By Burt Helm
The Good Prints are cheap, and the site is user-friendly
The Bad Not all features work with Firefox or Mac browsers, album layout is fairly generic
The Bottom Line Buffs need not apply. Users happy with the basics will find Snapfish is a snap
As photo-sharing Web sites proliferate, at first glance it's hard to spot the differences among them. Virtually all of them let you upload, print, order and send digital photos.
But not all sites are created equal. Some focus on printing, others on sharing. A handful emphasize cool layout and design. They range from big-brand services such as Kodak (EK) Photo Gallery to little indie-run sites like Smugmug.com. To put the sites into perspective, I have decided to test drive several in the coming weeks, with the aim of finding the ones that truly stand out. I begin my quest by taking a look at Snapfish, the photo site owned and run by Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).
Snapfish is what I'll call a meat-and-potatoes digital-photo service. It competently manages the main tasks you would demand, including sharing and ordering prints. After you log in, the site is straightforward and easy to use. It offers a range of basic features that let you organize and label a decent, if generic looking, online photo album. All in all, Snapfish is a fine choice for a user who wants a simple way to share photos and get prints in the mail.
PRINT OPTIONS. Snapfish's chief advantage over other services is its low printing price. Basic 4-inch by 6-inch prints cost just 12 cents apiece, with an additional charge for standard shipping. That compares with 15 cents at the Kodak Photo Gallery, 29 cents at Shutterfly, and 29 cents at the corner Rite-Aid (RAD).
Both batches of photos I ordered from Snapfish arrived a little under a week after the order was placed, and the prints were crisp and vivid. If you prefer, you can also have photos printed and waiting for you at a local Walgreens (WAG). In addition to basic printing, Snapfish will also put photos on mugs, T-shirts, and other items, though I didn't end up ordering any of these.
Managing photos and sharing them with friends is a cinch. After you've uploaded the photos, you can access a feature that sees Snapfish put a text box next to each thumbnail, making captioning quick and easy. Other sites require the user to click through to a separate edit page for each photo. You can also rotate the images, a feature that lets you fix those photos taken at the wrong angle. It also lets you add silly-looking borders, if that's your thing.
GRIDLOCKED. When you e-mail an album for sharing, Snapfish gives you two options: full access and restricted. Full access lets the recipient not only view and order prints but also copy photos to their own albums and send them to others. The restricted mode allows only viewing and ordering. And once you receive another sender's photos, the album sits in your account indefinitely, so you can view them any time.
If you use a Macintosh or the Firefox browser like me, Snapfish doesn't let you do any cropping or special sizing of photos or give you options for customizing the layout (though a Snapfish representative says this is possible with Internet Explorer). Every album uses the same thumbnail grid. The template Snapfish provides looks fine, but it would be fun to be able to change the look and feel of the album that friends see.
Using Firefox, the photo-uploading application is also incredibly cumbersome. First, the photo-uploading application is dated. To put photos on the site, you have to select each photo individually, using the "browse" button, similar to the way you might add an attachment to an e-mail. It takes a long time to look up and pick out each photo, and once you hit upload it can take several minutes for the site to finish loading.
For Internet Explorer users, Snapfish provides a downloadable plugin, which will provide a drag-and-drop feature. The rep from Snapfish says it hope this feature will also be available for other browsers by yearend.
MISSING ZOOM.Second, the photos need to be bigger in both the thumbnail and slideshow views. I'm not the least bit far-sighted, but I felt like I had to squint at the grid of thumbnails to pick out the right image in a series of group shots.
When you click on a thumbnail to go to an individual photo view, the image is only 5 inches by 3.75 inches on your monitor, and you can't adjust it. While that size is only slightly smaller than a typical physical photo print, it feels too small for a computer screen, and I would have liked the ability to zoom in and check out photos in greater detail.
I would also have liked a full-screen mode for slide shows. Snapfish should allow you to size the images however you please, since the outfit stores high-resolution images of your photos on their server anyway. The fact that Snapfish sells high-resolution images on CDs or for searate download is no doubt a big part of the reason why they limit the size of the free images.
LOG-IN LOGJAM. The peskiest thing about Snapfish -- and several other photo-sharing sites, for that matter -- is the log-in requirement when you want to view a friend's photos. Keeping track of a user name and password for several different Web sites -- whose friends and relations all use the same site? -- consistently caused me problems. Several times I found myself forced to reregister or ask for a password reminder. And in some cases, even after all that, I still had trouble actually viewing the photos.
Snapfish and some of the other sites obviously want to sign up as many new users as they can, and a login can help prevent unauthorized photo viewing and sharing. But I, for one, would be much more loyal to a service if I knew my friends could view my photos with a simple click on a link in their inbox. Instead, I'm left to wonder how many of them will have the patience to go through the whole log-in rigmarole.
Still, neither the log-in annoyance nor any of the other gripes are deal-breakers. While the service has room for improvement, Snapfish does a fine job with basic photo-sharing, promptly printing and sending your prints, and making the site easy for amateurs to use.
Helm is a writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York