If you're like a lot of people, you've got a wealth of digital photos left over from the holidays that you'd like to share with family and friends.
Thanks to the Internet, there are more options than ever. Some services even let you make images available to the general public.
But be forewarned: Expect a barrage of pitches for photo printing and other services. That's the tradeoff for getting free unlimited storage space, a hallmark of most of the nine services I tested.
Understanding the need for these companies to make a living, I don't begrudge them the pitches. But I am annoyed by services that make my friends register just to view photos:
So goodbye, Snapfish.
In my reality TV-style elimination, Webshots was the next service to get the boot.
You must install its software; others offer Web interfaces. Adding to the outrage, Webshorts' software replaced my desktop wallpaper with photos of palm trees and autumn leaves.
Though I consider the ads fair, it should be OK to simply ignore them. Not so with Ofoto.
I wanted to like Ofoto, the offering from Eastman Kodak Co. (Remember film?). Lately, many friends and relatives have used Ofoto to send me online albums of weddings and an engagement. They were relatively easy to call up -- and save if you register for an optional, free account.
But the photos you share disappear if you don't buy something from Ofoto at least once a year. Sure, it could be a 29-cent print, but I don't like to be coerced.
See ya later, Ofoto.
(Snapfish has a similar policy, but it's already eliminated.)
Of the remaining six, Yahoo, America Online and Shutterfly all focus on the basics: Add photos. Share them. Order prints, mugs and other goodies.
Typepad, Streamload and Flickr do more.
But Typepad got the boot, despite its ease-of-use and packaging with a blogging service from Six Apart. Plans with photos start at $8.95 a month. You're not subjected to e-commerce, but you can't organize photos as easily.
Streamload is ideal for large files like video and music, but at $4.95 and up per month to get the decent sharing features, the service may be overkill for photos.
AOL service clunky, Flickr too confusing
The final four candidates are all strong.
America Online's service supports several formats, including JPEG, TIFF and GIF. You and your friends can download hi-res versions of photos for free, and AOL's ads for photo-printing sales aren't as "in your face."
You don't even need to be an AOL subscriber -- screen names from the company's free instant messaging service also work, as do ones from the Compuserve and Netscape access plans.
But I found the service slow (AOL says it may be my connection, but I didn't have problems with any of the others). The interface was also a bit clunky, and I had to hit tabs to switch between files stored on my computers, on my account at AOL or on friends' accounts. Most services have better integration.
Flickr gets good marks for innovation.
Besides adding captions, you can tag photos with keywords for easier searching and mark up photos with comments -- for instance, put a box around someone's face so that when others scroll over it, "What an idiot" pops up.
Create a circle of friends from college, and any photo added by one can be automatically shared to all. Or make photos public and create groups on the fly -- for instance, bringing together people who've posted public photos tagged "tsunami."
Alas, all that innovation makes the service confusing to use. Power users with a lot of patience may enjoy giving Flickr a ride but my attention span is quite limited.
Now, where was I again?
Yahoo, Shutterfly come out on top
As for the remaining two, you can't go wrong with either.
Unlike AOL and Flickr, neither Yahoo nor Shutterfly offers free hi-res downloads and both limit you to the JPEG format.
But Shutterfly gets votes for:
- Unlimited storage forever. Yahoo accounts expire if inactive for six months.
- The ability to share a group of photos, rather than the entire album or a single photo only.
- Friends viewing large albums see small versions of photos, or thumbnails, 20 at a time. Yahoo and most others show them all at once -- painful for a dial-up user.
- Optional software for organizing and adding photos online is available for Mac and Linux computers. Yahoo's drag-and-drop plug-in requires Windows computers using the Internet Explorer browser.
Yahoo gets votes for:
- You can send photos from a camera phone.
- You can share photos by sending an e-mail or instant message or by giving out a Web address. Shutterfly limits it to e-mail.
- With Yahoo, you can share photos with everyone, only those you specifically invite or those who appear on a list of friends. Shutterfly limits sharing to invites.
- Yahoo lets you edit or delete an album so subsequent visitors see changes. With Shutterfly, once an invite goes out -- say, after a wild New Year's celebration -- you can't recall it. Photos, however embarrassing, stay in the system forever.
- Yahoo also lets some people download hi-res versions of photos, though the photo's owner must be a premium Yahoo member, either by paying $5.95 a month or getting high-speed service through a Yahoo partner like SBC Communications Inc.
It's a close vote, but Yahoo wins 5-4.