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 look like just another Gallery app, but it 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.

It's an updated version Google+Photos, which essentially unties it from the much-mocked social network. Google has retired Google+Photos and the popular photo app Picasa.

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 our experience, this feature started out pretty hit-or-miss (mistaking people for cars and the like), but it's gotten a lot smarter since we have begun using Photos.

You can use any search term to find a particular photo, such as the location, subject, or season. In our tests, this feature was on point, displaying accurate results for photos from a trip to Nashville. Using facial recognition, Google Photos groups together pictures 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. We were impressed with the accuracy of this feature in our tests. 

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 an image 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 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. You can also change the date and time stamp. You can also select several photos and turn them into an animation or a collage or even a movies. The app automatically creates folders, but you can also create 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. The high-quality option includes unlimited storage, while the "original" option 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 necessary 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. Here's a reminder 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 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 primary 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.

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