Google's Picasa 2 photo application is fast, fun, and free. The new version builds on the original's strengths (namely its image-handling speed) and significantly improves on its weaknesses (specifically its photo-editing capabilities). However, while some users will embrace the app's take-charge method of photo organization, others will likely chafe under its rules.
The app's improved photo-enhancement tools are handy, its integration with other Google services is seamless, and its speedy interface is fun to use. Oh, and you just can't beat that price.
We tested a shipping version of Picasa 2. The first time you launch the app, it gives you the option to scan specific folders on your PC (like My Documents or My Pictures) or your entire hard drive and connected drives for photos. Scan time depends on the number of shots you have, but as with most Google-powered searches it's an amazingly speedy process.
Picasa 2 goes on to sort the photos it finds, showing folders containing all the images that reside in one place on the disc (for example, your Desktop), and then listing the images by creation date (the program determines the year by looking at data stored within each photo); you can also sort folders by name or by date last changed.
The sorting process sounds straightforward, and for newer digital camera owners with small, scattered image collections it should work well. However, as someone who's already done some rudimentary image organization of our own growing collection (using both Windows Explorer and competing photo-organizing programs), we found the app's propensity to reshuffle our folders a bit frustrating.
It would be extremely helpful to have a sorting option that is similar to Windows Explorer, complete with folder hierarchies and the ability to create subfolders. That way, folks like us who are used to the Explorer-like structure can easily find, organize, and navigate their photo albums. True, Picasa 2 lets you rework the folder names and other details it serves up, but doing so felt a bit like redoing work we'd already done. Plus, it wouldn't let us perform tasks such as reorganizing or moving our existing folders, or creating subfolders.
While we found Picasa 2's organization abilities frustrating, I was pleasantly surprised by the app's improved photo-editing capabilities. In addition to basic fixes such as crop, straighten, and red-eye removal, easy-to-use tools let you fine-tune highlights, shadows, and color temperature, as well as apply tints and effects like soft focus. And if you're dissatisfied with the changes, you can simply undo them.
Granted, you'll find these tools in most entry-level photo applications, but Picasa 2's simple interface and fast response times make it remarkably fun to use. For example, when we adjusted the Fill Light slider to increase an image's brightness (similar to adjusting the volume on your stereo), Picasa 2 displayed the result on screen instantly.
Picasa 2 also makes it easier to share your images with family and friends. You can quickly create contact sheets, slide shows, and CD-ROMs, and you can upload photos to Google's Blogger service as well as to photo-finishing services such as Ofoto, Shutterfly, and Snapfish.
Sending photos electronically is also a breeze: The software automatically maps to your e-mail program during installation. Picasa 2 does an excellent job of integration with Google's other services as well, including its Web-based Gmail service and its Hello photo-chat service.
Despite our issues with its photo-management capabilities, Picasa 2 is a sensible tool for those new to digital imaging, as well as for slightly more experienced photographers looking to upgrade from the basic photo-editing app that shipped with their camera.
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