ImageShack, Photobucket and Imgur all have two things in common. First, they're all free image hosts. Photobucket and ImageShack have been around for years--since 2003, in fact--which means that millions of people have been using them to host pictures for almost a decade. Imgur, a newer service, served up more than two petabytes of images in January 2012 alone. Which brings us to the second thing these three popular image hosts have in common: they're popular, but they're not very good.
All three offer quick image uploads, free accounts and convenient forum code and direct links. And that's all you really need in a forum host, right? Well, sure--but why settle for file size restrictions and ugly JPEG compression when you can get better service for free? There are alternatives out there. Here's how the services you should be using, like Minus and Mediafire, compare to the old standbys.
We don't want to see you using a crappy image host. You want the best of the best. To find the best, we have to scrutinize image services from three angles: limitations, web features and image quality. There's plenty of overlap in most of these categories, which makes the negatives stand out even more. With so many services offering almost the same product, any major drawback is worth instant disqualification. We'll run through all three categories and highlight the standouts, both good and bad.
Why aren't we including services like flickr? While you can certainly upload any old JPEG to flickr, it's a platform very much dedicated to photographers who want to show off their work. These services are for hosting a broader, more generic selection of images: screenshots, desktop wallpapers, hi-res artwork, or photographs you want to share with a direct link on a social network or message board.
Live life without compromises. Don't let an image host tell you how many pictures you can upload to a free account or how large those images can be. Unfortunately, a number of them do exactly that. This is the most cut-and-dry category, so here's a chart that lays it all out.
|Image service||File size limit||Storage limit||Bandwidth limit||Dimensions limit|
If you ever intend to upload large images, the winners and losers here are obvious. Don't use Photobucket or ImageShack. Photobucket automatically shrinks all images to a size of 1024x768 pixels unless you go hunting for upload options. Photobucket does differ from some of the other services in its upload process, however: while images are limited to 5MB in size, the service will never reject uploading an image. It will simply shrink it. Abload.de, Imgur and ImageShack simply won't upload images that are larger than their limitations.
Imgur and Abload.de look like equals, but they're not: Imgur actually compresses any image over 1MB down to a file size of 1MB to save space and bandwidth. That's awful!
Minus stands ahead of the pack on a per-image basis, but Mediafire's 200MB limit goes above and beyond what most of us could ever reach with a single image. Even high resolution RAW photos don't come close. Minus' 10GB limitation could also be a concern if you plan to back up tons and tons of photos--every friend you invite to the service wins you another gigabyte of space, though.
Image quality and service limitations go hand-in-hand. As mentioned above, Imgur will compress your files until they're only one megabyte in size. That can obviously affect the quality of a picture. Compression isn't always a bad thing, of course--it's smart to shrink images for posting on the web to speed up the loading process. But we prefer to handle compression ourselves, and when it comes to hosting large images, compression to 1MB is unforgivable. After uploading a range of images to each service, we downloaded them to compare image quality between services.
The first test, a screenshot from Skyward Sword, returned untouched from every service thanks to its 2.16MB file size. Every service but Imgur, that is--Imgur shrunk the screenshot down to 136KB. Here's a comparison of the uncompressed image and Imgur's at 400 percent zoom:
Yuck. But we won't just pick on Imgur--here's what happens when we get above the 5MB threshold (which means ImageShack is already sitting out).
Minus, Mediafire and Abload all returned flawless, unedited images. The Bioshock artwork actually came out looking much better on Imgur than the Zelda screenshot thanks to its relative lack of color. You can still see some artifacting at 200 percent zoom, and the Photobucket crop obviously looks different than the other two. That's because the image was resized to 1396x2047 pixels from its original size of 1862x2730.
vBulletin forum codes. Automatic thumbnails. Bulk uploaders. Image hosts have changed dramatically since the dial-up days, and we expect to be able to upload a whole bunch of images at once while constantly having access to quick links, folders, and other luxuries. All six websites make image uploading a breeze, except for Abload.de. Uploading images on Abload isn't hard, but the site's in German. Using Google Translate at least eliminates the language barrier, but dealing with the German flash uploader makes Abload one of the less convenient services.
Image management and the file upload tool outweigh all other considerations. All of the services except for Imgur and Mediafire have an "upload" button visible on every page, but clicking that button on Photobucket, ImageShack and Abload.de requires loading a separate page to upload images.
Imgur doesn't have an omnipresent uploader, but the upload process is very smooth. While on an account's images page, Imgur allows for photos to be drag-and-dropped right into the browser window. Similarly, Mediafire supports drag-and-drop uploading, but not until you click the "upload" button that's only visible on the My Files page.
Minus excels here. The upload button is always visible, and offers five upload tools from its drop-down menu. A simple click will open a desktop file manager; hovering lets you choose to upload a picture via URL or take a web screenshot. And it support drag-and-drop uploading at all times. The upload button is always there, but you don't actually need it.
In fact, Minus excels in nearly every area. If the 2GB file cap didn't clue you in, Minus offers more bang-for-your-zero-dollars than any of the other image hosts, and its online interface puts the competition to shame with modern web technology. Images can be browsed in a grid, list, or full-screen "linear" slide show-style view. Switching views within an album doesn't cause pages to reload, which means you can click on any image and instantly have access to all the sharing links you want (forum code, thumbnail, direct link) while also being able to download the image or load it into an in-browser editing suite.
While Mediafire offers a very clean, fast interface with thumbnail and list sorting, the service just isn't made for sharing images on forums or social networks. Images of any size (up to the 200MB limit) can be downloaded with an easily accessibly Mediafire URL, but only small, medium and large resized versions are hotlink-able. Mediafire doesn't provide embed codes like the other services. If you want to share very large image files that aren't really meant to be viewed in a web browser, Mediafire is a great place to store them.
Photobucket presents quick access to sharing links via hovering over thumbnails, but remember: Photobucket downscales your pictures. ImageShack's interface offers a lot of options from the album page with buttons for image details, sharing, deleting, and editing. Unfortunately, all those options take the form of tiny, unintuitive icons.
If you're currently using Photobucket, Imageshack, or Imgur, stop. Use Minus. The service easily offers the best online interface and the least restrictive image constraints. It has apps for iOS and Android and a desktop file manager if you want any of those features. There's also a whole social networking aspect tied into Minus, but you can obviously ignore that without missing out on basic file hosting.
One possible downside for the future: Minus was established in 2010 and currently is not monetized. When the service inevitably needs to turn a profit, it won't necessarily offer the same space and features it does now for free. And there are always alternatives beyond these--Dropbox never messes with files and has no individual file restrictions. The downside there is the basic 2GB limit on free storage, and Dropbox doesn't offer the same convenience for linking or embedding