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Photo Book Test Results: YoPhoto

This is the second of a two-part article about YoPhoto’s photo book printing service. Previously I wrote about the authoring software and the ordering experience. Here I will go into more detail about the finished product.

I placed the order on Saturday 8th March. The dispatch notice arrived at lunchtime on Tuesday 11th and the book arrived on the next day. After waiting two weeks for some of the previous photo books it is refreshing to have this one in my hands less than three working days after placing the order.

Of course getting the book quickly is no good if it is of poor quality. So what is it like?

It arrives in a brown card sleeve, with glue so strong that you practically have to destroy it to get in. Or maybe I’m just clumsy. Either way everything inside was in perfect condition.

Immediately inside the sleeve is the book carefully wrapped in tissue paper. First impressions are good. The linen binding feels good and the “black bean” colour is deep and attractive. The only external indication of what is inside is the small, silver “yophoto” branding on the back.

Opening it up you find white paper, vellum and then the book proper. The photographs generally look good and most of the comments that I have made on the other books appy here too. The images are very good, but at a lower resolution than normal photographic prints. The colour — which has varied considerably more than most other variables — is muted but accurate. As with any hard copy, the images sometimes show the imperfections of the original in ways that you can’t really see on-screen. Of course this is hardly a criticism of the printing process.

Speaking of on-screen representations, it turns out that their editing application did a great job of rendering the finished product. The book arrived with no surprises which, is just as I like it.

My sense is that all the vendors must be using very similar technologies as it’s very difficult to distinguish between them simply in the quality of the pictures. And the good news here is that they’re all very good; most people would be happy the final results from any of the companies that I have tried.

Then there are the little extras. I like the vellum sheet that YoPhoto (and MyPublisher) places before the first page; I appreciate the tidy folding of the tissue paper — it shows a commendable attention to detail; and I prefer the way that they include the delivery charge in their prices; but none of these things are likely to push you towards one supplier above another.

Given that the finished books are very similar, the two things that I think matter are the ordering process and the delivery times. YoPhoto do well on both counts. Their delivery was the quickest of all those that I have tested — a full ten days ahead of the slowest — and the ordering process was helped by a powerful yet fairly simple to use application.

My only hesitation in using them again is the fact that they do not offer a Mac version of their application. But the vast majority of people who are stuck in the Microsoft world should certainly consider them next time they want a photo book printing.

Photo Book Test: YoPhoto

One thing I noted when I first reviewed photo books back in 2006 was that most vendors were based overseas, resulting in quick printing times but a protracted and expensive delivery process. This was true of Apple (both times), MyPublisher and Printing-1. The one company that I tried that were UK based, PhotoBox, was let down by its browser-based interface that was less flexible that the native applications of the other vendors.

I was therefore quite intrigued when YoPhoto asked me to take a look at their brand of photo book as they seemed to offer the best of both worlds.

This review will take a similar form as the previous ones. Today’s piece will concentrate on the ordering process, and the next will be all about the finished results. The order was placed on 8th March 2008.

So let’s get started. As regular readers will know I tend to use a Macintosh, so I was pleased to see that YoPhoto acknowledged that it’s not an entirely Microsoft-centric world. Unfortunately they seem to expect their Apple-using customers to be professional photographers and the like since they assume that they have £1000 worth of software.

Given the wording of that last sentence you can safely assume that I do not.

Of course there are likely to be cheaper ways to generate multi-page PDFs with at least 2mm of bleed and crop marks, but given that there is a £20 set-up fee for submitting a book in this format (for a book that costs £30) I didn’t feel terribly inclined to experiment.

I switched to a Windows XP based laptop and continued.

In the Microsoft world they provide some of their own software for the task. It’s a 22Mb download and the process of getting it installed on your computer is entirely uneventful — a good thing!

yophoto splash screenThe installer finishes by starting the application. Up pops a splash screen asking whether you want to create a new product or open an existing one. I select ‘new product.’

The next screen wonders what product you want. They offer mainly books, of varying sizes and finishes, but there are also a couple of calendars. The interface makes it clear how much each option costs which is a nice touch. I decide on the medium size linen book. There seems to be no option to choose the colour of the cover of the book which is odd as they do mention this on their website.

The next step is to enter a name for your new creation and decide whether to manually populate your book or use their “autofill” feature. It is looking for exactly 78 pictures. I have way more than that, and I’m not exactly sure which ones I’ll use at this stage. Also I figure I’ll probably need more than the standard number of pages but cannot see a way of adding any. I go for the manual process.

yophoto main screenIt quickly zips through my folder and generates thumbnails for all the pictures. Before I’ve had the chance to look at the main window properly, it notes that this is the first time that I’ve used the software and asks whether I’d like some help. It shows me a nice step-by-step guide, in pictures, of what I should be looking to do next.

Maybe it’s my experience with making the other photo books but the guide didn’t add much to an already fairly intuitive process. It’s mainly drag-and-drop. On the right side of the screen you can select the format of each page. You select the number of images on the page from a drop-down list. Beneath that a number of pre-defined templates appear and you can drag these onto the page. The templates tend to make pretty good use of the available space. Some have text widgets which can be removed if you don’t need them.

Next you move to the left side of the screen where there is a list of available pictures. You can also drag-and-drop these onto the page. The templates seem to only act as a guide, meaning that if you “miss” any of the template slots you end up with another picture on that page. Of the easy to use solutions that I’ve come across, this is by far the most powerful.

The slots in the templates are the wrong aspect ratio for the images coming straight out of my SLR, but, luckily, there are fairly extensive editing facilities built-in. Sure, it’s not going to have Adobe worried but it’s on a par with iPhoto, and includes red-eye correction, exposure compensation and some effects, some more useful that others, including sepia, grey-scale and water-colour. I stuck to Photoshop for my (minor) effects.

I spend quite some time playing around with the book, adding and removing pictures, changing the order, editing the number of pictures on each page and fine-tuning the whole thing. Throughout of the whole process I didn’t experience any glitches, hangs or crashes.

Once everything looks about right I click the “Order” button on the tool bar at the top of the screen. It immediately objects, telling me that I have not entered a valid email address yet. But continuing the thoughtful nature of the interface it allows me to enter one immediately without having to back out and play around with the options screen.

I’m surprised that it only asks me for my name and email address. I was expecting to have to enter the billing and delivery address.

The next few screens pass by quickly. The first asks me to check the product, making sure it is exactly as desired — no doubt the result of complaints from previous customers who didn’t get exactly what they were expecting! An unusual option in this age of almost ubiquitous broadband is the ability to send the order in on CD. I stick with my cable internet connection and select upload.

The next few stages require a cup of tea while they execute: first preparing the book, followed by compressing and finally uploading. The “while” is not unreasonable or unexpected, just a consequence of the size of a typical photo book.

The final stage of the process is entering the delivery address and, finally, the colour of the cover of the book. I check the various details and complete the process. An email arrives shortly afterwards suggesting that they plan to dispatch the finished product in three working days.

I’m impressed so far. The process has been quick and intuitive. Their program works as described and has a surprising level of sophistication. Let’s hope that the book lives up to these standards. Part two will follow when the book arrives.

Photo-Book Results: Printing-1

This is the second (and final) post about the Printing-1 photo book printing service. Last month I wrote about the ordering process, here I discuss the finished product and draw an overall conclusion comparing it with the books I saw last year1.

The time-line looks something like this: the order went out on the evening of the 17th April; the dispatch notice email arrived on the 25th April; and the finished item arrived at lunchtime on the 30th April. This, by the way, is with express (DHL) delivery. It looks like it was printed in and dispatched from Germany. I still find it slightly surprising that, of the four services I have tried so far, only one has a full operation in the UK.

The book arrived well-protected in a thin, white packet and shrink-wrap. It looks good. I really like the spiral binding. It’s great for keeping it open at a particular page without worrying that you’re going to break the binding by pressing down too hard.

The editing tool did a good job of rendering the book and, largely, what I saw on-screen is what I got in hard-copy. In fact, in the places where they differ it’s the book that gets it right. In the ordering process I noted that some pages were blurry despite the images being of a sufficient resolution. The good news that it was just a rendering problem in the Windows application.

On the other hand, the preview didn’t prepare me for the low resolution of the finished product. I made the same complaint of my iPhoto book of Vietnam, however most people looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned it. That’s to say, the quality is fine, certainly good enough, but it’s not as sharp as a normal photographic print or the output of a decent ink-jet.

The other issue is one that I probably should have been expecting as it comes up every time I transfer images from my Mac to a Windows machine: the images were very dark. It’s true that many of the pictures were very dark anyway — such is the case of Iceland in winter — but they still had plenty of detail when viewed on my MacBook.

Overall, though, I think most people would be very happy with the results and much of what I’ve said is me being pretty fussy. The end result, the actual photo book, is very similar whichever service you use. Some offer you more bindings or colours — and Printing-1 do very well here — but the finished products generally look very similar. Delivery times are all within a week of each other so, again, there’s little to distinguish one above the others. You’re not going to get any of them as quickly as you’d get a standard 6×4 print.

So, really, the main reason you’d pick one supplier above one of the others is the ordering process. And, unfortunately, while using Macromedia Director has allowed Printing-1 to quickly make a cross-platform application it does have more idiosyncrasies than either PhotoBoxes web site or iPhoto. Maybe on Windows — where iPhoto is not available — it is more compelling, but next time I want to order a book I will probably return to Apple’s solution.

  1. The ordering process, the results from Apple, PhotoBox and MyPublisher. []

Photo-Book Test: Printing-1

Last year I performed a photo-book group test, comparing the results from three different suppliers, Apple, MyPublisher and PhotoBox. The good news for consumers is that there are always new entrants to the market. This time a company called Printing-11 contacted me and asked for my opinion on their wares. That’s to say, while last years books were paid for out of my own pocket this one was not.

This test follows a similar pattern to last time. This post documents the software and the ordering process; the next will talk about the quality of the finished product. The initial order was placed on the evening of 17th April.

Printing-1 Splash ScreenI started with a visit to their website. Here I found that you have to download an application to build your book. The link to the Windows application leads directly to the installer. Unfortunately the Macintosh one does not work. After some digging around I found that clicking the “Start Creating” link takes you to a download link that does work.

Inside the disk image is an installer. I hate Macintosh installers as they’re just so unnecessary. If an application like Microsoft Office doesn’t need one I have by doubts that one is strictly required for a photo book editor. Nevertheless I continued.

Once complete there’s a myphotobook item in my Applications folder. Inside is a mess of files, one of which is myphotobook.osx which I take to be the executable. It is.

It starts with a splash screen. The picture shows a a smiling woman holding an IXUS at arms-length. Aspirational messages flicker on-screen. At least, I assume they’re aspirational as they’re all in German and languages are not exactly my strong-suit. I click “Create Photobook,” a window opens and takes over the screen.

Along the left are your files, with a directory chooser at the top an a list of thumbnails at the bottom. To the top of the screen are thumbnails of each page in the book, and at the bottom are two tabs, one that allows you to change the type of book and other than changes the layout of the current page. The rest of the screen is taken up with a two page spread from your book. I’ve not seen the real thing but I’m prepared to accept that the screen rendering is accurate, right down to the bar code and logo on the back page.

The default photobook is square and bright red. I’m not convinced about the colour, but when I try to change it the application beach balls for over a minute.

Printing-1 Editing ScreenEventually control returns and I change to a more muted colour scheme. I also decide to try the spiral bound option, something not available with the other suppliers last year2. There appears to be iPhoto integration, which is a nice idea, but it doesn’t really work. Clicking the icon shows a list of folders, but drilling down on a folder caused the application to crash.

I navigate through the filesystem, finding the pictures I want manually, but when I select one the application crashes again. I tried repeatedly but, unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get very far without losing either everything I’d done up to that point or my patience.

Luckily I have a Windows machine available and decided to see whether the application is more stable there.

The installation goes much more smoothly. I end up with a single item in the Start menu and on my desktop (please, one or the other — not both!), which starts first time. It’s not the most responsive of programs but this time I am able to complete the process.

The user interface is more like that of PhotoBox than iPhoto. While iPhoto dynamically picks the most suitable page format once you have indicated how many images you want to see, Printing-1 expects you to tell it. The layouts are less varied but very presentable, and, unlike PhotoBox, it is possible to have pages consisting only of text. You can’t, however, mix portrait and landscape pictures on a single page which meant that I had to reorder some pictures and crop others. Not entirely satisfactory.

The application is fairly fully featured but not as user-friendly as it could be. Many options are hidden in context-sensitive (right-click) menus and it often requires you to click two or three times before it decides to respond. In a similar hidden-functionality vein, the book size options allow you to choose between 24 and 36 pages leading you to conclude — incorrectly — that these are the only sizes. You can add more but the last page gets a large, red X through it. I assume, correctly it turns out, that this will be the back page and that it is not possible to print pictures here. Nevertheless, I am able to drag a picture here. It’s not until I upload the book that I get an explanation.

More worryingly, despite all the photographs being high resolution — mostly six megapixel with a few eight megapixel images for good measure — some appear very pixelated. Sometimes they grow sharper, as would an interlaced image file, other times they do not. I am hoping that this is just as display glitch.

Finally happy with the book I click the order button. The first thing I have to do is register. This generally goes smoothly, except for the fact that it is expecting addresses in German format. Once complete it to starts to upload the book to their servers. It’s a big file and takes a while, but that’s clearly a limitation of my cable internet connection.

Once complete I head over to their website to actually complete the order. The process is straight-forward. The only glitch is that I have to massage my address (I want it delivered to my work address rather than home) into a German format again.

Overall ordering the photobook has been a frustrating experience, even more so when you realise that most of the problems encountered suggest a lack of attention to detail rather than anything fundamentally wrong.

I eagerly await the finished product — hopefully it will be worth it in the end.

  1. They seem to go by half a dozen different names — including myphotobook — and the URL on their website seems to switch between them! []
  2. I note that PhotoBox are planning on launching a similar service shortly. []

Photo Book Group Test (Part 4)

Since MyPublisher use the same interface as Apple they are really only able to differentiate themselves on two grounds: print quality and delivery times. How did they do?

Well, the dispatch notification came on the 29th June which is quick but not as fast as Apple. Unfortunately the book arrived on 8th July, which was five days behind Apple and a full week behind PhotoBox.

But what is the book like now that it has arrived?

It’s nice. In fact, if you go read my comments on the Apple book you’ll have a very good idea of what MyPublisher have done. The presentation is very similar, and, in terms of quality, it’s not easy to tell them apart. The main differences are that the MyPublisher has a vellum-like page before the photo pages, while Apple has a patterned sheet of paper. It’s a nice touch. And secondly the branding is slightly less obvious. No logo, just a bar code on the penultimate page and the website URL on the last page, no “Made on a Mac” text or logo.

So, given that the quality is broadly comparable and the delivery is slower, what reason is there to use MyPublisher rather than Apple? I’m still wondering. There’s nothing really wrong with the final product but currently they appear not to have any compelling advantage over Apple.


Photo Book Group Test (Part 3)

Apple were the first off the block. At 9am on the 27th June I receieved an email noting that my photo book had been dispatched. For some reason they are printed and mailed from “abroad” (with a Dutch customs declaration, the value in US Dollars and a German postmark) which explains why it took until 3rd July to arrive. Unfortunately I was out when it first came, so I didn’t actually pick it up until the 5th.

So how does it compare with the PhotoBox book that arrived last Saturday? It arrived in typical Apple fashion. Inside an ordinary card box is a white card box with the normal Apple branding. Inside, wrapped in clear plastic, is the book.

The book itself is black and nicely bound. Rather than having a hole in the cover showing a print on the first page, Apple chose to have a photo (and some text) bound to the cover. Since this is a book of our wedding, it’s nice to have a description of what it is on the front. Similarly, the first page is a text page of credits, an option that wasn’t available with PhotoBox.

The photo’s are pretty much as good as those in the PhotoBox book, and possibly higher quality than the Vietnam photo-book from last year (but since they’re different bindings — hard cover as opposed to soft — it’s difficult to give a direct comparison). The problem with the varying colours seen in the PhotoBox book is still present in the Apple version but not as pronounced. The Apple branding in the book is more pronounced than with PhotoBox but it still fairly subtle: the very last page has an Apple logo and says “Made on a Mac.”

Overall this is the best of the two books seen so far. The quality is at least as good, if not better because the colour balance, and the presentation is better. MyPublisher will have to be very impressive to beat Apple’s efforts.