Choosing gifts for relatives is not easy. You want something that shows thought, not some gewgaw that ends up on a closet shelf. This year, I've found the perfect can't-miss gift: a book of my family photos.
Professionally printed, hardbound books of your own photos got their start two years ago, when Apple Computer (AAPL) offered them as part of its iPhoto album software. Now, there are plenty of options for PC users as well, with prices starting at $30 for a simple 10-page volume. Extra pages run a couple of dollars each.
I gathered up my digital snapshots from a weeklong family trip to Niagara Falls this summer and used them to make three nearly identical albums on three different Web sites. I took my shots with a digital camera, but you could just as easily order a photo CD when you have your film developed or, if you have a scanner, scan pictures into your computer. To produce the books, I chose MyPublisher.com, Sony's (SNE) ImageStation.com, and Snapfish.com because they each use different software and different printing companies.
I was happy with the results. Be warned: These books are printed on commercial presses, so your photographs will look more like pictures in a book or magazine than like the richly colored, ultraglossy prints you're accustomed to pasting into photo albums.
The book from Image- Station looked the most professional. That's partly because the site offers 30 page-layout styles that can handle up to five photos per page, along with dozens of background colors and patterns. The binding was sturdier, too. But you can't get a cover photo on its cloth-bound books, only on its laminated ones.
The other two looked almost as good, and you get them faster. With MyPublisher, I had my 9 in. x 11 in. book in hand 40 hours after I clicked the "Purchase" button. It was a fluke: I paid $6.99 for standard shipping, but FedEx (FDX) delivered the three-day package overnight. (Snapfish shipped my book two business days after I ordered it; ImageStation, five days.)
For value, Snapfish came out on top. Because it prints on both sides of the page at no extra charge, you get 20 pages of your pictures in the 10-page book. Double-sided printing is a $10 option with the other two services.
CROPPING AND RETOUCHING
The services work in different ways. With ImageStation and Snapfish, you upload your snapshots and lay out and edit your book on their Web sites. ImageStation, in particular, is confusing and agonizingly slow. It took more than two hours to finish my 10-page book, and it still arrived with little mistakes, for instance photo filenames where there weren't supposed to be any. (You can get virtually the same book from the same printer by using anyTimephoto.com. A dry run proved the site much easier to use.)
Snapfish is simpler, with only eight page-layout options. But you can't crop or enhance your photos as you go; instead, you must make those adjustments before you start the project. If you don't have a high-speed Internet connection, your best bet is MyPublisher. You download its free BookMaker software and connect only when you're ready to upload the pictures and pages you've designed.
In the end, I wound up with three books of identical pictures, all customized for their recipients in terms of the prominence and placement of photos. I'm confident that each will find a permanent home on a coffee table, not disappear into the back of a closet. By Larry Armstrong