Shutterfly has periodically been our top pick for the best photo books and best photo cards because the quality of its printed book was so good that it outweighed the various software annoyances and limitations. This year, while Shutterfly was above average, the uneven photo quality of our printed products has pushed the service off the pedestal. A better bet is Mixbook, which costs the same (for a photo book or photo calendar) or less (for the photo card) but has more-flexible software and a higher-quality product.
What I liked
Large, varied selection of templates
Shutterfly has an enormous selection of book and card templates in a wide variety of styles. Though the calendar templates aren't as numerous, the calendar library is still large enough that making a choice can be time-consuming.
One nice option, available for cards only, is that the site will preview the available card templates with your uploaded photos.
Fully editable book and calendar templates
All elements in the book and calendar templates can be moved, rotated, resized, reshaped and deleted. Regardless of the template or optional layout you choose, you can add or remove photos, text and clip art and change backgrounds, customizing your book and calendar to your heart's content.
Large, searchable content libraries
While not quite up to the great functionality of Picaboo's search engine, Shutterfly's interfaces for books and calendars have large libraries of clip art and backgrounds that are searchable by keyword, color, categories, collections and such. Though there's no "recently used" area, you can save favorites, as well as group-select a number of items to add to your project. Unfortunately, I found a number of the search results nonintuitive, and the content is illustrative only, with nothing photorealistic.
If you're on a budget, be careful — or check the Standard option under Collection — to avoid choosing any clip art or background with a small "S" (for Storytelling) or "M" (for Metallic) in the corner. Those two types will cost you extra.
Fully editable calendar-grid page
Unlike all the other services, except Mixbook, Shutterfly's calendar-grid page is fully editable. You can apply an alternative background and add clip art and even photographs to the bottom page. Using the Send Back icon, you can make the clip art and photos part of the background, or its entirety.
What I disliked
Both the book and calendar interfaces have two editing modes. In the default window, you can work within the confines of the template and selected layout, filling photo and text placeholders. In addition, you can apply a photo border, another background or a different layout.
However, you have to be in Advanced Editing mode to do any custom work, such as adding text or a photo for which there is no place holder, adding clip art, or making any adjustments to items on the page.
This arrangement breaks up my workflow, most notably when I want to move or rotate graphics or otherwise change the orientation, position or size of a picture, clip art or text block. My instinct is to simply click on the photo to bring up the outline and transformation nodes that are the universal interactive handles for resizing, reshaping, rotating and moving an object. But clicking on a picture in Shutterfly's default editing window opens the photo tools window, and nothing else. (If I click on a piece of clip art in the default window, nothing happens.) That's when I remember that I have to click on the tiny Advanced Editing in the upper right corner of the screen before I can move the picture, text or clip art.
Recently, Shutterfly has improved this situation somewhat. Now, whenever you add a photo, some text or a piece of clip art to the page, the interface automatically switches to the Advanced Editing mode. But that doesn't help with items already placed on the page.
Restrictive card templates and software
Shutterfly's card interface just doesn't measure up to the service's book and calendar software. On the front of the card, decorative elements, including text art, are fixed. Similarly, photo and text place holders are rigidly set. In fact, because of this rigidity, I was limited in which templates I could use. I ended up having to select a 4 x 8-inch card rather than the 5 x 7-inch that I used in testing all the other services. That's because the 4 x 8 version was the only one that would conform to my test card theme and would take the two pictures and text of the test design.
The back of the card is slightly more flexible, with optional layouts and a selection of solid-color backgrounds.
The card's text options are basic: font, size, alignment and a limited selection of colors. Double-clicking a placed photo opens a photo-editing window with slightly fewer filters than the one in the book and calendar interface.
Surprisingly, Shutterfly's borders have more in common with Costco's predefined colors and line-width options than with Picaboo's or Mixbook's sensible and simple color pickers and width sliders. Shutterfly's advantage over Costco comes in its larger number of borders (more than 600) and the three widths (fine, medium and large) available for most colors. However, while the borders are found in the Embellishments sidebar (with the clip art), Shutterfly gives you the advantage of using its content search engine to find specific colors.
Adding pictures and captions to a calendar date
Adding a photo to a calendar-date box isn't as smooth as in Picaboo, though Shutterfly's process eventually gets to a similar result. Again, the problem is the workflow.
It starts out well: Drag a photo directly onto the box, and the picture will automatically resize to fit. What's more, unlike what you'll find on Picaboo, Shutterfly can put a piece of clip art onto a date box, though you'll have to manually resize the image.
Double-click on the date box, and an Events window will pop up. There, you can add birthdays and such, create a date label, or edit the photo, but you can't add a photo. (If you don't have a photo in the date box, you have to close the window, drag a photo onto the date, then go back into the Events window to edit the photo.)
Text options in the Events window include a choice of font, size, alignment and color, options that help you make sure the caption displays clearly over the picture. In addition, a check box adds a translucent, white rectangle between the text and the photo to increase visibility. However, this shape takes up nearly half the box, obscuring much of the photo, and it can't be resized.
The printed projects
Over the years in testing and reviewing Shutterfly, the print quality has usually been rather good, which is why this service has occasionally been our top pick. Other years, Shutterfly's photo quality has pulled the service down. This year is one of the off years for my Shutterfly calendar and book, though the card has nice, lively photo reproduction.
Because Shutterfly had previously been among the best for calendars and books, we ordered reprints of both. Unfortunately, the results were nearly identical to those of the first printing. Shutterfly claims that the problem is an underexposed photo that skewed the autoexposure. However, that dark picture is included in all the books and calendars and is part of the test to see how the various services handle uneven photos. Printique and Mpix passed that test with flying colors (and exposure).
The photo book (3.5/5)
The book's binding was tight and clean, with highly textured linen end papers. The pages had a quality feel and were nicely weighted.
The book's photo reproduction was inconsistent. Overall, the pictures had no pop and tended to be dull. Bright photos looked OK, but darker pictures tended to be muddy, with blocky shadows. Color balance was generally better in photos of African American subjects than those with white subjects. The type is clean, crisp and solid.
The calendar (3.5/5)
The calendar was printed on slightly heavier card stock than what Mixbook or Picaboo use, and it had a nice, smooth feel. The photos were generally sharp and had proper exposure, with a nice level of detail in most shadows and highlights. However, a number of the pictures had a significant reddish cast that went beyond a nice warming of skin tones to make the images look oversaturated and unappealing. The type was a tad jagged.
The card (3/5)
Shutterfly's card was printed on good-quality card stock, with a bit more texture than the Minted card but a similar weight. The photos were vibrant and sharp, with good color balance and details, though the shadows were a tad blocky. Type wasn't solid, which may be due, in part, to the card texture.
Pricing and options
My 8 x 8-inch, 20-page Shutterfly book cost $29.99. Options include a memorabilia pocket ($1.99), removal of the Shutterfly logo ($9.99) and higher-quality six-color printing ($19.99). The same 8 x 8-inch book can be done as a standard lay flat ($49.99) or a deluxe lay flat ($69.99). A variety of covers are available, such as a hard matte photo cover (with or without a dust cover), black cloth, leather or "antique white" linen. Shutterfly's selection of other book sizes runs from 7 x 9 inches up to 12 x 12 inches.
If you don't want to take the time to create your book, you can upload your photos and then have Shutterfly's designers Make My Book. That will cost you $9.99 extra, but you pay only if you like it.
I paid $24.99 for my 8 x 11-inch wall calendar. A 12 x 12- inch calendar would have cost me $34.99. Shutterfly has an interesting variety of photo-calendar products, such as a desktop easel calendar, a calendar poster, and even mouse pad and magnet calendars.
My 4 x 8-inch card on Shutterfly's Signature card stock cost $2.49 each for one to 50 cards. Discounts are applied for large orders. For instance, the price for 55-75 cards is $2.39 each, and for 1,000 cards, it's $1.38 each. I could have upgraded to pearl-shimmer card stock, which would have made the base price $2.78 each. And rounded corners would have added another 20 cents per card. If I had been able to find a 5 x 7-inch template that fit my occasion and design, the price would have started at $2.59 each for one to 50 cards.
Shutterfly has a rather large selection of other photo products, such as prints and posters, wine totes and water bottles, pillows and blankets, playing cards and ceramic tiles, jewelry and key rings, and trivets and tea towels.
Of the three products I created with Shutterfly, only the photo card stood out for print quality. It's too bad Shutterfly's card software and templates are so restrictive. The photo book and calendar were put together well, but photo quality was merely average. And then there's the problem that even the flexible book and calendar software have annoying workflow bottlenecks and feature limitations. Considering Mixbook costs the same as Shutterfly, yet offers greater flexibility and more-attractive products, it's the better deal.