumably syncing the iPhoto library with your Photo library — but it comes up so often that it slows you down. You know how things with Apple “just work?” This one is just broken.

There it is again.

There it is again.

As for the UI, that’s a giant bag of hurt that just sucks to use. It’s really the iPad version shrunken down, and the result is a mess of features with no clear way to figure out what they do. Sometimes things are highlighted in red, others in blue — what do they mean? The thing about an iPhone app is that it has to be easy to use and easy to figure out how it works. In this case, iPhoto is just the user stumbling around until they either do something right or get so frustrated that they bail on the product. Put me in the latter camp.

Final Thoughts

At AppStorm, our rule is to only review apps that rate about a 6 or above. The thinking behind this goes that we want people to come to our site to read positive reviews, something that’s a bit different from some of the app-bashing sites found so often while stumbling through the Internet. But this is an Apple app, produced by the mother company, so we’re somewhat obligated to review it, right? What if it doesn’t pass muster?

This is the first app that I’ve ever reviewed here (or allowed to be posted since I became editor) that rates below a 6. In my opinion, this is a 3 at best, and I kind of feel like I’m being generous. Although I don’t have access to an iPad to compare versions (this app requires an iPad 2 or better, and I’m stuck with an OG iPad), I can theorize that the iPad version would be better just in terms of usability because of the larger screen. Are all the same flaws there? Who knows, I just can’t tell you that. But I’m willing to bet that the iPad version is better as a whole.

So is it worth the purchase? Here’s the way I look at it: If you bought the app for your iPad, then you have it on your iPhone for free as a result. If you like it, keep it on the iPhone and go from there. If not, then just delete it and move on.

But if you’re thinking about buying it for your iPhone and only your iPhone, I’m not sure I’d plunk down those $5. To me, it’s just way too much stuff in a tiny bag to be worth it.


Edit and organize your photos on your iPhone.

  • http://www.appforthat.de Julia Altermann

    I did some extensive testing of iPhoto myself, both on the iPad and iPhone. My conclusion was, too, that the app has a lot of potential, but falls short due to ridiculously difficult navigation and confusing labeling of buttons and options.

    It doesn’t feel like an Apple app – it’s not as integrated as I’d expect and you’re right: that continuous updating of the library gets annoying very quickly. Also, the inability to delete anything from the app is hard to comprehend – and it took some Twitter followers to help me grasp that to undo, I had to violently shake my device. Unlike using the undo button on the iPad.

    I was able, however, to make some nice edits to my photos (once I had figured out where I’d find the needed buttons and levers) and I do like Journals, even though I hope there’ll be more export options (PDF, for example).

    Overall, I’m also not too impressed, especially since the app doesn’t even support RAW! There are apps out there – Filterstorm and Snapseed, for example – which do and I can’t for the life of me figure out why Apple would miss out on that.

  • Paul Dunahoo

    Don’t forget that it doesn’t work on ANY iPod touch!

  • James

    The flag serves as a to do list while the ribbon is more of a completed work. But this app still has a long way to go to be the only app I use.

  • http://dougneiner.com Doug Neiner

    “The buttons are far too small to work well on the iPhone.”

    Thats why you just touch your finger down on the photo, and slide up down/left right to use all the same controls. The sliders in the bottom are just for specific changes.

    I think a 3/10 is just unfair for this app – are you holding it to a higher standard only because it is Apple? There are aspects of this app I don’t love, but playing with it a bit reveals it does quite a bit – and its super fun to use.

  • tom

    The worst things are that it won’t run on a 4th generation iPod touch because there’s no gps (that’s literally the reason given in the app store)
    it’s not way too much stuff crammed into a tiny bag, it’s way too much stuff crammed carelessly into a tiny bag, and that’s why it doesn’t work.
    There’ve been much better photo editors around for a long time, and they work because they don’t mess with making the UI so fancy and complicated. and they also don’t do organization, I mean, iOS already has a photos app that does albums and places.

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  • http://diariodidi.tumblr.com/ diariodidi

    Great review of the app. I think i have to get the app right now.

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