Last Thursday, Google began rolling out its new photo storage solution - Google Photos. An independent app which uploads, compresses and stores photos separately from the previous Google+ solution.
The app offers 'free', unlimited storage for 'optimised photos (compressed and stored near-line), while also offering to store original pictures which will eat in to your Google Drive storage allowance.
So, before my actual experience and thoughts, some things to bear in mind if you're thinking of using Google Photos.
- From a monetary perspective Google Photos is free. There's no fee if you use the optimised storage solution. But remember, this is Google, and Google uses all of that data from your pictures (there's a lot of meta data hidden behind every picture you take) and can utilise that for anything it wants, such as location information, facial and image recognition, ad targeting, and anything else it wants. Personally, I don't have anything particularly important in my images/data, so I'm happy to hand that over (also, the more data they have, the better their system and AI learning will get), but if you're security or privacy conscious, bear this in mind.
- You'll see comparison between this solution and other such as Dropbox, iCloud etc, but these arrant necessarily direct or fair comparisons. The likes of Dropbox and iCloud offer small free services, and then various paid tiers, but as part of these services you can store anything you want - images, video, documents, programs - anything. The Google Photos solution is solely for images and videos, and an all-encompassing storage solution, such as those mentioned, with Google, works in the same way - Google Drive will give you a certain amount of storage space for free and then there are paid tiers depending upon your one requirements.
The app was available for me on my iPhone on Friday morning so I download, installed, set up and let the upload begin. The app would stick at 'Preparing to upload' for a long time and would then very slowly begin to work through my images. But upon exiting and then re-entering the app, this process would begin all over again. This was also the case on my iPad. On the Saturday morning Google pushed an update in the App Store to fix this specific issue.
For reference, I'm using the Google Photos app on an iPhone 6 and iPad Air 2 (both on iOS 8.4), and in Safari on a retina 15" MacBook Pro.
So I began again. I set my device to upload optimised images of everything I had in Photos.app (and on iCloud). The was approximately 6,000 files, of which about 300 were videos. The app finally finished the upload on Tuesday afternoon. Pretty much 4 days of constant uploading (it was also set to allow to upload of cellular data when not on wifi).
- Assistant (or Auto-awesome as it was previously called). A feature which was available on Google+. As the system scans your images it tries to enhance them and to offer you alternatives, such as collages of similar pictures, overlaying animation such as moving snow, 'artistically' improving images by giving you black & white variations or adjusting the contrast and colours (similar to varying filters you get on most photo and social networking apps/sites). Some worked (mainly the collages and animations), some didn't - such as turning really nice bright, vibrant images taken in Australia and Egypt, and making them black & white.
- Auto-awesome video. This is potentially great, but doesn't quite work yet. As with the images, it looks for similar groups of videos and pieces them together to give you a kind of overview of the event. In my case, I have lots of videos from gigs. Google recognises this and from say 8 videos, trims them down, puts them together, and make one 2-3 minute video. The only problem in this case is that it overlays its' own music. You can change the music to one from various categories, but you can't get rid of it. So when I turn on 'play original music from videos' (they are music gigs, after all), I get the original audio overlaid with Googles' music, and with no option to turn it off and just have the original audio (or even an option to pick audio from my device or other services). Hopefully this will be updated soon, as it's a cool feature.
- Collections. A feature where by the date and location data is used to group pictures in to a collection - again this was previously available on Google+. It's gorgeous, but again, doesn't work quite right. Random, non-associated pictures will turn up in the 'stories' that it produces, or it will break a single trip down in to various different Collections. For example, I have a number of photos from when I last went back to the UK. Instead of groups these as one trip, it broke them down in to 3 different Collections, mixing and matching days and locations. They're easily editable (adding and removing images and videos, as well as the name of the Collection), but still a pain having to go through after and re-edit everything it created.
- Search. This is the biggie. This is a key selling point for the service. Always-learning AI that will know what is in your pictures and allow you to search for key words. Amazing in concept, average in use (for me, at least). I've seen this work amazingly for some people and terribly for others.
When you press the Search button you're taken to a kind of category overview - everything that Google Photos has identified in your pictures. Compared to a lot of peoples', mine is very limited. One thing that Photos should identify is people and group them accordingly. It won't know who the people are specifically, but will group them based on those that look alike, giving you the ability to then go and name the groupings and add/remove images from them accordingly. About 90% (if not more) of my images have at least one face in them - mainly my son - but I don't get any people recognised at all. And if I search 'pictures of me' (something it should know, and does for other people), it just shows me every picture in my library.
Other inconsistencies include a search for cats. My son used to have a cat and it appears in about 50-100 photos within the library. I enter 'cat' and get a mere 11 images (better than the 8 the other day, suggesting further identification is ongoing in the background). But if I search for 'animals' I get 8 completely different pictures of the same cat, as well as various other animals and 5 pictures of my son as a baby (no wonder I call him Monkey)!
Another good one (before I created a collection to avoid the issue further) was searching for 'Perth'. I used to live there and have many photos taken there with geolocation data attached. Google even created a location called 'South Perth', so it knows I've been there. But if I manually search for 'Perth' or even 'South Perth' - nothing!
Other annoyances include the inability, to my knowledge at least, of being able to edit or add meta data information. There are a number of photos where the data seems to have been 'lost' during the transfer and upload process. Locations aren't recognised and there's no way to then add this in. I can edit the description of each image, but I'd love to be able to bulk select some files and just amend the date or location, or add a person, all in one go.
There are also a few more bugs within the app (it's obvious they rushed this out before Apple's World Wide Developers Conference on 8th June). Screens will freeze if certain options are selected or menus called upon, like when you select the option button at the top of the screen when in an image, or when trying to edit the audio in a video (there was no confirm/cancel/exit button anywhere).
It's not all bad though.
Privacy issues aside, it's a great storage solution. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to ever lose a digital image nowadays, with all the solutions and service we have. If you want another back-up, free of charge, this is another option.
The UI is good. It obviously has the Material Design we saw rollout across Google apps and services after it was announced last year as part of Android 5.0 Lollipop. There's also viewing functionality similar to that of Photos.app, whereby you can pinch to zoom out and see a higher level (the highest you can go is by month), and go the other way to zoom back in on a date range/set of grouped images.
As mentioned earlier, the Collections look and work gorgeously. The main image is zoomed in on and then pans back and forth when you select a Collection to look at - similar to the way cover art is displayed in Google Play Music. And then when you flick through things like Stories, places and maps are inserted and work really well and look really good.
The multiple selection feature is good - no more clicking each individual thumbnail to select it as part of a group - just slide your finger over multiple thumbnails and they're all automatically selected. Sharing and moving images is also easy - just hold your finger on the one (or more) you want and the options will appear at the top of the screen where you can access the iOS share sheets and the app options to add the image(s) to an album or create a new album, movie, story, animation or collage.
Although image recognition isn't working all that well for me (as above), I was really surprised at some stuff it did recognise and categorise correctly. A good example is the 'cats' one. It recognised the back of a cat while my son was partially laying on it. That's impressive. Now if only it could recognise all of the more obvious things, it would be great!
For the moment Google Photos isn't going to replace Photos.app on my iOS devices or Photos on my Mac, but it's a good, if somewhat rushed, start. As the AI improves and all functionality is propagated to all users in full, it will become truly useful. No more trying to find that one holiday picture from 4 years ago by flicking through hundreds of pictures! Search is what Google does best (apart from advertising), and that's what will be the killer feature of this app once it works well for everyone.