Apple’s new online photo service isn’t for everyone, including many owners of Apple devices. But I like it enough to keep using it, despite its premium price, notable shortcomings and Google’s new competitor.
The iCloud Photo Library, as the service is called, collects users’ pictures from all their Apple devices in one place and makes them available to all their devices and through the Web. The service, launched in the fall and taken out of beta last month, serves as an online backup for its picture library and a tool to easily share pictures with friends and family.
Many of the cloud photo services available to date have limitations that have turned me off. Some place limits on the size of the photos you can upload or on the types of files they support. Others are part of social networks that assume you want to share all the pictures you upload and can make it difficult to keep them private. And most require you to install extra software or apps on your computer or smartphone to upload photos to the Internet.
Google’s new Photos service, which the company announced last week, is a case in point. On the surface, it looks great: Pictures and videos uploaded to the service are private by default, and it has been separated from the Google+ social network. The upload software on computers and smartphones appears to be easy to set up and use. And best of all, the service is free.
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But the fine print makes it less compelling. Google doesn’t keep copies of the original photo and video files; instead, it stores compressed versions of them. And it won’t store any photos that are larger than 16 megapixels or any videos at resolutions greater than 1080p; instead, it will downsize both.
Google is offering a version of the service that will retain pictures and videos at their original sizes and resolutions, but you have to pay to store more than 15 gigabytes of data. Google’s rates are more reasonable than Apple’s, but they still add up.
The iCloud Photo Library differs from Google Photos and other rival services in many of these respects. It stores photos and videos at their original sizes, resolutions and formats, and will allow users to upload pictures that are up to 16 gigabytes in size — 160 times larger than Google’s limit.
The service is built into the Photos app that comes with both OS X, the operating system underlying Mac computers, and iOS, the system for iPhones and iPads. So you don’t have to install any other apps or software to sync your photos to your online account or configure software to find your pictures. Instead, you just have to turn on the service. When you upload your photos, it automatically organizes them by date and allows you to search for particular places and people.
Another thing I like about the service is that the pictures stored in iCloud Photo Library are private by default. The only way to view them is through the Photos app or through a password-protected Web account.
Even though the pictures are private, Apple makes it easy — at least on Macs and iPhones — to share the pictures with other people. You just select the pictures you want to share, press the sharing button and then select the service or app you want to use, such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or Apple’s own Messages. And the service allows you to choose whether you want to have copies of all your photos on your various devices.
Overall, the service works fairly well. Pictures I took on my iPhone would fairly quickly show up on my Macs, while pictures I uploaded to my Mac would soon show up on my iPhone. And I loved being able to comb through old pictures on whatever device I had in front of me.
The iCloud Photo Library does have some significant shortcomings, however.
Uploading your picture library can take days or even weeks, depending not only on the size of your collection and the speed of your connection, but on other, more quirky factors. In my case, my computer’s Photos app stopped uploading several times, forcing me to restart the application and sometimes my computer. Downloading pictures — even just the thumbnails — can also take a significant amount of time and battery power, at least the first time you do it.
A bigger problem is that it’s an Apple-centric service. If you have your photos stored on a Windows PC or you use an Android phone, iCloud Photo Library is not for you. While you can view your library and even upload and download individual pictures through a Web browser on a Windows PC, you can’t automatically sync your entire photo library. And you can’t access iCloud Photo Library through the Chrome browser on Android phones.
Compared to other photo services, iCloud Photo Library is pricey. Apple only gives you 5 gigabytes of free storage. To store a moderately sized library — say one that is larger than 20 gigabytes — you have to pay about $48 a year. And if you have a large photo library, you'll pay a lot more than that. By contrast, Flickr offers users 1 terabyte of free storage for photos and Google Photos has unlimited free storage.
One other thing I didn’t like was that you can’t share a full library with your spouse or child, so you can’t automatically sync photos from your family members’ various devices to one library. Instead, you'll have to go the old-fashioned route and manually upload them to your Mac first.
Still, if you’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem, iCloud Photo Library is a good solution for cloud-based photo storage and sharing. For me, the easy integration and privacy help it overcome its shortcomings.
Apple iCloud Photo Library online backup service
Likes: Easy to configure and use. Photos private by default. Well-integrated into Apple devices; doesn’t require extra software. Automatically sorts photos by date and separates out videos. Allows users to easily search for photos by places and people.
Dislikes: Relatively pricey. Inaccessible from Android devices. Unable to automatically sync with Windows devices. Users can’t share full photo libraries with family members. Initial uploading process can take days or even weeks.
Price: Free for up to 5GB of storage. Monthly charges for 20GB, 200GB, 500GB and 1TB of storage are $1, $4, $10 and $20, respectively.