First Impressions: Picasa for Mac

When I switched from Windows to Mac nearly a year ago the only thing that I really missed from Windows was Picasa, Google's free photo management software. I've struggled getting iPhoto to work the way I wanted it to. I had used it for years and since I take a LOT of digital photos I have a pretty extensive photo library for a non-professional (25K photos, 55GB of disk space that span the past 8 years). Today Google released the beta version of Picasa for Mac and I immediately set about installing it and checking it out.

Here are my first impressions of Picasa for Mac.

Picasa is very comparable to iPhoto in terms of functionality. It indexes all of your photos and presents them in a scalable film strip interface. You can double click on a picture and it will zoom in to it. When I first loaded up Picasa and had it index my photos it took about 25 minutes to find them all; on my dual processor Mac Pro the CPUs barely moved while this was going on. The quality of the thumbnail image in the film strip on Picasa is not nearly as good as it is in iPhoto; I haven't figured out if this is a setting, standard behavior in Picasa or simply a function of it being beta software. Here's an example:

Not long after I created this comparison image I checked it again and the Picasa version is now much clearer. Again, this may be a function of the beta or a delay in the update process for the quality of the thumbnail.

You can do many of the same photo retouching jobs that you would in iPhoto with Picasa, though the approach is a little different. In iPhoto you can see a traditional profile of levels; Picasa does not display a profile, just buttons and sliders to manage the effects.

One button that Picasa does have is the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, which will auto-adjust lighting and colors and has an uncanny knack for making pictures look great quickly. In addition the Red-Eye removal tool will first make an automatic pass to try and pick out the red eyes in your photos. Though the automatic mode doesn't catch everything all the time it does a nice job with the obvious ones, making it very quick to run through lots of night shots.

Switchers Have It Easy
If you have switched from Windows to Mac and used Picasa in the past you will be immediately comfortable with Picasa on OS X. The interface is markedly similar to the Windows version, including the quirky scroll bar that Picasa uses in the main viewing area.

If you happened to copy your original photo folders from your Windows machine to your Mac then you'll be pleased to note that the Mac version recognizes your old settings (tags, stars, descriptions, etc). I kept my files in their original state, simply moving them to the large hard drive I have in my Mac Pro so it recognized everything immediately.

The reason I like the idea of having my photos stored on a separate disk and stay there is pretty simple: I share my photos with the rest of my family. So I have a 1TB data drive that has a Photo folder and within that are sub folders for the year / month-day that I took the pictures. This Photo folder is then shared on my network and my wife and kids can get to it easily if they want to grab photos and place them in Facebook, etc. Even my son, still running Windows XP, can get to them.

If you edit a file in Picasa (adjustments, red eye, etc.) the new version replaces the old version on your hard drive. A hidden folder is created under the folder where your originals are contained. This folder (labeled .picasaoriginals) contains a .picasa.ini file and the original copy of your picture. Again, this is hidden so unless you have enabled the ability to see hidden files in the Finder you will not see them.

Where the Pictures are Stored
One of my favorite features of Picasa is that while it can recognize when a camera is plugged in to it and import those pictures it will also allow you to monitor folders so that if photos are placed in them (or their sub-folders) then they will be automatically added to Picasa:

Just select the folders you want to monitor, set it to Scan Always and you don't need to worry about importing the pictures into Picasa; all you need to do is copy the pictures from your camera over and they will automatically be picked up.

Interface Oddities
There are a couple of things about the Picasa UI that take getting used to. First off, double clicking on a thumbnail pulls up a large view of the photo. If you then click and hold the mouse button it will zoom the photo to 100%. When the image is zoomed don't expect to use the scroll wheel to move around within the image like in iPhoto; in Picasa that will jump you to the next or previous image. If you want to scroll around in zoom mode you need to click and drag or use the thumbnail viewer to position the viewing area. A single click pulls you back out of zoom mode.

Even with the little zooming quirks this method is FAR superior to zooming in iPhoto; the only way you can zoom in on the current version of iPhoto is to place the photo in Edit mode.

The software is still in beta so there are problems; as an example when I tried to remove a folder from Picasa (Right Click, Remove from Picasa...) I got the spinning beachball of death and had to Force Quit Picasa. That said, having played with it for several hours I was comfortable with it pretty quickly and am looking forward to using it more in the coming days.

If you decide to give Picasa for Mac a spin note that it only runs on Intel based Macs; PPC based Macs are out of luck. The Picasa for Mac Forums are also an excellent resource for getting questions answered.


Anonymous said…
about the thumbnails: I think it makes a better thumbnail the first time you double click on the image.
David Alison said…
@flo: Yep, that's what I'm finding too. Hopefully this is something that's addressed in future releases. I don't want to click on 25K photos!
Anonymous said…
I've never used Picasa before, even on windows, so this was a fresh look for me. One of my main concerns when trying out new software is LET MY DAMN iPhoto PICTURES ALONE!! And Picasa does that beautifully. It indexes your drive, does not touch your iPhoto pics. Like Dave said, if you do want to edit an image in Picasa, the program will not allow you to edit the original, thus preserving the actual iPhoto image.

One thing I did notice, and this would probably only bug laptop people, for some reason even idle Picasa uses from 15% to 30% cpu, which heats up the laptop pretty quick. iPhoto does not.

I don't have my laptop with me, I'll have to see later if there are any other things I can point out.
Samuel said…
I heart Picasa! I just transitioned to the Mac platform myself, and also was suffering badly from Picasa withdrawal. Thankfully, those days are now finally over!
sgmorr said…
Any word whether Google will release Picasa for PPC Macs? I feel left out and would really like to have Picasa.

How hard could it really be for Google to do this?
David Alison said…
@sgmorr: It really depends on how it was ported. Given that the UI is extremely close to the Windows version I would think they are operating on a heavily leveraged single code base. Picasa has been available for Windows for a very long time, the Linux version came out in 2006 and it then took until 2009 to release a beta of the Mac Intel version so I have to assume this is a non-trivial task. All of these existing versions of Picasa on each platform are written for Intel processors, meaning that the libraries used to build it will need to be ported to the PPC architecture.

The silence from Google on this likely means that a PPC version is not on the horizon. That's pure speculation on my part mind you but I wouldn't get your hopes up on it.
bdavidson said…
Looks like iPhoto 09 (iLife) was announced today. Late January release. I think they added some features that were only in Picasa.
My problem arose with the way iPhoto organizes. Originally I copied 7 large folders (1 year each) of photos from my Windows box to the Mac to iPhoto. Then I downloaded Picasa for Mac and said, "Yep, go ahead, fetch iPhoto". I ended up with a weird tree structure of folders and subfolders with some parts of one year misplaced into another year... and like that. Picasa done me wrong. So until I can fix its organizing tendencies, I guess I'm stuck with iPhoto. (I don't particularly want to "Export" from iPhoto to yet another copy of the copied folders.)
David Alison said…
@APF: One thing to keep in mind with Picasa; it uses the date/time stamp in the picture, not the date/time stamp of the file. I had a situation where my wife took a rather large number of pictures with a camera who's battery had died and she never reset the date/time in it. As a result the meta data in the digital pics was set completely wrong. I didn't know this when I placed them in the folders I was using but Picasa organized them based on the date/time stamped in the meta data. At some point I'll do a bulk edit of those photos to fix them but I just haven't gotten around to it. That may be why your pics are appearing in different folders though.
kleef said…
When Picasa "fetches" iPhoto is it leaving the files in the iPhoto "big file" and appending to it as one edits a photo? I ask because I like Picasa better for organization and even editing, but I may want to use iPhoto for slideshows and incorporating into other iLife applications. Is there a marriage that works without duplicating a bunch of files???
Anonymous said…
@all: Google appears to have "ported" Picasa Windows via WINE (though that may just be for a viewer placed on shared CDs) which is why it's Intel only and looks and behaves like a Windows App. If so, you won't see a PPC version for that reason (and that Apple is biding its time to end PPC support).

@the_0ne: it might be building thumbnail databases in the background.

I've used it on Windows and it's great for a free app but iPhoto wins hands down for me. (I've not tried to run with a shared photo repository though. It would seem that sharing the library over the network (Prefs) might work best though that would require that the host be on. That would give a metadata advantage.)
David Alison said…
@Pecos Bill: The challenge for me continues to be finding a photo management solution that doesn't require importing my photos into it's own library in order to be effective. Just like I would no sooner use a word processing application or text editor that insisted I place those files into their unique libraries in order to work with them, I like the distributed nature of a file based OS that allows me more flexibility in the way I work with the tools.

This is really important in a distributed environment where not everyone is running the same OS. We already have outstanding/cross platform sharing capabilities; I don't want to toss that out for the one thing I share on my network the most.

The more I play with Picasa the less I like it though. I accept that it's beta software and as a result will have some rough edges. My problem is that since switching to Mac and walking away from Windows I've come to love the UI consistency in Mac applications. One of the reasons I began to dislike Windows was the complete breakdown of UI consistency everywhere, especially from Microsoft itself. Google made almost no attempt to make Picasa a true Mac specific application, instead choosing to define a Google specific look for all platforms. I believe that is a major mistake.

My search for photo management solutions continues...
sgmorr said…
David: I basically agree with what you are looking for in a photo management app. Which ones have you found that have even gotten close to what you are looking for? I'd like to take a look.
David Alison said…
@sgmorr: The only other photo management application I've looked at on Mac is Aperture (I have the trial). I love the mass-editing capabilities but I haven't dug in to it thoroughly enough to understand how it maintains the files.
Chris Howard said…
Picasa was released for Windows just after I switched and it made me almost want to switch back!

But five years on the Mac version has been a major disappointment. It seems terribly buggy which is not normally the case in Google beta apps.

The first time it ran it was showing photos but then when I turned off some drives, everything disappeared.

Then I couldn't find any way of redoing a full scan. Eventually I discovered if you added a file, it would scan that folder and all the folders below it.

I then found adding a folder also worked but not on a drive itself, so I'd have to add every folder manually.

When I rescanned my iPhoto library, it skipped nearly all my photos, only adding AVIs and some jpegs. Only 500 of some 7000

And now I feel like I'm really going nuts because all iPhoto stuff that had come in was showing a moment ago but now they've disappeared! Aaargh!

And regards the Google forums, I posted a question about my initial problems 2 days ago and haven't had a response.

Add to all that it does have the feel of a Windows app, that unpolished feel, and I am way over Picasa.

So, like you Dave, I'm still looking for the perfect photo organizing app.
Chris Howard said…
My ideal photo organizing app would let me tag, name, categorize, group and delete photos before I imported them from my camera. I find this is the time I am most likely to do that sort of necessary management. Whereas the moment they're imported the "I'll do it later" brain takes over.
David Alison said…
@Chris: Do you move your pictures directly from your camera to your Mac or do you pull out the memory card and then transfer it from that? I use the latter method and as a result I'm used to simply moving files into the proper folder and that would be the time I would apply any attributes to the images and do my adjustments for lighting, red eye, etc.

I really want to take a look at Adobe Lightroom - hopefully it not insist on managing the files for me and just focus on mass adjustments, etc.
Chris Howard said…
Dave, same process as you, except I use iPhoto to pull them off the card.But as soon as I have I tend to be too busy then to tag them.

I know that doesn't make any sense at all coz I'm saying I would tag them if I could before I import them. But that's the brain I gotta live with. If anyone wants to trade... :)
Anonymous said…
@David: I know a solution for you has woefully been lacking forever. I didn't know you still needed cross-platform. I can only think Adobe's Lightroom has a chance though I've not used it. It's one of the few apps that is light on the baggage that so many Adobe apps suffer. Alas, with the new features in iPhoto 09, I can't imagine using anything else (it's on my wish list).

I'm sorry, but I don't recall if you have tried Lightroom and a search didn't show anything. FYI, I've not.

I see your point on a portable library. If you are unable to find the perfect solution that isn't iPhoto, the only thought I had is you could remerge the library it creates using code should the need arise. (Lightroom isn't available on Ubuntu, AFAIK.)

My AppleScript skills are a tad weak but you could also use that to create folders named by keywords of aliases or symlinks that point to all the photos. Not sure if Samba translates symlinks but I doubt it does for aliases. Not sure about other metadata. Hopefully they've expanded the AppleScript portion in iPhoto 09.
David Alison said…
@Pecos Bill: Though my cross platform needs are becoming smaller I don't like that I have to have iPhoto running and serving up the photos in order to provide sharing.

I've actually considered writing a blog post just on this topic because one of the trends I would like to see happen is for tools and utilities to get smaller and more connected to one another. Each of us uses our computers in vastly different ways for very different tasks; the smaller and more granular the tools are the more flexible they become in addressing people's needs. Rather than having a comprehensive file management, photo editing, slide show, online photo service doo-hickey, I'd like to see each of these as relatively atomic functions that could work on their own. Apple could then create an iPhoto "shell" that looks much like it does today but actually just taps into the underlying code that powers these tools.

Anonymous said…
The UI is atrocious! Yuck...
David Alison said…
@Anon: On Twitter I have compared it to a velvet Elvis painting sitting in my home. (No, I don't have a velvet Elvis painting).

Here I have this really nice UI for OS X, most of my non-Apple apps stick with the theme and then I pull up Picasa and it looks... well, you get the idea.
Unknown said…
@David: There doesn't seem to be a perfect solution, does there?

However, I am going to be sticking with Picasa for now, as I like how it leaves my directories in place. Very convenient for sharing across my network to my other Linux and Windows machines.

One other thing I love about this is that I can use Windows Live Sync*, which also works on Macs, to sync the library on my home network to my laptop from any location. It even keeps an up to date copy of the picasa.ini file. Now when I edit something on my laptop when I'm away from the house the changes are relfected on the home server and all the machines running Picasa (on any platform) show the current edits. Same in reverse, so my laptop will reflect changes made at home. Very useful when outside of your home network!

*Of course, there are other apps you could use, such as Live Mesh, Drop Box, etc...
Anonymous said…
If you enter full screen mode in iPhoto (the third button on the bottom left side of the window), you can zoom in all you want.
Anonymous said…
With regards to the_0ne's comment i totally agree. I was migrating to Picasa for Mac from iPhoto 09 but with both apps running on my MBP 2.6ghz with 4gb ram it is really eating away at the CPU. it was constantly on 40-ish % for me. Looks like i'm gonna hold back on the migration,
NightStalker said…
First stumbled across this blog - very interesting.

Been a long-time Picasa user on the PC, but have switched to Mac, particularly for Aperture.

However, for 90% of my photos which only need "quick and dirty" tweaks, not in-depth stuff, Picasa works beautifully. However I do have one problem:

I've always used the one-click sharpen button in Picasa on the PC, as the last thing after all other edits, and it adds just enough sharpening to spark up the pics. Almost all digital pics need a tiny bit of sharpening.

However, Picasa has gone and tried to make its sharpening more sophisticated, and is now NOT a simple one-click solution with immediately visible results.

But - iPhoto has no equivalent function either.!!! So I'm stuck between Picasa that DID have it and has now made sharpening more of an adjustment than a single click, and iPhoto which has always had sharpening as an adjustment.

I want my single-click mild sharpening back....waaaghhhhh!!! :(

On the Google forums for Picasa, this change to Picasa is causing a lot of angst - it's not just me.

If some careful, precision sharpening really IS needed for a photo, then I use Aperture. But for quickly processing and tweaking a few hundred pics in the hotel room after a day out and about, Picasa was the way to go. Often it was just the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, followed by the one-click Sharpen button - all done.

Now neither Picasa or iPhoto will do it.

They're trying to make both iPhoto and Picasa TOO sophisticated. Keep them quick and simple - for more intricate work we have Lightroom (cross-platform), Aperture, Photoshop, and a bazillion others.
Caveman said…
I love the "I'm feeling lucky" from picasa. I wish I had that in Aperture.
Vamsi said…
Okay, I really like the discussion here. iPhoto Vs Picasa has been a big debate personally. I am a UI Designer myself, and I really like Mac's consistency model. But, Picasa wins for me (so far) because:

1. Excellent online sync capabilities to Picasaweb. You can not only upload but also download entire albums of your friends or family right into Picasa.

2. Sharing capabilities like allowing friends or family to contribute to an album. Fetching emails from Gmail etc.

3. Tools like Collages, contact sheets etc., adding text, making a quick video (no ken burns is a bummer though).

4. Buttons for uploading to Walgreens, shutterfly etc. for getting prints or other social networks like facebook or flickr.

For me, Picasa wins hands down. Agreed its a little buggy and the UI is inconsistent with Mac standards - but I dont mind it for its excellent utility (and usability).

Some of the things I miss in Picasa:
1. Syncing my Picasa albums to my iPhone and iPods (you have to export all the albums everytime you update them :()

2. Ken burns effect on slideshows

3. iPhoto's excellent print services for cards and calendars (no one can beat Apple at that!)

My biggest problem now:
We have an iMac and two Pros and an online Picasaweb account through which we share our pics with friends and family. While the online and offline version on my iMac are synced, the pros are not since the file structure is on my iMac. I want the flexibility to edit these photos anywhere and update it in the master library. I know somebody talked about Windows Live Sync or Dropbox, but I am not sure if an online hard-drive is the solution for this. Any ideas?
Vamsi said…
Not to forget the I am feeling Lucky button and the ability to write the captions for the pics in Picasa.

I think I am really selling Picasa, am I not? :)
Jen said…
Great blog. I'm a Mac user (iPhoto 6.0.6 on my OSX intel), but just discovered Picasa on the PC at work. Love the organization and easy edits. I have some 20K pics, mostly of nature and my kids... can I use Picasa to organize and edit, but leave my library (where I upload pics from my cards) for fun slideshows and Mac products (the yearly calendar for the grandparents)? Or is it best to devote time, energy and pics to one or the other?
Anonymous said…
great blog. Have you tried picaboo or Mpix? I'm new to the Mac world and I'm trying to figure out if I should use iPhoto, picaboo (which many of my friends use), Mpix or go back to Picasa, which I used a few years ago.

David Alison said…
@TJ: I haven't heard of or played with Picaboo or Mpix. I've given in and pretty much use iPhoto exclusively now; for basic editing (red-eye, retouches, lighting) it's fine for my uses. I still struggle with the model it uses for storing the pictures but I've learned to get over that. I have Picasa installed but I really can't get past the completely non-standard interface and as a result never use it.
Anonymous said…
Hi David,

It's been a year since the last comment here, but I was wondering what did you end up sticking too?

I switched to Mac a few months ago as well and coming from PC installed Picasa right away and seems like it worked well for me.

But yesterday I purchased a D-SRL Nikon D3100 camera and shooting RAW+JPEG (not sure why and will switch to just JPEG I think until I realize what I need RAW for).

So with new camera I decided to look into other photo management programs and ended up installed all most popular ones so now I have:
Picasa, iPhoto, Lightroom, Aperture, Nikon ViewNX 2.

At first I got excited about Aperture, but after I imported my 40GB photo library I noticed how slow it was to work in Aperture. It takes a while to "process" every picture even when just browsing.

Aperture is so profesional that I missed "one-click" buttons to fix stuff like red eyes, contrast and colors.
I did not like Lightroom's interface right away and lots of reviews online say that Aperture is better anyway.

So I thought to try iPhoto since it's like a younger sibling of Aperture. It runs a little faster than Aperture, but still takes over of some controls of managing "photos" rather than "files".

I find Picasa the fatest so far so I think will stick with it for now.

Hope this mini-review helps others who find this blog.
David Alison said…
@romacities: Thanks for the comments and your experiences. I've been fairly happily using iPhoto for a couple of years now. I do like that other applications on my Mac can often pull directly from my iPhoto library, something that requires me to navigate to folders to do if I was using Picasa.
Antea Buel said…
I also miss Picasa, for the speed and simplicity of presentation, the fast fixing which is not editing, and the all so easy way to organize all, drag pictures in the place you want them. My Snow Tiger has not let me do this and on installing Picasa last year each photos became a "grouping" which is even worse than when iphoto made them each an event. I had to spend days in regrouping my 3000+ photos in Events, but I gave up reorganizing Picasa because it refuses to stay the way I want it.
Basically I would gladly drop both of them, especially iphoto, to get back my ACDSee manager and editor.
Though it was designed for Mac years ago, it became PC oriented in time and I don't think I can use it again unless via Windows and Explorer.
Well, I will not live for my photos anymore and will focus on something else. I will try Photoshop, perhaps it will work as editor but not as manager, I think.

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