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Digital Photos To Go, Part 2: Windows Phone + Cloud

In Part 1 of this series, Digital Photos To Go, Part 1: Smart Phone + Windows, I examined the ways in which each of the top three smart phone platforms--iPhone/iOS, Android, and Windows Phone--integrates with Windows-based PCs for purposes of acquiring the photos you've taken with the device's camera. But this form of manual photo management is becoming less and less common. These days, many people are bypassing the PC all together.

Some simply leave their pictures on the phone and share prized shots via services like Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr. Others utilize automated services to sync all or some of their on-phone photo collections to the cloud, using a service like Apple's excellent iCloud. The latter is of far more interest to me for a variety of reasons. But sadly, not all smart phone platforms are blessed with a solution as wonderful as iCloud. And in the case of Windows Phone, the automatic photo sync capabilities are particularly woeful.

Automatic sync vs. sharing

Note that I'm referring specifically to backing up or syncing handset-based photos to cloud-based services here, not to "sharing." Each of these platforms provides ways to share photos on Facebook and other popular services. These features are fairly obvious and easy to use, though they sometimes rely on finding and downloading individual apps. What we're concerned with here is full photo archival capabilities via an automated online service.

How to automatically backup Windows Phone photos over the air

As it turns out, Windows Phone does include a way to automatically backup every photo you take to the cloud. This feature, however, is very limited. That is, you can only choose to automatically upload your photos to Windows Live SkyDrive, Microsoft's free online clouds service. And there's no option for uploading full-sized, full resolution backups of each photo; instead, the feature only copies low-quality, low-resolution versions of each photo to SkyDrive. They're fine for sharing, which is apparently the point, but worthless as backups.

Now, I'm sure Microsoft has its reasons for not allowing full-resolution backups, chief among them the fact that most Windows Phone users will not have unlimited data plans and thus could run into overages if this was enabled. But there's no excuse to not offer it as an option, with the appropriate warnings, or to allow full-photo backups only when connected to Wi-Fi. There's just no excuse.

Still, even a low-resolution copy is better than nothing and I have my hopes that Microsoft will fix this limitation before 2012 is out. Here's how to enable automatic photo backup to SkyDrive from Windows Phone:

First, from the Windows Phone Start screen, tap the right arrow button to display the Apps list. Navigate down to Settings, and tap that.

In Settings, tap the Applications heading to view that page. Then, scroll down and tap Pictures + Camera to view settings related to digital photos. Scroll down until you see a setting called Automatically upload to SkyDrive.


If this setting is off (the slider control is blank, and not filled in with your chosen theme color), tap it to turn on this feature. Doing so triggers a notification-based warning explaining that automatic photo uploading, even at this low quality, could incur data charges.


Tap Yes to enable the feature.

Viewing automatically uploaded photos on the web

From now on, photos you take with your phone's camera will be automatically uploaded to the web. But where do they go? To find out, visit the SkyDrive web site, which has gotten a lot better in recent months, with a new layout and better sharing controls.


You'll see a number of files and folders, possibly, depending on how you use the service. (I actually use Windows Live SkyDrive quite a bit, but with a different Windows Live ID than I use on the phone, so the SkyDrive that's associated with my Windows Phone account is pretty barren.) The folder you're looking for is called SkyDrive camera roll.


Here, you'll see thumbnails of each photo you've taken with the phone, in a nice layout, with the oldest photos at the top and the newest at the bottom. You can perform a number of actions here, including:

Arrange photos. This interesting option lets you override the default display of your photos, so you can place them in the order you prefer. It works a bit like the Netflix queue, if you're familiar with that.

Download folder. Click this option, and your entire SkyDrive camera roll--i.e low quality versions of all photos you've taken with the phone--are downloaded to your PC using your web browser's default downloading method. Unless you override the download location, then, it will most likely appear in the Downloads folder associated with your user account.

Download with Photo Gallery. This option, which requires the excellent and free Windows Live Photo Gallery application (part of Windows Live Essentials), will download your entire SkyDrive camera roll to the PC, place it in a folder structure like Downloaded Albums\[Windows Live ID user name]\SkyDrive camera roll under your My Pictures folder, and then add the pictures to Photo Gallery. You can override this location before downloading by clicking the More options link.


Order prints. While the low-quality nature of your SkyDrive camera roll photos makes this option less than compelling, you can order paper photo prints--from HP Snapfish in my case; I assume this varies by locale--for old-school-style sharing.

Move folder to. This option allows you to change the location of the SkyDrive camera roll folder within the SkyDrive folder hierarchy.

Delete folder. This option allows you to delete the SkyDrive camera roll folder, though I'd imagine it would be recreated the next time you took a photo on the phone.

Embed. This interesting option allows you to embed the current folder in a blog or web site. It creates the HTML code needed to do this, and you can copy and paste that code into your own web site.

Share. You can also share the folder or any files or group of files it contains with others.

SkyDrive's photo functionality is pretty good, which is a shame since so few people even know about it. If you resize the web browser window, the photo thumbnails will automatically change the layout to match. And you can trigger a nice slideshow, view, download, tag, embed, delete, or move or copy an individual photo by clicking its thumbnail.


Of course, these features would be more meaningful if the photos were full-sized. Which they're not.

Note: In addition to SkyDrive, Microsoft also maintains a separate site for Windows Phone users called My Windows Phone. From this site, you can view and configure a number of Windows Phone features, including of course your most recent phone-based photos.
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