The saga continues with the search for the holy grail of photo book printing. Last week, we reviewed Apple’s iPhoto and printing service. This week, we are looking at the online service called Blurb. As I was cruising Apple’s forums regarding photo books, I came across several mentions of this service, so that determined where my next stop was. Blurb appears more to be a written book publishing community rather than specifically a photo printing service, but they certainly are in the running with the rest of the services I reviewed.

Company: Blurb
Binding: Soft, Hard
Size: 8 x 10 (landscape) comes in other sizes as well
Cost: $18.95, $29.95
Added Pages: based on page ranges
Shipping: $7.83 via UPS Ground
Max Pages: 440 (double sided)
Layout Software: BookSmart

BookSmart is a free application to all users, but you must register and set up a free account to use their printing service. It, like iPhoto, is a stand-alone application, I am guessing that is may have been done in Java, since there are Mac and PC versions and it’s interface is not entirely adherent to the Apple Interface Guidelines (a.k.a. not quite Mac-like). What’s great about BookSmart is that you can access photos from a variety of sources – iPhoto, Flickr, Picassa, SmugMug, as well as pictures on your hard drive not in iPhoto. Again, like iPhoto, you can begin the process of laying out your pages right away.

You can choose one of fifteen themes. Of course, like clip art, it’s always hard to find one just right for your project, but I selected one that I thought would work with an album that was youth-orientated. Once on a page, you can live-preview the different background colors, patterns, page ornaments and photo borders, with many more options than iPhoto. Here’s a cool feature, you can make almost an unlimited amount of variations, since you can change the foreground and background color of each item (where applicable) and apply those changes to each page individually or to the whole document. Nice.

In my opinion, however, I found the layouts to not be very conducive to the photo book layout style. They were too often not the right proportion for the photo, causing unnecessary cropping, or having to shrink them too see the whole image, or had too much area dedicated to text. In their attempt to be artsy, I think they lost sight of the goal – to display photos in a efficient yet pleasing manner, with room for a little tweaking. Again, it seems like more of a written book app.

Headers and footers work in a similar way, allowing you to change individual pages or the whole book, with control over font, size color, alignment, line spacing and indenting. You also have a pop-up index for layout categories and a thumbnail of each layout, split vertically on the left with thumbnails of your photos. You can elect to hide the used photos so that you don’t have to scroll as much, a feature all the services but iPhoto seem to have, though iPhoto does mark the photos you’ve used (but so do the others).

Since this is a layout tool and not an image editing app, you need to adjust your photos in another app like iPhoto, Photoshop, Graphicconverter, etc. before importing. But while in the program, you can zoom, move, rotate and flip within the frame borders. You can view page in single, spread or thumbnail modes. BookSmart also warns you of low-resolution images. It too has auto flow, but I didn’t even bother trying it. There is an auto-save feature, which is nice and the ability to zoom your pages, import additional photos and invite contributors to add to your book.

You lose two pages at the beginning to the title page and copyright page. And you can’t hide the Blurb logo on the copyright and back pages without spending more money. Humph. I don’t like having branding forced on me, but I wasn’t going to pay more. Oddly, I couldn’t find mention to what the premium charge actually was on the website, it just said I could drag and drop my own logo if I wanted. If they no longer charge for this, they certainly should update the application.

While I’m at it, another thing that can be both good and bad is that if you use an iPhoto album, it knows when you have modified photos in the album, and will ask you if you want to update the photo in the current album. A couple of times it seems to ask for a few then stop, so I wasn’t sure if it updated all the changed ones or not. And it really doesn’t understand multiple iPhoto databases, so be sure you are in the correct one before opening the app or it ask to change all your photos to the ones it finds in the current catalog.

Next, a click of the button and you are in Preview mode. After review, you can then place an order for a book. If there are issues, a warnings dialog will display, and then a checklist of things to review in order to get the most out of the service. Then you sign in or sign up and upload your masterpiece. Afterwards, you go to the website to order the book. Upon completion, you are sent a confirmation and later a shipping notification with tracking number (with link) and link back to your account.

I received the book the day after the iPhoto book after being ordered the same day. Again, not too bad. It came in a plain brown cardboard book box, and inside it was nestled in several layers of bubble wrap. There was a Blurb bookmark inside the front cover. The end pages were plain white. The cover was some kind of coated fiber or vinyl. Seems pretty durable. No printing on the cover. The glossy slip cover had a photo on the front with the title on it as well as on the spine, no printing on the back (my choice since it was text only), but with photos and text on the inside flaps. At 8 x 10, it’s smaller than the other books and it’s a noticeable difference. Photos on the whole appeared a little on the dark side, the paper quality felt nice, thick and smooth.

There a lot of positive things to say about Blurb publishing. The BookSmart software has way more features than iPhoto, can import from many popular sources, is available cross platform, and you can have up to 40 pages (twice more than any other service reviewed) for the same price. Wow. For volume, you can’t beat that. However, the un-Mac like interface, slowness, odd uses of photo frames and layouts, having to use the applications and the web to place an order, as well as the smaller print size leaves me wanting more. Maybe future upgrades will address some of these issues.

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