The battle for your photos is heating up, with both Apple and Google making a play for your memories
We take hundreds, if not thousands, of photos with our phones. A quick snap of our lunch, a view on a sunny day or a blurry attempt to capture a night out. Basically, anything we see. And with the cameras in our phones getting better all the time, there’s less reason to haul around a dedicated point-and-shoot snapper everywhere you go. You’ve got the perfect camera with you all the time, right in your pocket.
Taking the photos is all well and good. But the real issue is what to do with them next. Gone, for most anyway, are the days of having everything printed out and neatly arranged in albums, with the more likely outcome being they’ll get dumped in a folder on your desktop and left.
But there is a better way. A much better way, in fact. Both Google and Apple have recently come out with solutions that should finally help you make sense of all your photos, keep them synced across all your devices, and give you an easy way to make them look even better.
We’ve been putting both these services through their paces for the last week and, as it turns out, they’re actually both very impressive. Neither is perfect, but they’re far and away the finest two photo storage and sharing solutions out there.
But which one is right for you? Let’s take a look and see.
The hardest thing about both of these services is the initial setup. Once you’ve sorted this out you should hopefully never have to fuss around trying to find those old photos again.
We say hardest, but both iCloud Photo Library and Google Photos try to make initial setup as simple as possible. For Google’s entrant there are a couple of ways to do this, but we settled on downloading the bulk uploader from photos.google.com and doing it that way. You could also forego a download completely and use the web uploader, but then you’ll have to remember not to accidentally close the tab in your browser.
Once you’ve installed the uploader, which works on Mac, Windows and Chrome OS, you can point it towards a folder, or folders, and it’ll get to work adding your snaps to Google’s servers. It’s all very simple and straightforward, but the upload itself will take quite a while. We were working with just over 3000 photos and we had to leave it to do its magic overnight, which isn’t too much of a hassle, as you’ll only have to do this initial import once.
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Apple’s iCloud Library works slightly differently. First off you’re restricted to either using the native Mac app, which was part of the latest Yosemite update, or the iCloud.com web uploader. But if you’ve already had your photos in iPhotos or Aperture, then you’ll be prompted to transfer. That process is painless, as it’s just altering the location of the photos. We also imported files from our computer – again this is just as simple as clicking ‘Import’ and pointing it towards your files.
iCloud seemed generally quicker than Google Photos, but its main advantage was that it actually told you how the process was going, giving you a visible guide to how many photos were being uploaded and how long it would take. Google Photos was less clear.
Both services let you upload snaps directly from your phone, great for those who had never bothered exporting the photos before. But, keep it mind that while Google Photos has apps for both iOS and Android, iCloud Photo Library is, typically, restricted to just Apple’s own devices and the web.
You’ll also have to have the Google Photos app open on your iPhone to ensure the upload works – close it and everything will pause.
This is the area where Google takes a substantial lead over Apple, and it might be enough to make quite a lot of people instantly think it’s the way to go.
Google gives you unlimited – yes, completely unlimited – storage for all your photos and videos for absolutely free. It does compress any photo over 16MP and will only accept 1080p footage (no 4K storage here), but we found the compressed results to look almost as good as the real thing, with hardly any loss of quality. If you really want to store the full-res photo, you can buy some extra Google Drive storage. $9.99 a month gets you 1TB, which is pretty affordable in our eyes.
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Completely free storage for all your photos and videos seems like a unbeatable deal, so how does Apple counter? Well, not very well.
As iCloud Photo Library works through – yeah, you guessed it – iCloud, you only have your meager 5GB of storage to start off with. If you want to add more, it’ll cost you. We plumped for 20GB (0.79p) a month, although if you want 1TB you’re looking at £14.99. If you have any sort of photo collection you’ll need this extra space, as that initial 5GB would get sucked up pretty quickly through iOS backups.
Google hands-down wins this round. Not only does it offer much cheaper storage prices generally, but this enticing prospect of free uploads is just too good of an offer to pass up. Even if it does mean Google has access to years and years of your personal photos.
Apps & Sharing
So, you’ve got everything uploaded and worked out the best storage scheme. Now it’s time to actually tie this whole thing together. The apps are pretty important in this whole ‘getting all your photos together’ equation. If they’re rubbish, slow and buggy then you’ll never want to use them and you may as well have kept your photos in that folder on your desktop.
Thankfully, both Apple and Google have impressed again. Google’s suite of apps, which is available across the web, Android and iOS, is visually simplistic. There’s a lot of white, with your snaps all laid out in a mosaic pattern.
Google Photos is far from simple under the hood, though – in fact it’s one of the most fully featured photo storage solutions out there. The app will scan your snaps and smartly arrange them into relevant albums. So if you’ve taken a load of foody snaps or are partial to, say, plants the app will intelligently group these together and push them to the front. It’ll also group together places and faces – it managed to recognise someone all the way from birth to their mid-20s, which is very impressive.
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As it’s Google, you won’t be surprised that searching through your photos is also great. Type ‘Australia’ and it’ll bring up all the matching pictures. You can even be less broad – we searched ‘phones’ and it matched that to all the pictures of phones we'd ever taken. It’s pretty clever, and saves you trawling through years of old photos to find the one you’re looking for.
While Apple’s Photos app is no doubt pretty, it just isn’t backed up by the same feature set held by Google Photos. You have to manually create your own albums, though it does group together photos taken in the same place. One thing we do like about Apple’s attempt is that you can zoom completely out and see all the photos you’ve taken, scrubbing through to see each to get a preview. It’s smooth on both iPhone and Mac, and fun to use.
The overall search is poor, though. We tried the same searches we did on Google Photos and while it found the ones that had been geotagged with 'Australia', it didn’t match any results to a search for ‘phones’.
You’ll also be able to use both services to share your snaps with others. We did like Apple’s Photo interpretation here. You can share your albums to selective email addresses and others can come back, commenting on ‘how lovely your holiday looks’. Well, unless they’re not very nice. Google’s interpretation is pretty similar, letting you share albums with others and quickly shoot off snaps to social networks directly.
While neither of these apps can match the smarts of Photoshop, Lightroom or dedicated mobile apps such as VSCO Cam when it comes to photo editing, they’re pretty handy for basic touch-ups and making things look a bit more presentable.
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Apple’s desktop effort is built upon iPhoto and lets you increase brightness and contrast, play around with sharpening tools and add a vignette. The slider input method and live preview of your changes are great, making it really easy to quickly turn a mediocre shot into a much better one. Also, all the changes you make on your computer will instantly change on your iOS device, and vice versa, which is a nice touch. There’s a good, if limited, filter selection, too.
Google’s effort is pretty much the same. Basic filters, brightness controls and sharpening are all present, as is a nice auto-tone effect that instantly adds a bit of extra life to the shots.
Apple just wins out on the editing side of things for us, as its options run a bit deeper and seem more ‘professional’. The finished article also tended to look much better coming from iCloud Photos, with less of a ‘fake’ sheen being added. We also preferred Apple’s auto-enhance tool, as it, again, looked much more realistic than Google’s slightly too bright finished article. But that’s something you’ll probably only notice if you directly compare the two.
While Apple and Google are the relative newbies on the scene, there are a few other stand-out services out there if you’re a little apprehensive about handing over your most intimate snaps to companies with a history of lax privacy controls cough iCloud leak cough.
Our ‘pick of the rest’ is Flickr. Which has actually just seen a rather nice design spruce-up across its suite of apps. It works a bit like Google Photos, so you can either add your snaps directly through the site or download a handy batch uploader and it’ll fish them out from your desktop.
You get 1TB of free storage, which is pretty much unlimited in our books, and it won't downgrade the resolution. It’ll keep your snaps synced through the multiple smartphone apps, let you make basic edits and share with other users. The interface isn’t quite on par with either Apple or Google’s efforts and we found upload exceedingly slow, but if you want plenty of free storage then it’s still a good pick.
There’s also Dropbox which, while it doesn’t offer up anywhere near enough space for free, does have a really nice app and website in the form of Carousel. It's easy to use, smooth even when you’ve got thousands of pictures and the sharing will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever used Dropbox before. But it lacks even the most basic of editing features, and that’s a shame.
If you’ve left it this long to finally do something about your photos, you’re in luck. After spending a lot of time tirelessly setting up both Apple iCloud Photo Library and Google Photos and using them as our only photo solution, we can say that we’ll keep on using them and our snaps will never be lost in the deep, dark depths of some random folder again.
If you’re a full-on Apple user with iPad, Mac, Apple TV and iPhone, we’d say your best off with the Cupertino brand’s solution. Its native support, both on OS X and iOS 8, is a winner and it ties in so well with all your devices. Take a photo on your iPhone and it’ll appear on your Mac, iPad and will be viewable on the Apple TV pretty much instantly, all without you having to do anything. That’s a big plus for anyone.
But if you only half live your life in the Apple bubble then Google Photos is far and away the winner. For one, it’s available on both Android and iOS. So if you switch devices your photos won’t be stuck on your old iPhone. Pair that with the awesome search, almost creepily clever face matching and the bundling of similar images together and you’ve got an enticing package. Oh, and it’s completely free with unlimited storage, which is pretty fantastic.