It's not just free. It's better than ever. This past summer, the ever-expanding Google empire acquired Picasa, one of PC Magazine's favorite photo-management tools, and a week later, in keeping with its usual business strategy, the company quit charging for the application. Now, for the first time since the acquisition, Google has released a new version, Picasa 2.0, and we like it even more than before.Organize your pictures. Get Google's photo software.
With this release, Picasa is even easier to use for organizing, editing, and sharing your digital photos. Without leaving the application, you can now move photos across your Microsoft Windows file tree, add captions to your pictures, pan and zoom, and use 12 new lighting and color effects. You can also save photos to an external drive, burn them to a disc, or upload them to popular photo-sharing Web sites. And that's just for starters.
When you install the app, it immediately scans your system for photos and collects them into a single library. By default, Picasa scans your entire hard drive, but if your system is particularly cluttered, you might opt for a scan of just your Windows desktop, your My Documents folder, and your My Pictures folder. The app collects not only JPEGs and GIFs, but all sorts of other image formats—even video files.
With past versions of the app, this photo library acted independently of your Windows file tree, but now the two dovetail quite nicely. One section of the library, dubbed Folders On Disk, shows how your photos are organized within Windows, and you can easily move photos from folder to folder.
You can still organize photos into virtual albums or "labels" that don't correspond to your Windows file system, and you retain the ability to use the same photo across multiple albums. Picasa's nifty Timeline still lets you instantaneously scroll through a chronological catalog of your photos. If you aren't already using a photo manager with such a timeline interface—Adobe Photoshop Album also offers one—you might try Picasa for this feature alone. It may be the best way to browse large numbers of photos.
As you organize your pictures, Picasa also lets you change filenames, key in captions, and add ratings to your favorites. Then, as time goes on, you can easily track down old photos with the app's improved search tool, which lets you locate files by keywords, ratings, and dates.
The real news, however, is the long list of photo-editing tools available with Picasa 2.0. You can instantly adjust highlights, shadows, fill lights, and color temperature. You can add all sorts of effects, including sepia, black and white, and soft focus. You can crop, straighten, remove red-eye, and more. And if you don't like an edit, you can reverse it with no more than the click of a mouse.
Picasa even provides new ways to share your photos. In addition to sending pics via your local e-mail client or Picasa's built-in client, you can now send images via Google's new Web-based e-mail service, Gmail. You can also easily upload pictures to popular photo-sharing sites, including Shutterfly and Ofoto, or burn photos onto CD or DVD. Plus, the app still integrates with Picasa's photo-sharing client, Hello, which works a lot like instant messenging software, and you can still upload pics to Google's popular blogging tool, Blogger.
Unlike Adobe Photoshop Album, Picasa doesn't offer dedicated tools for transferring photos to handheld devices, cell phones, and digital video recorders. But this is a minor quibble. With its latest release, Picasa stands toe to toe with Photoshop Album, and unlike ACDSee, it's intuitive enough for even the greenest of computer newbies. Novices may be intimidated by the breadth of tools on offer, but when they get over that hump, the app is wonderfully easy to use. Once again, Google's done it right.