First look at Apple Photos, the iPhoto overhaul for Mac

New design, better performance, and much better cloud syncing are coming to your Mac

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Today, Apple revealed more information about the long-awaited Photos app for Mac, a complete revamp of how you organize, edit, and share photos and videos on the Mac. It fully replaces iPhoto and brings a lot of the ideas Apple debuted on the iPhone and iPad to the desktop, including refined edit tools, automatic organization based on time and location, and integrated iCloud backup.

We got a chance to spend some time with a "developer seed" version of Photos, which is available to registered developers starting today. A final version will be available with an update to OS X later this spring, and a public beta should also be available sometime before that. Even though the Photos app we used was not yet finished, we're quite impressed with what's here, and it's clear that this is a pretty giant leap forward over iPhoto.

Apple Photos for Mac

The biggest and perhaps most obvious change coming with Photos is an entirely new design that better fits in with OS X Yosemite. Apple has brought over many of the same organizational systems from the iOS Photos app, including automatic collections based on location and time. If you've been using Photos on iOS for the past couple of years, you'll feel instantly at home on Photos for Mac. The new design offers more room to show off your photos, and the navigation tools are all at the top of the window, like many other native Mac apps on Yosemite.

But even more impressive than the new coat of paint is just how fast Photos is. iPhoto was often criticized for choking on large image libraries, but Apple says it built Photos to handle large and growing photo libraries, since people are taking so many more photos than they used to before. From our experience, it seems that Apple's efforts have paid off: the new Photos app effortlessly scrolls through thousands of photos, and you can quickly page through your collection, marking images as favorites. It supports all of the trackpad gestures you'd expect — two-finger scrolling, pinch-to-zoom, and rotation — and performance is really fast and smooth, at least with the demo photo library we tested on a new MacBook Pro.

There are also some really nice details, like a "loupe" mode that lets you preview images when you mouse over them. All of that contributes to making Photos much more enjoyable to use and a more modern experience than iPhoto ever was. We'll have to see if those performance improvements hold up once we have thousands of our own photos in the final version later this year, but we're crossing our fingers that the days of managing multiple libraries just to keep their size down are in the past.

Apple Photos for Mac

Photos' other new big feature is its deep integration with iCloud Photos. While it was possible to sync photos to iCloud Photos with iPhoto, it always felt like a tacked-on feature and wasn't very easy to use. That's completely changed with Photos; it's easy and painless to back up all of your photos and videos to the cloud and then access them on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad wherever you are. All of the photos you take with your iPhone are available on your Mac and vice versa. Gone are the confusing and arbitrary limits to how many photos could be stored in the cloud with Photo Stream. Photos will now just use the storage available in your iCloud account. If you're not paying anything, that's capped at 5GB, which is frankly not very many photos, but Apple has paid plans with up to a terabyte of cloud storage.

The old My Photo Stream will be converted into an album when you opt in to iCloud Photos, but opting in is not required, and those that don't can still use My Photo Stream with its traditional limits. iCloud Photos will store full-resolution versions of your images on Apple's servers, but you can opt to have device-optimized versions delivered to your iPhone and iPad. There are many other ways to back up your photos from your phone or tablet, but Photos is the easiest solution we've seen to integrate images on your computer into the cloud.

Photos makes it easier than ever to get images from your Mac into the cloud

In addition to syncing all of your photos to iCloud, Photos will also sync any edits you make, so you can tweak a photo on your Mac and see those edits reflected on your iPhone moments later. The editing tools in Photos are all new, as well, based on the basic editing tools already available in iOS. On the Mac, they are more powerful and can do some really interesting things — the auto crop tool will automatically straighten and crop a photo according to the rule of thirds based on its horizon line, for instance.

The new Light slider will intelligently adjust six different parameters at once when you move it, letting even the most novice photographers tweak their photos without destroying key details such as highlights. (More advanced photographers can also manually control the parameters, like exposure, highlights, and shadows.) The new Black & White slider emulates various filters and film stocks, giving more range to black-and-white images than was possible with iPhoto. There are also basic retouching tools baked in, so removing a mole or dust speck doesn't require a jump over to Photoshop, and Photos offers eight one-click filters for Instagram-like effects.

Apple Photos for Mac

Though the new editing tools are much better and easier to use than before, it's clear that Apple is targeting them mostly at novice users, not the advanced photographers that might have used Aperture in the past. Pros will find many of the editing tools too simple, and Photos' way of automatically organizing photos will likely break many photographers' workflows. Photos does still support RAW files, and those files can be stored in iCloud and synced across devices, but at this point it's not as powerful of an editor or organization tool as Aperture or Adobe's Lightroom. There's room for Apple to improve upon this from what we saw, but it appears that the company's goal with this app is to make it easier for everyone to manage and tweak their photos, not to satisfy the particular needs of pro photographers.

At this point, Photos is geared toward the novice, not the typical pro

To that end, Apple is still offering the Projects section in Photos, which lets you build and order photobooks, calendars, panoramic prints, and more from the photos in your library. The interface and tools have been refreshed and updated and are easier to use than they have been before, again to appeal to the novice user or someone who just doesn't have the time to micromanage their photo library.

Apple Photos for OS X EMBARGO 020515

Apple is seeding a version of Photos to registered developers starting today, with a public beta planned for the near future. The rest of us will be able to use the app later this spring, when it's included in a forthcoming update to OS X Yosemite. If what we've seen so far is anything to go on, Apple Photos offers a lot of potential, and it should make a lot of Mac users quite happy.

Photography by Chris Welch

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