Reconnect with Friends for their Birthday with Personalized Sepia Life Birthday Cards

facebook_wish_happy_birthday The all too familiar message from Facebook, reminding us to wish our friend a happy birthday, and send them a gift as well.  That followed by a Facebook wall filled with ‘Happy Birthday Todd!”   Facebook has succeeded in training us humans to respond with what could be an automated response to wish our friend a happy birthday.

How meaningful are these happy birthday messages?  Personally, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The people who care about me show me in much more personal and meaningful ways than how dozens of other not-so-close friends do with their ‘Happy Birthday’ post on my wall.

Giving a friend a gift on their birthday is great, if it is something you want to do. I doubt that it requires birthday_card_emailFacebook prompting you to do that though before you go through with it for a friend you really care about.  Often we may not send a gift, but a birthday card is nice.   There are countless sites online for finding and sending birthday cards to friends.  Many are sincere, some are funny, make jokes about getting old, but just about all of them lack a visual personal touch.

Sepia Life just launched a new service for sending a friend a birthday card in the mail. The front of the card is a photo or collage of photos of you and your friend. Two weeks before your friend’s birthday, Sepia Life will send you an email with a collage of photos and a selection of photos of the times you and your friend spent together.  Choose the collage or one of the photos to send on the birthday card to your friend, with a personal message on the back.  Its personal, its easy, and it brings back memories of the good times you’ve had with your friend.  Cards are free while this service is in beta.  So learn more and sign up for Sepia Life now to give it a try the next time one of your friends has a birthday.

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All My Photos, On My TV, with Amazon Fire TV Stick

After a month or so wait I finally received my ~$20 Amazon TV Fire Stick.  I managed to snag it for half price when it launched with the discount for Prime members.  After 15 minutes with it, it is worth even the full price of $39.  It puts my 2 year old Roku to shame.

Unboxing

BoxIt comes in a modern simple box that is easy to unpack.

The remote is a bit cheap feeling.  So long as it doesn’t break like my Apple TV remote it works just fine.

 

 

Setup

The setup was much easier than Chromecast because Fire TV Stick comes with aIMG_0350 remote.  The remote must be based on some wireless technology and not IR since the Fire stick is hidden behind the TV.  This is nice because you don’t have to point the remote at the TV.  Using the remote I chose my WIFI network, put in the password and I was up and running. The device is preconfigured for your amazon account, so no setup needed there.  After that it plays an intro video of all the capabilities of the device.  Pretty handy if  you are unfamiliar with these types of devices.  It is also used as an opportunity for Amazon to advertise other services and related hardware to sell you.

Yesterday I downloaded the Amazon Cloud Drive desktop app and started uploading all my photos since it is not free for unlimited photos.  I expect this to take a few days to complete.

Kicking The Tires on Photos

Even without all my photos in the Amazon Cloud, I was able to easily go to the photos feature and start viewing my photos and videos.  The experience is simple but very fast.

There are quite a few slideshow controls.  Most of the basic ones you would expect from a slideshow app.  Style, speed, and whether or not to shuffle.IMG_0352

I was on the hunt for my goal, can I set it so all my photos are used as a screen saver slideshow?  Unfortunately not.  Though there are a couple other interesting options given to you.  The first is to show an album of your choosing.  Next is a selection of images from Amazon.  The last one, which is a kinda nice, is the 500 most recent photos you’ve added.IMG_0353

It is possible to start a slideshow of all your photos, it just can’t be set as the screen saver.

IMG_0355

From Phone to Fire TV

If you want to take a photo on your phone and quickly and easily show it on your tv… Apple TV has AirPlay, Chromecast has casting, Fire TV has Miracast.  What the heck is Miracast you ask?  Well, I didn’t know either.  After investigating, it sounds like if you have iOS, you are out of luck streaming anything from your phone to the TV.  If you have Android, there might be some solutions, though I have not investigated those.  This is one of those key reasons why we have an Apple TV and always will so long as we have iPhones.  It is a pain switching inputs on the TV, but there really is no way around that right now.

 Summary

While the photo experience on the Fire TV Stick is simple and enjoyable, it lacks the one key feature I am looking for, the ability to have it be a screen saver slideshow for all my photos.

The other big problem is one I’ve blogged about before, the troubles in actually getting all your photos into Amazon Cloud Drive.  You can have them automatically uploaded from your phone, but from your desktop/laptop, you have to manually upload them through an app.  Amazon does not have a desktop sync client like Google Drive or Dropbox.  I am certain Amazon will fill in these gaps.  They must or they will not be viable competitors in this space.

The photo experience must be 100% hands off except for turning on the TV or we will just not bother ever turning it on.

 

All My Best Photos, On My TV, with Chromecast

Chromecast recently received an upgrade with a new feature called Backdrop.  It is really just a fancy screen saver for your Chromecast that you can configure to show different information, or more importantly to me, my photos.  I decided to finally get a Chromecast and kick the tires of Backdrop in hopes that it might be a better always-on slideshow of my photos.

Initial Setup

In some respects the setup was easy, but I did hit a variety of what turned out to be transient failures along the way.  A couple reboots of the Chromecast iOS app and my Chromecast and it was working.  Best case scenario, the setup is straightforward and fast.

Always On Slideshow

Finding a good solution to turn my TV into an always on slideshow was my primary objective for getting a Chromecast.  I’ve tried Apple TV and Roku so far, and blogged about my unimpressed experience with them.

Backdrop

What Chromecast backdrop allows you to do is show one or more of your Google+ photo albums in a slideshow when your Chromecast goes into backdrop mode (screen saver.)  While the options for the slideshow are not as plentiful as those on Apple TV, it is a solid basic slideshow of the photos.

Backdrop meets two of the key requirements of an always on slideshow on my tv.  I don’t need my phone, computer, tablet, or any other device for backdrop to work. Once I have it set up, it will show the photos I’ve selected.  I also don’t have to turn it on or off.  If we aren’t using the TV for something else, I get to see my photos. As soon as we need the TV, the photos stop showing and I do whatever else it is I need to use the TV for.

My main gripe with backdrop is that I have to choose which albums to show.  I can’t just say, “show all my Google+ albums, current and future.”  There is now yet another task for me to manage which content (photos) to show on my Chromecast.  I really do not want, and simply can’t afford the time to have another publishing destination to my photo workflow.  I want to be able to say I like a photo once, and have it show up on my Chromecast as part of the slideshow.

Pictacast

This shortcoming of Backdrop led me to find Pictacast.  Pictacast is a Chrome extension for your desktop/laptop that allows you to cast photos to your Chromecast.  The setup is very basic.  I can choose a folder (with nested folders) of photos to show.  So this lets me choose the folder that has all the photos I like.  This happens to coincide with all the photos I put online in albums.  If they are good enough to share online, aren’t they good enough to show on my TV slide show?   So without having to manage another publishing destination, Pictacast can show me all my past and future photos on my TV via Chromecast.  The quality of the slideshow is not quite as good as backdrop.  Sometimes heads are chopped off as photos are cropped to fit the TV.  Given the lack of options for my scenario, I’d call the experience acceptable but not ideal.

The shortcoming of Pictacast is that I have to turn it on when I want my slideshow to run.  It won’t automatically start when I’m done using my Chromecast for something else.  I’ve heard some chatter online that Google may be opening up backdrop to developers in the near future, which would be a huge win and hopefully enable developers to build more robust photo slideshow experiences.

One Off Slideshows

I found quite a few more solutions for this scenario than the always on slideshow.  I have an iPhone, so I explored apps for my iPhone to show photos and videos on my TV.

Photowall, by Google is a cumbersome and overly complex solution for quick casting of photos and videos.  It requires you to create albums to cast.  It is like mini photo management app, that then lets you cast the created albums.  Needless to say, I do not need or want another photo management app, so I didn’t find this app useful at all.

Then I tried Photo Cast.  It has a relatively simple user experience for choosing a photo or video to cast.  Really the primary requirement for this scenario is that it is super simple to choose one or more photos, and show them on the TV reliably and fast.  For photos it worked as expected.  Videos on the other hand was quite a failure.  Around 50% or more of the videos I tried to cast resulted in an error in the app.  When you touch a video to cast, it does an optimization step for casting.  This is what is failing on many of the videos.  I wasn’t able to determine any rhyme or reason for the failures vs the ones that worked.  I suspect it might have to do with the slow motion videos I took on my iPhone 6 Plus.  Some slow motion videos work, others don’t.  So it isn’t a clear cut line that all slo-mo videos don’t work.  Either way, it was a frustrating and unreliable experience.  I’m back on the hunt for an iOS app to cast videos to my TV.

Summary

The Chromecast isn’t quite there to meet my bare minimum requirements for an always on slideshow or even for one off viewing.  Backdrop is a big step forward, putting Chromecast on par with Apple TV in terms of screen saver slideshows, assuming in each case you have your photos stored in their respective photo services.  Right now I’m betting on Google to be the first to have a device that can make the TV the best picture frame ever.  Chromecast already has open developer support, unlike Apple TV.  In addition, Google has shown a strong interest in helping people share and enjoy their photos more with all the photo related features they’ve added to Google+ over the past couple years.  Maybe we’ll be surprised by some other company trying to join the party.  I’ve got an Amazon Fire TV stick on the way this week.  I’ll let you know my take on Amazon’s chances of capturing our TV for photos.