Using Photobox printing service on the iPhone

Prints from your camera, Facebook and Instagram

When I was first contacted to try Photobox, I had never heard of this company. Present in 18 countries and catering to the card-hungry UK market, its new iOS 7-ready iPhone and iPad app is a mobile window to its full online catalogue of products. And I thought it was an iPhone specific service!

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What originally attracted me to the idea of a mobile printing service is how awful alternatives are. I've been chronically struggling to find a reliable and affordable way to print pictures for a while. If you're familiar to those photo printing machines at Boots and Asda in the UK or the more sophisticated you find in European cities at Fnac, you know what I'm talking about. Apart from having to bring the photos in a compatible digital format, you need to wait in front of the machine to finish your batch of 40 holiday shots — If you're a kind soul you might spend the time trying to explain the guy using the other machine why it's not recognising the iPhone or USB drive with their weird file formatting. The experience is so bad I eventually ended up printing at home on a subpar printer using those very expensive cartridges on plain paper.

Although the Photobox icon and Androidish app interface don't look very promising I immediately spot the appeal. Having the opportunity to upload the pictures directly from your iPhone removes half of the pains of digital photo printing. Let's be realistic: those iPhone shots never leave your phone. The app doesn't only have access to your Camera Roll and Photo Streams but also your Facebook and Instagram galleries in case you don't keep the originals.

For someone like me who takes multiple takes of the same scene just to make sure the subject is focused and everyone has their eyes open, choosing the good take can be tricky. While I was reviewing Photobox, the developer Romeu Peitinho suggested Photo Quality Check. What this app really does is to enable a 100% zoom with one tap, which is perfect to double-check the photos you send to print are worth printing. Since I wasn't going to send hundreds of pictures I took the five minutes needed to ensure I was using the best takes from those iPhone photo bursts.

Using the Photobox app is easy and straightforward. Tapping on Products on the sidebar displays the selection available to order from the phone, usually offering options such as sizing and matte/gloss finish plus the price per print. Once you have selected your product, you begin uploading the photos you want to use, which is fairly quick. These will be stored on a personal folder should you want to use them for a different product, avoiding the repetition of uploading multiple times.

Once you are done adding your prints to the checkout you can order them and pay directly from your phone using the supported credit card and Paypal options. The app sends a confirmation email to the email you have registered your account with, will follow up with a dispatch note and the prints will be delivered quickly. There's no option to order for next day delivery but in my test the prints got home in two days, which I find really quick. If you want to know how my test prints came out, continue reading.

Enlarging an iPhone picture to A2

To see how Photobox deals with pictures taken with a mobile phone, I figured the best way to test would be to enlarge a picture to a ridiculous size. My first test consists of enlarging a 4MB picture taken with an iPhone 4S to an A2 poster. The format ratio didn't require cropping and the picture was not edited with any third-party app. It was the shot as it was taken with its poor levelling and everything. Guess what? The result was surprisingly good.

The A2 poster was delivered on a cardboard tube and neatly wrapped in protective paper. The Fujifilm Crystal Archive print paper Photobox uses in its products leaves to shame the materials used for posters you would buy elsewhere. Note how this photographic paper is probably meant for smaller sizes — having a thick matte print at this size does make it feel like a premium product.

Thinking the source material would not be good enough to be printed at his size, I was expecting some pixelation, blurring or distortion. As far as I can tell, there isn't any major issue with it. In fact, you can see how the mountains on the background are neatly focused, retaining the colour saturation from the original. I'm not a photography expert so I'm guessing this "digital picture glare" thing I notice might have to do with the white balance and levels — remember this test photo wasn't edited at all.

Squared photo blocks

For the second experiment I chose the square 5" photo block mounted on a black frame. What I wanted to test here was how the app handles cropping and the resolution of a picture at a smaller size. For this one I used a picture of happy relatives but poor interior lighting. It turns out the original photo was a little blurry too but I still when with it — the shot with a new-born baby was so cute I couldn't resist.

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The block itself is covered with a thick layer of matte plastic that looks a little cheap, but you can choose more glamorous finishes if you want to. What I really liked was the size and weight, making it perfect for a discrete and very personal desk decoration. The cropped picture covers one of the panels from edge to edge without any protection on top. This removes any unnecessary reflection from a protective film at the cost of damaging the crisp corners and edges over time.

While I'm considering hanging up the poster, the photo block came out so well that I'm going to order another one for a Christmas present. I find the minimalist frame very stylish, fitting both your desk and your nan's coffee table. I might even get a couple larger ones as bookends.

The price of convenience

What Photobox for iPhone does very well is to allow you to order prints from your phone without the hassle of selecting, importing and using a desktop. This option is ideal for those wanting to create something special without spending too much time and, more importantly, be able to do so on the go. Instead of thinking of a birthday present during your commute, you can make something nice and special to this person and get it delivered home in a couple of days.

There are some nitpicks with the app, being the most obvious the limited selection of products available compared to the full range on the Photobox website. I've been looking for a service that would print 8" photos for my thumbtiles XX frames just to realise this format is not supported on the app. Photobox also has a good number of discounts available, but these are not very clear if you order from your iPhone.

Hoping Photobox continues upgrading the app with more features, it is a great solution for easy photo printing without relying on a PC or having to go to a shop and spend 30 minutes fighting with a machine. iPhone photos can be so much more and using the more sophisticated 5S camera will definitely motivate me to keep printing.