With a recent update, Google has greatly improved on its Google Photos iPhone app. Already impressive thanks to excellent face detection and (more-or-less) limitless storage, the app now includes smarter photo editing features and improved search. It outperforms Apple's first-party Photos app in some ways, but those serious about iPhonography should check out our Editors' Choices Flickr, Instagram, and (for those who want to really go to town with imaging creativity) PicsArt.
Google Photos is available as a free download in the iTunes App Store. You need to sign into a Google Account to get started, and you can easily switch among multiple accounts—a claim that iCloud can't make. The central Photos page displays all your recent snaps, and it has a fast-scrolling button to help you find your pictures quickly. If you have hundreds or thousands of photos, you will really appreciate this button. You can also you pinch to enlarge and shrink groups of photos. A hidden drawer on the left opens to reveal the rest of the app's features.
Google Photos' biggest selling point by far is its promise of unlimited photo backups. Plus, these images are stored in Google Drive and synced among all your enrolled devices. They're available in the Web version of Google Photos, too. The catch is that Google doesn't actually back up the original photos if they're larger than 16 megapixels. Instead, it uploads a high-quality (compressed) image that is, to most people's eyes, indistinguishable from the original. If you want to store uncompressed images, you have to pay for additional storage. That may affect you if you shoot with a D-SLR, but for iPhone photos, it isn't an issue, since iPhone cameras top out at 12 megapixels.
Note that you can now view Apple's combination-photo-and-video Live Photos in Google Photos. When you view a Live Photo on Google Drive, you only see a video, however; the image component is lost. We had no trouble uploading and viewing a test Live Photo in the app, even though we were only uploading the compressed version of the photo. It did not appear to affect the almost-bottomless storage provided by Google Photos for compressed images.
Apple has a similar scheme, but you have to pay after you fill up iCloud's stingy free 5GB with images: A terabyte of space from Apple costs $9.99 per month. Flickr also offers automatic photo backup and an entire terabyte of free storage, which is more than enough for the average user—enough, indeed, for 200,000 regular iPhone photos. Flickr's free terabyte includes any photo of up to 200MB in size. Google Drive, by comparison, has only 15GB available for free users and offers a terabyte of storage for $9.99 per month. Dropbox offers photo backup, with only 2GB of free storage, and OneDrive does the same, giving 5GB for free. Many online backup services throw in automatic backup of photos in their apps, too. That said, no service we've found offers unrestricted unlimited storage for free.
If local storage is an issue, you can free up space on your device by deleting the local copies of photos already uploaded to the cloud. It's a smart feature that leverages Google's bottomless backup policy to help users. Note, however, that if you've opted to only back up compressed versions of photos, the uncompressed ones are deleted in this process. Apple offers a good solution to the local storage issue by letting you keep lower-res images on the phone while storing the full deals up in the cloud.
We'll briefly summarize the features and capabilities of Google Photos here, but you can read our review of Google Photos for Android for a more in-depth look. Note that there is also a Web interface for Google Photos, which includes all the same features as the mobile app.
Google Photos uses a gridded, chronologically ordered view to swipe through all your pictures. You can pinch to zoom and reorder the grid as you see fit. Search is, however, the preferred way to explore your photos.
When you tap the magnifying glass, the apps shows you a list of every face detected. You can hide these entries (more on that later) or give them a name for easy reference. Google does a great job of detecting instances of the same person, even over the course of decades, but you can combine entries if the search giant makes a mistake. You also can tap Recent Places to see photos grouped by location.
Some people may not be comfortable having Google in their photos, fearing that the search giant might use the information for ad targeting. Note that the Google Photos app does say that only you can see the name information associated with images, which, while comforting, doesn't allay all concerns. Apple CEO Tim Cook has actually directly addressed the photo privacy issue, claiming that Apple isn't interested in mass user data mining.
You can enter any term you like into the Google Photos search box, and we're happy to say that the app's search abilities have improved. Searching for "dog" in our test account returns mostly dogs, with only one or two other four-legged mammals. The search is still not accurate enough to find a specific image and doesn't do well with complex search terms such as "orange jacket." But it does a good job with broad terms that can help winnow down the number of images for you to consider.
Google Photos has been revamped with new photo editing tools, smartly arrayed in expandable sliders. You can, for example, move the Color slider or click to open it and see all of its constituent options. Two new sliders, Deep Blue and Skin Tone, show off Google's machine learning technology. The first lets you edit just the blue portions of the image, isolating changes made to the blue intensity from the rest of the image. It's a great way to make the sky or sea pop without discoloring other objects in the frame. You can see the result in the animation below, captured on an Android device.
The Skin Tone slider does the same thing, but only for human skin in an image. It is especially useful for rebalancing faces after you've increased the color saturation of the rest of the image. We are happy to say that this feature works with a variety of skin tones.
Google Photos also offers premade filters for photos and movies, including an Auto button, which makes what the app deems to be the best adjustments. The filters now apply these machine learning-powered changes to photos when you select a filter, in an effort to ensure you get the best result. The app is light on advanced editing and effects, lacking tilt-shift and bokeh tools, for example. The app does let you save your changes to a new image, but it's tricky to pull off. Adobe Photoshop Express and Apple's photo apps handle this much better. Google Photos also lacks an equivalent to the artistic effects of Prisma.
The app's Movies and Animations features have more editing options than you might expect, but fine-grained editing isn't an option. Movies, for example, can have different music and styles but the transitions and the time that images appear on screen cannot be edited. Strangely, when we tried exporting the looping, GIF-like animations the app created, they appeared as still images in the Apple Photos app and when exported to Twitter on an iPhone 6. Exported animations worked in other places on iPhone, but we had no issues when exporting these animations on an Android device.
From just about anywhere in the app, you can create new abums, animations, collages, or Movies. A new Shared Album option lets you share photos with others while inviting them to contribute their own pictures. But Google Photos offers no thriving photo-sharing social community like those you get with apps such as Flickr, Instagram, and PicsArt. These networks are handy for finding kindred-spirit iPhone photographers and liking, commenting on, and following their work.
If you like the idea of animations, collages, movies, and so on, but don't know where to start, don't worry: The Google Photos Assistant will do it for you! Periodically, you receive alerts that the Assistant has produced another masterpiece. Sometimes it's an animation, sometimes a collage, sometimes just an artistically edited and filtered photo. New options let you suppress certain people from appearing in these creations.
The Assistant doesn't just do its job willy-nilly, either. For example, photos from the same time period are grouped into collages, and photos taken in sequence are made into animations. There are also specific movie types, like Lullaby, which groups together photos of sleeping newborns and sets them to soothing music. The app does this by watching for a spike in baby photos, and then selects only the ones in which the child is sleeping. Similar smart movies will be launching in coming months, including holiday-themed varieties that are said to only trigger if the app determines you actually celebrate the holidays. That's keen, but we wish there was an option to request some of these movie types on demand, rather than waiting for the Assistant to decide to make them.
Apple recently introduced similar features in iOS 10, such as face-tagging and automatically constructed Moments in the Photos app. There's even a search option. In general, Apple's offerings are disappointing, however. The search field, for example, only pulls up predefined categories, including bewildering ones like "Bathroom." For the record, Max has 54 photos that fall into this category. Face detection in Apple Photos isn't nearly as robust as in Google Photos, and the generated Moments albums cannot be edited. Apple clearly needs to step up its game if it wants to contend with Google in this area.
We're impressed with Google Photos and how it has improved since launch. The Search feature is greatly improved, though it still falls short of the accuracy of Google Image Search on the Web. New editing tools let you add subtle flourishes or dramatic effects, and the machine learning enhanced tools are impressive. Throw infinite storage in as well, and it's a leading photo app. But it's also in need of some tweaks. Other apps offer more and more powerful editing options, as well as more flexible storage plans. We heartily endorse Google Photos, but consider it more of a companion app to Editors' Choice winners Flickr, Instagram, and PicsArt.