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Wal-Mart's Ho-Hum Photo Site

When I think about cutting-edge Internet sites, the name Wal-Mart (WMT) doesn't immediately spring to mind. So when I saw that the retail giant was going head-to-head with the likes of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Yahoo! (YHOO) with its own photo-sharing and printing service, I decided I had to include it in my series of service reviews. So far, I've set my sights on HP-owned Snapfish, Kodak's (EK) EasyShare Gallery, Shutterfly, and DotPhoto.

Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart's main advantage is price. Glossy 4-inch-by-6-inch prints cost just 12 cents apiece, a price matched only by Snapfish. The service is especially handy if you happen to live near a Wal-Mart (I don't). The store will print your photos within an hour, at a cost of 19 cents apiece. That's something Snapfish will do for the same premium, through a partnership with Walgreen (WAG).

SENSE OF DREAD. Beyond these conveniences, Wal-Mart's online Photo Center had significant shortcomings that could be deal-breakers for those who want more than cheap prints.

Accessing the Wal-Mart photo site is a lot like walking into one of the chain's bricks-and-mortar stores. The first stop is the main Wal-Mart home page, where you are greeted with a rather bland-looking grid of blue and white (an ad for an Elmo doll in the center made me wonder whether the red Muppet was drafted as a greeter).

From there, you navigate over to the Photo Center by finding its tab among the array of 16 at the top. While not as irksome as navigating acres of floor space to find your department in a physical store, it manages to evoke the same dread. You've got to hand it to the site's designers for achieving brand consistency, I guess.

FRIENDLY, BUT BORING. Also, in keeping with Wal-Mart's ethos, the online store has a huge variety of photo accessories and extras, including photo T-shirts, magnets, mouse pads, ornaments, and decorative plates. All in all, it had the most comprehensive selection of products of any Web site -- hardly a surprise considering Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer.

Once you get to the Photo Center and log in, the site is user-friendly, albeit boring, in my view. It offers all the usual features of a photo service, allowing you to make minor edits, arrange a slide show that can be e-mailed to friends, and buy frames and special greeting cards.

Wal-Mart's editing suite does a passable job. By licensing technology from Fujifilm, the site lets you do the usual cropping and red-eye correction, as well as apply different color settings like black-and-white and sepia. It lacks the ability to do real, manual color-level adjustments, though its Auto Adjust button, which is supposed to optimize these settings for you, performs well.

SIZE MATTERS. In fact, it does a better job than most of the "instant fix" buttons on other sites, which typically overexpose the picture. That said, I couldn't get to the red-eye tool to even slightly correct a subject's red eyes. I would recommend doing most of your editing offline with other software, such as Adobe (ADBE) Photoshop or the software that likely came with your digital camera.

Another thing Wal-Mart gets right is providing easy access to slide shows. A click from the e-mail invite takes friends and family directly to the photos. Such sites as Snapfish and Flickr require sign-up, a personal pet peeve.

Despite that feature, I would not recommend using Wal-Mart's site for sharing. Here's the problem: The pictures in the online slide show are just too small. So far, I've consistently felt disappointed by other sites, which display 4-inch-by-6-inch images on the computer monitor. For editing, Wal-Mart comes up short, with an image of about 3 inches by 5 inches. The completed slide-show images are smaller still: a measly 2.25 inches by 3.25 inches!

FOUND WANTING. For me, that was a deal-breaker for the whole site. There's no reason to send friends near-thumbnails of your vacation pictures, when you can have them look at bigger shots via such services as Flickr or Kodak Gallery.

While Wal-Mart's service surprised me by holding its own aga inst the specialty photo sites, it failed to prove itself superior. If you're intent on getting cheap prints fast, and Wal-Mart is the only store in sight, then go for it. But with prices that still don't beat smaller players, you're better off checking out the little guys.


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