Apple is finally killing iPhoto — and this is the replacement

Photos for OS X, the modern photo library that Apple built from the ground up for Mac computers, is making its debut. A developer seed version of Photos is being distributed to developers today, the company said. It will be followed by a public Photos beta, with the final Photos product delivered to Mac users as part of a free software update this spring. (Check out our complete hands-on report here.)

Apple announced last year that it would end development on its consumer photo library, iPhoto, and its professional photo editing suite, Aperture. In their place, the company said it would develop an all new product, tied closely to the cloud. The resulting product will likely feel like an improvement for most iPhoto users, though users of Aperture’s more powerful editing and organizational features are likely to find it wanting.

What can you expect from Photos? A clean, reasonably intuitive library for your pictures combined with simple cloud backup solution and useful editing tools. The app has the same flat look of the Photos app from iOS and should be easy to navigate for anyone who has spent time with an iPhone. Migrating your photo libraries to the new app is as simple as opening Photos; you can keep both iPhoto and Aperture on your system if you like.

The app has four main tabs. Photos contains all of your pictures in chronological order. Shared contains pictures from your shared photo streams, along with an activity feed for likes and comments in those streams. Albums contains albums that you’ve created yourself. And aside from storing slideshows, Projects is essentially a storefront for Apple’s printed photo products: cards, books, calendars, and so on. (You can now print your panoramic photos there, too.)

Photos for OS X uses some other neat organizational tricks. The Albums view automatically highlights photos from your last import and your favorites, along with buckets for different kinds of images: panoramas, slo-mo videos, and time lapses, for example. On the whole it’s a much easier system to navigate. And since the software is completely brand new, it’s super fast, even with a large library of photos — at least, it was on the new MacBook Pro we tested it on.

Photos is tied closely to iCloud Photo Library, Apple’s photo backup product, which is also in beta. iCloud Photo Library stores your first 5GB of pictures for free; after that, you’ll need to pay. Prices start at $0.99 a month for 20GB of storage and go up to $19.99 a month for 1TB. My Photo Stream, Apple’s sometimes-confusing free service for storing and synchronizing your last 1,000 photos, will continue to exist independently of Photos. (Check out our big explainer on Apple’s new photo software and services here.

For all it does right, it’s worth noting that Apple’s photo products are still siloed off from the rest of the world. You might have photos of yourself on Facebook that you’ve never bothered to download, or some old collections on Flickr, or some cherished memories on Instagram. Unlike some third-party solutions, including the recently acquired Picturelife, Photos won’t go out and grab those pictures for you.

For the photos it does manage, though, the app offers powerful synchronization between devices. Take a photo on an iCloud-connected iPhone, and it pops up on Photos less than 30 seconds later. Edits you make on your Mac synchronize all but instantly on your phone. If you revert your changes, they’ll revert back on your phone, too. And there’s a nice search feature, too: you can look for photos by file name, when you took it, where you took it, or which people are in it.

iPhoto was never one of Apple’s most beloved products. Every year, it seemed slower and less connected to the phone — the place where most photos are taken. Photos for OS X does a lot of things right, but mostly it’s just fast and tightly integrated with your other devices. It feels like a big step forward, even if feels overdue.

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