How to Use Your Computer to Give Gifts a No-Fuss, Personal Touch
Everyone loves receiving a gift made just for him or her -- especially one’s family. But the days when you could get away with giving your mother macaroni art are over. Which means if you’re looking to shave a few dollars off your holiday shopping costs by turning up the sentimentality, you’ll have to look someplace else other than your old arts-and-crafts cabinet. Looking to make a family calendar or a picture book of your best friend’s wedding? Luckily, the Internet has you covered.
There is a host of major websites and programs available that allow you the opportunity to give useful and popular gifts a personal touch that let recipients know you care. The user experience of these services can range from easy-peasy to downright frustrating, and costs can range from the affordable to the prohibitive. Here’s a breakdown of which services are worth your time, and which will only detract from your annual eggnog by the fire.
Founded in 1999, CafePress is one of the oldest online retailers to focus on user-customized items.
Getting Started CafePress allows you immediately begin customizing your items without logging in, a big bonus if you’re just surveying your options. Simply hit the "Create" button at the top of the page and select from the more than 100 customizable items available.
Pros The real strength of CafePress is the sheer number of customizable items on the site. CafePress offers you the ability to personalize everything from Monopoly boards and gift bags to golf balls and iPhone cases - meaning if you have a specific recipient in mind, chances are you’ll be able to find the right custom gift here.
Cons The downside is that the customization options for certain items can vary. CafePress’s calendars come with a good chunk of preset options, and photo upload times are respectable, but customization options for items like iPhone accessories and yoga pants, for example, can be somewhat restricted, offering the ability to add text, shapes or custom images, but with limited color selections.
Prices Photo books are $37.95 to $67.99 and up; calendars $6.99 to $24.99; greeting cards $3.00 each, reduced with bulk pricing.
No, we’re not talking about the website that allows women to rate hunky guys.
Rather, this Lulu, founded in 2002, is a self-publishing specialist that just so happens to have a few useful gift-giving features on its site.
Getting Started After selecting the item you want to customize, Lulu takes you to its free Lulu Studio, where you can select from a number of preset options and upload photos.
Pros The level of personalization is respectable, including custom holiday and other personal-touch options. If you’re looking for a web-based program, this one is about as user-friendly as it gets. Plus, since Lulu specializes in publishing, you’ll get some options you won’t find elsewhere, like being able to select the look of a book’s binding.
Cons Unlike other web-based photo programs, Lulu doesn’t integrate with popular social networks.
Prices Photo books are $12.99 to $44.99 and up
(http://www.lulu.com/publish/photo-books/); calendars $9.99 to $18.99 (http://www.lulu.com/publish/calendars/?cid=nav_cal), with discounts available for bulk orders.
Founded in 2006, California-based Mixbook allows users to create photo products with an easy online interface favored for its freedom of design and abundance of creative elements.
Getting Started To start, all you need to do is visit the website and create an account. Don’t worry, though: Mixbook keeps the questions to one simple form and is prompt with its confirmation e-mail.
Pros For calendars, Mixbook allows you to add specific events (birthdays, anniversaries, unofficial holidays) and about 50 traditional holidays. Other big advantages for users include integration with Instagram, Facebook, Picasa and Flickr, and the capability to collaborate with friends or family members on projects in the cloud.
Cons Since it’s an online program, loading times can become a drag, especially if your aim is to play around and generate ideas. Likewise, the unlimited design options can be daunting, especially for those who are looking to quickly capitalize on a gift idea and get professional results.
Prices Calendars are $19.99 to $29.99 (http://www.mixbook.com/photo-calendars); books $6.99 to $74.98, depending on size, materials and feature selections (http://www.mixbook.com/photo-book-pricing); cards from 89 cents each (http://www.mixbook.com/cards/holiday-photo-cards).
If you’re a Mac user, the most accessible program for creating cards, books or calendars is iPhoto. Unfortunately, Apple’s default photo program is not an option for PC users.
Getting Started With iPhoto, getting started is as easy as ever, provided you have the photos you want to work with already loaded into the program. Just put all your photos you want to use for your gift into one album, click the "Create" button and choose the type of gift you’d like to personalize.
Pros For books, you can add extras like an inside "About the Author" flap, title and end pages, and captions. Further, since it’s a software program, the service isn’t dependent on your Internet connection.
Cons Apple breaks iPhoto’s tools down into five steps, (http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2536) but between choosing your layout and dragging various photos into allotted design blocks, you’ll be signing up to spend some serious time with the program if you want to create an extensive book or calendar. Further, the card program, while it does have about 30 design styles, could be viewed as limited for those with a particular vision in mind.
Prices $20.99 to start for a book plus 99 cents for each additional page; cards 99 cents each for flat cards, $1.99 to $2.99 for folded cards; calendars $19.99 plus $1.49 each additional month. Shipping and handling not included.
Snapfish is a San Francisco-based and HP-owned photo-sharing service that focuses on making digital photos printable and sharable.
Getting Started The best thing about Snapfish is that it’s easy to get going: It doesn’t require you to sign up or log in to begin creating. It also helps keep you on task with a completion toolbar that lets you know how much work you have remaining.
Pros As far as usability, Snapfish has a number of preset themes, including some very specific options (for example, road trip or campground) that will entice last-minute shoppers, and unique features like two-page photos.
Cons Flickr and Facebook integration with the occasional slow transfer time, and no Instagram integration.
Prices Photo books are $5.99 to $54.99; photo CDs $9.49 and up; calendars $9.99 to $34.99; posters $6.99 to $104.99 (http://www5.snapfish.com/snapfish/helppricing).