As a photographer brought up in the digital age, the taking of photos, to my mind, has always been inextricably linked with computing. And my computing has always been done on a Mac, and Macs have always had iPhoto to keep pictures neatly organized. Okay, so iPhoto hasn’t been around for ever — it was introduced 11 years ago, alongside OSX 10.1 — but as a child of the OSX period, it’s hard for me to imagine what photo handling looked like, pre-iLife.
However, as the versions of OSX have rolled by, iPhoto has grown and grown, adding more features and a heavier CPU workload along the way. In some respects, this one-time light, nimble, agile photo library is now too large for its own good.
Which is where an app like Unbound ($9.99, beta release free) has an opportunity. It doesn’t edit, it doesn’t let you create cards or calendars, but it does claim to give you quick-time access to your photos. But does Unbound’s simplicity and speed outweigh iPhoto’s heavyweight functionality?
For those who have been using iPhoto up until now, Unbound may look and feel a little spartan.
The UI comes in two styles — light and dark (both shades of grey). Browsing consists entirely of navigating around albums and the images they contain. There is no sidebar, and there are no smart folders, out-of-five star rankings, or label colours. It is a purely hierarchical system.
Instead of providing its own library, Unbound uses a pre-existing folder on your hard drive, with sub-folders being recognized as albums. These albums are represented by a stack of their photographic contents, and opening an album takes you through to a grid of the images it contains, with your other albums listed in a vertical column on the left.
Single-clicking selects an item; double-clicking an album opens it into the grid view mentioned above; double-clicking an image opens it in a window-filling lightbox. From this lightbox view, you can flick through the images within an album using the left and right arrow keys (or the on-screen controls), and access Unbound’s functions, as well — more on that later.
I don’t know whether this simplicity has an effect on speed, but whatever Unbound has under the hood, I can tell you that it is a fine engine. This thing is blazing-quick.
Flicking from image to image at high speed, as is my way of working, doesn’t seem to stress Unbound or my Mac in any way, and each click triggers a response without any discernible delay. And that includes when working with Raw files, by the way.
Even loading up images is a rapid procedure.
As a test, I pointed Unbound in the direction of a folder containing 600+ megabytes worth of JPEGs. Between 10 and 15 seconds later, Unbound was ready for me to start browsing.
To replace iPhoto, though, you need organization — which just happens to be Unbound’s weakest area. Whilst it would be harsh to describe this app as a dumb image browser, the filing options it provides are really poor.
The hierarchical system, as mentioned above, is two-tier only, so the idea of an album-within-an-album is a non-starter. Albums can be ordered alphabetically or by date of addition, and there is also an album search, although you’ll need to give every new folder a name for this to work properly.
You can also give individual images a name, and a caption, too. Unless you name every image and turn on A-Z sorting, though, this has little benefit, especially given that there isn’t an image search provided.
If you are happy just to use Unbound as a time-ordered dump for your snaps, and you have no need to track anything down in a hurry (or ever), then this system of “click-and-look” will probably suffice. It is also true to say that the rest of us can carve marginally better organization out of Unbound by thinking of albums as categories, and being diligent with our sorting of incoming images. But none of that mitigates Unbound’s lack of organizational competence.
Despite trying to avoid describing Unbound as a simplistic image browser, I have to say that when you return to the presentational side of this app, things return to being really quite nice.
From within the single image view, a comprehensive list of metadata is on display (including geolocation, presented on a map). A nice slideshow feature is also included, sporting seven transition effects, five preset slide time lengths, and the options to shuffle and loop the displaying of pictures within the album.
The developer of Unbound, Pixite, describes its creation as “a faster, simpler photo manager.” Faster, it certainly is. Simpler, without a doubt. Photo manager…hmm, not so much.
The thing is, I actually like Unbound’s approach, of speed and bare bones necessity. But the problem with any minimalism is that if it is executed incorrectly, it just looks empty. Unbound is literally an image search and some keyword functionality away from being a brilliant photo manager; without these, though, I simply can’t recommend it as a stripped-back iPhoto alternative, which is what it wants to be.
As a photo browser, though, Unbound works nicely. It is fast, unbelievably easy to operate, compatible with pretty much any file type, and it offers a nice slideshow option. Is that enough to warrant a $9.99 purchase? That is entirely your call.