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Google Photos review: Hands-off photo organization meets eye-catching editing tools

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A big draw of Google Photos is Auto-awesome, a tool that automatically enhances certain photos and creates collages, panoramas and even GIFs. It does a great job of sprucing up you photos, either enhancing them with subtle lighting and color changes, or completely overhauling them with a filter. In the Assistant tab, you can see these Auto-awesome projects and save them to your library if you like them, or swipe away the card to discard them. These edits do not change or overwrite your original photos.

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The new search tool does a great job of finding pictures by subject. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Also part of Assistant is a revamped, robust search tool that lets you find photos by typing in a keyword, such as "flowers," "cat" or "baseball." The search tool is really impressive because it's able to seek out colors and other nuanced queries. You can also browse categories that Google has detected from you library, or faces it recognizes through your photos.

Also worth noting here is that sharing has gotten much better in Photos. You can now select the images, albums or Stories you want to share, and Photos will generate a link you can send to others or post on social media. Even better, other people don't need to sign up for or download Google Photos to see what you shared.

Stories, Albums and Collections

A holdover from the previous Google Photos, but now more prominent is the Stories feature, where Google creates curated albums plotted on a timeline of special moments and trips. It does this by grouping photos you take in a new location (based on your photos' geotags), at an event or around holidays, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, and picking out the best images.

When you start using Google Photos, the service will create Stories from your existing library, where appropriate, and then continue to look for opportunities for new ones. The finished result appears in the Collections tab, where you can browse all of your Stories and albums. Stories have a cover photo, title (auto-generated by Google, but editable) and a timeline-like view of your pictures organized by date, time and location. Wherever it can, the app includes maps of where you went and pins of points of interest (like museums or historical sites). Everything is customizable, and you can change the location pins, add photo captions, and swap out pictures or add new ones.

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Stories have a cover photo (left) and often include maps and other location info. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

However, there's one missing feature -- you cannot add just any photo from your library to a Story that Google automatically creates. When the app creates a Story for you, it also creates a pool of photos it thinks are associated with that vacation, holiday or event. But sometimes it doesn't include all of the photos that should be in that pool, as was the case for me on a recent vacation. Google Photos grabbed photos from the first three days of my trip, but didn't include images from the fourth day. When I edited the Story, by pressing the plus sign, those photos were missing from the available options.

The remedy for this is to create your own Story by selecting the photos you want in your library, tapping the plus sign and selecting Story from the menu. While it requires a little extra work, you'll get the full control over what's included. You can only create Stories manually in the mobile apps, not on the Google Photos website.

The other way to organize photos is with an album, which simply groups the photos you choose. There are no captions or fancy extras here, just a grid of pictures.

Auto-awesome and other editing tools

Google Photos' Auto-awesome tools automatically enhance your images and create collages, GIFs and panoramas where it can, and it is one of my favorite features of the app. Luckily, you can also use those tools manually create projects at will, which makes it even better. There are some rules to follow, but for the most part, you get complete creative freedom.

Select one or more photos and tap the plus sign to see your Auto-awesome options. If you have between 2 and 20 photos with the same subject, you can create an animation (GIF) that stitches all of them together into a moving image. Another option is to create a movie, which is essentially a slideshow video set to music that you pick. Collages combine several photos into one, but unlike Instagram's Layout, you cannot control the design or move photos around.

Google Photos also includes several editing tools for individual photos, where you can adjust the brightness, change the lighting and color, add vignettes, apply filters, crop and use the auto tool to enhance the picture with one step. Missing however is the ability to edit a photo's metadata, including the date.

Conclusion

After spending a week with Google Photos, I'm hooked. It's one of the best photo-storage apps I've used, especially on a phone or tablet. It's has a more streamlined design than Flickr and has more features for organizing your photos than Apple's iCloud Photos.

I'm particularly drawn to the Auto-awesome features, which intelligently create Stories out of my hundreds of photos and turn mundane photos into engaging collages, GIFs and panoramas. The new Assistant feature lets you know when the app creates a GIF or Story, so you don't miss them.

There's not much bad I can say about Google Photos, except that the website needs work and that the free, unlimited storage option can still be limited for some users. However, it's really only a problem if you need to store photos larger than 16-megapixels, and many smartphone cameras are lower than that resolution.

Give Google Photos a try if you're already in the Google ecosystem and want an easy, often hands-off approach to backing up and organizing your pictures. However, if its sheer amount of features seems overwhelming, try out something simpler, like Amazon Prime Photos. Looking for other options? Check out CNET's guide to the most popular photo storage services.

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