By Burt Helm
The Good Well-designed, no registration needed to view photos
The Bad Pricier than some, so-so print quality
The Bottom Line Good for sharing, advanced features offer fun ways to get creative
Friends have been sending me two or three online photo albums a week, and they use a whole slew of different sites, ranging from Snapfish, to Shutterfly, to Flickr. Which service is the best? I checked out a range of them, and Shutterfly fared quite well.
While the prints' quality didn't match the best of the bunch, Shutterfly is a great choice for users who want a fun, no-hassle way to order prints and share snapshots, plus dabble in more advanced projects like creating photo greeting cards and designing albums.
The best aspect of Shutterfly is its design. Sleek and well organized, I found navigating around the site both easy and enjoyable. I uploaded about 50 photos, made some minor edits to a few of them, added captions to a some shots, and shared a dozen or so with friends in just a few minutes -- all without any hassle.
SHOW AND TELL. With Internet Explorer, the service automatically downloads a small plug-in that lets you upload image files by dragging and dropping them into a box on the Web site. With FireFox, you have to manually download the plug-in, but the experience is very similar. While you can't drag whole folders of photos at once, you can select multiple files and drag them in, and the files upload fairly quickly.
Once you've uploaded the photos, Shutterfly provides a small set of editing tools, letting you crop pictures, create borders, adjust color-tone levels, and add photo effects, such as converting your snaps to black and white or sepia shades. Its red-eye correction feature, though, is a bit clumsy to use -- you have to click repeatedly on the eye while it puts different configurations of black pixels over the red area until you get the right size.
Shutterfly's My Projects section does a good job of showing you how to utilize parts of the site that the casual user might not try out. In addition to selling extras like frames, mugs, and mousepads, the service has two standout project features: It lets users create custom greeting cards and photo albums.
SKIPPING SIGN-UP. For cards, not only can you pick a template for the photo and add an inscription on the inside, Shutterfly will also mail your creation to a list of friends and let you add personalized messages to each. The photo-album feature lets you design a very attractive hardbound book of snapshots, where you can write full blocks of text alongside the pictures. The site makes both features extremely easy to use and provides a good number of preset designs, as well as a lot of room for custom designs.
The sharing feature is pretty basic -- friends get an e-mail linking to a slide show, where they can view the photos and order prints if desired. While other sites give users more options than this, Shutterfly does get the most important thing right -- friends and family don't need to go through a sign-up process to view photos.
Instead, Shutterfly puts a quick link in the e-mail that takes recipients directly to the pictures. That's nice to know, especially in my case -- I was sending family members photos from eight or so sites. After a while, any sign-up needed before viewing photos typically meant they would skip the whole hassle and not look at the snapshots. If you'd rather not keep sending e-mails, Shutterfly also lets you manage your own homepage on its site. That way, friends can just log in to see what you've recently added.
HIGHER PRICES. Despite Shutterfly's strengths, I do have a few gripes. First, Shutterfly needs to give users the ability to size photos however they wish -- this is something a few of the other photo services I checked out allow. In the slide show, the "large" setting was only about 4 inches by 6 inches, which is too small when I know that a 5-megapixel version of my photo is sitting on Shutterfly's servers. If you have a fast-enough Internet connection, there's no good reason why the service can't add a full-screen mode.
The quality of Shutterfly's prints was decent, but it didn't match up with other sites. When I compared photos from several of the services with a couple of the guys from BusinessWeek Online's art department, we found Shutterfly to be the slightly fuzzier than the rest, with duller contrast. Though my art department colleagues felt pretty confident about their conclusions, I have to say that my amateur eye had trouble noticing much difference between most of the prints.
I did notice that Shutterfly's prices are higher, however. While a prepaid option lets you buy 4x6 prints for as little as 19 cents, individual 4x6's are 29 cents a piece -- as much as the local drugstore. Snapfish, which had prints with the best quality of the bunch, charges only 12 cents each.
GOOD BASIC CHOICE. Also, Shutterfly hasn't worked out an agreement with any local store (such as Snapfish's delivery agreement with Walgreens), so you can only have prints mailed. A batch of photos I ordered with the standard-shipping option arrived promptly just two business days after I ordered them (with a weekend in the middle, however).
But higher price aside, Shutterfly is well-designed, easy, and a lot of fun to use. For the basic user, I would highly recommend it.
Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York