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The virtual shoebox

Micro Research Institute’s 3D-Album for Windows.

There are many inexpensive album-making programs available for Microsoft Windows computers, but the hands-down winner for ease of use, flexibility, and flair is 3D-Album from Micro Research Institute.

This $39.95 program uses the “flipping pages” paradigm that you may have seen in other programs, but what sets 3D-Album apart is that it allows you to set your (flipping or non-flipping) album within a virtual environment that compliments and enhances the photographs. The package include 23 album styles, but more than 30 more are available for download from the company’s Web site. There is even a “Gateway” style that mimics the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” airlock sequence, although this time using elegant picture frames. New styles vary in size from 100K to 530K, so even on a lame dial-up connection like mine, download times weren’t excessive.

The package includes a separate tutorial CD, and I guess newbie computer users might want to start there, but 3D-Album is so well designed that if you’ve ever used a mouse you already know how to use it.

Here’s all you need to do: Select a folder with the images you want in the album/presentation. I used a folder of JPEG files that were 400 pixels high and under 30K in size, yet when viewing the final presentation on a 15-inch LCD monitor looked amazingly good. Next is the fun part: selecting a presentation style. The albums are built so fast that you can click the Preview button and (with my 1.6GHz Pentium IV system) preview them almost instantly. This means it doesn’t take long to compare formats to find ones that work better than others with your photographs. You control most of the variables within the chosen interface, including how long each image is displayed and the musical accompaniment. Some music files are included, but the program is compatible with MP3, WMA, WAV, or MIDI formats.

When you’re satisfied with how the album looks, click Build to assemble the final presentation. Output options are many and make it easy to distribute the finished album by CD and the person receiving the disc doesn’t need to install anything on her computer. Some of the files with music and lots of photos might be a bit large for non-broadband download, though. Nevertheless, you can turn the finished album into HTML pages, a ZIP file, or self-expandable EXE file.

3D-Album’s interface is, as Groucho Marx used to say, a “pair-o-docs.” It features the kind of organic interface popularized by Kai Krause (of Kai’s Power Tools fame), but once past the interface, the navigation looks like you’re working with Mac OS X. Even the Aqua interface has been replicated, as are Open dialog box controls. It works well within this Windows-only program, but freaked me out every time I selected a new folder of images.

Digital cameras let you create lots of photographs simply and inexpensively, but don’t let them sit in a virtual shoebox the way you did with your analog snapshots. Use 3D-Album to put them on display in clever ways that can be shared with family and friends.

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