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Depending on how long you’ve been “digital”, you’ve probably captured a bunch of digital photos. I’ve got 11,116 of them – but then again I’ve been at it a while. I was lucky enough to have the first consumer-grade digital camera – an Apple Quicktake 100 –  back in 1994, and I’ve been snapping away on a variety of devices ever since.

For most of that time I was a single camera guy. But as camera-phones proliferated, my photo-gallery increased even faster. And now with camera-enabled tablets, I’ve got a handful of great image capture devices with me at all times.

You probably have a large store of images as well. And the paradox of digital photos that even as we capture more and more, we look at less and less of them. Sure, web services like Flickr and Picasa try to help, and more and more apps aim to manage the images on phone or tablet. But none really tackle the two big pain points of digital imaging – safely storing all those pictures in one place, and then making them easily available across all of your “glowing rectangles” – all the screens in your life.

Enter Lyve. The year-old company has the overlapping missions of both saving and unlocking your digital shoebox of photos – whether it lives in one place, like my own Windows Home Server photo vault, or across a variety of tablets, phones, desktops and notebooks.

Lyve initially focused on selling its own hardware, called the “Lyve Home” – a $300 small rectangular appliance with two terabytes of storage and a touch-screen monitor on one face. Bundled with the Lyve software, which runs across Windows, OSX, IOS and Android, the first version sucked up photos from all  your devices, deposited them on the “Lyve Home”, and then built a low-resolution copy of all of your photos on Lyve’s own servers. That low-resolution photo stream was then copied back onto your devices, to let you easily unlock those thousands of photos you’d accumulated over the years.

Subsequently the company realized that its software alone had real value, apart from the hardware itself. Thus in the past few months the company released a free software only version of the service, where it still hoovers up all of your photos, but rather than safely storing them on an appliance, it merely combines them together into that low-resolution cloud and then makes that mashup available across all of your connected devices.

Both approaches are pretty neat – as I found while testing the service and the hardware over the past few weeks.

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The “Lyve Home” appliance is pretty simple to set up. In my case I simply plugged the Ethernet port into my router (it includes a WiFi interface as well), and downloaded the Lyve Windows app from the Internet. The app automatically discovered my PC’s local photo folder, and after pointing it to my Windows Home Server photo store, it started chugging away on my 11,116 photos.

Over the next day or so the Lyve Home appliance ingested all of my pictures, made low-resolution copies and transferred those up to the Lyve Cloud. It wasn’t seamless – the app crashed a few times and had to be restarted, but each time it quickly picked up where it left off.

And while it uploaded, it began to populate a timeline of pictures in the desktop app, grouped by day and year, which brought all of those pictures back to life. I found myself scanning back and forth across the timeline as I relived memories from ten and fifteen years ago. So far so good.

As it worked, the Lyve Home device started vertically scrolling photos across its 5” 549×960 pixel display as well. That was neat, as it became a serendipitous way to discover old and new photos. Suddenly I had to think about where I wanted to put the Lyve Home – it was becoming more like a digital photo-frame than a boring server appliance, and deserved to be out in the open.

Then I installed the app on my Nexus 5, iPad Mini, Android-based Asus tablet and Lenovo Thinkpad. That’s when things started to get interesting. Over the next hour or so, the Lyve app sucked up any photos stored on those devices, and then downloaded the complete low-resolution version of my photo store to each one. Suddenly I had an easy way to share and enjoy my entire library with friends and family.

The power of the Lyve app cannot be discounted. Shortly after setting up everything I headed off to a Christmas holiday week with my in-laws. We ended up spending hours going through old photos, as I shared baby pictures with the now teen-age cousins and their grandparents, more recent photos from the last few days, and everything in between.

I really liked the interface, found it easy to swipe through pictures across time, and even uncovered a neat feature on the iOS version that changed the default view from linear to “this day in the past”. This worked especially well during the holidays, as it brought back Christmas and New Year’s memories from years ago, while filtering out summer holidays, Halloween parties and other mid-year events.

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The Lyve Home display can be set up that way too, so that it scrolls pictures from that day – or around that day – in the past, rather than just a random scrolling list of pictures. Alas, that feature does not yet exist on the Android app – an oversight a Lyve representative said would be corrected “soon”.

I’m a big fan of the device and the service, and definitely recommend it to anyone with a large store of unmanageable photos across multiple devices. There are, unfortunately, some limitations I’d like to see addressed, along with some additions the device and service need.

First, Lyve needs to build some sort of “naughty” image detector. Let’s face it, when everyone from congressman (thanks Anthony Weiner) to celebrities (I’m looking at you Kate Upton, Jennifer Lawerence, and on and on…) and normal folks are wanting to capturing “in flagrante” moments, some sort of recognition engine needs to flag and filter those shots. I narrowly averted disaster while showing my photos to the extended family over the holidays, when a ten year old folder of Playboyesque nudes started crawling up the timeline. Luckily I deleted them with no-one but my wife being the wiser (and yes, I caught an earful about that), but it could have been tragic.

Second, Lyve has two different sucking and storing behaviors depending on whether you’re using the Lyve Home (or the $200 display-less Lyve Studio with only 500 gigabytes of storage) or just the app itself. If you’re only using the apps, then the cloud-based aggregation of your photos synchronizes across devices. Delete a photo on your phone, and it deletes in the cloud as well.

But with one of the appliances it’s completely different. The Lyve Home/Studio acts as a disconnected repository, so if you delete a photo from your phone, tablet of PC, it remains on the device. Similarly, if you delete the photo from the Home/Studio appliance, it remains on the originating device.

That’s OK for a default behavior, and for the non-tech-savvy consumers the company originally targeted. It also lets you more easily manage storage on smartphones and tablets. But for camera enthusiasts it creates a set of cataloging and curation issues that can multiply out of control. For example, I tend to shoot hundreds of photos over a given day or week, and then I’ll cull that herd severely to focus on the handful of good shots. But in Lyve’s default mode, it would quickly suck up all those shots and store them on the appliance before I could winnow the group down.

This was relatively easy to correct on my PC and notebook – I simply pointed Lyve away from my default “My Pictures” folder, and to a sub-folder I created called “Good Shots”. But the disconnection after ingest issue remains. I’d like to see an option for folder synchronizing vs just sucking for more advanced users – or maybe even some sort of delayed suck for smartphones and tablets.

In addition, Lyve Home supports up to three different users (Studio and the app support just one), but they can’t be managed or combined in any way to create a single photo-stream to display across devices. I’d like an option to combine automatically, or selectively, into a single stream – picking the best shots from my wife and son to include in our master storage shoebox, without necessarily allowing those blurry, grainy mistakes into the mix.

The Lyve display app needs to be available across a wider variety of screens as well. It does currently support streaming to a Vizio smart TV, but unfortunately my two-year old model uses the “Yahoo TV” smart-TV software, and thus is already out of date and not supported. The company is rolling out support for Chromecast, which is a good start, and is set to announce Dish integration in January. But the company should also add XBOX, Wii U, Fire stick, Roku and other devices as well. Chances are good that this will happen, given that the company’s staff history reads like a who’s who of Silicon Valley video and smartphone startups, including Sling, Roku, OnLive and Handspring.

Lyve connects up to Facebook and Twitter, letting you post to both and import from Facebook. I’d like to see connectivity to more services, particularly support for IFTTT (If This Then That), a powerful service that provides connectivity across a wide variety of devices.

Lyve also supports video, and will ingest your GoPro and other creations into the Studio and Home devices. Unfortunately it doesn’t currently link up to YouTube, Vimeo or other popular video sharing apps, either in suck-in or spew-out mode. It should.

I uncovered a few bugs and inconsistencies in the software as well – from the aforementioned crashes during ingest to some odd behavior while viewing photos on my PC. Certain images, for example, wouldn’t display, giving the message “Not enough space”, when the Lyve Home was showing 99% free space available, and my PC had many gigs of storage left.

In addition, the current software-only version of Lyve is great for aggregating and navigating photos that live across a variety of devices, but doesn’t solve the backup and storage problem. That will change soon, though, as the company has realized that its value lies not necessarily in selling hardware, but in creating services and experiences that consumers will value and buy.

To that end, the company is announcing in January a plan to support certain user-supplied NAS devices instead of requiring a Home or Studio purchase. Called Lyve Drive, this will be a great alternative for many consumers, who may already have network storage that they could use for backing up and storing photos in one location.

In the end, though, whether using a Lyve Studio/Home appliance, or your own storage, there’s still a single point of failure. That drive in my Lyve Home will die sooner or later. I’d really like to see some sort of backup and storage option, whether to Dropbox, another home device or shared drive, Flickr or elsewhere. Because now that Lyve has unlocked my twenty year archive of great images, I can’t imagine living without them in the future.

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