Say Cheese: Four Slideshow Tools, From Simple to Sophisticated

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You have all of these digital photos stashed away in the corners of your hard drive. They'd make a lovely gift or year-end memento. You could print them out and slide them into a photo album—but that's so 2002, and we're down to the wire for holiday shipping as is. Why not create a slick online slideshow instead? There are several software programs and Web services that can help. Here are a few of our favorites.

Add art and animation with Smilebox

Smilebox is as fun and friendly as the name suggests. It offers an easy way to create animated slideshows that are heavy on background art and animations, and also includes templates for creating electronic greeting cards, photo albums, and scrapbooks, too.

Like most of the applications and services tested for this article, Smilebox calls attention to its free offering. All you need to do in order to use Smilebox is sign up for a free account with your email address. But, like all of the applications and services we tested, Smilebox's free offering is very limited, allowing you to do little more than create and share very simple slideshows. If you'd like to do anything more—and "more" includes accessing many of the most popular slideshow templates, such as the only plain one I could find—you need to pay $40 a year to join Club Smilebox. Doing so gets you access to all of its templates, as well as the ability to share ad-free slideshows in full screen, add music to your slideshows, and store your creations.

Smilebox displays your uploaded photos in a column on the left of the screen. It arranges the photos to look like they've been scattered on a table, which is cool, but not as useful as if they were laid out in neat order. And when you add a photo to a slide, it's not removed from the pile, which can be confusing if you're working with a lot of photos.

Smilebox offers many slideshow templates to choose from, but they could be easier to build.

Smilebox offers plenty of slideshow templates to choose from, and while the number of available templates can seem daunting, they are neatly arranged into categories (such as "Seasonal" and "Special Days") that make them easier to browse. Unfortunately, though, not all of the templates offer the same options. Some, for example, allow you to adjust the speed of your photo display, while others don't. Smilebox says this is because it retains some of its older designs that are popular with users, and these lack the more robust controls that the newer designs offer. I also wish that changing a template were easier: Once you create a slideshow in one template, you can't simply switch over to another template to compare. Instead, you have to start over from scratch.

Saving and sharing your slideshows is easy, though, as Smilebox lets you decide whether to send it via email, post it to Facebook, a blog, or another Web site, print it, or save it to a DVD or a file. And the end results are polished enough for sharing with groups large and small.

While Smilebox lacks some of the fine-tuned controls that professionals and perfectionists will want, it still offers a quick and easy way to create polished slideshows for sharing.

Create sophisticated slideshows with Wondershare DVD Slideshow Builder Deluxe

If you like the idea of using a piece of software instead of a Web-based application to build slideshows, but you want more control than Smilebox offers, you'll be pleased with Wondershare's DVD Slideshow Builder Deluxe. This $60 application lets you create slideshows that can be burned to DVD and—despite what its name may imply—can also be saved as video files that are compatible with mobile devices and Web services.

Where Smilebox is user-friendly and light-hearted in its design, DVD Slideshow Builder Deluxe is all business. It can seem a bit overwhelming at first, with its various windows and tabs for organizing, personalizing, and creating slideshows. But taking the time to read through Wondershare's brief getting started guide (and I do mean brief: it's only 4 steps long) is well worth it. You'll be adding files and creating slideshows before you know it.

Wondershare DVD Slideshow Builder Deluxe provides serious tools for spectacular slideshows that you can share online or burn to DVD.

Once you add your photos, you can easily rearrange and delete them as needed, as well as edit them using the built-in editing tools. The editing tools are basic, but allow you to make quick touchups to your photos, which is a nice touch that Smilebox lacks. Once your photos are set, you can apply a style and other customizations to your slideshow.

This is where I did find some of the features to be confusing some of the time, but that's largely because there are so many options. It can be a bit much if you're just looking to create a basic slideshow, but if you want to put the time and effort into using DVD Slideshow Builder Deluxe, you'll find plenty of features here. You can add music, clipart, credits, and more. You have far more control over every aspect of the slideshow than you get with Smilebox, which offers plenty of themes, but doesn't offer much customization.

Wondershare's DVD Slideshow Builder Deluxe allows you to create video slideshows only, while Smilebox covers a range of electronic greetings. DVD Slideshow Builder Deluxe is basically a one-trick pony, but it handles that trick very well. If you want to create a sophisticated video slideshow to your specific needs, you'll be pleased with this application.

PhotoSnack gives you a taste of slideshows

PhotoSnack is an entirely Web-based slideshow creator, no software downloads required. To get started, you simply sign in with your Facebook, Google, or Twitter account or your email address. Like Smilebox, Photosnack offers a free but limited version; it brands your slideshows with a watermark if you'd like to publish them. If you'd like to publish your slideshow without this mark, you have two choices: You can pay $14 per month for a VIP membership or you can buy points, which you purchase as needed to publish slideshows. Points range in price from $1.90 to .86 each, depending on how many you buy. You need six points to remove the watermark and get a code to embed your slideshow elsewhere; buying just six points will cost you $11.40.

While the points micropayment system may sound slightly confusing, it's actually quite easy once you begin using it. So, too, is creating a slideshow using PhotoSnack. The Web-based app guides you to upload photos, letting you select from those stored on your computer or in various online sites, including Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, Instagram, and more.

Online tool PhotoSnack makes it easy to create slideshows (although more templates with autoplay would be welcome).

Once your photos are uploaded, you choose the template for your slideshow. There are fewer than 10 templates available, which is far fewer than Smilebox offers, but Photosnack's templates are focused on your photos. Smilebox offers templates that are more design-focused—an autumn template features leaves falling in the background and a memorial template features a burning candle, for example, while PhotoSnack's templates revolve around the way your photos are displayed. The Simple Fade design, for example, fades from one photo to another, while the Photo Slide slides your snapshots along. I like that you can switch between the templates easily, to see how each one looks with your photos, and you can set the background colors, the size of the photos, and the audio track (you can choose one of PhotoSnack's tunes or upload your own MP3).

The one downside to PhotoSnack’s templates is that only a few of them support autoplay. If the template doesn’t support it, your viewers will have to manually click through your photos in order to see all of them. It would be nice if all of the templates gave the viewer the option, instead.

PhotoSnack offers a nice balance of customizable features and ease of use. It lacks some of the fine-tuned controls that Wondershare’s DVD Slideshow Builder includes, but offers more control than many of Smilebox’s templates allow. And its points-based payment system will appeal to casual users.

Picasa fans should pick PhotoPeach

The similarities between PhotoPeach and PhotoSnack go beyond their like-minded names; like PhotoSnack, PhotoPeach is a Web-based slideshow builder that makes it easy to get started. The service directs you to upload your photos, either from your computer or an online service. But where PhotoSnack supports a whole host of online services, PhotoPeach is limited to Facebook and Picasa. That limitation would be acceptable if PhotoPeach’s connection with those services worked, but I had trouble accessing any photos from Facebook: PhotoPeach bounced me to that site to log in, but never let me access my photo albums. The connection with Picasa worked flawlessly, though.

If you’re using the free version of PhotoPeach, you’ll be limited to including 30 photos in your slideshow; any more and you have to subscribe to the $3-per-month Premium version. The Premium account also lets you upload your own music to accompany your slideshow, burn your slideshows to disc, and customize the transitions between photos.

PhotoPeach puts the emphasis on your photos, not fancy backgrounds.

Once your photos are uploaded, you can set the time interval for photos and the music you’d like to accompany your slideshow. If you haven’t opted for a premium account, you’re limited to PhotoPeach’s small selection of background music or you can opt to search YouTube for a song of your liking. PhotoPeach doesn’t offer any background templates; instead it keeps the focus right on your photos, which is a nice touch. It offers limited customization options, but casual users will find enough here to meet their needs.

And that’s it: PhotoPeach then displays your slideshow. If you’re a Premium member, you can burn it to DVD; users of the free service can share it via email or through various Web sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

PhotoPeach is an easy-to-use service that lets you create basic slideshows. I like how its slideshows display your photos, and nothing but your photos. If you're looking for more of an animated background, consider Smilebox. And if you'd like more customization options, consider Wondershare or PhotoSnack. If you're looking for a no-fuss slideshow solution, PhotoPeach may fit the bill. If only it worked more seamlessly with Facebook, I could recommend it without hesitation.

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