Losing your smartphone these days is more than just an expensive hassle. With most handsets doubling as our primary cameras, it can mean the loss of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of treasured memories.
That’s why if you haven’t done so already, you really should set your phone to automatically back up every picture you snap to the cloud. If you’re tech savvy, you’ve probably been doing this, so kudos to you.
But if you take a lot of pictures you’ll no doubt have encountered one of the drawbacks of cloud services like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Apple iCloud and Google Drive – once you’ve used up the limited amount of free storage on offer you have to start paying if you want to keep your precious pictures backed up.
With these services priced in dollars, this can easily run to hundreds of rands a year. The good news is that Google’s just gone and upset the apple cart in favour of cash-strapped consumers.
It’s now offering unlimited free photo uploads. Yes, you read that correctly. Unlimited. Free.
There are a few caveats, though. Each picture has to be 16 megapixels or smaller and videos cannot be bigger than 1080p. Larger items get compressed.
I think that’s plenty big enough for most ordinary mortals, but professional photographers and serious hobbyists will still need to pay for the peace of mind and convenience of cloud storage, although most of them won’t be capturing their masterpieces on a cellphone camera.
To take advantage of the service you’ll need a smartphone or camera equipped-tablet running Google’s Android operating system or Apple’s iOS.
You’ll need to download and install the free Google Photos app from your phone’s app store. If you own an Android phone you may have already encountered the app. Till now it’s been bundled with the Google Plus, the search giant’s own social network, but Photos is now a stand-alone app.
Once it’s installed you’ll be prompted to start uploading your pictures to Google’s cloud. If you already have lots of images stored on your phone it may initially take several hours (possibly days if you have a slow internet connection) to upload them, but every new picture you snap should be whisked up to the cloud automatically and quickly.
The app’s default setting is to only upload pics when you’re connected to a wi-fi network and I’d advise leaving it like that, unless you have a particularly generous mobile data bundle.
All of your pics will remain private until you choose to share them. Until now you had to use Google Plus to do this which, frankly, was a bit of a chore. Google’s wisely ditched this requirement and you can now easily post photos to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.
You can also e-mail someone a link to a pic or video and they’ll be able to view it even if they don’t have the Google Photos app, great news for your technophobic relatives or friends.
One of my favourite features of the app is the way Google organises your photos once they’re uploaded. Tap the search icon and you’ll be presented with two broad categories, “Places” and “Things”. In some countries they have a third category, “People”, but for some reason that hasn’t been enabled for many regions, including South Africa, yet.
Examples of “Places” in my app include City of London, Durban, Kloof and Westville and, as you’d expect, each is populated with pictures taken in those places. I’m guessing it’s fairly simple for Google to sort these pictures using GPS and wi-fi info captured along with the visual data each time you snap a pic.
But it’s the “Things” category that verges on creepy it’s so clever. These include cars, food, flowers and dogs and, with a few hilarious exceptions, is amazingly accurate. Somehow, Google’s artificial intelligence is able to recognise these objects in your pics and sort them accordingly.
I’m told by overseas colleagues who have used the “People” search that it too is eerily accurate, sorting friends, family and acquaintances even though they haven’t been tagged or otherwise identified.
All this makes it a breeze to search through thousands of images to find that one of Aunt Mabel and her poodle Fifi snapped on your visit to Pofadder three, or was it four, years ago?
If you’re using a mobile device that doesn’t have the Google Photos app (Windows Phone is one of those omissions) Google’s decision to make the service free is probably still good news. It will put huge pressure on other cloud storage services to follow suit and I predict you’ll see a lot more free storage coming your way soon.