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I wake up in the morning, and check what’s new on Google+. Yes, really. Google is putting a lot of brawn and brains behind the social network everyone loves to hate, and it shows.
Google+ works hard to be a compelling choice in a world cluttered with competitors and entrenched leaders. Let me show you why it stands out.
Every photo I take with my phone automatically gets uploaded to Google+. Creepy? Yes. Useful? Definitely.
This is not a unique trick: Dropbox does this too, but it’s more limited. For one thing, photos uploaded onto Dropbox eat into your storage quota, while ones uploaded to Google+ are free by default — meaning, you can upload as many photos as you want without affecting your Google storage quota. That’s as long as you opt for what Google calls “Standard size” photos, which are up to 2048 pixels in width or height. Higher-resolution photos will eat into your storage quota, but then again, you won’t usually need those, at least not for sharing with friends.
And this brings me to the second Google+ advantage over Dropbox auto-upload: Once your photos are on Google+, it’s incredibly easy to share them with friends and family. Because Google+ revolves around so-called “circles” (fully explained in our Google Plus Guide), sharing with a set group of friends is trivial — you don’t even have to type out their names individually, just pick “Family” or “Work” or whatever you called that circle.
When I said Google was putting lots of brawn behind Google+, I didn’t mean a bunch of sweaty, muscular guys. We’re talking computing power here — as in massive server clusters that go through your photos one at a time, automatically selecting the best ones, and then making them even better. It’s called Auto-Awesome, and it’s like an even more “instant” version of Instagram — it happens before you even see your photo.
There are seven different types of Auto-Awesome effects, and you can read the full list in Google’s documentation. In a nutshell, Auto Awesome can create animated GIFs out of a series of similar photos; it can remove people and cars cluttering up landmark photos; it can automatically stitch panoramas for you; I could continue, but you get the picture.
In practice, Auto Awesome means Google+ isn’t just hosting my photos and letting me share them, but it often adds real value. I’ve had Google+ make cute animated GIFs of my cat (which I never would have done on my own… honest), create a collage of baby photos, and create a highlight reel of all of my photos from 2013 (something Google did for everyone).
Find out more about Google+’s photo options.
Image Search That’s Borderline Creepy
Go to the Google+ Photo Search page. Type the word “cat,” and press Enter. Photos of cats will come up, both from your own albums, and from your circles. I tried this with a bunch of other terms, such as chocolate, cake, graffiti, and building. They worked really well. And the creepy part is — nobody tagged those photos as “chocolate”.
Google’s image recognition algorithms can recognize what’s in your photo — not just face recognition (“This is Erez”), which Picasa has been doing for years — but other objects as well. This means you no longer have to create albums, nor do you need to manually tag images.
I know of no other service, offline or online, that allows for that level of sophistication in image search (and for free, too). From a technical standpoint, this is a very impressive accomplishment. Whether or not you feel comfortable with Google having that level of knowledge about you is a different matter.
Hangouts: Better Than Skype
Google+ is not just about your photos. Take Hangouts, for example — it roundly beats Skype at its own game. Hangouts allows for multi-participant video and audio chats, and lets people share their screen, work on Google Docs together, and collaborate with many different apps during the call. Hangouts automatically mutes participants when it thinks they’re making loud typing sounds, and there’s an app for wearing silly virtual masks, too.
You may not think of participating in a Hangout as “using Google+,” but Hangouts are an intrinsic part of the service. Google cunningly uses Hangouts to lure people into Google+ — when you chat with someone in Gmail and then switch to a video call, that’s a Hangout.
We’ve previously shown you a few of the most interesting Google+ communities, and the list has only grown since. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Holo Android Apps community, where people share their favorite Android apps.
What’s nice about communities is that you don’t have to know anyone — they’re just places to discuss mutual interests, and they make it easy to meet new friends. The Google+ interface makes it easy to filter out community noise, and each community can feature different post types. For example, the Holo Android Apps community lets you browse just discussions, just apps promoted by their developers, or even just health and fitness apps.
Finally (you guessed it), Google+ will even try to recommend relevant communities for you. Google knows you. Google loves you. Google wants you to make new friends.
Beta Tests for Android Apps
This is a specialized use of the communities feature: Android developers can create communities that allow users to beta-test their apps. For example, I’m a long-time Libra user. When Daniel Cachapa, Libra’s developer, wanted to get feedback on a new version he was working on, he created the Libra Users community.
Community members got new Beta versions of Libra via Google Play. The experience was seamless: You just join the community, and suddenly, an update for Libra appears on your phone. Both impressive and convenient.
A Beautiful, Responsive Interface
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; responsiveness, not so much. A “responsive” website is one that looks good on different-sized screens, and indeed, Google+ is just as legible when taking an entire 24″ monitor as it is when squished into a narrow window. Reduce the window size, and the layout morphs accordingly, switching to single-column mode.
That’s just one example, but generally speaking, Google+ is one of the most modern and powerful Web apps available today.
Let’s face it: Unless you’re absolutely determined not to have anything to do with Google, chances are you already have a dormant Google+ profile sitting around. If you use Google, it’s not like you really have a choice. If parts of this post seem ambivalent, that’s because it’s hard to ignore just how creepily “friendly” Google+ is.
That said, the bottom line is that Google+ will save your photos; it will make them look better (usually); and it really is a great place to find fun content.
What do you love or hate about Google+?