My Year with Google Photos

About a year ago iCloud Photo Library failed me. It was not the first time, but it was the last. While Photo Library has generally gotten much better reviews than most of iCloud’s other services, for some reason I continually ran into issues. So as with nearly everything else in my life, I looked to Google to ease my iCloud woes. And I have been extremely happy. Google Photos was born out of the remains of both Picasa and Google+. The former was a well liked, but aging desktop/cloud hybrid app. The latter Google’s desperate, and ultimately failed attempt at competing with Facebook in the social network field. Photos is Google at it’s best; a fast, reliable, easy to use cloud app.

Getting Started

This proved to be the most difficult part of switching to Google Photos, or at least the most time consuming. At this point all of my photos were in Apple’s Photos app for the desktop. My goal was to transfer this directly into Google, keeping my existing albums. Unfortunately, there were no tools that made this automatic. Google does have an uploader tool, but all it does it point at the originals folder within the Photos library structure. There are two problems with this. The first is that any edits made in Photos will not be uploaded, only the original version. I wanted my edits, and the inability to revert to the originals once in Google was not a concern. The second issue was my albums. The uploader does not load albums at all.

The solution was to first export all the photos from my Albums, and upload each album one at a time to Google. Once those albums were all created there, I exported every single photo and video from my Photos library, using the current version, and uploaded them in batches of 500. Trying to upload more than 500 at a time slowed the process to a crawl. I uploaded everything by simply dragging into Chrome. It is impressive both on the server side and on the browser side that I never experienced a single problem with this upload process. The photos already loaded into albums were skipped. There were no duplicate photos when I was done.

I should also note that I have a G Suite unlimited account, so storage is not a concern and I used the full originals. But even if you don’t have a professional account, Google Drive has very reasonable pricing and in my opinion it is worth paying to be able to upload originals.

There was only one other issue I encountered. Videos I shot on my iPhone as either slow motion or time lapse did not retain these properties when uploaded through the browser. Only when loaded directly from my phone. The solution here was to send these videos back to my phone via AirDrop and use the iOS app to upload these videos. Google’s web app won’t show the slow motion videos the way the phone does, but they do work correctly when downloaded.

iOS Apps

Now that all my historical data was there, I set up the iPhone and iPad apps to upload all photos and videos in original form to Google as soon as they are taken. Unlike iCloud Photos, there was no long sync at the beginning to pull the existing library down. It was all there right away. Uploads are fast and I have yet to see a single photo or video fail. If you have an iPhone capable of taking Live Photos, these will be uploaded and can be displayed within the app. It isn’t quite as nice as in the default app, but it works well enough. The web app does not support Live Photos unfortunately.

Another advantage of Google Photos is that it supports multiple accounts, something you cannot do in iCloud Photo Library. Since my work account is also a Google Apps account, I can take photos on my phone that are work related and upload those, and only those, to my work account. Since only the primary account auto uploads I don’t have to worry about any unintended uploads to my work account. A single tap switches between the two.

Google has heavily marketed this app as a space saving feature. Google Photos will, if you choose to do so, remove any photos and videos from your local storage once they are safely stored in the cloud. Apple does a similar thing with iCloud Library, but it still maintains a smaller version of the photo on your local device. With Google Photos you can remove the photo completely, leaving it only in the cloud. If you have a phone with lower storage this can be a huge help. Even if you don’t (my iPhone 7 Plus is 256GB) it still can help reduce iCloud backup sizes. No need to keep the photos in two places.

Reliablity

I have never had an upload issue with Google Photos. Ever. Only once did I have a problem at all, with the iPad app not displaying new photos uploaded from other devices. The fix was simply to delete the app and reinstall. That was it. When I had to do this with iCloud Photo Library it took hours for the photos to clear from my device (you can’t delete Photos.app, only turn off iCloud).

I can load photos from anywhere. If I am on my work computer all I have to do is open Chrome and upload the photo. Then sign out if I don’t want to keep everything there. While iCloud has a web app for photos, it is extremely basic. Google gives me the whole experience.

Another selling point of Google Photos is its ability to search. Given that it is Google this is not a surprise. But still it is amazing just how accurate this feature is. Apple is trying the same thing, but Google does it faster, more reliably, and can sync everything across the web. Privacy concerns aside, and I will say that I do trust Google to do the right thing, it makes me feel like I can rely on Google much more than Apple when I want to actually find my photos.

Feature Requests

Great as Google Photos is, there are some features they are missing that I would like to see. While search is great on its own, I would like to see some sort of smart album capability. Apple does this well, and its absence in Google Photos makes it a little more difficult to drill down into my library the way I am used to. Another feature from Photos.app that I miss is the ability to create printed products such as books, calendars, and cards. I have used this service extensively over the years and would love to see it built into the places where my photos now live. Having said that, I still keep my old Photos library on an external drive, and will occasionally load photos from Google into it. This way I still have my local photo library and can use those missing features, but I consider Google my true library.

Conclusion

Google Photos is a stellar product. It is all the best parts of Google. Their ability to do a reliable and easy to use web app is unmatched in the industry. Their iOS app is amazingly good, especially considering it is on their main competitor’s platform. While there are certainly people who are wary of Google due to the sheer amount of information they collect, I think Google has proven that, a few lapses in judgement aside, they have been respectful of user’s privacy in relation to this service. Despite Apple’s improvements in iCloud, I see no reason to return. Google Photos gets large feature upgrades frequently, not once a year. Ultimately I trust Google more. I trust that when I sync data to their servers it will work. Apple has a way to go to reach this level of trust for me. And that is okay. The iPhone is the best camera you can get on a smartphone. The fact that someone else provides the best place to keep those photos does not take away from that fact for me.

My Year with Google Photos was last updated December 14th, 2016 by Michael Truskowski