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Google Picasa 3.9 review

Our Rating :

Astoundingly quick, and well equipped to meet the needs of casual photographers

Anyone who believes that you get what you pay for hasn’t used Google’s free photo management and editing software. It’s incredibly quick, scrolling effortlessly through thumbnails of tens of thousands of photos. Search results appear literally before you’ve finished typing. For example, searching for ‘Kirsty’, it had found 6,000 matching photos by the time we’d typed the first four letters. Search results aren’t just for tagged faces – filenames and extensions, containing folder names, even EXIF metadata such as camera model and ISO speed are all searchable too.

Google Picasa face detection
Picasa’s face detection is spookily accurate

Picasa pioneered face detection for photo tagging, and it still amazes us with its accuracy. Someone might be gurning in a dark corner of a photo, wearing a hat and oversized sunglasses, and Picasa will still figure out who they are. Tagged faces sync automatically with Google+ rather than Facebook, which is fair enough seeing as this is a Google product, but it’ll be a drawback for a lot of people.

On the upside, Google+ presents online photo albums attractively, and you can just email friends a link – they needn’t have Google+ accounts. Picasa’s mapping functions are nicely implemented, too, but only photos in the selected folder or album are shown on the map. It can’t show all your geo-tagged photos on the map at the same time.

Google Picasa geo-tagging
Geo-tagging is straightforward and effective, but only the selected folder is shown on the map

Picasa’s handling of video files isn’t so impressive, relying mostly on third-party decoders that users must install separately, and with patchy support for the popular AVCHD format. Thumbnails for videos can take a long time to be created, and playback can be extremely slow to start. This can be particularly frustrating when viewing a slideshow of photos, only to be interrupted by an unresponsive video in the same folder.

We recently experienced a barrage of error messages, which we resolved by reinstalling the ffdshow plug-in, but then some files stopped playing altogether. This could be an isolated incident, but it highlighted the lack of support available for this free product. The online Help files have various frustrating omissions – this was one, and another is how to migrate a Picasa installation to a different PC.

The non-destructive workflow means that it’s tricky for the developers to improve on existing editing functions without upsetting users’ edit databases. This possibly explains why Picasa’s colour-correction facilities haven’t changed for as long as we can remember.

Google Picasa colour correction
Colour correction is pretty basic, and isn’t up to the task of processing raw files

Manual colour correction includes the ability to boost mid-tones and highlights and to darken shadows, but not vice versa. There aren’t even basic brightness and contrast tools, although the Auto Contrast button often does a pretty good job. Raw format support is extremely comprehensive, which is great for library management, but the colour correction tools are nowhere near being up to scratch for raw processing.

Meanwhile, Picasa misses out on one of the most useful virtues of non-destructive editing. Edits can be undone at any time, perhaps days or years later, but they’re presented as a linear undo history. That means you have to step back through the editing history until you get to the process you want to undo, rather than simply re-adjust it, as other non-destructive editors let you do. The one exception – thankfully – is the Crop tool, which can be readjusted at any time.

Google Picasa creative effects
The creative effects library is relatively small and control is limited, but there are a few attractive filters in there

The creative effects are slowly growing in number and now total 36. These include simple Sepia and Saturation effects, some attractive filters, including Glow, Lomo-ish, Orton-ish and Cross Process, and quite a few less successful ones, such as Heat Map, HDR-ish and Neon. Most come with minimal controls.

It’s for these reasons that Picasa scores badly for photo editing. We happily use it to crop photos and rescue the odd bad exposure, but for any occasion when we want the best possible image quality, it won’t be found here.

It might be worth having Picasa installed just for photo management, but it’s worth paying for superior editing functions, such as for Adobe Photoshop Elements 11. Various editors now include excellent library management too, so Picasa is no longer the must-have application it once was.


Price £0
Rating ****

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