Google has finally taken one of the only standout features within its Google+ social network and turned it into a standalone product for mobile devices and the web: Google Photos.
It is now available as an app for iOS devices, Android devices, and the web. It's free to download and use, and it stores all of your photos and videos at no cost. We're not even kidding. Beyond being able to back up your memories, Google Photos smartly organises your media and provides you with both editing and sharing tools.
Google basically wants Google Photos to be a one-stop shop kind of app. Need to save your pics? Check. Want to sort them by people and places? Check. Care to search for a pic using keywords, but without tagging it first? Check. How about create a collage, then make a direct link to it, and share it with friends?
Check, check, and check. Google Photos is obviously a robust product right out of the gate, and it's one we couldn't wait to get our hands on. So, we've spent the last couple hours fiddling around with the app, trying to determine if it's everything we hoped it would be. And here's what we came up with...
How to get started with Google Photos
Let's begin with how to use Google Photos. From the moment you install and open the app, you need to specify your preferences, such as whether you even want to back up and sync media from your device, and if you do, you must toggle on or off the ability to use cellular data when backing up. Decisions, decisions.
Another screen should then appear, asking you to designate if Google Photos can upload your photos and videos in "high quality", which is a reduced file size, but Google offers free unlimited storage if you use this type. If you decide to upload original, full resolution media instead, it will count against your available cloud storage.
Google said it will maintain the original resolution of photos up to 16 megapixels as well as videos in 1080p, where as compressed versions will be kept in "nearly identical visual quality". We went with the compressed route, and honestly, our eyes didn't notice a reduction in quality whatsoever. Kudos, Google. Kudos.
How to use Google Photos
Okay, now we're getting into the nuts and bolts of how this app works: the menu sidebar is available with a swipe from the left. It slides out to show the Google account you're signed into, and below that, it offers tabs for the following: Assistant, Photos, Collections, Shared Links, Trash, Settings, and Help and Feedback.
Assistant is one of three main screens. It serves up creative suggestions for your photos and videos, which you can preview and then save or throw away. The choice is yours. From this area you can also create albums, movies, stories, animations, collages, and other types of specialised media known as "creations". Just tap the "+" button in the top right.
Assistant ended up showing us a collage of selfies we had taken that were each quite similar in appearance, so we can see why the feature grouped them together. It also created an animation with some of them, which you can see below.
We have to admitt: Assistant is one of the neatest aspects about Google Photos. We loved going to it just to see all the new animations (which are essentially GIFs) and collages and other interesting things the feature was able to pull together based on random photos from the depths of our library.
Also, if you're in the middle of backing up photos and videos from your device, you will see an uploading status bar running along the top of Assistant. There should also be a magnifying glass symbol in the bottom corner. You can tap it to keyword-search for specifc pics and vids (but more on that later).
Consider the Photos area a home screen. You can swipe from left when you open Google Photo to get to menu and then Photos, or you can swipe from right while in Assistant to bring up Photos. The most recent photos are always at the top, but you can scroll to look at older ones. And just tap on any photo or video to view it in full.
Also, in the upper right-hand corner of Photos, you will again see that +" button with options to make creations. There's a three-dot symbol next to that, too, for changing the Photos view. Alternatively, you can pinch the Photos area to change from seeing different media across days to seeing it across months or years.
We found this gesture to be very fluid and sleek, though we were more impressed by the ability to search and find specific photos out of the thousands we had backed up to Google Photos (but again, more on that later). The other thing we really appreciated was how seamless and easy it is to select photos and videos while under Photos.
All you have to do is tap "+", and then hit Select to enter Select mode. From there, you merely tap-to-select a photo or video. If you'd like to select multiple ones, simply drag your finger across their thumbails in the Photos view to select them all (you must be in Select mode, of course).
Media that is selected in bulk can also be shared, made into creations like movies or stories, or thrown away.
Apart from Assistant and Photos, Collections is the other main screen worth exploring. It seems to be a place in which Google Photos organises and then displays your albums, movies, and stories. We saw some stories already made. One, for instance, was for a trip we took last year from New York to California.
Upon clicking the story, which had "24 moments" (pics) within it, we were brought to a flip book/timeline-thing. Google Photos not only laid out our photos and animations and videos in a cohesive, charted narrative with map data, but it also allowed us to add details. If we liked the story, we could share it. If we didn't, we could delete it.
Like Assistant, we really enjoyed how Collections automatically served up our old media in new and interesting. The story feature, which is technically a creation, is especially neat and wonderfully interactive, and it's even more awesome that we can easily access and share all our stories from the Collections area in Google Photos.
Stories can be viewed on the web too, either through the Google Photos web app or a direct link. Here's an example of a story on the web. It features scanned family photos from a trip to Marineland in Ontario about 16 years ago, but not all stories are like that. Some stories are more interactive and can feature video clips, map data, and other types of media, which either you or Google Photos will need to add.
Oh, and to get to your stories from Collections in the iOS app, you have to use the menu or swipe from left while in the Photos section. The upper right-hand corner of Collections also has the "+" button we mentioned earlier, with options to make stuff.
How to check settings in Google Photos
Go to Settings from the menu in order to adjust how your photos back up and sync. You can also toggle off or on certain features (like allowing Google Photos to suggest new creations under Assistant, group similar faces under Search, show Google Drive photos in your Photo libarary, and more). That's all there is to really say about that.
How to make and share links in Google Photos
Whenever you tap a photo to view it in full, you will notice four buttons along the bottom and one in the upper-right hand corner. The corner button lets you add what you're looking at to an album or open it in Snapseed. The buttom for buttons are for sharing, editing, media info, and trash. We're going to talk about sharing now.
When you tap the Share button, you will be able to share that photo to all the sites and services you have installed on your device, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and email. But you will also see the ability to create a link. Google wants everyone to be able to view your photos, whether they use Google Photos or not.
So, creating a direct link to a photo (or even multiple photos you've selected from Photos) allows your media to be shared anywhere and opened anywhere. Your friends who don't have Google Photos will therefore still be able to view the link you've sent them (via their browser). Awesome, right?
You can also create a shared link by tapping "+" from Photos and then entering Select mode. From there, pick your media, then tap the share button in the top corner of Photos, and make your link. Voila! You can also see and manage all your shared links from the Shared Link tab in Menu.
How to edit pics and vids in Google Photos
As we mentioned earlier, when you click to view a photo in full, you will notice four buttons along the bottom and one in the upper-right hand corner. We're going to talk about one of the buttom buttons now: editing (the pencil symbol).
Tap the Pencil when viewing any photo in full to bring up Google Photos' three photo-editing options. The first option is for fine-editing tools, and they are as follows: Auto, Light, Colour, Pop, and Vignette. Next to fine editing you will see a second option for filters. You can add one of 14 filters and adjust their intensity. How very Instagram.
The third editing option lets you crop and rotate your photo. In other words: Google Photos is packed with all the basic stuff you could ever need to fix up a photo. If you want robust tools, like liquify or a spot healer, you're out of luck. We're really hoping the app will add these things over time, though.
The other thing we're hoping Google Photos will add is a video editor. As it stands, when you view a video in full, you will see options to share the video, view media info like date created and file type, and trash it. Nothing else. Lame.
That said, Google Photos does let you make movies, stories, animations, and collages from your library. So, you could always select up to 50 clips while under Photos, then go to 'create a movie' under the "+", and you'll be able to stitch them all together. You can also add a theme and soundtrack to the movie.
How to search for pics and vids in Google Photos
Google Photos uses machine learning to auto-oragnise all your photos and vidoes. It sorts them based on places, people, and things that "matter the most in your life", Google said. All we know is that we didn't even have to tag a single thing or person, and yet Google Photos was still able to recognise and sort away.
You can tap the Search button (magnifying glass symbol) in the bottom corner of any main screen (Assistant, Photos, Collections) to bring up the search interface. You'll see a search field at the top, in which you can type keywords to look for related photos, and below that you'll see categories for People, Places, and Things. Each category will be filled with relevant thumbails and their tags.
Under People, for instance, Google Photos showed us thumbnails of faces. We saw our face, our partner's face, in-laws faces, and rather strangely, Joan River's face. We had no clue a photo of the comedian was even in our library, but that's cool. Tapping on these thumbnails of people, places, and things connects you to more relevant photos.
Under Places, we saw Los Angeles, New York, and other locations. Clicking on any one of them brought up all the photos we had ever taken in that particular place. Handy. As for Things, we saw automated tags like screenshots, cats, food, and...yoga? We don't even do yoga. And then, below those three primary categories, we could sort our pics by type (videos, creations, etc).
So, we think the machine-learning aspect isn't perfect. When we tapped on the Joan Rivers thumbnail, we ended up seeing the photo we had of her as well as a photo of our favourite body wash (again, no clue we had that photo stored either). Clearly, it's not the most accurate feature, but it's still nifty nonetheless.
Should you try Google Photos?
Yes. Google Photos is impressive. Coming from a person that just backed up 4,000 photos and videos to the service, we can attest that it is remarkable at reminding you of lost and forgotten memories as well as giving you some really cool ways to make creations from them, among many other things.
Although we didn't get a chance to play with the creation features much, we think the ability to create movies, stories, animations, and collages is really cool. Those features seem fast and easy enough to use - plus you're free to share all your creations with people who don't have Google Photos installed on their device.
Beyond those fancy tools, Google Photos is just good at organising and displaying your media. Its machine learning has a ways to go still, but it does pretty well at the moment, and if anything, it gives you a reason to laugh should it surface random thumbails and tags under People, Places, and Things (like Joan Rivers - heh).
Overall, we think we'll keep Google Photos. Why not, right? It's backing up all of our stuff to the cloud for free and in high quality. It gives us basic editing and creative options. It also has wide-ranging sharing options. And we can search for photos and videos using keywords! Yeah. Google Photos is cool.
Go try it right now on iOS, Android, or the web. It just might be the only photo-editing/storage app you'll ever need.