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.
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