Google has finally built a straightforward, standalone service that intelligently organizes your entire photo collection. Google Photos, as it's called, has apps for Android and iOS, plus a Web presence, all designed to be your one and only digital photo library.
Like its earlier incarnations in Google+, the revamped Photos service stores your photos in the cloud and organizes them into albums automatically. What's changed is that Google is offering free photo storage (some conditions apply) and more tools to make the most of your photos, such as adding custom effects and creating GIFs.
The new Google Photos is a winner, thanks to seamless backups, automatic organization and plenty of tools to make special projects. Though it may lack the free storage space for uncompressed photos that Flickr has or the chance to print out pictures like you can with Shutterfly, Google Photos is a top choice for wrangling your digital photos.
Free service -- with a catch
The biggest selling point of Photos is that it's free with a Google account, but there's a bit of a catch. There are two options for backing up your photos: High-Quality and Original resolution.
The High-Quality option gives you free, unlimited storage, but your photos must be 16 megapixels or less, and video must be 1080p resolution or lower (so no 4K video). Photos and video you upload that are larger than 16 megapixels or 1080p are compressed to that size or lower in order to save space.
With the Original resolution plan, you can backup photos and videos at their full resolution, just as they were when they were recorded, but those files count towards your Google account storage limits. You get 15GB of free storage with a Google account, and that is divided between Gmail, Google Drive and Google Photos. You can purchase additional storage, starting at $2 per month for 100GB.
For most of us taking photos with a smartphone, the High-Quality plan will suffice, since the vast majority of smartphone cameras capture photos smaller than 16 megapixels. You may even be able to get enough of storage out of the Original option too, since 15GB is enough for a few thousand 10-megapixel JPEG photos. Just keep in mind that if you use Google Drive or Gmail, you probably have less than 15GB of free space available.
It's a different story if you're looking to store large raw-format or JPEG photos, such as those taken with a dSLR. Those photos will get compressed with the High Quality option, or quickly max out your space with the free 15GB Original plan, because the files tend to be large. In that case, you'll likely need to pay a monthly fee for extra space in Google Photos or consider opting for competing service Flickr, which gives you 1TB for free. Another option is Amazon Prime Photos, which gives you free, unlimited storage with a Prime subscription.
Back up your pics
With the Google Photos apps, there's an automatic backup feature that saves every photo or video you capture with your phone once you take it. When you first set up the app and turn this on, any existing photos and videos on your device are uploaded to the service.
The Android app lets you choose which photo folders on your phone you want backed up, which is particularly helpful if you don't want your downloads, screenshots or Instagrams saved to Google Photos. Both apps let you decide if you want to upload images over your data plan, or stick with Wi-Fi only.
On the Web at photos.google.com, you can also drag and drop photos and entire folders from your computer to add them to your library. Once synced to your account, photos and videos are accessible everywhere, with the Photos app on your phone or tablet and the website.
Getting around the apps
The new Google Photos apps look nearly identical to the Photos app that's shipped with Android devices for the last several years, but with a closer look you'll see some big differences. Google introduced pinch gestures in order to reduce the seemingly endless amount of scrolling required to navigate through a large library. On the app's main page, images are ordered chronologically by day, but with a few pinches, you can zoom out to see photos grouped by month and year. You can also zoom all the way in on individual photos.
Instead of tediously tapping every individual photo to select it for sharing or deleting, you can tap one photo and drag your finger around to select other pictures en masse. The zoom and selection gestures feel fluid, allowing you to move through the app efficiently.
The app's menu slides out from the left side, where you can jump to your collections and assistant (more on both below), deleted photos, shared links and settings.
The design and navigation is similar on the Google Photos website, but as of this review, the site has several bugs and performance issues. Often times features wouldn't load, and occasionally photos wouldn't upload when selected from my computer. It has many of the same features as the apps, but until it gets more stable, you're better off using Google Photos on your phone or tablet.
Your own photo assistant
Google Photos introduces a brand-new tool called Assistant that serves to help you organize your photos. Like Google Now, the Assistant is a dashboard with cards of useful information. In Photos' case, this is where you can check on the progress of your photo backups and check out photo projects that the app creates for you.