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Good Digital Prints, Cheap 

Good Digital Prints, Cheap,1759,1822950,00.asp?kc=PCRSS03079TX1K0000585

By Jim Louderback

Online digital photo sharing may be hot, but there's nothing like passing around snapshots. When it comes to prints, the 4-by-6 format is easily the most popular.

Printing 4-by-6 digital photos used to be expensive. You had to slice them out of letter-size photo paper or try to fit odd-size paper into the printer. And photo-finishing shops, from drugstores to camera stores, were ill equipped to handle digital images.

Today, low-cost printing options abound. Numerous Web sites offer prints for as low as 19 cents apiece. Drugstore chains, department stores, and even Costco compete to print your digital images in an hour or overnight. And a new fleet of home printers?designed just to spit out 4-by-6 photos?are cheap to operate and easy to use.

But which option offers the best-looking images at the best price? The Cheap Geek cobbled together a sample of nine images?two from our printer test, the rest a mix of buildings, people, and flowers.

I narrowed the online services down to Kodak EasyShare Gallery ( )?formerly Ofoto?and Snapfish ( ), which HP snapped up. I also sent the pictures to Shutterfly, using the Online Print Ordering wizard found in Windows XP.

To keep gas costs down, I went with Target, Rite Aid, and Longs Drugs, all within 5 miles of my house.

I used an Epson PictureMate 4-by-6 photo printer ( ) for home printing. HP, Lexmark, and others make similar models, but at 29 cents, the Epson has the lowest cost per print of the group (and is a PC Magazine Editors' Choice).

I rated the services in three different areas: convenience, total cost, and print quality. For print quality, I convened a panel of regular folks and PC Magazine Labs experts in a blind test of each set of prints.

Two contenders were quickly scratched. Shutterfly had me singing, like Snow White, "some day my prints will come." They were still AWOL after 11 days (EasyShare Gallery and Snapfish took just 3). Longs Drugs suffered both hardware and employee failure. The kiosk screen was black, the previous customer wasted 30 minutes on just four pictures, and the only in-store expert went on break as I arrived.

Target's printing hardware was also on the fritz, but luckily another store was nearby?and its machine worked fine. Both Target and Rite Aid used the same setup, a Kodak Picture Maker Print Station and Gretag Master Lab. Both were equally easy to use: Pop the flash card into the print station, select the shots, and in an hour or so, the prints are ready.

Shutterfly and EasyShare Gallery both had usability issues that lowered their convenience score. EasyShare Gallery rejected my e-mail address, , and the ActiveX upload control failed under Windows XP SP2. Parts of Shutterfly's site lacked support for cut-and-paste.

Best overall: Snapfish delivered the best image quality?on a par with EasyShare Gallery?plus the lowest price. At 19 cents per picture, it was 6 cents less than EasyShare Gallery, a dime below Rite Aid and Epson, and a penny cheaper than Target. Even after factoring in the $2 shipping fee?roughly equivalent to 10 miles of gas?Snapfish still ended up the cheapest. Another nice feature: The site has a special 4-by-5.3 print size, optimized for digital photos.

Most convenient: Nothing beats having a dedicated 4-by-6 printer with you. The small PictureMate doesn't need a computer and even comes with a handle. But its picture quality was only so-so, and at 29 cents a print, it tied with Rite Aid as the most expensive of the lot. You'll also spend $200 up front. On the plus side, if you load up on paper-and-ink combo packs, you can cut transportation costs to near zero.

I can't recommend storefront photo printers for anything but a desperation print. Only half of the machines I tried actually worked, and image quality was terrible. One judge called Target's prints "fuzzy and washed out," while Rite Aid got failing marks for "creepy lines," banding, and grainy results. If you can wait for three days, Snapfish beats the competition hands down. If not, consider buying a PictureMate.

Cheap Geek tip: bulk print orders. Nineteen cents a print sounds like a bargain, but prices rise quickly when you add in shipping fees. The $2 average USPS shipping charge boosted the per-print cost by 22 cents. Even when compared with $3-a-gallon gas, that's no bargain. But EasyShare Gallery and Snapfish offer bulk rates?and even here Snapfish wins. Print more than 25 photos, and the shipping cost falls to less than 6 cents an image. By prepaying Snapfish for 600 prints, you can drop the per-print cost to 15 cents.

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