Saturday, 21 September 2013

Storing Photos In The Cloud And Offline

These days it is easier than ever to take lots of photos. The tricky part is how to sensibly manage all of these photos. I have an existing collection of ~20GB of photos and I take new photos on my iPhone.

I want to be able to:
  • Manually organize my photos into albums.
  • Access all my photos from my iOS devices (iPhone/iPad) and on the web - and the cloud storage shouldn't cost too much!
  • Store selected albums offline on my devices for fast access without waiting for each picture to download.
  • Easily sync photos/albums from the cloud down to my PC for the purposes of local backup.
Up until recently I was managing this by using Picasa Web as my cloud store and the excellent Pixite app "Web Albums" on my iPhone/iPad to handle uploads and local album caching. This worked great up until recently when a problem with getting my photos back out of Picasa Web caused me lose my trust in the service. This also made me realise that my current approach didn't include an easy way to sync all of my photos to my PC to protect me from cloud service issues.

Looking At The Alternatives
I have spent some time browsing through existing reviews of the alternatives and so far I haven't managed to find anything which quite fits my requirements.

Offline Caching
The easiest way to filter out much of the competition is to look at the support for offline caching within their iOS apps.
  • Pixite - developers of similar iOS apps for several cloud services which all support offline caching:
    • Picasa Web
    • Dropbox
    • Flickr
  • Everpix - automatically syncs some photos locally. No control over exactly which photos.
I also tried the following apps which didn't meet my requirements:
  • Google Cloud Drive - allows individual files to be cached for offline access. This is useless when I want to make whole albums available offline.
  • Amazon Cloud Photos - no support for organizing photos into albums.
  • No offline caching support:
    • SkyDrive
    • SugarSync
    • Picturelife
    • Loom
So the candidates at this point are (ignoring Picasa Web which I am trying to move away from):
  • Dropbox
  • Flickr
  • Everpix
Uploading Photos From My PC
I currently prefer to organize my photos into folders on my PC. Any service which I choose to use needs to make it easy to upload my existing collection of photos in folders.

Flickr quickly fails this test as the desktop uploader wants to upload a flat stream of photos rather than folders of photos. The closest Flickr equivalent of a folder is a "photoset" but these have to be created manually during upload - not exactly the easy sync I was hoping for! There are independently developed tools available but none of them seemed to offer exactly the kind of sync which I was looking for. I was also put off the Flickr service which seemed complex to setup for storing photos privately - it feels very similar to Facebook in that all of the defaults want you to share your photos!

Dropbox ticks the box for ease of upload as it has an excellent desktop sync client that will simply upload my existing folders of photos.

Everpix provides a desktop uploading client and allows manual re-download of photos. However photos can't be manually organized into albums. I also found that it took a few minutes for each uploaded photo to become accessible. Together these limitations make Everpix unusable for me.

Affordable Storage
Dropbox charges $100/year for 100GB.

I currently have a grandfathered Google storage plan - $5/year for 20GB. However if I want more space the closest normally available plan on Google is $5/month ($60/year) for 100GB.

It is worth mentioning that Amazon Cloud Drive actually has low prices at various capacities - 20GB for $10/year, 50GB for $26/year and 100GB for $52/year (all these prices are approximate as I have converted from GBP). What a pity that the Amazon Cloud Drive Photos iOS app is so poor.

What About iCloud?
As far as I'm concerned iCloud is a total failure for photos. iCloud is not a cloud photo store. iCloud Photo Stream is a cache of recent photos which makes it simple to push photos from the device where you take them to all of your other Apple devices.

I already have a total of 36GB of storage with Google at a price I am very happy with. They even have a service (Picasa - becoming Google+ Photos) dedicated to photo management and a 3rd party app (Web Albums by Pixite) which provides offline caching. Unfortunately I just don't trust them to reliably store my photos. I am also frustrated to see Picasa Web redirecting to Google+ Photos which lacks simple features like sorting my albums by their names.

Google Drive would be a great alternative that uses the same storage but is run by a different team in Google that might do a better job with my files. Unfortunately there is currently no way for me to cache entire folders stored in Google Drive offline on my iPhone.

Dropbox seems to be the clear winner amongst the competition as it also provides an easy to use file syncing desktop app and allows me to continue to use a Pixite app on my iPhone to manage my uploads and local caching.

I'll give it a few weeks before I actually move all of my stuff. If Picasa starts working again in that time I might consider sticking with that service a bit longer and just manually download newer albums periodically to backup locally. It is also possible that Google Drive will add folder level caching at some point.

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