Steve Jobs first unveiled iPhoto at 2002’s Macworld conference. It was a stunning launch; iPhoto was the first easy-to-use, mass-market program that solved a looming consumer-tech problem: How would we manage the billions of ill-considered digital photos we were squirreling on to our computers? The iPhoto solution was to display all of your shots on a single screen, allowing you to take a simple, satisfying jaunt from the present to the past. Since that initial rollout, iPhoto has added a bunch of new features—at a press event this week, Jobs showed off a new version that, for instance, lets you transform your pictures into elegant letterpress greeting cards.
But this is not a column about the virtues of Apple’s software: iPhoto, like iTunes, hasn’t aged well. For several years, it’s been too slow and cumbersome, and managing a large stash of photos via iPhoto’s interface now feels like a chore. Instead, I store my thousands of photos in Picasa, a photo-management program that was long considered a pale imitation of iPhoto—a way for Windows users to get some semblance of Apple’s photo magic. But as iPhoto has remained more or less stagnant, Picasa—which is owned by Google—has improved with every new version.
What’s so good about Picasa? First, it’s blazing fast, zipping along even when loaded with a decade of photos; under the same circumstances, iPhoto gets stuck in the mud. Picasa also has terrific sharing features. Its online counterpart, Picasa Web albums, is the simplest way I’ve found to send a large stash of pictures to people who live far away. But the most breathtaking thing about Picasa is its face-recognition tool—the program scans your photos and adds names to your friends’ and family’s faces with spooky accuracy. This feature has brought all my old photos to life, highlighting long-lost pictures of my pals from the college newspaper, my mom’s second cousin, and the guys who helped me move apartments in 2006. (Trust me, Picasa brings back lots of memories!)
I’d call Picasa the best photo program for Windows, but that would be underselling it. Unlike iPhoto, Picasa is cross-platform—it’s the best photo program for the Mac and Linux, too. And here’s one more great thing about Picasa: It’s completely free. (iPhoto sells for $49 as part of Apple’s iLife suite; it comes free on new Macs).
Apple partisans will point out that iPhoto has many of the same features as Picasa. That’s true, but iPhoto’s implementation lags behind Picasa’s in lots of large and small ways. Take face recognition. In order to get that feature to work in iPhoto, you have to find a photo with a specific person’s face, click it, click Name, and then type in that person’s name. Once you’ve done that, iPhoto will then scan your photos for other faces that resemble the person you’ve just tagged. This sounds easy enough, but if you’ve got a ton of photos, the whole thing is a pain. And how, besides trawling through all of your pictures yourself, will you remember the names of everyone you want to tag? You won’t—which means iPhoto isn’t any good for detecting photos of people who appear in just a handful of your shots.
Picasa’s face-recognition system is much cleverer. Instead of asking you to type in names manually, Picasa scans through your photos by default. It then presents a huge matrix of all the faces it’s found on a single screen. Now it’s your job to put a name to each of these faces—all you do is click and type. The process is surprisingly fun, like playing Concentration with your photos. (That one guy with the beard at your friend’s wedding—did he go to college with you? What’s his name again?) Each time you name someone, Picasa puts a bunch of pictures of that person under a new folder; in a short while, you get folders for what seems like everyone you’ve ever met in your life.
But it’s not just that Picasa has a better face-detection interface—it also has a better detection engine, meaning that it finds more matching faces than iPhoto, and it does so with unbelievable accuracy. A few weeks ago, in a comment on a column I wrote about Google’s self-driving car, a reader named “nerdnam” sang the praises of Picasa’s face detection. “I put about 90 years of family photos through it and it could match faces through infancy, childhood, middle age, and old age,” the commenter wrote. “It wasn’t defeated by costumes, wigs, going bald, or even Halloween makeup. It didn’t match every single face, but of the ones it did, I think there was only [one] mistake.”
How does Picasa perform so well? Lisa Conquergood, a product manager for Google Photos, says the program’s face-detection analysis is similar to the technology behind Google Image search. To identify faces, Picasa measures key distances between prominent facial features, essentially reducing your mug to a number. To find matches, Picasa simply looks for other photos with similar numbers. Conquergood says that engineers are constantly testing the system to identify weak spots in its matching algorithm. Recently, they noticed that Picasa wasn’t doing a great job identifying children’s faces. The team expanded its pool of test photos to include a lot more pictures of young people, and Picasa’s latest version is now a lot better at spotting kids.
Not just kids—babies! Nearly six weeks ago, my wife and I had our first child, and since then we’ve snapped hundreds and hundreds of the cutest baby pictures the world has ever seen. These photos show that our baby has changed remarkably over the span of his short life—he’s gained half of his birth weight, his eyes have widened, his nose has grown, he’s picked up a double chin, and he’s gotten his first haircut. What’s more, the shots reveal an astonishingly wide variety of facial expressions—my baby curls and purses his lips, scrunches his eyes, and strains and tenses his whole body, turning his forehead beet red. (Babies, I’ve learned, are born with lots of different facial expressions to express discomfort, but exactly zero to register pleasure or even mere contentment; happiness, it turns out, is something you’ve got to learn.) But even with all these challenges, Picasa is undaunted. However much my son’s face changes as he grows, and whatever strange things he does with his eyes, nose, and mouth, Picasa always picks him out.
I will note one pet peeve with Picasa: It lacks Facebook integration. While iPhoto easily lets you upload pictures to the social network (which is by far the world’s largest photo-sharing site), you need to download a plug-in to do so from Picasa. But that’s a quibble. Looking at Picasa’s stream of close-ups of my baby’s face has become a good way for me to while away half a weekend—and if you give it a try, the same will happen to you, too.