Walt Mossberg

Flipping Through a Virtual Photo Album

Taking digital pictures is easy; sharing them, not so much. Emailing batches of photos, or posting them to Web sites, aren’t ideal solutions. And, even when these methods work, they lack the feel of flipping through a paper photo album.

With a physical scrapbook or photo album, you can snuggle up in bed with the book on your lap, peeling fading prints from their pages and glancing on the back for hand-written notations or dates. You can scribble memories in the book next to each photo, or tape ticket stubs and dried flowers beside pictures from the eighth-grade play.

Of course you can easily view your pictures in a slide show on a computer screen, or even on some iPod models. But for those who miss the feel of the old photo albums, there’s a software product that aims to be the digital equivalent: FlipAlbum 6 Suite, by E-Book Systems.

This $70 program offers a way to organize your photos into digital albums that look like actual books, with three-dimensional flipping pages and page-shuffling sound effects to accompany each flip. These albums can display your photos in various layouts, with annotations below each image, and you can set music to play along with your pictures. You can post your finished albums to the Web, email links to the Web site, or burn them to CD or DVD.

My assistant Katie Boehret and I tested this software and found it to be a rather simple way to create attractive albums filled with digital photos. But the options for sharing your photo album, especially by burning it to a disc, were clumsy, limited and a little too techie for normal users.

Katie used the software’s three-step FlipAlbum Wizard to start her first album, which contained photos from a summer vacation with friends. This wizard instructed her to open the folder or album containing the photos that she wanted to use, and then to choose a page layout. She chose to show single photos on each page; the only other option the wizard offers is to display one image across both pages, centerfold-style. In step three, Katie chose “Vacation-Travel” as the book’s theme from a list of 21 options — including “Baby-Boy,” “Family Moments” and “Dog” — that dictate the “cover” design and certain organizational features.

Mossberg solution
FlipAlbum 6 Suite, $69.95, by E-Book Systems organizes digital photos into virtual albums. For more information: www.flipalbum.com.

Seconds after selecting “Finish” in the wizard, Katie’s book appeared on-screen, complete with front and back covers decorated with vacation-inspired images, a table of contents, an alphabetical index and an overview section that showed thumbnail images of each page. By placing your cursor over any of the image names or thumbnails listed in the overview, contents or index, you can jump to that image, without paging through the whole book.

Katie tweaked the album, adjusting the size and position of each image by selecting it and pulling its corner handles in certain directions. Images can be cut, copied and pasted from one page to another, and she added annotations below a few photos.

If you don’t use the FlipAlbum Wizard to create your book, you can select page layouts that display multiple images per page. But just as with the wizard, each page has the same layout, which is annoying. Though layouts can be manually tweaked, these one-layout-fits-all offerings are a boring, creativity-restricting pain.

Options for adding music to your album include playing digital music files in the background throughout the entire album, on individual pages or when the viewer selects inserted music icons. Katie chose James Taylor’s song “Mexico” to play in the background as she viewed her vacation photos, by selecting the MP3 file from her hard drive while in the “Book Options” menu.

In another album, Katie organized photos from a friend’s wedding. Whenever imported image files have names — as the wedding images did — FlipAlbum converts them into captions that can then be edited. So these captions automatically appeared when Katie imported the photos into her “Wedding-Traditional” themed book. The theme’s design had special sections in the back labeled “Church,” “Outdoor” and “Reception,” and Katie easily moved certain photos to appropriate sections.

I also made a test album with FlipAlbum, using pictures I took at the awe-inspiring opening-day ceremony in Boston’s Fenway Park, where the World Champion Boston Red Sox received their World Series rings and the championship banner was raised over the old ballpark for the first time in 86 years. It was fast, easy and satisfying, and I was able to give captions to the pictures in a variety of fonts and colors.

A handy digital bookmark icon can be selected from the top of the screen to keep your place in larger albums. To return to the marked page, just select the bookmark and pages will rapidly flip to the correct spot.

When it came time to burn these FlipBooks onto CDs, we were a little discouraged. Even with its $70 price tag, FlipAlbum 6 doesn’t include special software that walks you through the process. Instead, it just helps you convert your album into four files, which you must then know how to copy onto disc. Some people who have mastered their computer’s burning software might be in luck, and it’s not too difficult to do this on Windows XP. But for users who aren’t familiar with the CD-burning process, this part could be frustrating.

Katie converted her vacation album into files by selecting the “CD Maker” icon and following a few simple steps. She copied the files onto a blank CD-R, and fed it into a different Windows XP computer that didn’t have FlipAlbum software installed on it. It opened automatically, displaying the album and automatically playing the background song, “Mexico.”

FlipAlbum says its files will run on Macs, though not automatically, so she inserted the CD into my iMac G5 running Tiger, Apple’s newest operating system. After selecting the Mac CDViewer (one of the four files she copied onto the CD) the album opened. But the music was skipping and stuttering while she flipped through the album, and images took much too long to load on each page.

Technically, the albums can also be converted into files that you can burn to a DVD, so your photo album plays like a slide show on a DVD player. But FlipAlbum doesn’t provide any software for doing this. You must have your own separate DVD-burning software, or use a manual file-converting process that is much too geeky for regular users.

Icons labeled “Upload” and “Email” in the FlipAlbum 6 Suite software seem to make it easy for users to share their albums. But only albums that are five megabytes or less can be uploaded free of charge to the company’s Web site, and many are much larger than that. Web accounts of various sizes are available for three or 12 months at a time; these range from about $10 to $190. And instead of emailing the actual album, the “Email” icon only directs users on how to email a link of their album if it’s already uploaded to the company Web site.

A cheaper, $40 Standard version of the FlipAlbum 6 is also available, but among other things, it doesn’t let you create CDs.

FlipAlbum 6 is a clever idea, and it takes only a few steps to copy your digital images into a handsome photo book format. But the whole point of creating scrapbooks and photo albums — real or digital — is to share them, and this software doesn’t make it easy for average users to share their albums. If you want to share your photos in a book, you’d be better off using a service like MyPublisher (www.mypublisher.com) to turn them into a real paper book, and send that to your friends and family.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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