Walt Mossberg

Making Your Own Coffee-Table Book

Four years ago, a small New York company called MyPublisher introduced a new way to display digital photos in a tangible, professional-looking manner — factory-bound, but relatively inexpensive, hardcover photo books. To make these handsome books, you use free software to select a layout and fill it with your pictures and comments, then upload the whole thing to MyPublisher. The book is then assembled on the company’s printing presses and mailed to you.

Soon after MyPublisher’s introduction, Apple Computer began offering these same books using its own software and interface. Apple built the book-design process right into its widely praised iPhoto picture-organizing software, which is included on all new Macs. Apple’s book-creation interface is different from MyPublisher’s, but MyPublisher produces the books under contract for Apple.

Shutterfly books offers another way to print and display your digital photos.

Now, two of the big online photo-printing services, Shutterfly and Eastman Kodak‘s EasyShare Gallery (formerly known as Ofoto) also have begun offering bound photo books, along with their usual assortment of cheesy photo gifts such as mugs and mouse pads. The two new entrants don’t use MyPublisher to produce their books, and because they are Web-based they don’t use software that resides on your personal computer to design the books as MyPublisher and Apple do. Everything is done on their Web sites.

The new, wider availability of hardcover books provides another in the increasing number of options designed to tempt digital-camera owners to turn their pictures into hard copy. Three of these services also offer cheaper, smaller softcover books, and MyPublisher says it believes its low-end books can one day compete with snapshots.

I have long been a fan of these bound photo books because I believe they provide an impressive way to save important memories. So, my assistant Katie Boehret and I set out to compare the books produced by these four companies.

We focused on three things: how easy and flexible the book-creation process was; how attractive and sturdy the finished books looked; and how much the books cost. We couldn’t judge a fourth factor, turnaround time, because our deadline required us to ask the companies to rush the books out more quickly than they usually do.

MyPublisher BookMaker

Using about 40 of the same digital photographs each time, we created photo books using MyPublisher BookMaker, Apple’s iPhoto, Shutterfly and Kodak EasyShare Gallery. Each book had the same photo on the cover, and we chose classic black leather for each cover, except for the Apple book, where we used black linen because leather isn’t offered.

Each company’s book costs about the same — $30 for a hardcover with up to 10 double-sided pages, and $40 with a leather cover. Additional pages cost a dollar in iPhoto and Shutterfly, $1.49 for MyPublisher BookMaker and $1.99 with Kodak Gallery.

Our tests produced a split verdict. We preferred both the creation process and the finished books from MyPublisher and Apple over the newer, Web-based entries from Shutterfly and Kodak. While we found Apple’s software for designing the books to be the best, we preferred the finished product received from MyPublisher to the book we got from Apple, even though they were both produced on MyPublisher’s equipment.

The book that we created using MyPublisher BookMaker was the most attractive overall. Its beautiful full-page photos that bleed to the edges of each page were stunning, and MyPublisher’s new peek-through cover (a framed rectangle in the cover’s center allows the title-page photo to be seen) was the most appealing cover of the four books.

Kodak EasyShare Gallery

Apple’s book was almost as nice and had the full-bleed pages. But Apple doesn’t offer the peek-through cover window or the leather cover.

Apple’s iPhoto did the best job of letting us design the books. It offers the best combination of automatic and manual adjustments, with options for adding personal style.

While Shutterfly’s software and book were better than Kodak Gallery, we still favored the ease of use and finished products from iPhoto and BookMaker, respectively, over the Web-based services. We also preferred the binding on the MyPublisher and Apple books, which seemed sturdier to us than the process used by Shutterfly and Kodak.

All four programs offer a similar way to view the photos that you will use in your book. After you retrieve them from a folder or other spot on your computer (in the case of MyPublisher BookMaker and iPhoto) or from an album of uploaded photos that you have created (on Shutterfly or Kodak Gallery), the photos reside in a horizontal tray above or below your main work space.

Each book-creation program offers a work space that displays mock pages representing those that will appear in your actual book. Each offers a variety of templates for laying out your book, with large, single photos on some pages and multiple photos on others, in varying layouts.

All of the programs we tested have a feature that can automatically fill your book with your photos for you. Sometimes this feature is useful, but we also like to have the option of manually building our book with certain photos on full pages, others paired with similar photos and less important pics left out completely if there isn’t enough room. So it bothered us that MyPublisher BookMaker didn’t offer an option for manually building our book. There is a cumbersome process for rearranging photos once the book is filled, but we prefer the manual building feature the others offer.

Apple Computer’s iPhoto Books

In BookMaker, you can select from five themes, which determine the style of your book, and four set templates, which define how many photos you will have on each page. A more detailed section in BookMaker offers over 64 layout combinations. We chose the “Various Mixed” theme and the “Mixed (1,3,4,2)” template.

The program offers some built-in photo editing, including an “auto adjust” button that brightens and sharpens your photo. But it lacked one of the best editing tools — red-eye remover. We had to remove red eye in another program first before using our photos in BookMaker.

Apple’s iPhoto offers 15 different themes and multiple layouts for each. It also has nine different editing tools, including a simple red-eye remover and a one-click enhance button. Everything here was simple and intuitive, and most functions occur on the same page — you are rarely opening other screens or sections.

But, iPhoto crashed twice while we were using it, and the first crash deleted our entire book, typed-out introduction page and all. We also didn’t like iPhoto’s finished front cover, which bears a photo glued to it. This cover started looking shabby in no time as its white background got dirty and one corner curled up.

Shutterfly and Kodak EasyShare Gallery were similar in style, though we preferred Shutterfly. Kodak offered 10 themes (we chose Charcoal Borders), some of which were more creative than Shutterfly’s nine themes (we chose Simple). But when we started dropping our photos into each book, we noticed that in Kodak Gallery the used photos still showed up in our tray, while the Shutterfly pics no longer did; we preferred Shutterfly’s system so we knew which photos were already used.

Shutterfly also offers better editing options, including a red-eye tool that magnifies each of your subject’s eyes before you click a button to remove the red part. But because Shutterfly’s individual image views are so much smaller than those on a program like iPhoto, the eyes in our photos were so small that we couldn’t even see whose were red. This is a serious problem for Shutterfly.

Kodak doesn’t even offer red-eye elimination in its book-building program. None of its layouts offer caption-free pages, so even when we didn’t add captions to a photo, a huge chunk of the page was empty, making it look like there was a lot of wasted space in the book. Every other book offered page layouts, if not entire book themes, that didn’t leave space for captions. Also Kodak’s books are physically smaller than the others.

Overall, if you are looking for the most attractive book, MyPublisher BookMaker won’t disappoint, and you might even get used to its slightly more complicated software. But if iPhoto ever offers peek-through covers and leather covers like those from BookMaker, we would have to change our vote and make Apple the overall winner.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

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

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