Review : Picasa for Mac

Edit, organize, and manipulate your images on your Mac.

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Product Manufacturer: Google

Price: Free

The Good

  • Free.
    Fast - especially with large libraries.
    Many features.
    Good tagging facilities.
    Face recognition better than iPhoto.
    Easy to share photos with other people or services.
    Doesn't make a copy of all your photos.

The Bad

  • Interface is very strange with no consistency among elements.
    Ignores Mac interface design, such as sheets, dialogs, and window views.
    Looks like a Windows program.
    A few bugs.
Google Picasa is a free application designed to "view, edit, and organize the photos on your computer." It does not move your photos from your folders, but simply displays them according to preferences you choose. Four updates have been released in the last three months, and the latest addition brings it to version 3.6.1. Picasa doesn't automatically store your photos online, but if you choose to use Picasa Web Albums, you have 1GB to store photos and video. Version 3.6 adds Picasa Web's collaborative albums, in which you can upload pictures to Google's Picasa web service, and place them not only in your own albums, but in your friends' albums as well, once your friend has given you permission to do so. If you want more storage, you can buy 20GB for $5/yr or in higher increments. This review focuses on major features added in version 3.5. When you first start Picasa, it presents you with two photo search choices: Have Picasa search for pictures in a your Documents or Pictures folder, and your iPhoto library, or have it search your entire disk. Personally, I didn't care for either of those options; I wanted to tell Picasa what folder to search, but no such luck. In Ilene's case, this resulted in hundreds of software screen shots added into her photo library, which was not wanted. However, once you choose one of these options, you can change your mind later, and restrict Picasa to look just where you want.


Photo Search Dialog

The dialog window to add a folder of pictures to Picasa looks like something from Windows 98, all big chunky icons, and a strange tree view. Mac OS X has a built-in sheet to let users select a folder, and I don't know why Google did not use that sheet.


Folder Manager

One notable feature added in 3.5 is name tags, which is the ability to look through your photos and identify people's faces. Version 3.6 further improved that feature. After you've given a name to a person in a picture, Picasa searches through the rest of your photos and asks you to confirm whether all the faces it finds is the same person, which helps you identify all the people in your photo collection. iPhoto 8, part of iLife '09, introduced a similar feature, called Faces back in January, but Picasa does a better, faster job.


Name Tag Gallery View - Ilene's Mom and Dad

I have 5000 old family photos, which I put in a read-only folder, and told Picasa to search that folder. It found them all reasonably quickly, and started looking for faces. When I tried this with iPhoto, it got very slow with 5000 large pictures and insisted on copying them all into the iPhoto library, which ate up 14 GB of disk space. Picasa's solution worked much better.

Main Gallery View

Picasa's main window shows you all of your pictures in a gallery view. You can create albums for subset of photos, which Google refers to as a playlist for your pictures. There are many operations that you can choose, including edit or upload a photo, send it via email, share it, map it or create a slideshow. You can use filters to show a subset of your pictures, by date, size, tag, or star rating. All good, powerful stuff, however, the user interface details for this window are very odd. First, the control on the right that looks like a scroll bar, doesn't act like a scroll bar. It is more like a jog wheel, because you can drag the thumb up to scroll up, but when you let go, it snaps back to the middle, no matter if you are at the top, middle, or the bottom of the list. The image below shows the first of 4000 images in the album, yet the jog-wheel control is in the center and is a fixed size.


Odd Scroll Bar on Right - Marshall's Family

A very subtle shadow appears to show how far down you scrolled in the list, but it is so faint that I don't think it appears in the screenshot above. The arrows at each end of the control work like scroll bar arrows should, but they move your display by folder, not individual photos. It is a poor implementation of a scroll bar and some folks who posted Picasa tutorials on YouTube claimed it took them a while to get used to how it works. Interestingly enough, when you switch over to the gallery for finding faces, a real scroll bar appears.


Normal Scroll Bar on Right - Marshall's Family

Second, when you use the bottom slider to resize your photos, it jumps to other folders, if you make your photos too small or too large. This is confusing.

Once you have identified someone by name, Picasa shows you what it thinks are other pictures of the same person. You have two choices for each picture: Confirm and Ignore. I think that there should be three options: "Yes-this is the right person," "No-this is not the right person," and "Ignore this face from all matches, present and future." For example, I have many pictures of family members at various ages. Some of the pictures are school class photos, and I really only care about one or two of the 20 or 30 people in the picture. I want to be able to tell Picasa to ignore those people.


Ignore People Dialog

When you choose ignore this face, it puts it in a special "Ignored people" collection from which you can retrieve and name the person later, if you change your mind. When Ilene tried to identify photos of her mother, Picasa added half her nursery school class to the suggestions, including boys, which is strange.


Picasa 3.5 also introduced the ability to geotag your photos, which associates a place with each photo, so you can remember where you took the shot. It also shows you a map in Google Maps, with the locations of your photos displayed on the map. The Places tab on the bottom opens a map inside the Picasa window, but a separate pane or sheet would have looked better, because the present implementation compresses your photo view.


Location Mapping

The Tag tab and Quick Tag buttons were added in 3.5 to help streamline that process. You can define your own tags, assign any tag to any photo, and search on those tags. The bottom of the tag window includes spaces for your Quick Tags. I like to assign tags to each picture based on the occasions pictured, such as my sister's 4th birthday, for example. I have this information stored external to Picasa, but I couldn't find any way to get the data into Picasa other than by typing it. There is no AppleScript interface to Picasa, or support for Automator actions that I could find.

Google makes it very easy to share your photos with others in Picasa. There are simple mechanisms to upload your photos to Picasa Web Albums, Facebook, YouTube, and other services. You can import pictures from Picasa Web Albums as well.

Picasa also includes many different ways to search your photos. There is a spotlight style search box in the upper right corner of the main window. I typed "2808" into that box and found five images. The first one I expected; it was named 2808-Front. The next four puzzled me, until I realized that they were each 2808 pixels wide. You can also search by tag, date, and star rating.

Edit Your Shots

The photo editing capabilities of Picasa are legion. There are a whole set of one-click adjustments that you can make to your photos, as well as many more complicated ones. For example, you can straighten out a crooked picture, brighten or darken an image, remove redeye, and fix minor blemishes. If you want to crop an image, Picasa gives you a lengthy list of predefined ratios, ranging from 3x5 to 16x9 or 10x14. This is handy if you plan to print a photo and want to get the proportions right. Picasa also has a large set of Effects, which alter your photos in artistically pleasing ways. You can create black and white or sepia prints, apply a tint, create a soft-focus shot, and many others. When you edit a photo in Picasa, it automatically saves a copy of the picture, so that your original remains intact. Picasa


Photo Editing Tools

Display or Print

Picasa includes a number of other useful features. You can create a mosaic of selected prints in a number of formats or create a contact sheet of thumbnails. Any of these display formats can further be set for the particular device you want to use to view the photos, such as widescreen monitor, standard screen, or to print on paper. You can even create a movie with different transitions between the photos, but Ilene didn't find a way to add background music. It isn't an elegant solution and there are not a lot of options, but it is a quick and easy way to create a slideshow.

The print screen lets you set layouts for multiple prints, set border and text options, plus print multiple copies. A print dialog that integrates with the Mac OS might have been a better solution than the print window provided, but it does the job adequately.

User Interface Foibles Abound

There are buttons at the top center of the window, labeled Filters. Next to them is a slider to filter your photos by date range. How it works is a mystery. When you move the slider from the start position, you cannot collapse any of the album or folder views on the left side of the window. The 3.6.1 update seems to have corrected missing tool tips over all of the button controls

Another interface design problem rests with the program's desire to be a do-everything photo application. To that end, there are buttons or controls across the top of the main window plus two tiers of buttons on the bottom. Some buttons change your display, some open dialogs, some are sliders, and some open other windows. The menu bar includes a whole range of options not covered by all of the buttons. Basically, you don't know what you'll get until you click something. This makes Picasa's learning curve more complex than you want. They should have spent more time developing a coherent user interface.

In addition to the interface oddities, I found a couple of bugs. The Remove redeye tool failed, complaining, "The disk may be full or read-only." This wasn't correct, although the folder that contains the images is read-only, but that is different. Also, Picasa failed to display one photo correctly; it scrambled it into several horizontal bands. Preview, Safari, Firefox, and GraphicConverter displayed the photo just fine, so I think the problem is in Picasa.

If you find that the available photo software tools do not solve your photo editing, face recognition, rating system, or display needs for your photos, Picasa may be a good tool for you. It doesn't offer the robust specialty photo editing of Adobe Photoshop Elements, nor does it take advantage of the Mac OS X interface and tools, such as Quick Look or scroll bars that work, but the price is right.