Google Gets Graphic: Picasa 2

Google's reworked image managing tool, Picasa, is an efficient and simple tool for organizing and tweaking your photos.
In its quest to make itself one of the most popular consumer companies on the Web, Google (which has already has had the distinction of becoming a verb) has released the second version of its image-organizing software: Picasa 2.

Google bought the first version of Picasa (which at the time cost about $29) last year and immediately made it available as a free download. This second version retains many of the features of its predecessor (such as the nifty Timeline, which places your folders along a circular path that looks something like a strange alternate galaxy), and adds new tools for organizing and editing images.

Click on image to expand.
On installation, Picasa immediately scans your hard drive (either the entire drive, or the folders where images are most likely to be found). It then displays the Picasa Library, which consists of thumbnails of your images sorted according to the date or name of the file folder. A slidebar along the right side lets you move from most- to less-recent folders.

Along the left side of the display, there is a list of folders -- including both "real" folders on your hard drive (Folders on Disk), and virtual folders that you can create to keep track of any images you specify.

Google's excellent interface offers a variety of ways to access its tools. Besides the usual menu bar, buttons at the top and bottom of the window enable you, for example, to send out images via e-mail (using Outlook, Gmail, or the application's own Picasa Mail service). If you wish, Picasa will automatically resize the image down to a pre-set size; you can also have it resize only when sending more than one image. In addition, you can send images as "storybook" photos, which creates an HTML e-mail with spaces for captions.

Another button leads to a service called Hello; by creating an account with Hello, users can share photos or send images directly to their Blogger Web logs. You are also offered direct access to several photo print services such as snapfish, WalMart, shutterfly and ofoto (which explains at least one way Google plans to make money with its free software). For a less commercial way to distribute images, you can burn them to optical media, either as backups or as slide shows.

Get Organized
For my money, Picasa is worth the price of admission (okay, it's worth more than that) just for its ability to help you manage your images. The fastest way to do that is to highlight the image and click on the "Star" button: All "starred" images can then be found quickly using the search tool. If that's not descriptive enough, the Label tool lets you create labeled groups of images. I found this to be very handy -- I was able, for example, to page through the Library, find all the scans of legal papers I'd done over the last few years, and group them under the heading "Contracts."

In this version, Google has added a number of basic editing features: You can crop, correct for redeye, change the contrast, and tweak coloring, lighting, etc. There are also a few popular effects, so you can, for instance, see your photo in sepia or in soft focus. Picasa automatically creates a folder containing the originals, so that you can undo any changes at any time, a nice touch for those of us unsure of our photo editing prowess.

I did come across one or two small hitches in the software. For example, when you download photos from, say, a digital camera, you can't save the images to an existing folder. However, on the whole, Picasa 2 is a real winner. It works quickly, has a great user interface, and offers an easy way to view, organize, and distribute the images that you've been collecting on your hard drive.

Name: Picasa 2
Company: Google, Inc.
Strengths: Intuitive and easy-to-learn interface, fine organizational tools, quick burn to disk, links to photo printing and Blogger tools, simple editing tools.
Weaknesses: A few more editing tools would be nice.
Price: Free

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