Google drops Picasa's 'beta' (and pigs fly)

Only two months after releasing Picasa 3 beta, Google does the uncharacteristic and commits to a full version release, sans safety net.

Picasa logo

Only two and a half months after announcing Picasa 3 beta, Google has done the uncharacteristic and on Thursday has issued Picasa 3.

Here's the clincher:Picasa 3 is the exact same desktop organizer and editor it has been under the beta flag. (This is a good wagon for the Gmail team to climb aboard--Google's e-mail service has been in beta since 2004 and its latest releases have been earthshaking themes and emoticons.)

Although Version 3 beta users won't see changes in this release, those switching from Version 2.7 will enjoy the substantial boost in features. Version 3 stacks on over a dozen more tricks to refine the editing, creative, and sharing options in what has for years been a solid consumer app. Highlights below.

Tara Morrison's collage, made in Picasa 3
With a little creativity, you can make gorgeous collages like this in Picasa 3. (Credit: Tara Morrison/Google)

Syncing and sharing
Instead of manually uploading new photos to Picasa Web Albums from Picasa 3, you'll be able to click "Sync to Web" to keep the folder automatically updated. You can exclude photos by right-clicking and choosing "block from uploading" from the context menu.

Sharing has also gotten much easier. In previous versions, you would upload the photos from Picasa and then click within the Web album to e-mail the link to friends. The 'Share' button next to Picasa's syncing button helpfully auto-uploads the album and sends the Web link without compelling you to go online.

Sync and share buttons in Picasa 3
No more leaving Picasa for the Web to update or share photos. (Credit: CNET)

Movie Maker
A terrific but light addition, Picasa 3's new movie maker can take videos from your digital camera and other clips and intersperse them with any other file Picasa supports. You can then upload your video to YouTube or to Picasa Web, or share via e-mail.

Bare-bones editing tools will trim the clips and add a song for background. However, they don't do fading and there's no template to carry your caption style from frame to frame. Video output is currently only the WMV format, and encoding takes a little time--be patient while it renders.

Drop Box
Drop Box is the new default storage locker for newly uploaded photos, for pictures you don't want to assign to an album, and for multitaskers who tell Picasa to take it easy on the bandwidth so they can simultaneously surf and upload. The Drop Box also holds photos uploaded via Orkut, ShoZu, and other third-party photo uploading services that integrate with Picasa Web Albums. This is one of those features that some users will love and many will ignore.

Picasa 3 hooks into your keyboard's PrintScreen key to index captures of your screen, Webcam input, or a video. For casual users, this feature may replace independent screen-capturing software like Gadwin PrintScreen, Capture.NET, and SnagIt. Those who continue to use those apps may find the cataloging amusing or mildly annoying.

Picasa 3 toolbar
You can upload photos to the drop box and start making a movie from Picasa 3's toolbar. (Credit: CNET)

Other notables
Picasa 3's red-eye reduction tool detects and auto-corrects all the red-eyes in a photo. This substantially cuts out the hassle of clicking and dragging over individual eyes to wipe out the redness, and it works well most of the time. For blotchy faces and other minor blemishes, the retouch tool will awkwardly but fairly effectively let you blot out problem areas.

Finally, the collage tool has gotten more customizable. Before Picasa 3, you couldn't delete, drag, angle, or print in full resolution. Now you can. These substantial additions make the tool an easy way to get really creative (see photo).

There's always room for improvement, especially with the movie maker and red-eye tool, which could use some more precision controls, but this Version 3 release is an excellent effort that will give people much greater control over their photos and Web albums without sacrificing simplicity. All without clinging to beta.

>>Want more detail? See the full list of additions and changes in Picasa 3.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.