Apple released Aperture 2.0 last week. Touted as a major upgrade, with over 100 new features, it’s available here in the UK for 129, or 65 if upgrading from Aperture 1.x. Folks who recently purchased Aperture 1.5 can upgrade for less than 10.

I couldn’t resist upgrading as quickly as possible. But was I right to do so, and should you wait before doing the same? Read on to find out what I think.

How To Upgrade

There are two ways to upgrade:

  1. Download the free 30-day trial copy of Aperture 2.0 from Apple, and then from inside Aperture, order an upgrade serial number. You don’t get the printed manual or sample projects, but it has the advantage that you can upgrade in a matter of minutes. This is what I did. As far as I know, you have to order the serial number from inside Aperture; I couldn’t find a way to order the serial number directly from the website.
  2. Order the boxed copy of Aperture 2.0 from the online Apple store. Comes in two flavours – the full version for first time purchasers, and an upgrade version for existing Aperture users. The UK store is quoting 1-2 weeks for shipping, and it has been reported that the boxed version isn’t on the shelves in Apple stores yet. I’m planning on popping into Apple’s Southampton store on Thursday evening to investigate this for myself, as I’ll be in that neck of the woods this week.

Be aware: the trial copy of Aperture 2.0 will not open an Aperture 1.5 library. Apple’s decided that this would be too risky; they’re worried about folks who try the Aperture 2.0 trial but who decide to stick with Aperture 1.5 in the end, because Aperture 1.5 cannot open Aperture 2.0 libraries. Most of the comments I’ve read on the Net agree that this was a good decision on Apple’s part. The full version of Aperture 2.0 will convert Aperture 1.5 libraries, and you can export your Aperture 1.5 library and then re-import it into the trial version of Aperture 2.0.

User Interface Changes

I remember the first time I looked at Aperture 1.x, and I found the user interface at the time to be extremely off-putting. (If Adobe Lightroom had been ready at the time, I would never have purchased Aperture.) You get used to it after a while, but there’s only one direction for Aperture’s UI to go, and that’s onwards and upwards.

A lot has already been said elsewhere about the many improvements to Aperture’s user interface, and I don’t want to repeat that here. I do want to mention the three changes in particular that stand out for me, especially as I haven’t seen them discussed elsewhere.

What first struck me was that the adjustments toolbar is no longer at the top of the screen. I spent a few moments wondering where it had gone. It has been moved to sit above the filmstrip, and the toolbar icons improved to be more obvious regarding their function.

The filmstrip now scrolls left to right, not up and down as before. There’s a little toolbar that I don’t remember from Aperture 1.5 that gives you the choice of switching back to the old filmstrip-as-grid, if you prefer working with your photos that way.

Certainly on a 24″ monitor, I’ve found that I use full screen mode a lot less. There’s now a lot more room on the screen for the photo itself, and the adjustments panel on the left is exactly like the Adjustments HUD in full screen mode. I’ll have to do a bit of editing on the MBP’s main screen to see whether I still need full screen mode at all or not.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the changes. I think Aperture’s main toolbar remains largely a waste of space (and, in Aperture 2.0’s case, largely a waste of empty space), but because the adjustment toolbar has been moved from here, hiding the main toolbar is no longer inconvenient.

Speed Improvements … And Problems

The blogosphere is full of folks gushing about how Aperture 2.0 is way faster than Aperture 1.5. If this is true, that alone is a good enough reason to upgrade right this minute. Compared to Adobe Lightroom, Aperture has always been very sluggish to use. It’s annoying for hobbyists like me, but for folks who make a living out of photography, it must a serious issue.

The good news is that, as widely reported, the image straightening tool is finally a joy to use. At last, the rotations are smooth and quick. As someone who can’t shoot a straight horizon to save his life, thank you, Apple, thank you!

However, I can’t confirm all the reports about how Aperture 2.0 is faster overall. My own experience is that just clicking on a photo to display it, or applying any adjustments at all results in the spinning globe of doom. It’s fair to say that this is very frustrating at the moment. Using Activity Monitor, I’ve checked to make sure that this is indeed a problem with Aperture, and not caused by something else hogging all the CPU or RAM. To make things worse, because Aperture now tries to use both CPU cores, when the spinning globe of doom holds court, nothing else on Leopard works either.

It looks like the problem is down to the amount of RAM that Aperture 2.0 needs. I do have quite a few other applications open (including notorious memory hogs such as Firefox and NeoOffice). My MacBook Pro still has the original 2GB of RAM that it came with. This generation of MBP can only go to 3GB of RAM; it might be time to get that upgraded.

The RAW Fine Tuning Tool

It’s often overlooked, but when Aperture is used to work with RAW files, you have a choice of which processing engine to use. The processing engine from Aperture 1.0 has always been available, and Aperture 1.1 introduced a second engine. This engine has remained the default choice right the way through to the last Aperture 1.5 release.

Now Aperture 2.0 adds a third processing engine for you to choose from. But how does it compare, and is it a better choice than the Aperture 1.1 engine?

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the new 2.0 RAW engine. On the positive side, more information is recovered from shadow areas than before, and there’s more data in all three channels around the mid-point of the levels graph. The result seems to be that blues are comparitively stronger than before and reds are compatively weaker, which is no bad thing. Images processed with the 2.0 RAW engine appear to me to be more balanced than before, colour-wise. The new engine reportedly reduces image noise too, but I haven’t seen that for myself.

What puts me off is that the images appear substantially softer to the eye than when processed with the 1.1 RAW engine, even though the 2.0 RAW slider settings appear to be more aggressive! The primary reason I own and shoot Nikon is the superior sharpness of the final image compared to competing camera systems. You really can’t beat Nikon glass if you can afford it. So a RAW engine that doesn’t support this preference of mine is going to get more limited use than perhaps it should.

But this is what’s great about Aperture. For the majority of images, where the colour curves applied by the 1.1 RAW engine are fine, I can carry on using that engine. In those cases where the photo really benefits from the more balanced colours of the 2.0 RAW engine, I can choose to use that engine instead. Just because I’ve upgraded to Aperture 2.0, it doesn’t mean that I’m forced to change the look of my photos.

Any musician who uses Line 6’s excellent POD range of guitar effects will know exactly how frustrating it is to be forced to change just because of a software upgrade. There’s nothing worse than finding that killer tone, only to lose it because the upgraded firmware can’t reproduce the same sound.

So I can’t applaud Apple highly enough for the flexibility that they’ve built into Aperture here.

The New Devignette Tool

There’s been quite a few changes to the adjustment tools available. Still no sign of the ability for third-parties to create their own adjustment tool plugins, but a couple of new tools have been added that reduce the need to export photos for adjusting in Photoshop. The one I’ve played with the most is the Devignette tool.

Does it work? It can reduce vignetting on photos, sure, but it doesn’t always remove the vignetting entirely.

I’ve found that a good way to work with this tool is to keep an eye on the previews displayed in the filmstrip. It’s much easier to see vignetting at thumbnail size, and also to gauge how successful the new tool has been. There really isn’t anything much to the tool itself. There’s no ‘auto’ setting, just two sliders: ‘Amount’ which defaults to the maximum, and ‘Size’ which defaults to the minimum.

The new tool is very handy. It’s great for working with shots taken with a circular polariser. I’m sure future updates to Aperture 2.0 will further improve the tool’s ability to remove the vignetting from a wider range of images.

Exports To Flickr

When I saw all the reports that Aperture 2.0’s export code had been changed (primarily to export in the background, allowing you to continue using Aperture at the same time), my heart sank a little bit. I export a few files to disk every now and then for editing in Photomatix, but most of my exporting is via the excellent FlickrExport plugin. Would this plugin still work with Aperture 2.0? No-one seemed to have bothered to check.

I’m very happy to say that this plugin still works fine. It’s a bit disconcerting when the dialog box disappears during the actual upload, and Aperture’s new activity window remains empty, but the actual uploads still happen. There’s already a new release of this plugin out to address these issues.

Conclusions

My first impressions of Aperture 2.0 is that it’s a good improvement over Aperture 1.5.

I must agree with the folks who feel that it’s not really a 2.0 release, and that it’s more about addressing fundamental weaknesses that have persisted from Aperture 1.0 than it is about taking great strides forward. If I plotted out all of Aperture 2.0’s features in a grid, I’d be struggling to put any of them into the ‘Leadership’ quadrant.

The happy thing is that I think the new, lower pricing for Aperture 2.0 reflects this. If Apple had priced Aperture 2.0 at the same price point as its professional video or audio tools, then I think they’d have had a serious problem on their hands. But, with an upgrade costing less than the cost of Adobe Photoshop Elements 6, I think it’s good value for money.

The new price point hopefully will help get across an important message to amateur photographers: Aperture isn’t just for professional photographers.

You should consider upgrading if you’re looking for something that’s a leaner, faster Aperture 1.5. If you’re after something more radical, or more of a step up in gear, that doesn’t seem to fit with the Aperture brand, and you might be better off making the jump to Adobe Lightroom sooner rather than later.

I’m still convinced that eventually we’ll all make that jump unless someone finally lights a rocket under the backsides of the Aperture team. I’m an experienced software development manager, and I don’t buy Joe Schorr’s excuses about why it has taken months to deliver support for the Nikon D300 and D3 cameras. Instead of getting upset when folks accuse Apple of a lack of commitment to Aperture, I’d like to see Schorr get his finger out and once again position Aperture as the leader in this area.

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