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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Review: Picasa

I love Picasa, as much as it is possible for me to love a computer program I didn't write. You might think that it's ingenuous for a Google employee to review a Google product, but when I talk about features of Picasa to other Googlers, they always say, "I didn't know that Picasa can do that!" So think of this as a "Picasa secrets" guide if you wish.

First of all, Picasa is blazingly fast. In fact, I once timed it running in a virtual machine on MacOS X, and even in a virtualized window, Picasa starts up faster than iPhoto running native. Picasa does everything that I as a software engineer would want to do to improve the user experience --- background threads do the thumbnails generation and indexing, unlimited undo and redo is provided because image manipulations are not done on the image itself, but rather, a record of the manipulations are done so you never lose data. (In fact, this trips up a number of naive users because you have to use "Save a copy" if you want a copy of the picture on disk)

I also run Picasa on my EEE PC. What? I'm insane, right? That thing's got a 4GB hard drive, so how could it possibly store the gigabytes of photos that a modern digital camera produces? The answer is, it can't. But I can use Picasa on the EEE PC to show pictures directly off the SD card. The way you do this is that rather than tell Picasa to import the pictures, you use the "Add Folder to Library" feature, and add the entire SD card. This displays all the pictures taken so far on that card, and now you can use the slide show feature, delete the pictures you don't want, etc. All at the hyper-fast Picasa speed. Ah ha, the veteran computer user says, what happens if I pop that SD card out? Picasa gracefully sees that the folder has disappeared, and you no longer get to manipulate those pictures. No problems whatsoever.

During the Virgin Islands trip, members of the Rya Jen crew started worrying about losing their pictures or their cameras or their SD cards. So I offered to back up their pictures for them. To do so, I plugged in my 20GB ipod to the EEE PC, then plugged the SD card into the laptop. When importing the pictures, Picasa has a dialog box that by defaults dumps the pictures into your documents folder(and as another example of thoughtful design --- Picasa starts generating and showing you the thumbnails while presenting you with that dialog box!). Look for the browse button and redirect it to your ipod (which must be data capable, of course). Viola! All the pictures get sucked over to the 20GB ipod instead of the 4GB EEE PC hard drive, and everyone's pictures got backed up that way. (Incidentally, the ipod is by far the best external storage solution for the EEE PC, though you don't really want to leave it attached when you're on battery because it's a major power suck) One note about this feature, please leave the radio button for "leave the pictures on the SD card" setting untouched.

I've also mentioned that the "I'm feeling lucky" button for image manipulation does everything right for underwater pictures. Use it liberally, since you can always undo if you don't like the results. The straighten feature is also great for pictures that are just a bit lopsided, and it works amazingly well. You can also create photo albums from existing pictures --- the quick way to do that is to apply the star to the pictures you like to select, and then "select starred", then say, "copy to album." This does not physically create a copy, but instead creates an album that names them. This way you can create multiple albums from a single photo shoot for different purposes.

I hope this review gives you an idea of the power of Picasa, how it can be used, and what the possibilities are. If there are any limitations of Picasa, it's mostly that it's manipulation capabilities aren't up there with Adobe Photoshop. But Picasa is free, and Photoshop costs $700 or more, so there you go. And yes, I've tried Lightroom, and Aperture. No contest. Picasa is faster, and better at its job than the expensive programs. It suffices to say that if Picasa ran on the Mac, I might not have reformatted my MacMini to turn it into a windows box. Picasa is highly recommended.


Doug Orleans said...

I was going to leave a smart-ass comment about it not being available for Linux, but I see that it is now. I'll give it another try, though I found it kind of annoying when I tried it on Windows a couple years ago.

DWallach said...

Picasa also plays nicely with Photoshop. You right-click on a picture to get one of those "open with" selections. Of course, Photoshop is then fed your original, unedited picture.

Generally, my pipeline is to first pull my RAW pictures in through Photoshop, where I convert them to JPEG via Adobe Camera Raw, tweaking the settings until I'm generally happy. Then, I let Picasa do the rest. For pictures from my point-and-shoot, I just suck them directly into Picasa and I never look back.

Another clever feature that few people know about is Picasa's integration with a variety of online picture printing services. I can send pictures to the CVS around the corner from my house, which has a nice photo printer. If I'm doing larger print runs, I prefer Costco (where you have a "no autocorrect" option for prints). Picasa doesn't (yet?) support automagic uploads to Costco. For that, you need to export your images to a separate directory and then use Costco's upload service (which "works" with Firefox, but only really rocks using an ActiveX gadget in IE).

Probably the coolest feature that isn't well documented but is easy to use is the ability to take all the edits you've made to one picture and apply them to a whole stack of pictures at once. On the Edit menu are two choices: "Copy All Effects" and "Paste All Effects."

If there was one single feature that really needs an overhaul, it's the red-eye reduction feature. You can do much better in Photoshop. Also, for the "Copy/Paste All Effects", it would be helpful to be able to select a subset of the effects, since you often don't want to apply everything.

Unknown said...

I tried Picasa a couple or more years ago. It wouldn't download correctly and as I understood it, a person had to join Picasa to view my pictures. Is that still the case?

Piaw Na said...

That has not been the case since the advent of PicasaWeb.

mikerowe81 said...

I love Picasa, but my biggest complaint has been its problems with watching network folders. So, I decided to write a program to offer somewhat of a fix. If you want Picasa to watch network folders I would definitely check this out.

d a n i : ) said...

I do like and use picasa but there are couple of things I miss:
Stacks: group pictures shot in a short period of time, and then select the winner.
I does not support RAW from my nikon d300... petty.

Claudia said...

What makes me so happy is that I can add captions. When I get home from my travels and open the files in my Windows XP -- I kept the Xandros install on my Eee as it is blazing fast and does everything I need it to -- all the captions are there, so I don't have to start from scratch.

Incidentally, my Creative Zen Vision:M can also be used as a backup device. However, I no longer bother; the other day I picked up a 16GB SD card for a mere $60 so I just use that. Memory cards are getting cheaper and cheaper these days, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's possible to pick one of those up for $5 or $10 this time next year.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on Picasa!

Admin said...

I've Been Using Photobucket but will likely move all my images to Picasa (when I'm not so lazy, heh).