By now, Google's strengths are obvious: even the least techie users can share their content online with ease, using clear, simple interfaces. Picasa 3, the company's free photo viewer and editor, is no exception: it's easy to navigate, packed with editing tools and organizational features, and gives users lots of options for sharing their photos, including sending them into the cloud.
Picasa 3 is compatible with both Macs and PCs, although Mac users must go to picasa.google.com/mac to download the photo viewer. The 9.5MB file took just 26 seconds to download and 11 seconds to install on ourHP Pavilion dv5t. This is one lightweight program.
After you install Picasa 3, it searches your computer for photos, and lists the folders it finds in a pane along the left-hand side. At the top of the list are albums you've created within Picasa, with picture folders below it. Below that, it even lists miscellaneous photos on your computer (for example, album cover artwork).
Picasa 3's interface strikes a fine balance between ease of use and giving the user lots of options for sharing and organizing photos. Stretching across the top, below the high-level menus, are icons for importing photos, creating an album, toggling the folder view (you can opt not to show subfolders as a tree), and for capturing photos via a webcam.
Next to those options is a row of icons for filtering results: users can choose to show starred photos only, movies only, or photos with faces only. Accompanying that is a sliding scale allowing you to show only photos taken in a certain time frame. As you move the slider further to the right, only more recent photos will be shown, and a message in green will appear below showing you what that time cut-off is. Lastly, there's a live search bar for finding photos and albums. As soon as you start typing, Picasa begins narrowing the results.
As you scroll through the main pane of photo albums, you'll see color-blocked dividers with a folder icon, showing the name of the folder and, in each instance, a row of icons allowing you to play a full-screen slideshow; create a photo collage, movie presentation, or gift CD; sync the album with the Web; and share the photos with others. Double-clicking on the folder icon next to the folder name opens the pictures in Windows Explorer. A sliding scale in the lower right corner of the screen lets you change the size of the thumbnails.
Given Picasa's sleek interface, with scads of sharing-oriented features baked in, the editing tools might seem like an afterthought. In fact, they achieve a balance between the basics and fun special effects. To begin editing, double-click on a photo.
The editing pane, located on the left side of the screen, has three tabs: Basic Fixes, Tuning, and Effects. The Basic Fixes menu has icons for cropping, straightening, removing red eye, and retouching photos, as well as adding text. Three one-click options correct color and exposure (the third, our personal favorite, simply reads, "I'm Feeling Lucky"). To zoom in, use the sliding scale in the lower right area of the screen. To add a caption, click the page-like icon in the lower left corner of the photo.
The Tuning menu, for more advanced users, lets you use sliding scales to adjust the fill light, highlights, shadows, and color temperature. Photo enthusiasts are better off with a program likeAdobe Photoshop Elements 7, which boasts more manual and advanced editing tools.
Finally, the Effects menu includes 12 filters, including Warmify, Sepia, and Film Grain. One-click effects have a small 1 in the bottom right corner of their thumbnail. Those effects without a 1 label, such as graduated tint, have a sliding gradient. Picnik, too, allows users to employ a sliding scale when applying special effects, only it offers more.
A film strip with thumbnails sits at the top of the page, which you can scroll through by pressing the left and right arrows on your keyboard. So, once you're done editing a photo you can move on to the next one without having to exit that screen and double-click on a new picture.
A row of larger icons line the bottom of the screen, most of which pertain to things you can do with your photos once you've edited them. Users can upload to Web albums, e-mail them as attachments using Outlook or Gmail, print them, export them, post them using Blogger, geotag them, make a collage or movie presentation, or shop for other items on which to print your photos.
Although it's annoying that users can only create Web albums if they download this desktop program, Google otherwise trounces Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 and other desktop programs when it comes to giving users many ways to share their photos.
Creating a Web album is easy. Just highlight the photos you want, click Share, and follow the on-screen instructions. When you share an album, your friends will receive an e-mail containing the album's cover picture, as well as links to both the album and a slideshow mode.
The albums themselves have a simple look and feel. The first thing visitors will see is a grid of thumbnails, the size of which users can adjust using a sliding scale. When you select a picture, you click on-screen arrows or press the arrow buttons on your keyboard to advance through the series (there's also a slideshow mode). Users can also zoom in once on a photo. It's all self-explanatory, but we miss the accompanying thumbnail strip that you'll find on Flickr and Photoshop.com.
One of the unique features in Picasa 3 is that you can geotag photos--that is, place them on a map in the spot where you took them--using Google Earth. Just click the globular geotag icon, and Google Earth will automatically open. Then, when prompted, click Geotag, and--voil--your photos will appear on the globe in the spot where you took them. We've tested this feature in both ourNikon Coolpix P6000andEye-Fi Explorereviews, and in both cases Picasa placed our photos accurately (the P6000's weak GPS signal is a different story, however).
Particularly if you're a Windows user and aren't lucky enough to get Apple iPhoto out of the box, Google Picasa 3 is, hands down, the best free photo organizer and editor you can find. We still recommend Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 for serious photographers, but recreational shooters who just want to touch up, organize, and share their photos will love Picasa's intuitive interface and generous feature set.