This entry documents my experience with the Windows photo management app, Picasa. The one-line summary: incredible interface: "good"; proprietary data storage: "bad". Upcoming version 2.0 promises to fix the latter while retaining the former. Read on for details.
One of the first things I did after installing XP was look for photo management software. I wasn't looking for a system for presenting photos on the web; that's the sort of thing I can write myself, and would want to incorporate into my existing site infrastructure. Instead, I was looking for something to make importing, organizing, annotating, searching, and printing easy on my local machine.
Importing and printing, in particular, are awful in Linux. USB and PCMCIA, the two main ways to get pictures onto my computer, have always been flaky. USB devices never seem to hot-swap gracefully, and PCMCIA devices frequently hang my laptop. As for printing, I have an excellent Canon S900 photo printer, and have had nothing but grief trying to get it to work in Linux. All of the above work flawlessly in Windows.
(Okay, now I'm sounding like a Linux detractor. In fact, I very much prefer living in Linux; it's just device support that's lacking. And to be fair, it's not Linux's fault. Devices work in Windows only because companies write device drivers for Windows.)
So I knew that in Windows the digital photo experience would be better. But I can't claim to have done an exhaustive survey of photo management software, because I fell in love with the first one I tried. A friend of mine, Mike Herf, works on a product called Picasa. There are good and bad points about it, and I'd like to share them both.
Picasa is a slick little program, very tightly coded, very fast. It does all sorts of gratuitous scaling, swooshing, shadowing and fading--the sort of thing I usually hate because it wastes CPU cycles for no good reason. However, it never seems to slow Picasa down, and it doesn't actually take away from the experience, so I'll forgive it for swooshing.
Picasa is an entire photo management system, from importing all the way to emailing and printing. A crucial feature (and one I hadn't seen before, though I wouldn't be surprised if it's common) is the "tray". The tray sits below the main interface, and lets you hold onto a group of photos destined for some operation. The photos can come from anywhere in your collection, so you can search or browse at will, populating the tray as you go. This is distinct from the standard shift-click/control-click selection mechanism in Windows, which gets blown away any time you click on anything.
Picasa groups images by "album" (usually a Windows folder), but provides a single, scrollable view containing all your photos in chronological order. This lets you whip rapidly through thousands of photos, all thumbnailed, all gratuitously drop-shadowed, with no delay. Very nice.
You can also assign any number of keywords to an image, and then search by keyword later. The search is obscenely fast; all matches appear the moment you hit Enter. If you're missing the theme here, it's "speed".
If you use a Windows mail client, Picasa will happily open up a new message and attach (optionally scaled) versions of what's in the tray. This simple, obvious feature is a big deal for our family: it lets us pore through the hundreds of pictures of our baby, choose several, and send appropriately scaled versions off to family without going through several apps in the process.
Despite its graphical gratuity, Picasa's interface is near-perfect for my needs. Unfortunately, the program has one serious flaw. It considers the image files on disk off-limits, and so stores all of its data in a proprietary database (not in the original files). This includes search keywords that you assign, image operations that you perform (like rotations or red-eye reduction), and album reorganization. (This last one means that your Picasa albums can diverge from the actual organization of files on disk. It gets confusing fast.)
To be fair, some people would consider this a feature. Some people believe their image files are "sacrosanct" (as Mike put it), and so don't want Picasa to mess with them. But I'm convinced that proprietary databases are the Root of All Evil, particularly when the app won't let you export the data. (Picasa won't.) If, someday, I choose to switch to another app or another platform, I can bring the pixels over, but not all the organizational data.
This flaw makes me hesitate to recommend Picasa. As it is, I've held off annotating my own images, unwilling to commit the results to the Proprietary Database Abyss. The good news: Mike tells me that Picasa 2.0 (in the works) is willing to actually modify image files. It'll let you reorganize the files on disk, and will store search keywords in the JPEG headers (where they belong). He also says it will be able to convert over your existing keywords and other data, so perhaps I should stop worrying and start annotating.
All in all, an excellent program. As long as I'm in Windows Land, I plan to keep using Picasa, and I eagerly await version 2.0.