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Tapsbook gives photos new iPad organizing flair

There are small problems, big problems, and the "how on earth do I organize all my photos" problem. That last one may just prove to be the least tractable, especially for parents of young children who have seen the digital revolution overturn the traditional album, folder and shoeboxful strategy. Searchable and sendable they may be, but a pile of digital photos is a pile nonetheless. Add in the multiple, mobile sources for images and it gets even more tangled.

Many, many companies continue to aim their product development efforts at this plump target. Flickr's recent move to a full terabyte of free storage has made Yahoo's prosumer photography site a more attractive repository for many; Shutterfly's buyout of ThisLife has brought some attention to the family-focused photo storage web service. ThisLife still hasn't delivered its iPad app, though, and there's a sense that the era of desktop supremacy for managing and sharing photos is drawing to a close. The future, my friends, is tablets.

That "born tablet" approach for image organization and sharing is what the makers of the new Tapsbook app hope will set their offering apart from the rest of the field. Tapsbook, now available free on the iPad after a long beta incubation, is designed to aggregate images from a slew of different sources (including the iPad's local photos, Facebook images, Dropbox folders and Google+/Picasa storage) into manageable, attractive "books" based on the month or year the photo was taken.

The auto-generated timeline books, and books grouped based on source folder, can be modified, tweaked and edited at will; it's also one-swipe easy to move images into a new, custom book of your own favorite photos. In fact, favoriting a photo anywhere in the app automatically flags it for inclusion in a "yearbook" best-of collection. Whole books or individual pages can be shared out as links or directly to your Facebook wall.

Once you assemble the images you want into a custom book, you can edit page by page to change layouts, add text and backgrounds, and scale/crop/rotate images with an innovative two-finger/one-finger UI that turns out to be quite intuitive once you try it a few times. The page editor seems to be the area of the app where the development team has really concentrated on producing a "best for tablet" interface, and it's quite slick.

Unfortunately, there are some rough edges and bugs even in the page editor (it's too easy to lose track of an image when you change layouts, for instance), and other pieces of the app are in need of some additional simplification and polish. While the Tapsbook team is excited about the current offering, they acknowledge that there's more refinement and finishing to do; the UI is expected to receive a pretty dramatic overhaul in v2. The rough edges extend to the company's website, design and help text -- all could use a thorough review with a proofreader and editor.

In terms of storage and pricing, there's some innovation there too. Tapsbook tries to be smart about cloudsourced images, and does not duplicate them when it's possible to reference the original. But for images that do need to be stored independently for Tapsbook to use them, you've got a choice: pay a bit more and Tapsbook provides the storage, or a bit less and you BYOcS (bring your own cloud storage) via Dropbox or Google Drive/Picasa, paying as you go to add more photos to your limit. As it happens, images with a max dimension of 2048 px don't even count against your Google storage quota, so that's a handy arrangement.

The free version of Tapsbook allows you to share out up to 500 photos, so you have ample opportunity to try it out before you'd have to choose whether or not to invest in a monthly subscription or a per-photo buyup. (The monthly subscription cost is $2.99; the Dropbox/Google BYOcS starts at $1.99 for an additional 1,000 photos in your sharing quota.) It's certainly an interesting app now, and likely to get more interesting as it evolves.

The question is, do we need another way to share our photos -- even a "tablet-first" approach like Tapsbook? The savvy and multi-source Everpix tool works with its own iPad app for album and individual image sharing, without the book metaphor; the Beamr app delivers full-res iPhone photos in a magazine-style album.

It's a crowded App Store out there when it comes to photo tools. Maybe the best thing that can happen to the Tapsbook app, with its agnostic approach to image sources, is to become known as the cool front end for other services... especially those, like ThisLife, with a great storage and sorting story but without the iPad savvy.

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