Pixellu SmartAlbums versus Fundy Album Builder

In For Photographers

smartalbums versus fundy

UPDATE, May 2016: Fundy have now released Fundy Designer 7 which includes some major changes to the layout and functionality of their software so this article is no longer an accurate comparison of the two apps. Of major note is a switch to a top-to-bottom layout (similar to the SmartAlbums layout), the addition of image categories for better organisation of your images from a shoot, and an improved (although still far from perfect) text tool. I’ll be fully updating this post with new screenshots and an up-to-date comparison soon!

ORIGINAL POST: I love making albums for my family and wedding clients, and I usually use the Fundy Design Suite software to design them, but for the last month I’ve been trying out Pixellu’s SmartAlbums 2. It’s always been a Mac app, but as of February 16th 2016 they’re launching their long awaited SmartAlbums for Windows. To mark the occasion I thought it would be a good time to post a few of my thoughts about the difference between Fundy Album Builder and Pixellu SmartAlbums.

First impressions of SmartAlbums 2 versus Fundy Album Designer

Both apps approach album design in different ways, and if you’ve not yet invested in any album design software both are highly recommended. In terms of the end-product, using just their built-in templates I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between the same album designed in either app, so it all comes down to how your personal preferences gel with their interface and workflow choices.

It’s worth bearing in mind throughout that while Fundy is really at it’s best as a ‘suite’ of functions that do more than just albums, SmartAlbums is laser-focussed on just album design, and a couple of the things I love about Fundy will, according to Pixellu themselves, never come to SmartAlbums. With that in mind, here’s a few thoughts off the top of my head comparing Fundy Album Builder 6 with SmartAlbums 2.

Things I prefer about SmartAlbums 2

smartalbums versus fundy

The SmartAlbums 2 interface

Interface and templating workflow

I love the Smart Albums 2 interface and workflow, which focusses around a ‘timeline’ like a video editing app. It’s very clean and Mac-like, and arranged in rows with layout design up top, then a timeline row of the images being used in the album, and at the bottom a pool of all available imported images. These can be organised into ‘bins’, making it easy to sort your images by, for example, bridal preparations, ceremony, portraits, and reception. Or perhaps, all the client’s picks, and all your additional picks.

In SmartAlbums you select images to use by dragging them from the pool at the bottom into the middle ‘album timeline’ row, and then to place them in the album you ‘divide’ up that timeline by clicking in the space between the images to insert a page-break. Say you want the first three images on the first spread, click a divider into the space between the third and fourth image.

Fundy arranges everything in columns: app navigation, imported image pool, layout window. It works just fine, but it doesn’t offer bins, and going back to Fundy from SmartAlbums I really missed those bins especially for separating client picks and my picks, although there is a workaround using Fundy’s ‘Favourites’ button to mark your clients picks out from your own.

To place images in Fundy you drag them from the column on the left into your layouts, and they fade out in the list to show they’ve been used. Fundy’s entire interface has been custom designed with wire-frame icons and a custom app chrome and while it’s distinctive and clean and works as you’d expect, it’s always felt awkwardly un-Mac-like to me. Overall I prefer the SmartAlbums interface, but I much prefer the way Fundy lets you demo layouts, and refine them to create custom layouts (see below).

Text tool

SmartAlbums text tool is accessible from their template editing view, and it’s vastly superior to Fundy’s text tool. You wouldn’t think it was hard to screw up a text tool, but Fundy’s is the most primitive pain in the backside I’ve ever used.

In Fundy Album Builder 6 you can’t ‘select all’ when you’re editing text, you can’t preview a font when scrolling through a list, you can’t even use a carriage return within a text box, so you need to use a new text box for each line! But once those text boxes are filled out there’s no way to automatically align them, such as centrally, or by right edge or left edge. You’ll have to manually nudge the boxes into alignment.

Fair enough, I don’t need to use text often in a book, but when I do – especially for titles, which I want to look just right – it’s just painful doing it in Fundy, while it’s as effortless as you’d expect it to be in SmartAlbums. I contacted Fundy about this twice in the last 14 months and both times they advised I built pages using text in Photoshop and import them in. They’ve admitted it’s not good enough and promised it’ll be improved, but not until the next major (i.e. paid) update to the app.

Album proofing

SmartAlbums 2 purchases currently come with a free year of their Album Proofer, which lets you upload layouts to a website, have your clients make notes on changes online, which you can then download straight to the app. After that first year the price is a whopping $199 a year, but if you make a lot of albums that cost will likely be recouped fast.

Fundy also offers an Album Proofer, but I have to say I didn’t like it at all. It had a strangely inconsistent approach to page numbering that I felt would confuse clients, and a fussy back end, especially for any layouts with single front and back pages. You don’t get a free year of the service with your purchase, but it’s considerably cheaper than the Pixellu offering, at just $96 annually, or from $15 monthly.

Of the two I definitely prefer the Pixellu SmartAlbums Cloud Proofing service, but personally I manage to get by just fine uploading album layouts to my Shootproof account and clients have no problem describing their changes by email or over the phone.

Performance

SmartAlbums 2 feels both snappier to use than Fundy Album Builder 6, and more stable. I’m running both on a 2012 iMac with 8GB RAM, and 4GB VRAM, but I’ve found that if I want to quickly open a previous project to check out how I laid something out, or what font I used, Fundy has a tendency to crash if it’s been open for a while.

To be fair, I have a lot of old projects saved in Fundy, and I’m using Dropbox to sync their data, so maybe that complicates things. And because it automatically saves frequently I’ve never lost work due to a crash. But the fact it crashes at all makes me nervous.

Things I prefer about Fundy Album Builder 6

fundy versus smartalbums

The Fundy Album Builder interface

Layout previewing

In Fundy Album Builder 6, as you drag images onto a spread it’ll automatically place them into a tiled layout for you, but it’s likely you’ll want to rearrange it to suit the images. Simply click the Layouts button to bring up a popover screen displaying a large range of alternative layouts using the pictures you’ve loaded into the spread. Then with a click of a button you can either shuffle the pictures within those layouts, or try new layouts altogether. Click a layout to apply it, or if you prefer the one you’ve already got just close the view and nothing’s changed. You can also mirror-flip a filled layout by hitting the spacebar in most situations.

SmartAlbums currently offers all its layouts in a horizontally scrollable list of ‘outline only’ template options in a row above your layout view. You need to click each one to see how it would look with the images you’ve loaded into a spread, but by doing this you are actually changing the spread design. So if you preferred what you already had you’ve got to Undo multiple times, or go back and find the original layout in the list. And to mirror-flip a filled layout you need to go and find that mirrored layout in the list, and frustratingly they’re not always listed side by side.

Custom layouts

Fundy has a very flexible and intuitive approach to moving images around inside the template. You can create one or more ‘dropzones’ on each spread, drag images into them and have them automatically tile themselves into an arrangement which you can shuffle until you’re happy with it with one click. If you want more precise control over the layout you can drag an image to the edge of another and Fundy will offer to slot it into that precise position. All of this makes the business of tweaking a layout to suit your images or your visual theme very easy and satisfying.

SmartAlbums doesn’t have this sort of intuitive flexibility. If you want to alter a template significantly you have to go into a sort of freeform ‘editor mode’ which to my mind is far too much like building a template in InDesign, nudging images around pixels at a time, dragging sizes out by hand. There is some ‘snapping’ to size thankfully, but I found I could make interesting custom layouts in Fundy so much easier than in SmartAlbums.

I asked the chaps at Pixellu about this and to their credit they acknowledged that their template editor isn’t the most intuitive at present, but also that it’s not a big focus for them. Their ethos is about making album design quick, fun and uncomplicated, and that spending time creating custom templates is a distraction they want you to avoid. I can respect that, but I much prefer having the ability to make a small but important change to a template in Fundy than I do having that decision taken out of my hands in SmartAlbums, in the name of pushing a design out the door 10 minutes sooner.

Blog collages

Fundy Album Builder is just one part of the Fundy Designer Suite. Alone it is $279, and for around $60 more you can add their Blog Collage tool to the suite, allowing me to create both an album and a blog collage within the same app from the same pool of images. Of course, that ramps the price to around $330 for both of those but they regularly offer 25% discounts throughout the year.

SmartAlbums 2 is laser-focussed on just creating albums, but the standard price is $299, although that does include a year of album proofing, which is $199 a year after that. To create a blog collage you need to switch to another app, for example BlogStomp, so you end up spending a little more than Fundy (actually a lot more if you get Fundy on sale) and not have that fluidity of workflow you get in Fundy.

Again, I asked Pixellu if there was any possibility of adding some collaging, but it’s not something they’ve got any plans for, as they’re 100% focussed on album design.

There’s also the fact that the BlogStomp team now have their very own AlbumStomp and Album Proofing software, and you can buy all three apps for just $159, massively undercutting both Fundy and Pixellu. I’ve tried BlogStomp in the past and found it flexible but a little underwhelming to actually use, so I can’t speak for the quality of their suite. A blog post for the future!

Conclusion

I’m already invested in Fundy, having bought the whole Suite and got used to using it to the fullest over the last few years. I really want to have more reasons to use SmartAlbums 2 – I love the look of the interface, the timeline layout approach, the sorting bins, the album proofing, and the text tool, but don’t like the fiddly custom layout tools, the album proofing fee, and the lack of a built-in blog collaging option. Fundy gives me the same ease of use, with the added bonus of powerful and intuitive custom layout design, and blog collaging from the same pool of images.

But frankly it’s a very close call, they’re both fantastic. Both apps advertise themselves as being the fastest way to design beautiful albums, and they’ve both got a point. If you’re slaving away for hours in InDesign or Lightroom or something, then I can guarantee you that whichever of these you choose you’ll be producing gorgeous albums in an hour or less, straight away.

10 Comments on “Pixellu SmartAlbums versus Fundy Album Builder”

    1. Hi Deb, glad to be of help! But bear in mind that Fundy 7 is due out in a matter of weeks, and from the looks of things may address a lot of the differences between it and SmartAlbums – I’ll be updating this post as soon as I get my hands on it and my head around it! :)

  1. I have Smart Albums (which I love) and I’m trying to work out how to align/centre several lines of text as I can’t use the keyboard return. From your comments about Fundy I’m guessing you can do this is SA. Can you please tell me how?!!

    1. Sadly I don’t have a full key to use Smart Albums 2, I just used their limited-time trial for two weeks to try it out, and after that it doesn’t let you use it at all any more, and I can’t remember what my experience of the text tool was in enough detail to be able to help! Sorry!

    1. I haven’t yet, but I have been using it since launch. I like it a lot for designing albums but I have some issues with a few things.

      Some of the great new things include a switch to a vertically organised UI like Smart Albums – image pool at the bottom, album design at the top. They don’t do custom bins like Smart Albums, but they do have an option to categorise your images into what part of the wedding day they occurred in, and you can use ratings stars or the Favourite icon to sort of replicate the ‘my clients picks’ and ‘my picks’ bins that Smart Albums allows for.

      I love the smart dropzones or whatever they call them, I still think it’s a lot easier to shift things around and try out new custom layouts with Fundy than with Smart Albums. It’s easy to switch between horizontally or vertically organised collages in each dropzone, which is cool.

      I also really like the potential of their new Auto Design button for getting your images into an album and then tweaking it! One thing I would say though is that I don’t subscribe to the whole “bash in some photos, hit autodesign, DONE IN TEN MINUTES!” attitude that they’re pushing a lot in their marketing. I think you don’t really care about making a thoughtful design for your clients if that’s what you do. They actually propose that to use the Auto Design at its best you should categorise all your photos into their categories for ‘Prep’ and ‘Ceremony’ and ‘Breakfast’ etc, and then star them into order of priority to use, and then use auto-design, and then tweak the auto-design – but if you add all that time up I think you’re going to take a lot longer than ten minutes ;) I tend to spend at least an hour on a 20-25 spread album in Fundy (custom layouts, not just one photo per page).

      I have just a few niggles still, here they are:

      – the text tool is better – you can now do a carriage return, OH MY GOD – but it’s still lacking align functions. It does allow you to align text on a page, but in a weird and limiting way: you align the text box, not the text inside the text box. It’s fine enough if you’re working with single line text, with one caveat: the alignment of the text box is dependant on the width and height of the text box, so you have to manually creep the box in to perfectly contain the text (it doesn’t do this automatically), or your alignment will look off. It’s just a bit fiddly. If you could centre-align text in a box then centre-align the box on the page, your text would be page-centred and it wouldn’t matter if the text box was wider than the text it contained. But you can’t do that, and it does matter. ;)

      – if you’re working with paragraphs of text, you won’t be able to have it justified left and right, or aligned right, or centred. It’s align-left only I’m afraid.

      – when you export pages for proofing online or whatever and include the filenames for your client to reference changes, Fundy used to print the filenames in a small text size. Looked good. And in fact they still do this when you choose to show the image names on the screen while designing. But when you export the layouts for the web, the filenames suddenly hulk themselves up into A MASSIVE TEXT SIZE and often the text doesn’t fit and just disappears off the edge of the photo, especially for smaller images on the page, and double especially for vertical images. This is borderline useless, plus it looks kinda ugly. Mentioned this to Fundy in the first week of release, they said “oh right okay” and it’s still not fixed.

      – I find their custom UI graphics a bit unintuitive, still. It all looks very distinctive and unique and eyecatching, but it’s just something else I have to remember: “what does that vector-shape icon thing mean, again?”

      – it isn’t obvious how to do some things on the screen, like close away the image pool at the bottom of the page to focus on design. And if you’ve managed to do that, how to get the image pool back again. And often I accidentally trigger single-image edit mode where you can assign tags and stuff to an image, and it’s not at all clear how to get back to album design mode – you have to hit Esc it turns out. Not clear at all, and no obvious button on the screen either.

      – when you start a new project it suggests the same place on the hard drive to save it every single time, and that’s NOT where I keep mine. I’d like an option to set this path in the preferences so I don’t have to keep navigating to it.

      – it takes about 30 seconds to fully load up for the first time on my 2012 iMac with fusion drive and 8GB ram. That seems sluggish. Works fine once it’s running though.

      – when I switch projects, that’s when it’s going to crash. Not that it always does, it only happens say 1 time in 5 when I’m switching. But if it’s going to, that’s when it’ll happen. Rare as it is, this combined with the non-standard UI makes the whole app feel a bit kooky to me, despite the stellar functionality where it counts (album design!)

      These are nit-picks. Overall I prefer the UI design of Smart Albums, I just wish it had the power and flexibility of Fundy Album Designer, so I continue to use Fundy. :)

      1. Thanks so much Owen! This is great information. I make family history albums and they tend to be very text heavy. So far, both SA & Fundy don’t have refined enough text tools to jump over. Sigh! But, for the albums that I have limited text, I would love to use one of these programs. My trial time is run out with SA, so it is tricky to do a good comparison! Your feedback is much appreciated.

        1. When you say text-heavy, how much are we talking? Like, text-book levels of text with columnised text and sub-headings and stuff? Columns would be a nightmare to do in either app, and you’d have to have a new text box for each heading you wanted as you can only have one text style per text box in Fundy, but you can certainly have auto-wrapping text and carriage returns in a Fundy text box, for example.

  2. Hey Owen,

    I’ve also been using Fundy for about a year. I have a lot more nit-picks than you. The worst is that while they are quick to answer about problems, almost nothing ever gets fixed — small things that could really turn it into a power user program. Like the little blue numbers that cover up the photo number, or not holding place when I switch views. Sometimes I have whole spreads suddenly lose all the photos and blank out. They finally got rid of the .jpg in the filename but I asked them about adding justification right or left for the numbers, as some of us use a file # in the beginning of the file name and some in the end of the name. They admitted that’s 50/50 but don’t want to add the change. Crashing is improved, but there are still tons of simple cosmetic problems. There are 2 modes to see the output colors, but neither exactly conforms with the final output, which at least matches the original colors and brightness. But it confuses me when I see a spread that seems dark or whatever. They have great social media and PR, but where is the commitment to programming? I’ve been super disappointed since I thought for sure they were bent on keeping their clients happy but I don’t see it.

    1. Yeah I don’t think their software is that great either. Still some really basic usability issues they’ve not addressed. And I really hate that it doesn’t look and feel like a Mac app. But, their templates and the way you can customise them are still better than SmartAlbums to my mind. So… yeah. It’s a compromise.

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