A look at Sharpcast’s photo software

Note: I’ve started doing weekly reviews of Web 2.0 tools and services for globetechnology.com — last week I wrote about Writely — and this week I wrote about Sharpcast, an online photo-sharing service that offers automatic synchronization with your home PC.

If there’s one thing the Web has plenty of, it’s photo-sharing sites. There’s Flickr.com, of course, which was started by a couple of Canadians and then eventually bought by Yahoo, but also Webshots.com, SmugMug.com, Photobucket.com, Snapfish.com and many others (interestingly enough, although Flickr gets most of the publicity, Photobucket is actually number one in terms of images and users, thanks in large part to the fact that millions of users of MySpace.com rely on Photobucket to host the images for their blogs).

So why would anyone want to hear about another photo-sharing site? Because a service called Sharpcast.com offers something a little different from the others, and that is automatic image synchronization between your computer and Sharpcast’s servers. In other words, it backs up whatever images you choose, and keeps the photos constantly backed up whenever something changes. You can also use the service as a standard image-sharing site for family and friends, but the synchronization part is the big differentiator between Sharpcast and your average run-of-the-mill photo site.

Installing Sharpcast is pretty simple (it only works with Windows right now, but the company says it will soon have an Apple version), and once it starts up you can create an album and drag photos to it. The user interface is very clean, much like Google’s Picasa.com — which also now has a Web component called Picasa Web Albums, although it doesn’t provide automatic synchronization — and it is easy to navigate. You can view the pictures in your albums by thumbnail or in their original state, and there is a handy slider that lets you enlarge or shrink the photo view on the fly.

Sharpcast also has some rudimentary photo-enhancing features built in, much like Picasa and other photo-sharing or management tools. You can sharpen a picture, remove red eye change the brightness, etc. with a single click. It isn’t likely to replace a more sophisticated tool like Photoshop Elements, but then many people have neither the time nor the inclination to play around with their pictures much. And Sharpcast also allows viewers of your albums to leave comments, and even to carry on a live chat with you while you are both looking at your pictures.

The synchronization features work extremely well, and are easy to configure. And once the photos — and all the captions, file information and so on — are uploaded, which happens in the background, they are instantly synchronized wherever Sharpcast is running. The free beta account comes with 2 gigabytes of storage for your pictures, and for a limited time (until December) the company is offering 5 gigabytes for free. In the future, a 5-gigabyte account is expected to cost $5 a month.

The company, whose main product is in “beta” or testing mode, also has an “alpha” product that allows you to run Sharpcast on your mobile phone or PDA and automatically synch any photos that you take with your cellphone camera to your Sharpcast library — something that is a whole lot simpler than sending photos by email or SMS.

What’s also interesting about Sharpcast, which has raised about $13.5-million (U.S.) from Silicon Valley venture capital funds, is that photos are just the first in what the company says will be a series of automatic synchronization tools, which will likely include email and documents. Based on the ease of use and reliability of its photo product, those new tools could be worth a look as well.

Another photo-sharing tool that offers automatic synchronization but hasn’t gotten quite as much publicity as Sharpcast is called Phanfare.com. It isn’t quite as well-designed and nice-looking as Sharpcast, but it provides the same functionality — you import photos and they are automatically uploaded to Phanfare’s site, where you can choose from a number of different layouts for your albums. The website slideshow and photo galleries are also extremely fast. And Phanfare also has a mobile tool that lets you email your snapshots right to your gallery.

Phanfare is $6.95 a month (U.S.) or $54.95 for a full year, and the amount of storage is unlimited. Another site also recently launched that offers photo synchronization, and — like Sharpcast — plans to branch out to allow users to back up any kind of file remotely. It’s called ProtectMyPhotos.com, and charges $40 a year for 40 gigabytes of storage.

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