Google+ New Photo Features Hands-On: Fun, But Unreliable

Amongst the slurry of updates Google announced yesterday at I/O was a new feature set for Google+ designed to make your photos better, prettier, and more fun, without you really having to do anything. It's ambitious, and it sounds cool. Unfortunately, in its current implementation, it's hit and miss.

Auto-Backup

Auto-backup is an option you can enable on your phone so every photo you take will be instantly backed up to Google+ (set to private). It's a seamless, hassle-free backup solution. If it sounds like Google+'s old Instant Upload, that's because that's exactly what it is, it's just been renamed. The new name actually makes more sense for what it does, though.

Highlights

The concept of Highlights is pretty simple. Google+ analyzes your uploaded photos, and tries to pick the best shots out of a given album, and it gives those shots a more prominent focus (it highlights them... get it!?). You can expand to see all of your photos with a single click, but Highlights attempts to hide photos that are blurry, under/over exposed, or duplicates, and tries feature people and landmarks. It actually works fairly well. Most of my out-of-focus shots are swept into the background, and it generally pulls the better photos out. It doesn't get it right every time, but it's consistant enough for us to call this one a hit. It's got a nice layout, too (see top image).

Google+ New Photo Features Hands-On: Fun, But Unreliable

Auto-Enhance

Set to on by default, Auto-Enhance is supposed to automatically take your shitty photos and de-shitify them. It'll correct for over or under exposed shots, vignetting, redeye, wrinkles, and other things. On stage it showed dramatic improvements. In real life? Eh, not so much.

In most instances, the difference Auto-Enhance makes is very subtle. Sometimes you can't even spot it. More often than not, it is a bit of an improvement—adding a little sharpening, subtly adjusting the contrast, etc—it's just not going to blow your mind (at least in our experimentation). I guess ultimately it's good that it doesn't do too much tweaking to your photos, but we were kind of hoping to see the dramatic night/day improvements we saw in the demo. I'd ultimately probably leave auto-enhance on, since I'm typically shooting with a cell phone that may not have the bestest camera, but if you have a good camera, ditch it. Either way, it's easy enough to undo the enhancements if you want to.

Auto-Awesome

First off, good name, guys. Auto-Awesome was the set of features we were most interested in. It basically analyses a series of photos, and does cool things to them, without you having to ask it to. This includes turning a burst of photos into an animated GIF, or a collage. It can connect separate photos into a panorama (assuming they line up), and it can meld three photos shot at different exposures into a single HDR image. It all sounds great, but it's very inconsistent.

Google+ New Photo Features Hands-On: Fun, But Unreliable

The animated GIF feature was generally the most successful. You take a series of shots with the same framing, let Auto Backup do its thing, and then five minutes or so later, the GIF pops up next to the other images. It didn't work every time, but it produced pretty satisfying results.

Google+ New Photo Features Hands-On: Fun, But Unreliable

It took FIVE attempts before the panorama feature finally worked. All other tries just sat there, separate and dejected. When it finally worked, though, it actually looked really great. The above image was three vertical shots. Auto-Awesome did a great job of blending lines and exposure. However, one out of five times is not good enough.

Google+ New Photo Features Hands-On: Fun, But Unreliable

The collage also only worked once and only included three out of the seven photos that were snapped. The other times, it just didn't make a collage, for whatever reason, even when it made a GIF.

The last feature is HDR, and it never worked. We tried seven times, with different phones (and even with the Canon 5D Mark III). Each time we had the exact same framing across all three shots and very different exposure levels. Nothing doing. All of the auto-awesome shots failed at least a couple times, but this was the worst.

So, while Auto-Awesome is cool, it's only cool when it works, and it doesn't work often enough. As of now, it's not something you'd want to rely on. We know everything is supposed to be "auto," but since that clearly isn't working yet it'd be nice to be able to select the five photos you want turned into a GIF, or a collage, or an HDR. Auto when it works, manual-override when it doesn't. Seems like a pretty easy solution.

Conclusion

So the final verdict on the new photo features is that they're decent and/or fun additions, but until they become something you can count on working, their appeal is severely limited. The seamless backup is the only truly killer feature (and it is), but it isn't new. Hopefully, the Auto-Awesome stuff will get better with time, because they really could be fantastic features. And if there's anything that the internet needs right now, it's more animated GIFs.