Costco Photo Center is an online service of the company's warehouse club. However, you don't have to be a member to order print products (though you will pay a 5% surcharge). Even factoring in the surcharge, Costco's photo products have the lowest prices of all the photo printing services we've tested. That makes Costco a viable budget alternative, but you'll have to put up with only average print quality and restrictive card and calendar software. When it comes to the best photo cards, best photo calendars and best photo books, we prefer Mixbook for its quality and software, but Costco's low prices are hard to beat.
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What I liked
Fully editable photo book templates
When creating photo books, pictures, text and clip art can be added, changed, deleted, moved about, resized and reshaped. The selection of alternative layouts isn't large, but the choices are intelligently organized and include a separate grouping for the handful of cover layouts. I could also simply drag and drop a photo or add text onto a page, regardless of the active layout's placeholders.
Delightful cutout shapes
While not as numerous as Printique (formerly known as AdoramaPix), Costco's photo book Masks offer a delightful variety of cutouts for shaping the edges of your photos. In addition to the expected heart, circle and star, Costco has several fanciful and fun edge effects.
Easy-to-apply photo frames
While Costco's photo borders are extremely limited (see below), the photo book also has a small library of Fancy frames. Unlike Amazon Prints, Costco's frames automatically fit to the edge of the photo, regardless of the image's size or proportions.
The frames library contains Costco's only drop shadows — as an attribute of some of the frames — plus a single, predefined stand-alone drop shadow.
Attractive clip art
While far from large or comprehensive, Costco's clip art (for photo books only) is well organized in descriptive categories (such as Buttons, Food, Garden and Jewelry). I easily found whatever clip art I needed — that is, if the item I wanted was in the small collection.
What's more, some of the illustrated and photorealistic clip art images are among the most attractive I've seen, especially the stylized flowers, jewelry and butterflies.
What I disliked
Most of the other services I tested give you the option to either have your photos automatically inserted into your chosen template or to do it manually. But Costco did it for my photo book and custom calendar without asking. Autofill can be useful for those who don't want to spend too much time customizing their projects, but for those of us who enjoy the process of designing and personalizing our books and calendars — or just because we like to group similar subjects or themes together — the autofill is an imposition that can create extra work.
Restrictive card and calendar software
Practically nothing is editable in the card and calendar templates. Photo and text placeholders are glued in place, as are whatever clip art images that are part of the card template. Neither interface offers optional clip art or the ability to place additional text.
The card interface is one of the most stripped-down pieces of online print software I've seen.
When I created my card, the photo that I used for the back on all the cards had to be a full-bleed image because of the template. And that meant that one kid’s face in my photo was obscured by the immovable clip art and text placeholder.
Both calendar interfaces have very few backgrounds (called wallpapers) and only a handful of layouts specific to the selected template (though the Simple Builder has a few more layouts). Only the Custom Builder has a text tool for tiny, fixed photo captions below the photos. (I created my calendar using the Custom Builder, so I could test the quality of Costco's text printing.)
Available only for books, photo borders are limited to a small number of colors, only a few of which have more than one set width.
Minimal photo tools
While the photo tools are easy to access in all three interfaces, they consist of only two filters (sepia and black & white); an icon for rotating the photo within its placeholder; and for cards and calendars, the ability to flip a photo. In addition, autocorrect and redeye icons are available for cards.
The book has no function for placing a photo across two pages. I couldn't group-select objects on a page. And I was unable to change the book spine's title font or background to match the cover I designed.
The printed products
Costco's printed products are of average quality and, for the calendar, slightly above average. What pulled up the calendar was its better photos.
The photo book
The medium-weight paper for Costco's photo book had a smooth, appealing feel. However, the glossy cover and black end pages felt cheap, and the binding was loose and had exposed stitching.
Photo reproduction was inconsistent. Many of the pictures had a pleasant liveliness with good details in shadows and highlights, and a decent color balance among the various skin tones. However, a number of pictures had a reddish tint, and a few were too dark, with blocky shadows.
Under magnification, the edges of the text on the cover and the interior pages weren't smooth or crisp. To the naked eye, that gives it a slightly blurred appearance.
Printed on stock about as thick as an index card with a smooth surface, the Costco calendar was thinner than Snapfish's. Overall, photos were vibrant with good skin tones. Some displayed a slight magenta shift, while others were too contrast-y. Type was a little jagged and had a white halo around the edges.
Very similar to Amazon Prints' card, Costco's is printed on lightweight card stock with a matte vellum finish. Photos were sharp and well exposed, but colors were flat and dull. Some of the images had a magenta tint, which was appealing in photos of African Americans, but made Caucasians look sunburned. Text edges were a bit jagged.
Pricing and options
Costco doesn't have a hardcover book close in size to the 8.5 x 8.5-inch, 20-page design that I used with most of the other photo services. So I made an 8.5 x 11-inch, 30-page hardcover photo book, which cost $19.99. I could have purchased two 8 x 8-inch, 30-page softcover books for $19.99 or a 12 x 12-inch, 30-page lay-flat book for $39.99. While those prices may look similar to a number of other online services, it's important to note that Costco's books have 30 pages instead of the 20 pages offered by most other vendors.
My 8.5 x 11-inch Costco wall calendar cost $9.89. The only other option is an 11.5 x 14-inch wall calendar for $19.99.
My 5 x 7-inch, double-sided card cost 69 cents per card, regardless of the quantity ordered (minimum 25 cards). That includes having my return address printed on the free envelope. Single-sided cards cost 28 cents each (minimum 50 cards).
Incidentally, if you don't have a Costco membership, be sure to factor in a 5% surcharge on these prices.
Costco's other photo products include photo prints (including ones that are printed on acrylic, canvas or metal), business print products (such as brochures, flyers, postcards and business cards), and a handful of photo gifts (blankets, mugs and plaques).
For people on a tight budget, Costco is a viable alternative. True, the print products are only average quality, and the software for the card and calendar is very limited. But sometimes, it's enough to have a book of the baby's first year, a calendar filled with great memories, or a holiday card of the family around the tree — regardless of the quality or how creative you can get with the layout. On the other hand, if you want better print quality and a more versatile piece of software that enables your creativity, spend more on Mixbook print products.