January 8, 2008

Picasa 2.7 a slick upgrade on Linux

Author: Nathan Willis

Google has released a public beta of its Picasa photo organizer for Linux. The new release adds some important features for image browsing, image searching, and creative image export. If you haven't tried it before, now is the time.

This beta release is a preview of Picasa 2.7, which will bring the Linux version of the application up to speed with the Windows edition. Picasa remains the only Google app which is unavailable for Mac OS X, a fact you can brag about to your Apple-loving friends.

As with previous versions of Picasa on Linux, this release bundles a customized version of the Wine Windows compatibility layer automatically installed inside the app, freeing you from the burden of maintaining a working Wine installation and from worrying about Picasa's compatibility whenever upstream Wine is installed.

You can download prepackaged binaries in RPM or Debian format. The RPMs are touted as working on 32-bit Intel and AMD64 versions of Red Hat, Fedora, SUSE, and Mandriva. The Debian packages are available in two versions, one for 32-bit Intel and one for AMD64; both should work on Debian itself and Ubuntu.

A new installation option is Google's Testing Repository, a public package repository that can deliver updates automatically via APT or yum. Instructions are available for adding the repository to both package managers. Currently Picasa 2.7 is the only package offered through the repo, but adding it to your machine's package manager is a surefire way to make sure you don't miss out when Google unveils something new for Linux users.

Whether you use the repo or download and install the application standalone, the installer will try to detect any previous version of Picasa on your system and replace it, preserving your settings and images.

What's new

The marquee addition in this release is support for Picasa Web Albums, Google's online photo sharing service. The Web Albums button lets you export photos to your online account within the app itself, including adding to and creating new albums, resizing images, editing descriptions, and marking public or private visibility. If you do not already have a Picasa Web Albums account, the app will take you to the signup page -- a process you must go through even if you already have a Google Account for use with the company's other services.

You can also create a CD of your photos with the Gift CD button, a feature that was visible in the last Picasa release for Linux, but grayed out. Another flashy option is the ability to create a collage of photos -- you can combine a selection of images to make a contact sheet, pseudo-random "pile" of overlapping images, a tightly-spaced grid, or a mash-up of all the selected photos rendered on top of each other.

Several changes add flexibility to browsing and searching through your library. You can create hierarchical folders and browse through them in a tree view, similar to the approach of two-paned file managers. You can also import photos from your camera directly into an existing folder, rather than being forced to create a new folder for each batch.

The built-in search tool now allows you to search on several useful metadata properties. You can search for photos by film speed by using the iso: operator; typing iso:400 returns pictures shot at ISO 400, and so on. The focal: operator searches based on focal length; focal:105mm for example. Both operators require the relevant EXIF data to be present in the photo.

Google also lists support for newer camera models and Adobe DNG files among this version's new features.

What's not that hot

Despite the improvements, a few features stick out as in need of improvement. First, although Google has done an amazing job building this app on top of Wine without making it look like it is a Wine app, the Wine occasionally seeps through. Most of the interface is slick and modern, but the odd dialog box comes up in Wine's old-fashioned Windows 95-like widget set. It's not a good look.

Second, the interface picks up some but not all of your system's window manager characteristics -- in my case, it used the text-highlight color from my theme (white), but its own highlight color for the background behind selected text (also white). A minor annoyance, yes, but a minor fix, too.

On the not-Linux-specific front, some of the new features are quirky. The iso: and focal: search operators are nice, for instance, but they are less useful than aperture: and shutter: would have been. Picasa could use more metadata integration in general; it does not support XMP, and the only way to view an image's EXIF data is via right-click context menu, making it impossible to compare two images' info.

You still have to turn off Picasa's automatic searching feature, which is annoying. I'm sure the developers have mentally pictured a Picasa user who wants or needs this feature -- someone with nothing but personal photos on their computer, only one copy of each, and who will use only Picasa to manage them. But that is unrealistic, and Picasa's desire to index every *.jpg it can find uses up unnecessary time and drags in unwanted images, both of which make managing your real photos just a little bit harder.

Finally, navigation in picture editing mode needs work. You cannot zoom from within the image -- the keyboard +/- keys are bound to the caption entry widget, the scroll wheel to the picture selector at the top of the screen, and the mouse can only be used to drag. I also wish there were a way to move the picture Histogram display. It floats semi-transparent over the bottom right corner of the image, but you cannot move it when the bottom right corner is where you need to look.

What's not new, but is still good

If you have never tried Picasa, this is as good a time as any. The built-in image correction and special effects filters are as good as any you will find on Linux, in terms of quality and ease of use. Previews are fast, the options are easy to understand, and undo, redo, and reverting to the original are straightforward.

The convenience features -- file export, CD burning, Blogger integration, and slideshow and movie creation -- are fast and simple to use. Web Album support is nice, although it (like Blogger integration) is limited to just Google's service.

The ability to order prints over the Internet from a dozen different providers is far nicer. Don't expect that kind of integration with many photo printing services from the free software alternatives any time soon.

There is no date fixed for the final, non-beta release of Picasa 2.7 for Linux, but if you subscribe to the Google Testing Repository, you can be the first to know when it's out.

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