What is a book full of pictures worth? That’s what I’m going to be looking at over the next few weeks as I delve into online photo books. After getting the suggestion from my wife that she wanted some of the 1,200 or so of our digital photos printed out, I started looking at several methods and sources. Of course, as an Apple user, the first place I turned to was Apple’s iPhoto. But then as I was looking around at some of the other picture services, I found several others that also offer photo books (like Blurb, Kodak and SnapFish) and several more after that (like Photoworks, Viovio, Lulu and Shutterfly).

The only way I figured I could compare the products was to actually have the same photos printed by each company and then look at the actual results, so that’s what I did. I used the first four to start me off. I may do the others as well, but it’s an expensive proposition. If I get a lot of feedback, maybe I will. So I started with about 80-90 photos and wanted to lay them out in the default number of pages offered (20 pages seems the default), in a hard cover print option, as close to 8.5 x 11 as possible. The soft covers were typically $10 cheaper, but of course, more fragile.

I developed some ground rules for the study. I will discuss three primary areas 1.) layout software, 2.) purchasing and shipping and 3.) product quality. Lastly, I will offer any general comments I may have. Sound good to you? Ok, let’s go! Oh, I forgot to mention that for the sake of length, I will be discussing one vendor per article, so hang in there.

Company: Apple
Binding: Soft, Hard, Spiral
Size: 8.5 x 11 (landscape) comes in smaller sizes as well
Cost: $19.99, $29.99, $19.99
Added Pages: $.69, $.99, $.69
Shipping: $7.99 via Fedex
Max Pages: 100 (50 sheets double sided)
Layout Software: iPhoto

Where else would I start? We have been taking digital pictures for the last 6+ years and have been keeping them in iPhoto. When it came time to decide to print them into photo books, it was natural to look at the options there first. I have to hand it to Apple, it was simply a breeze to do this. First, I organized the pictures by year using Smart Albums. Then I selected the album and clicked “Book.” This made a new book project with those photos. Then I picked a design theme. It offered at that point to flow the photos into the book for me, so I tried that first. Never let a program do your designing. It used up more pages than necessary and couldn’t interpret the content of the photos, so it had no means of grouping the photos by event. Besides, it’s fun to layout the pages – especially in iPhoto.

You have the editing power of iPhoto at your fingertips at any time to crop, rotate, fix red-eye, add effects and adjust the color settings of each photo. Inside the book you can zoom the photos in frames, and move them around inside the frames. Pretty much all the page layouts have caption and non-caption versions and actually are arranged with the mind of a designer. What’s amazingly cool is that the layout software seems to anticipate your requests. When you add a vertical picture, it adjusts the layout accordingly, when you pick several pictures, it attempts to determine the best layout for the selected items. It even appeared to anticipate the layout based on the next few photos in the album. I’m sure I saved a lot of time testing different options because of this. The style dictates the type, size and position and borders of the photos on the layouts, but you still have color options for the backgrounds. You can even use an image as a background and fade it back as desired.

And since it is a local application, it was fast. There was even a warning when your photo was not of high enough resolution to print well at the size on the layout – a must for this type of work. Another plus, there was no logging in or registering or uploading of photos before you started – you just began laying them out. There is the ability to swap between the pages and the source photos at the top (like the clips and the timeline in iMovie 6) and seeing your work in progress at the bottom, always visible (no having to go to Preview mode). Page numbers are automatic and optional as well as the Apple logo. They print on the cover as well as the slip cover (you can even add photos and text on the inside flaps). It allows for a title page with intro as well as the content on the inside flap, so you can write about the author… you!

Ordering the book was easy. While still within iPhoto you simply click the Buy Book button and let the software walk you through. If you have an Apple ID already (say for .Mac or iTunes) you log in, otherwise you create an account. It’s only after you purchase the book that the photos are uploaded – the only service to do this other than Blurb. On a Broadband connection, it only took a few minutes to upload. You do have a Broadband connection by now, don’t you? You then receive an email confirmation of the purchase and an email when it is shipped, along with a tracking number and a link to the tracking service. Details, details.

I ordered the first four books all on the same day, January 4, 2008. I received the Apple book on January 15. That’s 7 business days from order to delivery. Not bad. It came first in a plain cardboard box to reveal an even nicer Apple messenger-style, white and silver box nice enough for gift giving. The book itself was inside wrapped in a resealable clear-plastic envelope. The book has silver end papers and is foil stamped with the title (no spine printing) on suede-like material with the printed slip cover (which does have spine printing). The attention to detail is what makes this book stand out. Is there anything I would add or fix? Sure. First off, mirrored layouts or a button that flips layouts horizontally. It would have been nice to balance the page spreads. Also, I have read and heard that the images should be lightened overall to improve print quality, which tends slightly to be dark. Why not have an auto brightness checkbox for the book? And in this particular book, the red seems to be a bit on the strong side. Other than that, I am perfectly happy with the results.

The old adage still applies, G-I-G-O (garbage in, garbage out). If you start with low res or blurry pictures, they won’t magically get better when printed. But that being said, I could see all the subjects pretty well, even the out of focus ones. Make sure to use a 3MP or better camera if you plan on using one of these services. Overall, I really enjoyed using iPhoto, and believe me, I had plenty of practice since I made 7 photo books in all. It’s not the cheapest service, but it’s not outrageously expensive either. And the ease of use and quality make up for the difference in price. Sadly, there is no PC version of iPhoto or they could corner the market on this industry. Stay tuned for next week’s review and please send me your experiences and comments. I will also have a downloadable spreadsheet of the results as well at the end.

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