Review: Google Pack

Google Pack is designed to be a single, easy-to-use package containing a dozen different desktop applications for personal productivity, communications, security, and just for fun. How well does it work?

Barbara Krasnoff, Contributor

January 23, 2006

13 Min Read

I've always been a fan of independently produced, task-focused, and free (or inexpensive) software. Not only does the low (or nonexistent) price make an application innately attractive, but these types of programs are usually more interesting to investigate, more innovative in their approach, and less invasive than big-name commercial software. Which is why I was eager to try the new Google Pack, Google's collection of original and third-party applications.

The Google Pack is described on Google's "More..." page as "A free collection of essential software." How essential these products are is open to question, but there's no arguing the fact that, for the most part, these are useful utilities.

The apps included in the Google Pack are divided into Google Software (software developed specifically by and/or for Google), Additional Software (useful stuff that the Google staff apparently feels most users will want), and Optional Software (applications that were, apparently, felt to be either less necessary or less attractive). If you go to the Google Pack page, and just download the Pack without any other tweaks, you'll get the software applications in the first two categories. However, you can click on a link called "Add or remove software," where you can remove apps from the download, or add some of those included in the Optional Software category.

Google Pack's Updater lets you install, update, or run apps. (Click for full image.)

Whatever packages you finally choose, they are all brought together via the Google Updater, a basic front-end applet that lets you install and run each application separately or together. The Updater installs with the Pack, lets you monitor the install, and offers an interface where you can run and uninstall various apps, or look for new ones.

Most reasonably experienced computer users will, of course, run the Google Pack apps from the Start menu or the desktop, and you can uninstall them individually as well. But for less savvy users, the Update could be a comfortable aid. Google Software
The main Google-sponsored applications, which come under the category of Google Software, include virtual world tourist Google Earth, photo organizer Picasa, the Google Pack Screensaver, Google Desktop, and the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer.

Google Earth
Google Earth (a service once known as Keyhole, which was bought by Google in 2004) is one of the most fascinating applications out there. It's a veritable time sink, not to mention a party stopper: When my partner fired it up on his system during our annual holiday gala, it eventually drew most of the celebrants, all of whom wanted to see satellite views of their current homes, their childhood homes, various landmarks, national capitals, and military bases. (Well, they were curious...)

Google Earth takes you on a virtual flight to your workplace or famous places. (Click for full image.)

Google Earth lets you view aerial and satellite images from a variety of perspectives, heights, and with overlays of roads, terrains, buildings, and borders. Its practical applications at the free level are limited (although it's great for showing friends exactly where to make that tricky left onto the highway), but few can resist the lure of doing flybys to various parts of their neighborhood and the globe.

Past the experience of simply viewing the tops of your neighborhood buildings, you can use (or, if you're programmatically talented, create) DDL layers to overlay a variety of data (say, local homes for sale, or environmental problem spots) over a Google Earth map. And if you're a real enthusiast, you can invest a $20 annual fee in Google Earth Plus (which gives you higher resolution maps, the ability to use drawing tools and import GPS data, and import spreadsheet data) or $400 for Google Earth Pro (higher resolutions, more spreadsheet data points, more support).

So perhaps there are perhaps some practical applications to this after all. Meanwhile, I'm going to check out the Tower of London...

Picasa is a snazzy image organization app that automatically picks up images from your hard drive, or imports them from your digital camera or external drive, and groups them for you as thumbnails. From there, you can e-mail or print single or multiple photos, send them to a Blogger blog or the photo site Hello (both Google-associated services), etc. Picasa also includes some rudimentary but effective editing features so you can crop, magnify, brighten, or otherwise tweak your photos.

Picasa uses an interesting interface to organized images on the hard drive. (Click for full image.)

While there are more effective and feature-filled products, Picasa's interface is so innovative that I use it simply because I like it. Folders are on a sidebar on the right, while their contents are displayed in the main window. Double-click on a photo, and you can tweak it in various ways, or just page through all the images in the folder. Large icons let you Print, Email, or Export on a moment's notice; you can also create a "Gift CD" containing a built-in slide show, or look at your images via a "Timeline" format, in which the images orbit your screen according to their dates. (I've never found a real use for the Timeline, but it's a lot of fun to watch.)

Sure, Picasa has its problems. Sometimes images will disappear somewhere within its interface, or never show up; and I'd love it if they'd add a screenshot feature. Other than that, though, this is a great way to keep track of your visuals.

Google Desktop
If you're the kind of conflicted person who simultaneously wants a clean desktop and wants all your info available immediately — I mean right now — then Google Desktop is definitely your meat.

The Google Desktop (Click for full image.)

This utility, which grew out of Google's desktop search, offers a variety of informational applets that are continually indexed and updated. The result is immediate access to e-mails, maps, news, a slideshow of images from your hard drive, lists of recently used files and Web pages, stocks, system info, the weather, a to-do list and a scratch pad for random notes. Oh, yeah: And a search box that gets results from your system or the Web.

It's all contained in a neatly designed sidebar that sits on either side of your desktop. You don't want to look at it all the time? Set it to hide except when you move your cursor to the side of your screen. Just want the search box? You can do that too.

Google Desktop is a handy utility that can either be a great source of instant info, or a fascinating distraction from your real work. You decide.

Google Pack ScreenSaver
If you don't already have a screensaver — or if, like me, you gave them up years ago as not being worth the trouble — the Google Pack ScreenSaver is not a bad excuse to take up the habit again. It runs the images stored on your hard drive in one of three simple formats (collage, wipe, or cross-fade). Since you can choose which directories it should pull the images from, it's a good way to, say, show pictures of your kids when you're not actually working.

Google Screensaver offers basic slideshows of your images. (Click for full image.)

Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer
Even those of us who no longer use Internet Explorer as our main browser need to switch to it occasionally when we come across Web sites that don't operate properly in anything but IE. In those cases — or if you've stuck by the Microsoft browser through thick and thin — the Google Toolbar for IE comes in handy. It gives you access to instant search, including just within the current site (always useful when the site's search engine is problematic); it also offers a pop-up blocker, a quick link to Google News, and several other useful options. I'd find it hard to surf without it.

The Google Toolbar for IE adds a search box and a number of applets.

Additional Software Included
Along with its own branded applications, Google includes as standard parts of the Google Pack several third-party apps that seem to fit into its mission statement. (What do they define as a "Google-friendly" app, anyway?) These include Mozilla Firefox with Google Toolbar, Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition, Ad-Aware SE Personal, and Adobe Reader 7.

Mozilla Firefox with Google Toolbar
Do I have to say anything about Firefox? Mozilla's browser has become the popular alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, especially for those who would rather avoid Microsoft where they can. Originally advertised as the "safe" alternative (because all of the malware hackers were targeting Microsoft), Firefox remains an interesting, easy-to-use, and flexible browser, although some problems in version 1.5 have caused a few eyebrows to raise.

If you haven't installed Firefox yet, Google Pack gives you a chance to. (Click for full image.)

Google took some time to get around to making its Toolbar available for Firefox (which didn't bother loyal Firefox users, who simply used one of the several extensions available). However, the Toolbar is available now, and an excellent Firefox add-on.

Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition
Many consumer systems today come with a 90-day subscription to Norton Antivirus or a similar product, so a six-month free subscription is a pretty good deal. At least, for those of us who don't already have subscriptions to solid security products, which hopefully doesn't include anyone reading this article.

Google Pack includes a six-month subscription to Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition.(Click for full image.)

Ad-Aware SE Personal
One of the better-known and better-quality anti-adware packages out there, Ad-Aware doesn't monitor your system for incoming adware (unless you purchase the Pro version), but it will search your hardware for nasty and inconvenient cookies and apps that have been placed there, and give you the option of getting rid of them.

Ad-Aware is one of the better anti-adware eliminators around. (Click for full image.)

Adobe Reader 7
More and more applications are including the ability to read and even create .PDF files (for example, the just-released WordPerfect Office X3 suite offers the import and creation of .PDF documents as a major new feature), but in the end, the Adobe Reader is still the standard for reading Adobe .PDF files. Most users will already have this installed on their systems; if you don't have it, you should.

Optional Software
Finally, there are several applications, both Google-branded and not, that are not automatically downloaded with the Pack — you have to click on "Add or remove software" on the main Google Pack page and choose to download these. These are probably set apart because they are considered a bit more specialized than the others.

Google Talk
Since Google is obviously planning to take the computing world away from Microsoft (or, at least, claim as much of it as it can), it has added to its repertoire a free instant messaging/VoIP app called Google Talk. One of those Google invitation-only applications (of which Gmail is another), Google Talk lets you chat — with text or voice — over the Internet with your fellow Googlites. It's a highly simple applet, with few of the bells and whistles that many of the established IM and/or VoIP services have. On the other hand, there aren't any intrusive ads to get in your way — at least, not yet.

Google Talk offers basic IM and VoIP services. (Click for full image.)

GalleryPlayer HD Images
Okay, this one I'm flummoxed about. This is simply a collection of 25 images. Pretty? Yes. Useful? No.

While RealPlayer is a popular format among a lot of the media sources online, it tends to be unpopular among many users — it can be overly possessive about your system resources, and its advertising can be intrusive. That being said, if you want to be able to view online videos or listen to various Web radio stations, it's almost certain that you're going to have to install this sooner or later.

RealPlayer is used by many online services, despite its rather ad-ridden interface. (Click for full image.)

I've got to admit — I am currently a Trillian user, and unlikely to switch in the near future. Trillian lets you access several IM services using a single interface, so that you can stay in contact with, say, your colleagues on AIM and your friends on MSN.

Trillian offers a better interface for your various IM services. (Click for full image.)

There are other advantages as well. While early versions of Trillian were handicapped by an awkward interface and problematic installs, the latest version has solved those problems. It now has a well-designed front end that can be tweaked easily by users to suit their individual needs — for example, you can decide what kind of alerts to set up for a number of events (what kind of sound do I want to hear when my boss comes online?). Oh, and there isn't any advertising — one reason I switched from AIM was that I was tired of having audio ads suddenly blasting in my ear.

Offhand, Trillian doesn't have a lot to do with Google — except that it is a free application that is as sophisticated as any for-pay software out there, and that its makers obviously pay attention to what their users need.

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