Google Photos: A Brief Review

I have a lot of photos, and I’m always looking for better ways to store, organize, and share them. I’ve used local folders1, Google Drive, Apple devices, iCloud, and other solutions – no single choice is perfect, and they all have their merits and disadvantages.

Recently I decided to start using Google Photos more. I had, until now, used it a very limited amount, but I dove in deeper this time and took a closer look at all the incredibly useful features it has. Here are my thoughts on each aspect of the product2.

Google Photos
Google Photos logo

Somewhere in the Cloud

First and foremost, cloud storage. It may seem off-putting to want all your personal photos and other media stored on “someone else’s computer“, and that’s a very reasonable concern. There have been no shortage of data breaches and security issues in tech recently, exposing everything from financial information to people’s whereabouts every minute of the day. However, I think there are many times where this is a valid trade-off. Assuming you follow good digital security practices – like using strong, unique passwords on each site you register with – you should be protected from the majority of these issues. Google generally has a very good reputation with consumer security and privacy (more on this later) – at the very least, they have convinced me with their friendly graphics and warmly worded, plain-language privacy policies that they do.

The advantages of having (copies of) your files on server farms somewhere in the West are numerous. Being able to access any photo I need from my phone or computer is a huge bonus – finally being able to eliminate the painstaking process of emailing myself files back and forth, sending Dropbox links, wondering which version of a file is the correct one as I slowly condense 17 copies of a file into a dense folder that I’ll bury twenty levels deep in my filesystem and forget about – you get the idea. There are situations where this is not the correct solution, but in many cases it is indispensable to my workflow.

Everything being in the cloud also means that it is a very simple process to share what you need with who you need and collaborate on projects; Google photos allows users to easily sort media into albums to share with others – you can even invite them to add photos to a shared album or leave comments on photos posted by others (replete with notifications and an activity feed). The Photos app included with iPhone includes the same capabilities, but we’re not finished yet.

Back It Up

The backup and sync feature in Google Photos has vastly improved the experience for me. Instead of needing to manually upload photos, the Google Photos app for iOS can automatically scan your library and upload any and all photos you want to your Google account, bringing along any metadata – time taken, location, camera information3 – with them. This will most likely replace my old routine of plugging my phone into my computer and manually cut-and-pasting thousands of photos and screenshots by hand. It also offers great peace of mind, as it provides yet another way to make sure your important photos are backed up somewhere other than your ephemeral smartphone – Google Photos allows for unlimited HD photo and video uploads that do not count against your total storage quota (original resolution media will).

My main complaints about the backup service have to do with customizability and efficiency. Primarily, the speed at which photos can be uploaded using the mobile app (this is my only major complaint about the service as a whole). The Google Photos app on my iPhone has been backing up my photo library for nearly two days now, and has only finished uploading around 1,790 out of 12,759 photos currently on the device. It’s unclear whether this backup service can even run in the background while your phone is locked or while you are using another app.

Secondly, there seems to be no way to control what is backed up – you must either select individual photos by hand or upload all of them. This kind of “simplicity” limits functionality for intermediate to advanced users who want more control over how their software functions.

Lastly, the app prompts the user prominently to delete any photos from their device that have been backed up to the cloud – needless to say, this would be a poor decision for everyone but Google, who can use it to entrench you deeper into their ecosystem. Having your photos stored locally as well is beneficial in case you need any of the metadata not brought into Google Photos, or you are for some reason locked out of your Google account, or need the original resolution photos that were downsized in their journey to Google.

These are, for the most part, minor issues that don’t impact the user experience too much. The benefits outweigh the problems by far.

A Streamlined Experience

There’s not too much to say here, but it’s of vital importance. Both the mobile and web apps exhibit remarkable consistency and are skillfully designed in a way that leads your eye to focus on your photos – not Google’s app. Everything syncs quite nicely across both and they are organized in a way that makes sense and is intuitive.

Searching

To me, this is what sets Google’s service apart from anything else I have used before. The point of storing all these photos is almost nonexistent if you cannot find what you want when you want it, and Google overperforms here. From searching for people using facial recognition, to specific places, objects, and media types, the entire experience is both powerful and intuitive.

A common task for me is archiving screenshots that I am unlikely to revisit any time soon. I take a lot of screenshots, and they make up the bulk of the photos stored on my phone. Google Photos lets me search for these, select them, and archive them in just a few clicks. If I need to find a specific piece of information later, I can search for text in any of my photos. It took quite a bit of time for Google to scan and index these, but this works remarkably well and puts Google Photos light-years ahead of the native photos app on iPhone from my point of view.

Security

I would be lying by omission if I didn’t mention the recent security issue with Google Photos, wherein a small number of the service’s users had their photos included in another user’s Takeout archive, a tool that allows Google users to export and download huge batches of their data from various Google products. This is an alarming issue regardless of how you paint it, but it is extremely rare and similar incidents do not occur often. As long as you are not storing anything too sensitive on Google Photos, this is most likely not a dealbreaker.

The Point

In conclusion, Google Photos is a powerful and streamlined tool for
storing, searching, and sharing your photos that integrates seamlessly with your Google account and provides easy access to your memories from anywhere in the world. While it lacks advanced features or intricate customizability for experienced users, it is nearly perfect for most use cases and I would highly recommend giving it a try.

  1. More on my extremely convoluted tagging system for Windows (hint: it involves registry changes) in a future post
  2. For a post about a photos app, this post will not have many images. The main issue is that almost any screenshots I could take of the app would reveal personal information, or be to insufficient to put in a post. In an effort to spread my limited supply of eye candy across this post, some of it will end up in an irrelevant section of the review. I apologize, but a post like this mainly comprised of text should help improve both of our attention spans. So you’re welcome.
  3. Since Google doesn’t already have enough of my data.