Hands-on with Picasa for the Mac

Picasa is a credible competitor to iPhoto--especially for those who have recently switched to the Mac.

I'm a somewhat dissatisfied owner of a new MacBook. One of the things I was looking forward to with the computer was the vaunted easy photo management I kept hearing about. But I found the Mac's free photo management app, iPhoto, frustrating to use, compared to the product I had become accustomed to on Windows: Google's Picasa. I didn't like the fact that I had to manually import photos into the product--even photos already on my Mac--and that the import process made duplicates of my photos when I did so. I much prefer Picasa, which simply scans your computer's directories and shows you the photos it finds on your disks.

Monday, Google is releasing Picasa 3 for Mac OS X (download). I got an early look at the new product, still marked "beta," and found it a faithful port of the PC version (Picasa is also available for Linux), minus a few features like the timeline view and geotagging (the former is probably gone for good; the latter is coming in a subsequent build). Picasa lacks some of the fun features in iPhoto, too: It doesn't take full advantage of the multi-touch trackpad features in the new MacBooks, like zoom and rotate. It does, though, read ratings and tags from iPhoto libraries, so it would be easy to use Picasa alongside an iPhoto library. But as it doesn't export back to iPhoto; it's a one-way trip for the metadata.

Picasa organizes the photos on your hard disk. It also manages importing from your cameras and memory cards.

The two programs are much the same in features, although some of the differences may matter greatly to certain users. iPhoto, for example, has a slick way to batch-edit photos, including the capability to update dates and times embedded in photos and to apply the same custom image corrections to several shots at once. Picasa also has batch-editing features, but it doesn't give you as much control. In single images, though, Picasa lets you insert text directly into photos, and offers a few handy enhancement tools missing in iPhoto, like graduated tints (useful for improving landscape shots). But overall, both products offer flexible image correction and enhancement, including variable rotation for out-of-kilter images, red-eye correction, and white-balance correction.

iPhoto currently offers much better support for printing books, calendars, and cards through Apple. Picasa should get the capability to print similar services later. iPhoto's on-screen slideshows are also better; it lets you use the "Ken Burns effect" to make watching stills more compelling.

On the other hand, Picasa lets you pin photos to the "photo tray" for batch operations like e-mailing, uploading, or making items into a collage. You can multi-select images in iPhoto to do the same thing, but the intermediate tray concept in Picasa is much easier to use--one stray mouse click won't undo your selection.

As Stephen Shankland reports, Picasa also integrates with the online Picasa Web Albums photo-sharing site, just as the Windows version does. Changes made on the sharing site (captions or name tagging) don't migrate back into your computer's library, though. iPhoto, of course, connects to Apple's Mobile Me service for online, shared galleries. Picasa Web Albums is free, though. Mobile Me costs $99 a year.

Other features coming over to Picasa Mac in the future include Webcam capture, screensaver control, and the photo preview feature from Windows (which I believe is superfluous in OS X, given its strong Preview app).

Even though this early build of Picasa is missing some features, I'm going to use it and not iPhoto. It has a cleaner and less intrusive organizational system, stronger photo-editing features, it's fast to use, and setting up online albums is free. When I want to print calendars and books I'll drop back to iPhoto, but Picasa's feature set makes it a better day-to-day product.

The editor in Picasa lets you add text and graduated filters to images.