Mixtapes (or mixCDs, if you’re of the younger generation that didn’t have to use tape), those custom-designed soundtracks of your life from high school and before, were ubiquitous. If you liked someone, or wanted to celebrate a special memory or event, you’d make a mixtape to play in the background. We still do similar things through custom play lists on iTunes, Rdio, or Spotify, or tweaked stations on Pandora. In many areas, there are also groups of ladies (mostly) who enjoy clipping, pasting, and constructing scrapbooks of various events. There are special scissors that pink the edges of special background papers, stickers, and other items that fill the aisles of craft stores across the country. Imagine a mashup of these two things, and you have Mixbook personalized printed photo books. Mixbook is a service, basically, that takes this scrapbooking ability online. With the proliferation of high quality cameras, we can now edit, crop, and manipulate photos. No longer do we need to clip, paste, and bind memories – we can do it digitally. The folks at MixBook asked the Gadgeteer team to try out their service, and I was selected to delve into it.
I’ve been taking pictures digitally for over ten years. About eight years ago, I was introduced to flickr.com (years before it was acquired by Yahoo) and was a pro user for several years. I have probably 70 GB of photos on my hard drive, plus CDs and hard drives with archived photos. Some were taken with an early Kodak point and shoot, some with prosumer units of moderate ability, and many were taken with a Canon Digital Rebel or a Nikon D40x or D90. I’ve had various other card-deck-sized point-and-shoot units and taken some nice shots with a few of them as well. The longer I carry cameras around, however, the more convinced I become that, as Chase Jarvis says, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” But, no matter which camera you use, sharing the moments of your life is an important part of capturing those photos.
Mixbook’s website allows you to upload your pictures, choose backgrounds, add decorations, and layout pages, then order books to be sent to yourself or anyone else. There are several sizes and binding types available – hard-bound, soft cover, and wire-bound. You make this choice, and start adding pages to your book. You have total control over how pages are laid out, and there are templates for various numbers of photos on each page which make this process easier and give you good ideas to start from. Changing the template is simple, but you cannot save an edited template for use on other pages. Dragging your photos over from the thumbnail-sized gallery is quick and easy. You can have large background photos, various smaller shots floating over them, and turn photos at different angles, all in an intuitive interface that, unfortunately, is built in Adobe Flash. (This means you can only edit your books on a computer that has Flash installed. Tablet performance is horrid or non-functional.) Since I’m only using Flash in Chrome, this meant I could only edit my book from home, rather than on the devices I carry with me on a daily basis. Hopefully, this will improve in time. That said, upload was painless, with several streams allowed at a time. I don’t think I had a single issue uploading, and I pushed out some large files, usually in groups of 5-10 at a time.
Once edited and finished, ordering a book is a simple process. When you click the order button, the system quickly calculates how many pages your book is, and what the cost will be. If this is not to your liking, you can remove or add pages and re-calculate your order without a problem. You can also give gift certificates in the form of redemption codes, which is a simple thing to use. This would be a fantastic gift for someone who has just been on an epic journey, like a semester abroad or an anniversary trip, to allow them to preserve and share the occasion. (Even with a coupon code for the full amount, however, you’ll still need to enter a credit card for the final shipment. This is just for verification of identity and shipping, however, and is not kept on file, according to their help desk.) I contacted support and asked several questions, and got great service on each occasion, with timely follow-up and accurate answers.
The product I was delivered was quite impressive. I opened it when I got home (late because of work – everyone was asleep) and enjoyed looking through it and remembering taking each photo. I left it on the dining room table, and the next morning, after the Lovely Bride had left for work, I stumbled out to make some tea. There was a note on top of my book with a single word in huge letters: “WOW!” I think that says a lot. She had spent all of breakfast going through it, remembering which photos we’d taken together, and seeing the ones for the first time that I’d taken on business trips, and had almost been late for work! And that’s the goal with such a product: share your photos with friends so that they can relive or learn of your experiences.
Quibbles are few. The Flash thing goes without saying, but this legacy program is quite ingrained on today’s web. With new technologies being released, and with tablets and other devices becoming more prevalent on today’s internet, I’m sure this will improve over time. Regarding the final book, as a former printing artist, I noticed a few things. Several full-bleed pages (where the photo was designed to go off the edge of the page) were cut short, and a white border showed. While my wife never noticed, I knew and was a bit irritated that there was a flaw.
I’ve never seen that on any of the books I’ve ordered through iPhoto or Snapfish. Also, although the packaging was secure and tight, there was nothing to protect the book from the rough cardboard packaging. One of the premium touches in an iPhoto book is a slipcover and sleeve, all enclosed in protective wrap. If you’re sending this as a gift, the out-of-box experience is quite dull. With the pricing nearly identical, this feels a bit plain for such a nice finished product.
All in all, the experience and the product received was quite good. The clarity of the photos as printed, the quality of the binding, and the selection and speed of upload were all perfection. If you have photos languishing in your digital “shoebox in the closet,” you should put one together and share it with someone you care about. Isn’t that why you took those photos in the first place?