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DotPhoto's Fuzzy Focus

Every photo-sharing site I'm reviewing in this series has a target audience. Some, including Shutterfly and Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) Snapfish, aim for the general user who wants basic prints and tools for sending photos to others

(see BW Online, 9/29/05, "Snapfish: Photo Sharing Made Simple" and, 10/5/05, "Shutterfly: A Snap to Use"). Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Flickr homes in on the task of sharing.

The subject of this review, DotPhoto, aims for top-notch presentation. Using a special Web application, users can build slide shows (complete with music), customize transitions between pictures, and install special borders surrounding the photo-viewing window. While DotPhoto takes a step in the right direction by offering users more options than the generic slideshow template, I found it doesn't quite go far enough.

None of the music or theme selections was very appealing, I couldn't precisely place captions where I wanted them, and the image transitions -- a variety of slide-ins and fade-outs -- ranged from hum-drum to hokey. All-in-all, much of DotPhoto's Show Builder feature felt rather like a poor man's PowerPoint, and it left me wanting more.

VOICE OPTION. That said, DotPhoto isn't all bad, and several features were superior to those on rival sites. If you want to customize the photo order in a slideshow, for instance, DotPhoto's application lets you arrange the shots by simply dragging them around -- a perfectly intuitive and easy solution. And it's preferable to other photo services that make you check boxes below photos, or go through a cumbersome series of clicks and reloads. Caption-writing is also easy, and can be done at several stages in the process, even in the middle of organizing the show.

Beyond the basics, the slide-show tool is pretty straightforward and easy to use, and gives you a good number of customization options, including special borders, and a number of music tracks to select from. If you like, you can also record your own voice to accompany the slideshow.

Unfortunately, the final slideshow product is just OK, but not great. It does look more elegant than many slideshows on other sites, which are often emblazoned with the outfit's name. The show I built had a plain black background, and photos loaded smoothly and without much trouble.

MUSIC BY MARIO? Trouble is, there aren't enough music options to accompany these slideshows -- the tracks are silly synthesized numbers, and there's no way to upload your own music files, which would make a very cool feature. The music sounded like the soundtrack to a Nintendo 64 game, with cheesy names like Jamaica Snappy, Sly Robot, and Diva Feva.

I also wished for the freedom to place captions and headlines wherever I want, rather than having the software place it for me -– sometimes captions would be hard to read because they sat over a dark place in the photo, and I couldn't figure out how to change it.

While there is a full-screen mode for the slide-show -- something I've been looking for -- it just blows up the smaller image rather than actually displaying a high-resolution image, so the full-screen photos look grainy.

FEATURES AND FLAWS. If you don't want to take the time to create your own slideshow, DotPhoto will automatically arrange the shots you've uploaded, and slap them into a preset show, complete with transitions and background music (you can also just send plain photos, an option that's more similar to standard sites). The default show looks fine, but be warned: The synthesized music that accompanies it -– a corny, easy-listening track called Breezy -- might weird-out friends and family.

Besides slideshow-building, DotPhoto also has a set of editing tools to help you tweak photos online. Several tools in the editing suite fall short of the mark, though. Red-eye removal and cropping features are clumsy, meaning you would be better off adjusting the photos using your own editing software.

There is a simple way to adjust color levels and brightness, which is nice, although the "auto fix" feature, which is supposed to adjust all these levels at the push of a button, ended up making most photos looked overexposed.

MORE EFFORT NEEDED. I also ordered prints on the service. They came promptly, arriving on a Tuesday after a Thursday order -- the same time as my orders from a slew of other photo sites including Snapfish, Kodak (EK), and Shutterfly. After inspecting the snapshots with a couple of pros from the art department here at Businessweek Online, we found DotPhoto's prints ranked near the top of the group, with sharp images and good color balance. Overall, the shots from Snapfish were deemed superior.

DotPhoto is a competent photo site that does a good job with prints, and it has the basics down pretty well. I like that it aims to provide more custom features on the slideshows that you share with your friends. Still, it needs to provide even more ways for users to change the look and sound of their slideshows to make going there really worth the effort.

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