Google Photos (for Android)

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Google Photos rolled out a year ago with a clean, friendly interface and near-bottomless storage for all your images. We were impressed at the time, but now this Android app has transformed into something far more exciting, with smart photo editing and creative tools, along with powerful search, organization, and sharing tools. Google Photos is an excellent service that bridges the divide between storage and photo editing, and it's an indispensable edition to your digital camera bag.

There's also an iPhone version of Google Photos, which we have also tested and which offers most of the same features.

Once you install Google Photos, you have to make the choice between uploading High Quality (compressed) or Original (uncompressed) photos to your Google Photo backup on the cloud. If you choose the former, photos over 16 megapixels are scaled down—even if you have a phone like the PCMag Editors' Choice Sony Experia Z3, which shoots at 20.7 megapixels. But Google stores all of your pictures at 16 megapixels for free. These pictures are accessible on the Web through Google Drive (and the Google Drive Android app), though they don't count towards your storage limitations.

If you choose to upload uncompressed images, your free storage goes all the way down from infinity to Google Drive's default 15GB—less than an average SD card's capacity. Note that Google recently added the ability to downgrade uncompressed photos.

By comparison, the Flickr Android app, which also auto-uploads any photos you shoot with the phone, offers 1 terabyte of free storage, with a maximum individual image file size of 200MB. If you wanted to purchase 1TB of space in Google Drive, you'd have to plunk down $9.99 a month.

Google Photos' Free Up Device Storage choice in Settings deletes all the local content that has already been backed up. When we first tried this feature, it recovered a whopping 1.2GB of space. If you're a frequent selfie snapper, this could make a big difference. By contrast, Apple iCloud Photo Library has an option for keeping the photos on the phone at reduced resolution while the full resolution image is stored in iCloud. This way, you still get to keep your photos to show on the phone. The drawback with iCloud is that it only gives you 5GB of free storage.

The main view in Google Photos presents all your snaps in reverse chronological order. You can also view your photos in the larger Comfortable view, or sorted by month or year. If you're feeling confined by your phone, tap the Cast button in the top corner to send images to a TV via your Chromecast{{/ZIFFARTICLE} device. This unfortunately doesn't include casting to open-standard Miracast capability, which is built into many smart TVs and Roku boxes and is supported by Android.

The app uses some pinch-to-zoom user interface tricks to change your photo view. It's so easy and logical that I'm shocked it has taken this long for it to appear in a photo-management app. You can also press and hold to select multiple photos, and swipe to switch among All Photos, Collections, and Assistant. As you'd expect from Google, it's clean, clear, and eminently usable.

Google Photos (for Android)Though you can scroll through all your photos grouped by time period, this is a Google app, so search is at the forefront. Simply tap the bar at the top of the screen, and Google Photos presents different ways to divide up your photo library. This includes location, previous searches, detected faces of people, and type of media (screenshots, selfies, and so on). The face search is remarkably powerful. It can even detect the same person across several years. It had no trouble discerning Max's countenance, whether as a baby-faced teen or a bearded adult.

Previously, Google Photos did not allow us to give names to detected faces or merge detected individuals. Now, you can add a name for each detected person, and if you add the same name to two people, Google Photos will offer to merge the groups of pictures together. Even Google makes mistakes, and we're glad to see this critical feature finally be added.

The search bar also lets you enter anything you like, as you can with Google Image Search. When we first tested the search feature, we were more confused than impressed. Searches for "dog" returned dogs, along with cats, goats, pigs, and wooden ducks. We're happy to see that Google has noticeably improved this feature. A test search for "dog" in the most recent version returned mostly dogs, and a search for "pitbull" smartly revealed several pictures of exactly that breed. It even worked for obscure dog breeds, like the Icelandic Sheep Dog.

But we'd still like to see categories of objects arranged by the auto-applied tags, as Flickr does, without the need to come up with a search term. You do see people and place options if you simply tap in the search box without typing text. It could be very useful as a means to pull together relevant images for a collage, album, or other Google Photos creation. The search still isn't robust enough to find specific images, either. A search for Max's trademark orange jacket returned nothing.

Unlike many photo apps, including Flickr, Instagram, and PicsArt Photo Studio, Google Photos doesn't offer any actual photo shooting from within the app. Flickr and PicsArt let you shoot directly from their software, and are able to offer focus and exposure options. Other apps even let you see an effect filter applied as you shoot. Google Photos, conversely, is focused entirely on storage and editing. That's fine, but it would be nice to have the whole photo experience packaged together seamlessly.

The most recent update to Google Photos has doubled down on the app's photo editing abilities. You can easily crop and resize the image, or apply one of 12 filters to the picture. Most will seem familiar to fans of Instagram, but there's more at work here. Google calls these Smart Filters because the app automatically enhances the image before applying the filter. If you'd like to see what Google thinks needs to be done with your picture before applying a filter, tap the Auto option.

You can also fine-tune images with a series of sliders organized under the center pencil icon. From here you can adjust the Pop, Color, and Light of the picture. These last two can be expanded for more focused editing with options including Contrast, Exposure, Saturation, Shadows, Tint, Warmth, and so on.

Two of these options take advantage of Google's powerful machine-learning technology. The first, Deep Blue, adjusts just the dark blue portions of the image. This lets you make the sky or ocean pop without throwing off the color of other objects in the image. A similar slider, called Skin Tone, lets you adjust skin-color saturation. It's especially useful for when you boost the warmth or saturation of an entire image, as people often end up looking unnatural. The Skin Tone slider can bring just the human portions of the image back to a more acceptable realm. Google claims, and we are pleased to confirm, that the Skin Tone feature works well on a variety of skin tones.

Other Android image editors, such as Google-owned Snapseed have a wider variety of options. Apps like Prisma are great for post-snap processing, but Google Photos has photo-management tools that many of its competitors lack. Flickr is the only service that comes close to matching Google Photos in this regard. Instagram and PicsArt offer selective-focus effects such as tilt-shift and bokeh.

Google Photos also doesn't include layer editing, text overlays, or masking capabilities as PicsArt does. Another thing we would like to see Google Photos take from other apps such as Adobe Photoshop Express is the ability to save edits as a new copy, rather than replacing the original, for nondestructive editing.

Google Photos offers a variety of ways to turn your snapshots into something more. From just about anywhere in the app, you can create a new Album, Animation, Collage, Movie, or Shared Album. Collages are a single image composed of the images you select, but note that you can't edit the size or position of the constituent images as you can in Instagram Layout. Animations are brief, looping, GIF-like animations made from your photos.

Google Photos (for Android)For Movies, the app compiles selected images into short, themed videos and automatically adds background music. There are 17 different styles of movies, with different transitions and filters automatically applied. You can choose one of the numerous premade backing music tracks, or use some of your own music to accompany the experience. You can also change the order in which images appear, but you cannot adjust how long each appears on screen or the transitions used. If you're looking to create a magnum opus of directorial design, you might want to look elsewhere. But that's not to say the Movies feature isn't adequate; it's a smart balance between useful creativity tool and one-tap production.

While all of these creations are easily sharable on a variety of platforms from Google Photos, the new Shared Albums is more interactive. When you select photos to add to a shared album, you also pick out people to share the album with. If a recipient doesn't have Google Photos, they receive a link to the pictures through a Web interface. If they are on Google Photos, the app will send them a notification and add the shared album to the app's list of albums. From there, they can add more images, and even copy images you've shared to their own library. It's a smart and simple addition, and one we wish had been available at launch. One neat feature is that the app will suggest additional images to add to the shared folder, like those taken at the same place, same time, or with the same people.

But there's a glaring sharing gap in Google Photos: The other major apps, Instagram, Flickr, and Picsart, all offer thriving photo-centric social networks, where users can like, comment and follow other users' work. Google Photos does not. You do, however, get a simple Share button that outputs an image to whatever Android apps you have installed that accept photos as input.

If you like these little collections but lack the creative spirit, the Google Photos Assistant can take over for you. In fact, it does so automatically. Users receive occasional alerts that the Assistant has produced another masterpiece. Sometimes it's an animation, sometimes a collage, sometimes just an artistically edited and filtered photo. It also highlights images that were taken years ago on today's date.

Assistant-created movies are organized around themes like weddings, holidays, or sleeping babies. This leverages Google's machine learning in an interesting way. For example, if Google detects a sudden burst of baby pictures, it will create a Lullaby video, which features pictures of your sleeping infant set to soothing music. The Assistant can also detect and create Wedding movies, which look for such signifiers as smiles, dresses, gatherings, and so on. Google says it will roll out new video types over time. It's a good idea, but we're puzzled why Google doesn't let you create these videos on demand, instead of waiting for the Assistant to decide to make one.

To its credit, Assistant doesn't assemble its creations willy-nilly. For example, photos from the same time period get grouped into collages, and photos taken in sequence are made into animations. We go back and forth about the utility of this feature, which you can toggle off in the Settings menu. On the one hand, it's sometimes a welcome surprise to see a forgotten photo recontextualized with filters and light editing. When we first tested this feature, we were not, for example, emotionally prepared to see an animated GIF of one of our high school proms. Thankfully, you can now ban certain people from appearing in creations from the Assistant.

The revamped Google Photos app had a strong debut, featuring a unique search experience and bottomless storage. After some major updates, the app is really coming into its own as a photographer's tool. Enhanced photo editing and content creation tools smartly leverage Google's machine-learning prowess, and the search results and organizational tools are improving all the time. It's within spitting distance of our Android photo app Editors' Choices, Flickr and PicsArt, and it actually beats them on organization. Google Photos is a worthy addition to any Android device.

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