Reviewing new technology still in beta phase may seem a little unfair, but the new image search site is worth an early look despite its flaws.

What the Web-based software aims to do is help people organize the ever-growing stream of digital photos on their hard drives. Once your photos are in the Riya system, you can train it to recognize the faces of your friends and family members, apply tags, or names, to those faces, and then search for other pictures with the same facial characteristics.

After an initial closed test period, the site opened to the public in beta form on March 25, and by one insider’s account users uploaded more than 2 million photos in the first two days. Although Riya is not a professional grade product, that’s not to say pros and amateurs alike can’t have a little fun with it.

Here’s how our test drive went:

Creating an account on the site was quick and easy, and Riya didn’t ask for too much personal information, which is nice. The next step was to download the Riya image uploader. The software installation on my PC took a little longer than I’d prefer (Mac users must use IE6 or Firefox 1.5+), and uploading just 40 pictures into the Riya system took several minutes. The site recommends each user upload at least 1,000 images for optimum results, which would likely take half an hour or more at that rate, a long time to wait but OK if you keep it running in the background while doing other tasks.

With my images uploaded successfully, the search recognition technology then went to work finding faces. As you click on your photos, the system asks you to identify, or tag, them with the name of the person in the photo. Silhouettes and blurry or out-of-focus photos can trip up the technology, but it may also surprise you with what it does recognize.

Riya currently offers the ability to upload your address lists from Gmail or Yahoo Mail into the system to see if any of your contacts appear as tagged faces in any other public photos, but none of my contacts were found (this feature will work best if you actively recruit your contacts to upload their own photos). One other gripe: In the manual training area, where you tag faces with names, if you spell a name incorrectly it’s not clear how you delete the misspelling, so errors can linger.

In all the process can be a bit time-consuming, and results will vary depending on how many photos you upload and how much time you want to spend training the face recognition system. It’s a fun experiment, but the technology still has a ways to go, and unless Riya reaches the adoption level of Yahoo’s Flickr, it likely will not realize the technology’s full potential.

That said, Riya is an important next step in the future of photo sharing sites.