First Look: Apple’s Sleeker, Simpler Photos App for Mac OS X

For the past 13 years, iPhoto has been the standard photo management app on Apple's Mac computers.

I use it because it's there and does mostly what I need it to do. But in recent years, it has started to look and feel tired and outdated, with a cluttered interface, slow performance and limited features. I've just been too lazy (and cheap) to look for alternatives.

That's why I perked up when Apple announced that it would retire iPhoto and its professional photo-editing software, Aperture, and replace them with a new and improved app called Photos. The mobile version of Photos launched with iOS 8 in September, and the desktop app was promised for early 2015.

Apple's Photos software
Source: Apple
Apple's Photos software

Depending on your definition of "early 2015," Apple is either on track or late to deliver on its promise.

Today, the company provided an update on the status of the app, saying that it will release Photos for OS X this spring (the company declined to provide a more specific timeline), as part of a larger update to OS X Yosemite. But if you're a developer, you can get a beta version of the new Photos desktop app starting today.

Before today's beta release, Apple gave me the opportunity to have some brief hands-on time with the app — not nearly enough time to do a thorough review, but enough to gather these early impressions.

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New, but familiar

With Photos for OS X, Apple has managed to build an app that feels both refreshingly new and comfortably familiar. For me, there was barely a learning curve in jumping from iPhoto to Photos.

Much like the iOS 8 app, photos in the desktop Photos app are organized based on when and where you took them, and grouped under the bigger umbrellas of Collections and Years.

Your pictures really take center stage in this app — I was able to see a lot more images at a glance, compared to iPhoto. Apple says that Photos devotes 67 percent more screen space to your images compared to iPhoto.

Also, all the main tools are quickly accessible via the toolbar at the top of the screen, rather than being scattered throughout the app. This includes shortcuts to your photos, shared images, albums and projects, which includes things like photo books, calendars and cards.

You can also "favorite" photos and share them directly to a compatible third-party service like Tumblr by downloading a sharing extension from the Mac App Store.

Overall, Photos is just a more visually stunning and pleasant app to use.

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Editing made easy

Photos offers many of the same editing tools as iPhoto, but they're easier to use and offer more functionality.

To edit a photo, you can simply click on the image and then press the Edit button in the upper right-hand corner. This will bring up a new side menu that offers editing tools like Enhance, Rotate, Crop, Filters, Adjust and Retouch.

Under Adjust, you can tweak various aspects of the photo, including light, color and definition, using a simple slide ruler. Compared to iPhoto, the tools offer better visuals to see what you're doing.

Not knowing a ton about photo editing, I also appreciated having the Auto button, which would automatically select the best settings based on the picture.

For those who have a little more photography know-how or want to experiment, you can drill down even further under these settings to make more refined adjustments. For example, under Colors, you can fine-tune the saturation, contrast and cast.

But maybe a little too easy for some

While Photos offers some advanced settings like white balance and level, it lacks some of the professional-level tools found in Aperture. For example, it doesn't have brushable or curve adjustments and doesn't support splitting and merging libraries. And you can't add custom metadata fields in the app.

While Apple believes that Photos will offer enough to satisfy many current Aperture users and pros, the company said it also understands that others might opt for a more powerful editing program like Adobe Lightroom.

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Getting in sync

One of the main features that Apple is touting in Photos is the iCloud Photo Library. Built on the company's four-year-old cloud service, it allows you to sync your entire photo library across all your various Apple devices and iCloud.com.

Also, any edits that you make to a photo on one device will be reflected on all your connected gadgets.

In my tests, the feature worked without problems. Changes I made to a photo on the desktop app showed up in the iOS Photos library within seconds over Wi-Fi, and vice versa.

Photos and videos are stored in original format to your iPhone Cloud Library, and can be accessed anytime over Wi-Fi. For those who are not comfortable with storing their photos in the cloud, the feature is optional.

You can simply store your images locally on your computer and use the Photos app for managing your files and editing.

The unknown

While all these features are well and good, there are still some unanswered questions about Photos for OS X. For example, I wasn't able to test the transfer process from iPhoto and Aperture to Photos.

Apple said that files from iPhoto and Aperture should migrate over to Photos intact, but I'd like to see that for my own eyes, especially after some found the transition from iPhotos to Photos in iOS 8 to be messy.

Also, while the pre-installed software ran smoothly on the MacBook Pro that Apple loaned me, how will it perform on older devices?

These are areas we'll look at when the final version of the app is released. But based on my experience so far, Photos for OS X looks to be a huge improvement over iPhoto in all aspects, even if it lacks some of the advanced tools that will appeal to Aperture users and professional photographers.

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