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The New Google Photos: Free at Last, and Very Smart

I’ve been testing the new Google Photos for about a week, and despite a few drawbacks, I consider it the best photo backup-and-sync cloud service I’ve tested.

Quin Paek for Re/code

Last Thursday was liberation day for Google Photos, the search giant’s appealing service for storing pictures and videos in the cloud. It was uncoupled from Google’s widely ignored social network, Google+, where it had been effectively hidden. And it was upgraded with new features.

Not only that, but Google gave Photos users free, unlimited storage for pictures and videos at the highest resolutions used by average smartphone owners. And it issued nearly identical versions of the shiny new standalone app across Android devices and Apple’s iPhones and iPads. There’s also a browser version for the Mac and Windows PCs.

Once you’ve backed up your photo library to the service, all your photos and videos, including any new ones you take, are synced among all of these devices.

I’ve been testing this new Google Photos for about a week, and despite a few drawbacks, I like it a lot. I consider it the best photo backup-and-sync cloud service I’ve tested — better than the leading competitors from Apple, Amazon, Dropbox and Microsoft.

Google Photos was always good, but now it’s entirely outside of a social network. Lots of folks choose to share photos on social networks, but few want to share every single one publicly, or even among all their friends and followers. Now you don’t need a Google+ account to use Google Photos, and your pictures and videos remain private unless and until you choose to share them, Google says.

And when you do want to share them, you can totally ignore Google+ and easily and quickly post them to Facebook, Twitter and other networks, on both Android and iOS. You can email a link to a photo to someone, which works whether or not he or she has the Google Photos app.

People, Places and Things

The coolest aspect of the new Google Photos is that once you click the search button — before you even type anything — the app presents you with groups of pictures organized by three categories: People, Places and Things.

 The new Things feature in Google+, on an iPad
The new Things feature in Google+, on an iPad
Quin Paek for Re/code

In the People section, Google collects all the photos containing faces it thinks are the same, without any work by you. It doesn’t identify these people, but just collects them for you for quick access. I found its guesses remarkably accurate. It even picked out a tiny image of my wife in the background of a group shot.

In the Places section, Google relies on geo-tagging where available. For older photos taken with cameras that lacked location tracking, it relies on known landmarks. For instance, it correctly identified a photo of the Eiffel Tower at night that I took with a cheap camera in 2002.

But the Things section, while less accurate, is more impressive. Here, the app uses cloud computing power to aggregate shots of, say, flowers or cars or the sky or tall buildings or food or concerts, graduations, birthdays — and yes, cats. And there are many more categories, including screenshots, posters and castles.

I was impressed by most of Google’s choices in the Things section. For instance, a category called Boats correctly included everything from fishing boats off Cape Cod to gondolas in Venice.

But there were some errors. For example, under Screenshots, Google Photos included an original, professionally-taken photo of me interviewing the company’s own top executive, Sundar Pichai — and it wasn’t a screenshot. And under the category Sky it included a graphic for an event by archrival Apple, which wouldn’t qualify as a Sky scene except on a planet where the sky was greenish and the sun was in the shape of the Apple logo.

You can remove such classification errors manually.

 The People feature in the new Google Photos app
The People feature in the new Google Photos app
Quin Paek for Re/code

My only real complaint with the People, Places and Things feature is that it’s not easy to find. You can only see it when you click the search button.

Photo Effects

As before, Google Photos automatically creates collages, animations, photo groups, panoramas and “stories” from photos it detects as being from the same place and time. You can choose whether to keep these in your library. As in the past, I generally found these pleasing and accurate. For instance, for my library, it created a Story — a sort of digital photo book — for a recent trip I took to China and Hong Kong, complete with maps showing my route.

The new version includes an “Assistant” panel that shows how your backup is going and presents these auto-created collections so you can choose whether you want to keep them.

You can also now manually create collages, animations, stories and more. And there are lightweight editing tools, including filters.

Search

Not surprisingly, search is a central feature in Google Photos, easily accessible from a blue button at the lower right of the screen. When I typed in “Massachusetts,” Google Photos instantly brought up loads of photos of subjects, ranging from my baby granddaughter (who lives there) to Revolutionary War sites I’d visited there to games I had attended at glorious Fenway Park in Boston.

Navigation

When you want to select multiple pictures — say, for sharing or creating an album — you don’t have to tap on them one by one. You can just select the first one and then slide your finger to add others to the selection.

 Google Photos runs on Android and Apple mobile devices and PCs.
Google Photos runs on Android and Apple mobile devices and PCs.
Quin Paek for Re/code

Also, you can pinch and zoom to switch the view of your photo library from years to months to days.

Downsides

The new Google Photos does have a few flaws. The initial upload can be very slow, even on a fast Internet connection. For instance, it took nearly a week to upload my 36,000-image library from my iPhone. In my case, Google said the glacial speed may have been because the app had to fetch each original from Apple’s iCloud Photo Library, to which I had previously backed up all my pictures. Backing up my Android Nexus 5, which had fewer photos, (most of which were already in Google Photos), was much faster.

Also, the free-storage option only applies to pictures of 16 megapixels or less, and videos of 1080p or less. Larger items get compressed. These sizes are more than enough for most people, but photographers and hobbyists who want to store and sync larger, uncompressed items get just 15 gigabytes free, and that is shared with other Google services, like Gmail. For more storage, they have to pay from $2 to $200 a month for 100GB up to 20 terabytes of storage.

More details on storage, and all other aspects of the new app, can be found in Google’s help site for the new Photos app.

(Note: Your photos from the old Google+ version of the app automatically reside in the new Google Photos, with a few exceptions.)

Finally, while Google promises privacy and the app has no ads, using it requires you to trust a company whose business model is tracking your actions and selling ads.

Bottom Line

The new Google Photos brings the company’s expertise in artificial intelligence, data mining and machine learning to bear on the task of storing, organizing and finding your photos. And that, combined with its cross-platform approach, makes it the best of breed.

Clarification: In some cases, Google will compress photos of under 16 megapixels in resolution backed up under its free, unlimited storage plan. However, a company official says, this happens “if and only if we can do so without affecting the image quality.” In my tests, I noticed no diminution of quality in my photos.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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