Digital Photos: Print Them, Share Them, Perfect Them

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You have more pictures than ever. These snapshot printers, photo sites, and free editing tools will help you make the most of your images.

Snapping a shot is just the first step–afterward you want to edit it, make prints of it, and of course show it off. Find out which portable snapshot printer is tops for picture-printing portability, and which of the most popular online photo sharing sites has the best features and the best-looking prints. Lastly, take your pick of the finest free photo editing programs for organizing and touching up shots.

Snapshot Printers: Portable Convenience
For immediate results, nothing beats the convenience of having your own photo printer. Small and lightweight snapshot printers hook up easily to your camera, or read from your media card, to print 4-by-6-inch photographs on the spot, no PC required. All of the models we evaluated–the Canon Pixma Mini260 ($200), Epson PictureMate Snap PM240 ($200), HP Photosmart A616 ($180), Kodak EasyShare Photo Printer 500 ($150), Lexmark P350 ($130), and Sony Picture Station DPP-FP55 ($150)–are good for bringing along on short trips.

The Canon Pixma Mini260 earned the top spot because it’s easy to use and prints quickly. The most affordable printer we tested, the Lexmark P350, failed to make the chart because of its mediocre print quality and slow performance.

So-So Print Quality
None of the printers we tested wowed us with their picture quality on our four test photos, particularly when we judged them alongside prints we ordered from online services. The Canon Mini260 was the only printer of the group to attain a score of Good for our color shots, while only the HP A616 and Sony DPP-FP55 rated a Good mark for black-and-white images. The Canon’s colors were generally accurate but too light, giving our shot of a colorful mountain meadow a washed-out appearance. Prints from the HP unit were a little grainy and varied in color quality; in particular, skin tones seemed overly bronzed. Areas of continuous tone, as in skin and sky, looked good in the Sony model’s prints, but they exhibited dull colors and some hazy details–the meadow scene appeared as if we were seeing it through dirty glasses.

Narrow banding on the Epson PM240’s prints detracted from the otherwise bright, natural colors in our meadow scene. The Kodak EasyShare 500’s print quality was inconsistent, with smooth tones and sharp details in our race car print but reddish-pink skin tones and blown-out highlights in portraits. Also, the Kodak is limited to pictures no larger than 3.5MB, which isn’t hard to surpass if you use the high-quality setting on many of today’s digital cameras.

Your Cost Per Print
The costs of printing at home have become more competitive with the prices of prints ordered online. When we calculated per-print costs based on the prices of ink-and-paper bundles from the printer vendors (generally your cheapest option), Epson’s bundle proved most economical with 25-cent prints from a $38 pack containing 150 sheets. HP’s package runs 29 cents per print with a $35, 120-sheet bundle, while Canon’s prints cost 30 cents each from a $30, 100-sheet pack.

You might end up with some leftover ink from the bundles made for inkjet printers, but dye-sublimation printers always use the same amount of ribbon. Both Kodak’s $47, 160-sheet ribbon-and-paper bundle and Sony’s $35, 120-sheet pack end up costing 29 cents per print.

From Camera to Printer
These printers offer you a range of options for getting pics off your camera. They all support PictBridge, which allows you to connect your camera with a cable and select pictures to print using the camera’s LCD and buttons. They also have media slots for reading images straight from your camera’s media card, but you’ll need to make sure a given printer supports your card format.All the models can read SD Card and Memory Stick, but the Sony DPP-FP55 can’t read anything else, and the Canon Mini260 needs a third-party adapter to read xD-Picture Card. Most of the printers need an adapter for smaller card types such as Memory Stick Duo and miniSD. For our speed and quality tests, we printed images from an SD Card.

Except for the Canon, all can print images stored on a USB thumb drive. The Kodak EasyShare 500 has a slot for an optional $100 Wi-Fi card, letting you print from a wireless-enabled camera or notebook PC; the Wi-Fi card supports only the slower 802.11b protocol, but that should add just a few seconds to the time for turning out your photos. The Kodak also has built-in Bluetooth for sending photos from a camera phone or Bluetooth device, while the Canon has a built-in IrDA port that lets you beam images from infrared-enabled camera phones and PDAs. For the Canon, Epson, and HP units, you can purchase optional Bluetooth adapters, which cost $30 to $80.

Print With Ease
Most of the printers are a snap to operate, thanks to their color LCD screens, easy-to-follow menus, and sensibly arranged buttons. The Kodak EasyShare 500 has a large, 3.5-inch LCD, but its display quality wasn’t as good as that of the others. The Sony DPP-FP55 has just a 2-inch screen, while the others are all 2.4 or 2.5 inches wide. The Sony’s tiny text and smaller screen had us squinting at times, and several miniature buttons make its control panel somewhat fiddly.

The Canon Mini260 and Epson PM240 each have two buttons in front of the screen whose use changes depending on the prompts at the bottom of the display. The Canon’s easy-to-use scroll wheel is reminiscent of an iPod. The other models each have a cell-phone-like four-way controller with an OK button at its center.

All the printers allow you to do some basic in-printer photo editing, but the Epson shines here. You can easily rotate and crop images, automatically fix the color balance, remove red-eye, and apply black-and-white and sepia effects. You can also add border designs, including a variety of Disney character themes. The HP A616 offers border designs as well.

For easy mobility, the Canon, Epson, and HP have built-in carrying handles. The Kodak and Sony are the lightest, but their detachable paper trays make them a little more cumbersome. You can buy rechargeable batteries that slot inside the Canon (price not set at time of writing), Epson ($50), and HP ($80); for its A616, HP also offers a $40 car power converter. For the Kodak and Sony printers, you’ll need to take along their external power converters.

In addition to the 4-by-6-inch prints you get from all the printers, the HP can deliver 5-by-7-inch prints and 4-by-12-inch panoramas, and the Canon can print 4-by-8-inch photos (which means cropping the picture on the LCD if you print from the camera or card). All of the units let you print multiple images on a single sheet that you can cut into wallet and passport-size photos.

The Kodak and Sony printers use a dye-sublimation process, which employs heat to transfer varying amounts of ink from a 4-by-6-inch ribbon onto the paper. They take four passes to deposit yellow, magenta, and cyan inks, and then a clear protective layer. Dye-sub paper has perforated tabs at each end that leave an annoying rough edge when you snap them off.

The rest are inkjet printers. Unlike full-size photo printers, these portable models’ cartridges don’t have room for six or more ink colors, which usually give better color reproduction. The HP has cyan, magenta, and yellow inks; to those three colors, the Canon and Epson add a black ink to improve contrast.

Print speeds varied greatly in our lab tests. At an average of 54 seconds per print, the Epson printer won the race, but not by much–the Canon and Sony units were close behind. At 109 seconds, the HP took twice as long in our tests.

Resisting Moisture
Some independent labs test for photo-print longevity, but unfortunately no such test results yet exist for most of these portable printers. However, since sticky fingers and accidental spills present more immediate threats to snapshot prints, we ran informal tests to check out recent vendor claims of moisture resistance. First, we sprayed a week-old (and therefore completely dry) sample from each printer with water, wiped away the droplets, and left it overnight to dry. Only the Canon print showed any obvious discoloration, such as pink marks in continuous areas of sky. The Canon print also curled from the moisture.

Next, we immersed half of each photo in water for 30 seconds and briefly shook it dry. Again, the Canon sample suffered most from the test, with the paper crinkling and discoloring slightly. The Sony print swelled along the edges, but the other models’ prints held up very well.

The printers all come with PC software for editing your photos. HP and Kodak provide the most comprehensive packages, with hooks for sharing and printing images through their online photo sites; since anyone can download these applications for free, we discuss them in our software section. The Epson model comes with Arcsoft PhotoImpression 5, a full organizing and editing program.

Sony’s Picture Motion Browser and Canon’s Easy-PhotoPrint are adequate for quickly printing from your PC, but you’d need more to match the utility of the Epson, HP, and Kodak tools.

As you can see from our chart, the Canon, HP, and Sony delivered the best print quality, but none clearly excelled. The Epson offers fun in-printer effects and borders, and it has optional battery power, as do the Canon and HP units. The Sony is tops for portability, while the Kodak gets points for its large display.

Top Snapshot Printers (chart)
Snapshot photo printers are typically easy to use and highly portable, but their print quality noticeably lags behind that of full-size printers and online services. In our tests, the the Canon Pixma Mini260 narrowly edged out the also worthwhile Epson PictureMate. Click the icon below to see the Top Snapshot Printers chart from the January 2007 issue of PC World magazine.

Print, Share and Edit Photos Online
Today’s photo sites pack in a whole lot of extra features beyond just print ordering, including the now customary album-creation, sharing, and editing functions. We looked at the most popular photo sites as rated by ComScore/Media Metrix, an independent online-audience-measurement firm: AOL Pictures, Kodak EasyShare Gallery, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Smugmug, and Yahoo Photos. HP’s Snapfish offered the best prints for the least money, and as a result earned our Best Bet award. But while Smugmug has excellent search, archiving, and other features for the technically minded photographer, its $40 monthly fee and lagging print quality kept it off our chart.

Order Prints
We ordered 4-by-6-inch glossy prints from each site. With the first-class-mail delivery option, all the prints arrived within seven days. Including shipping fees (for a batch of 15) but without tax, Snapfish was the cheapest at 22 cents per print and Shutterfly was the most expensive at 32 cents (see the Photo Sharing Sites chart for prices at the five sites discussed here).

Overall, the prints looked noticeably better than those from our tested snapshot printers. Snapfish’s came out on top with vivid colors and sharp details; Kodak’s good-looking prints came close behind. Yahoo had the best black-and-white print reproduction, with excellent contrast and shadow detail. Shutterfly delivered very natural-looking color prints, but our black-and-white sample suffered from posterization (sudden changes in tone) in what should have been a smooth sky. AOL’s prints looked nice and sharp, but the colors were often too bright.

Kodak prints its photos on its own PerfectTouch paper. The others were all printed on Fujifilm Crystal Archive–despite Snapfish’s advertising that it uses HP paper and AOL’s claiming to print on Kodak. The Fujifilm prints emerged unscathed in the same type of informal moisture tests we did for the snapshot printers; the surface gloss of the Kodak prints suffered some minor blemishes.

Upload Photos
Some of the sites offer free downloadable software that ties in to their services but also works in stand-alone use. We compare the software in our next section, and consider the site features here.

We liked how most of the sites let you drag and drop images from Windows Explorer, but we weren’t big fans of having to browse for files with Snapfish’s interface. Shutterfly speeds the process by starting an upload as soon as you select an image, allowing you to browse for more while it’s working; the other services wait until you’ve chosen a batch of images and clicked a start button. All the sites also offer browser plug-ins for uploading multiple files at once.

Once your pics are stored, you can label them with captions, organize them into albums, and view them as slide shows. We liked that AOL and Yahoo let you assign keywords for searching and viewing photos across albums. Kodak and Snapfish lack search capabilities entirely, which could be a problem as you build up a trove of pictures over the years. However, you can mark your favorites at all the sites, so they’re easy to find again.

Retrieve Full-Size Pics
Until recently you couldn’t freely download a full-size image once it was on a site. Both AOL and Yahoo now allow you to pull down the full image, essentially turning both sites into free online photo storage and backup. You can pay for full-size downloads with Snapfish and get them with Kodak’s premium service, but if you want them from Shutterfly, you must order an archive CD. In addition, AOL, Kodak, and Snapfish each provide a browser plug-in that outputs the full images directly to a home printer without downloading the original photo.

AOL, Shutterfly, and Yahoo keep your pics indefinitely, but you’ll need to order at least one item a year from Kodak and Snapfish or they’ll delete your collection.

Two sites make limited use of the EXIF information that digital cameras embed into their images to record when and how you took them. Shutterfly uses the date in its initial caption, and you can search for photos taken in a given date range. Yahoo shows you the camera make and model, and some of the settings used, but tends to screw up the date: Sometimes it’s a particular day in 1969, for instance.

For editing, each site lets you rotate and crop, remove red-eye, and apply effects such as black-and-white or sepia. Shutterfly is the only one without an online auto-fix tool for balancing contrast and color. You can apply decorative borders to your images with all except AOL; however, AOL does display a full-size image to make editing easier, and its one-click red-eye removal worked well.

You’ll need to direct Shutterfly to the right part of the picture to fix red-eye, but it helps by enlarging the area you initially select for more-precise work. Kodak, Snapfish, and Yahoo are trickier, because you must select the area to correct on a small, unzoomed copy of the image.

Show the World
To share your shots, you can e-mail invites to view certain albums from any of the sites, and AOL, Shutterfly, and Yahoo also let you designate public albums for everyone to see. Kodak no longer forces invitees to log in, but you will need to deselect the option when you send invite e-mail. With Shutterfly and Snapfish you can make free personalized URLs along the lines of “smithfamily.shutterfly.com.” Kodak offers the same feature, but only in its premium service.

  • See the most current Top Photo Sharing Sites chart, or click the icon below to see the photo sites chart from the January 2007 issue of PC World magazine.

Free Image Editing Software
To edit and organize all of the photos on your PC, you can choose from many free downloadable programs. We tested six of them: Corel Snapfire, Google’s Picasa, HP Photosmart Essential, Kodak EasyShare Software, Shutterfly Studio, and Snapfish Photoshow Express. With many easy-to-use features, Picasa earned top honors, but Snapfish’s feature-limited free version failed to make our chart.

All save Picasa tie in to a particular Web site for easy upload; Picasa uploads to the Picasa Web Album site and to Google’s Blogger.com, and it allows printing from many sites, including Kodak, Shutterfly, and Snapfish. However, you can use any software’s editing and organizing features, regardless of which service you use. If you’re accustomed to commercial editors, you might miss in these free tools advanced functions that correct individual parts of your photo. Other than for red-eye removal, all the editors we tried work on the entire image.

In HP’s Photosmart Essential, a free downloadable program from the HP Web site that also comes with the A616 printer we tested, you get good photo management and fast editing operations. Likewise, Kodak’s EasyShare software came with the Kodak snapshot printer we looked at, and can also be downloaded from the Kodak site.

Like the HP software, EasyShare can print to any printer, and has good editing options–but its image management and search could be better. Shutterfly Studio provides top-notch organizing and editing in a well-designed package. Snapfire looks good, as well, but is lighter on searching and organizing.

We also tried The GIMP, a free image editor from gimp.org. Though it has plenty of advanced features, it isn’t meant as a photo-organizing and easy-edit tool, so it wasn’t suitable for our chart.

Transfer Photos
All the programs in our chart help you transfer images from your digital camera. Most of the apps display image thumbnails and let you choose which to upload. Photosmart Essential, EasyShare, and Shutterfly Studio can rename the images in sequence as you import them, to something like SallyBday012.jpg. Picasa has to transfer all your images to a temporary location before you can choose the ones to import, which can take some time if you’re moving many pictures.

Picasa can’t rename the images during the transfer, but it can easily rename a batch of them once they’re stored in its library. Snapfire lacks a preview for image transfers, but will transfer only your new shots.

All the utilities let you organize your images into albums, view them as slide shows, and label them with captions, generally more easily and quickly than you can online. To manage your photos, you’ll appreciate being able to work with nested hierarchies of folders in HP Photosmart Essential, Picasa, Shutterfly Studio, and Snapfire. Picasa, Shutterfly, and the HP software also allow you to assign keyword tags for searching, and to view your shots by the date you took them regardless of which album they’re in. By contrast, working with Kodak’s single level of albums, once you import more than a few hundred shots, can be hard.

Edit Your Pics
To tweak your images to perfection, each program offers rotate, crop, red-eye removal, and auto-fix editing features. We liked Picasa’s and Shutterfly Studio’s easy-to-use tools the most, with their advanced operations like sharpening and straightening. Shutterfly also displays a useful before-and-after view of your image to show the effects of your editing, as does the EasyShare Software.

EasyShare’s red-eye removal was fast and effective, but the others delivered mixed results: Shutterfly Studio was prone to removing color from any reddish skin tone around the eyes, while HP Photosmart Essential and Snapfire often left red halos around the irises.

Once you’ve gotten your photos just right, you can print them using any of the programs, no matter what type of printer you have. Kodak EasyShare and Picasa are also notable for their built-in CD-burning capability for archiving images. HP Photosmart can do the same once you download a free plug-in.

Create an Online Story With Your Pictures
Want a creative way to showcase your photo talents? Try these free new sites.

Tell a visual story at Tabblo with a text commentary that accompanies the pictures you upload. It’s perfect for documenting a wedding or vacation, for example. Choose a stylized template, upload your photos, drag them into position in the template, and enter captions. Share your finished Tabblo story with family and friends you invite by e-mail, or make it public for the world to see. We were impressed with how quickly we could put up a professional-looking chronicle of a trip to Peru.

Scrapblog has a similar storytelling goal, with a more free-form approach and more page layout choices. Using a robust in-browser design tool, you drag images onto a canvas, rotate them to any angle, apply borders, and attach titles and captions. A set of editing tools helps you get your photos looking just right. The demo version we saw provides a variety of templates for your scrapblogs, but starting from scratch can also be fun. Scanned mementos, such as museum tickets, maps, and foreign coins, make a great background for vacation photos.

source: msn.com - PCWORLD

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