May 03, 2004

Invasion of Photo Kiosks

Stephen Manes sidebar in Forbes on photo kiosks

Stephen Manes, 05.10.04, 12:00 AM ET

When it comes to putting digital photos on paper, you may not need your own printer at all. You can upload your shots to a Web service like Ofoto or Snapfish, but you won't get your prints back right away. For instant gratification you can head to a digital photo kiosk. With Compact Flash card in hand, I ventured forth to a few Seattle-area Walgreens to sample the results.

The experience wasn't perfect, but it was a whole lot better than I expected. Stroll up to a kiosk, insert a memory card, pick the shots you want, press a couple of buttons, and the prints should emerge a few minutes later.

The first kiosk I tried was a Fujifilm Aladdin. Voila! Eleven pictures in less than five minutes. But the prints were somewhat contrasty, with occasionally odd color rendition. That's because this particular kiosk uses a thermal ink method visibly inferior to the traditional silver-halide process.

A fancier Walgreens had its Aladdin hooked up to one of Fuji's big one-hour-photo Frontier minilabs, which delivered traditional prints that looked excellent. They took a few minutes longer, but Iwas lucky; with this system, snaps from the kiosk wait their turn in line, so I could have been forced to come back and pick up my pictures after an hour or so. Walgreens charges 29 cents per 4-by-6 print, either thermal or traditional. The Frontier-connected system is a better deal.

Working with the kiosk can be irritating. If you just want a set of 4-by-6 prints of your entire memory card, you can do that in a flash. But the touch-screen system is slow enough to make selecting specific images a chore, and using functions like red-eye correction is virtually impossible--particularly with an impatient toe-tapping customer waiting in line behind you. And that customer, who turned up a minute after I did, had to wait not just for me but also for a store employee to service the machine when it ran out of paper.

Kodak's Picture Maker kiosks started out as scanner-only, but now many can accept memory cards, too. Unfortunately, the first one I tried, also at a Walgreens, repeatedly delivered a Windows error message when I inserted my card. The culprit turned out to be a bent pin in the machine's Compact Flash slot. So much for that store.

A Kodak kiosk in a different branch kindly talked me through the process of turning out decent 8-by-10 thermal prints--yes, these machines speak instructions to you at each step. A printed page normally costs a pricey $6.99, but Ihad stumbled onto a two-for-the-price-of-one deal.

These machines can put three 4-by-6s on one page, but that page ends up costing the same as an 8-by-10, and you have to cut it apart yourself. Kodak says its newer models can produce 4-by-6 thermal prints or use its minilabs to produce true photo prints at prices competitive with Fuji, but I couldn't find those kiosks in my neighborhood.

If the store isn't right down the street, you may want to phone before making a kiosk run. At the three venues I tried, one Kodak had that bum card reader, one hadn't been upgraded to handle memory cards, and one Fuji was out of commission. But at least where I live, there's always another kiosk just down the road. Invasion of the Photo Kiosks!

Posted by Craig at May 3, 2004 09:58 PM