What is Google Photos and Should You Be Using It?

It's got a lot of features that set it apart from a built-in Gallery app

photo album of family at farm
Kohei Hara / Getty Images

Have you tried Google Photos yet? At first glance, it may simply look like another basic Gallery app, but it actually has more in common with Google Drive. It's much more than a simple photo repository; it backs up your photos across multiple devices, has automatic organization features, and a smart search tool. Google Photos also allows commenting on photos, and the ability to easily share albums and individual images with your contacts.

Google Photos is an updated version Google+Photos, which essentially unties it from the much-mocked social network. The company will begin phasing out Google+Photos on Android, Web, and iOS on the 1st of August. Picasa, the popular photo app will also be retired.

Search, Share, Edit, and Backup

One of the most notable features is search. Google Photos automatically assigns tags to your photos based on location, facial recognition, and image type, such as selfie, screenshot, video, and then creates folders for each. It even classifies animals and objects. In my account, there's a folder called horses, that includes jousting photos from a local Renaissance Faire and a misclassified camel. (To be fair, the picture only captures the upper portion of said camel.) Oddly, the cars album includes several photos of people and things that are most definitely not cars including the Nashville Parthenon, a Citi Bike, and a photo of myself.

I'll this particular feature hit or miss, for now.

You can use any search term to find a particular photo, such as the location, subject, or season. In my tests, this feature was on point, displaying accurate results for cities such as Nashville, where I recently visited, and even finding the sole picture of my Furby when I used that search term.

(Yes, I have a Furby and I'm not afraid to admit it.) Using facial recognition, Google Photos groups together photos of the same person so you can find them easily. You can also tag photos with the person's name or nickname so you can always find their pictures. This function is called "group similar faces," and you can turn it on or off in the settings. I was impressed that it successfully grouped together most of my photos of family and friends. It even managed to group together pictures of my friend's young daughter at a variety of ages, though it filed them in two different folders. (So close!)

As with a Gallery app, you can share photos from Google Photos to other apps, such as social media or messages, but you can also create a unique link to share a photo with a friend, as you can with Flickr and the like. You can also create shared albums that others can add photos to, handy for a wedding or other special event. For all albums, you can allow people to view-only, add photos, and/or comment on them; you can change permissions at any time.

Google Photos' editing features take it up a notch, with the ability to crop, rotate, and adjust color, exposure, lighting, and add Instagram-like filters.

The date and time stamp can also be changed. You can also select several photos and turn them into an animation or a collage or even a movies. As I mentioned, Google Photos automatically creates folders, but you can also create your own photo albums.

Finally, you can use Google Photos to backup all of your photos and videos to the cloud and then access them from other devices, including your desktop and tablet. If you're worried about using too much data, you can set backups to occur only over Wi-Fi. You can choose to back up the original uncompressed versions or a compressed "high quality" version.

High quality offers unlimited storage, while original is limited to the available storage in your Google account. You can add a Google Photos folder to your Google Drive so you can have all of your important files in one place. There's also an option to free up space by deleting photos and videos from your device that have already been backed up. This is a good time to remind you to regularly backup your Android device.

Google Photos vs. Built-in Gallery apps from HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung

Each Android manufacturer supplies a Gallery app to store your photos, which you can use instead of or along with Google Photos. Gallery apps vary depending on the manufacturer. Samsung's actually has a pretty good search function, automatically tagging your photos with available location information, keywords (beach, snow, etc.), and organizing them by the date/time. It includes basic editing tools, but not filters. Motorola's Gallery app includes editing tools and filters as well as facial recognition. You can also create a highlight reel out of your favorite photos. Most Gallery apps have sharing and basic editing features, depending on your device and the version of the Android OS it's running. The main distinction with Google Photos is the backup feature, which ensures you don't have to worry about losing important photos if you lose your device or upgrade to a new one.

While you can use both Google Photos and your built-in Gallery app at the same time, you'll have to choose one as the default app. Luckily, Android makes it easy to set and change default apps by going into your settings. You may also want to explore camera apps beyond the one built into your device. Third-party camera apps, many of which are free, offer features such as image stabilization, panorama mode, filters, a timer, and more.