Google Photos – A Game Changer (Tech Beat)

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techbeatLast week Google announced its new cross platform photos app Google Photos (not to be confused with Google+ Photos). There are numerous online photo storage services, such as Flickr, Instagram, Photobucket, Shutterfly, iCloud, Amazon Cloud, just to name a few. What makes Google Photos stand out from the crowd is that it comes with unlimited free storage for photos and videos.  Compared with Apple’s 5GB free storage and Amazon’s unlimited storage for photo and 5GB for video for $11.99 a year, Google’s offer is a game changer. Google Photos is available as iOS app for iPad and iPhone, Android app, Windows app, and through browsers on desktop. Photos will be synced across all devices.

googlephotosI downloaded the iOS app and gave it a spin. Here is a first-look summary:

  • The interface is user-friendly, clean, minimalistic and modern.
  • The photos on Google Photos are private by default. You can choose to share by email, text, or directly to social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
  • When you upload photos, you have an option of uploading to Google Drive or Google Photos. Photos over 16 megapixels will be reduced to 16 megapixels on Google Photos. Does it matter? You can easily produce a superb quality 11”x14” print from a 16 mp file. iPone 6 has an 8 mp camera and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge has a 5 mp camera. So 16 megalpixels is a generous limit.  If you do need to maintain the high mp count, you have the option of uploading your photo to Google Drive. On Google Drive, however, this will be using your 15GB free space limit.
  • If you have a Google Picasa account, your Picasa photos will be automatically migrated to Google Photos.
  • Identical photos will be automatically rejected during upload. Note that you won’t get a notification of the rejection.
  • Photos will be automatically indexed into categories labelled People, Places, Events, and Things. The image recognition algorithm is quite impressive, albeit slightly unpredictable.
    • For testing, I uploaded about 300 pictures of Haida art, bipropellant thrusters, jet propulsion engines, medieval armour, vintage American cars, and Hundertwasser’s architecture.
    • Although none of the 85 engine pictures show up under Things, I can search by rocket or engine and find the pictures.
    • Amazingly, all the bipropellant engine pictures are correctly tagged Florida (for NASA Headquarters).
    • The vintage American cars in Cuba are accurately tagged Havana, and a suit of Teutonic knight armour is tagged Germany.
    • A few of my wood carvings are mixed in the uploaded photos unintentionally. These pictures are searchable with the terms wood, carving and even brown (for the colour of wood).
    • Hundertwasser’s architectures are all searchable by building, architecture, Vienna, Germany and even Austria, with Hundertwasser being an Austrian.
    • What baffles me is that the Hundertwasser building pictures are not searchable by his name even though I have entered the name in the description of the photo.
  • Photos can be organized into albums. A single picture can be put in multiple albums.
  • You can edit images, create collages and movies in Google Photos.
  • Google Photos library is automatically backed up on Google Drive and the storage required for the backup will not be counted towards your Google Drive free space limit. Things get slightly confusing with Google Drive in the mix:
    • On Google Drive you can see your Google Photos library. You can organize your photos into folders on Google Drive but the changes here will not be reflected in Google Photos.
    • If you delete photos in the Google Photos library on Google Drive, the photo will also be deleted from Google Photos.
    • If you edit a photo in Google Photos, it will not affect the same photo in Google Drive.

From a pure technology viewpoint, this is an exciting and well-designed product.  In practical usage, there will always be concerns about privacy and confidentiality. Yes, Google automatically scans every single image you put on Google Photos for content identification. There is no opt-out on this. However, you do have the option to turn off facial recognition and geotagging.  If you have sensitive photos and confidential documents, obviously the common sense approach is to keep those offline. If you have no problem storing pictures on Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, or any of the countless online photo sharing and storage sites, you should feel quite comfortable using Google Photos.

Google seems to be making an effort to gain trust from its users.  To help users understand and control their privacy settings, it has recently released a new privacy and security hub that details your security settings across all the Google services (Gmail, YouTube, Maps, Drive, Photos, etc.). But this is for another post…

For now, if you already have a Google account, Google Photos is yours to play with. I encourage you to experiment with it and enjoy the discovery.

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