Half a decade ago, backing up your photos was a tedious and often expensive experience unless you just sat down with a USB cable and a huge external drive once or twice a week. Wait, no, that method was the most tedious of all. We've come a long way since then. Amazon, Apple, Google, and basically every cloud storage company all offer automatic photo backups with robust indexing and photo management, and many of them have free tiers depending on the quality of your photos or if you subscribe to other services.
Google Photos helped spur this change by offering up one of the best damn photo backups on the internet for five full years. Now that the free ride is over, I'm not getting off this bandwagon. Five years of training and refining have made Google Photos 100% worth paying for — especially when it doesn't cost me anything extra.
Unparalelled photo searching
Part of the reason Google was willing to give away free unlimited "high-quality" photo backups for everyone with a Google account for the last five years was the ability to train its digital, algorithmic eyes to recognize and cross-index anything and everything you'd ever photograph. Whether you're using Google Lens inside Google Photos or you're just trying to find a picture of your first car among thousands of photos from car shows, you're seeing the fruits of Google's five-year training.
Go to Google Photos and search "flower". Take a peek and then type in "rose", and see how the results narrow down. If I search "recipe", I get photos of food I cooked when trying new recipes and the pictures of a Czech cookbook someone brought back to the newsroom that one time back in 2018.
I can search "SSR", and it'll bring up every photo I've ever taken of that glorious unibody truck — sod off, gearheads, I think it's pretty! If I can't remember my license plate, I can type "license plate" and bring it up instantly.
Even if Amazon and Apple's photo indexing systems can group together the photos of my family and friends, even if they can recognize flowers and trees, can it show both the photos of my Galaxy S10 and photos taken with my Galaxy S10? No, it can't, and considering how many photos I take for work, having a way to search them quickly and efficiently is so, so important.
Easy editing and sharing
It may shock you to learn that I take most of my article photos with phone cameras — I know it shocked my coworkers — but what's less surprising is that I use Google Photos to edit most of them, too.
Part of this is just that Google Photos is my one-stop shop for most of my photography needs: it uploads the photos from my phones, and I browse and edit them on the Google Photos website via whichever Chromebook or Windows machine I have handy. It's not quite as granular as say Photoshop or Lightroom, but it gets the photos where I want them 95% of the time — and this is my job.
Whether I just need to readjust the brightness or I need to crop down and make the colors more natural rather than everything looking blue because of the cloudy sky, Google Photos makes editing easy. And everything is reversible, so if I go too far, I can always revert to the original and start my editing over again.
Even when I'm not downloading them to use in my articles, sharing in Google Photos is also just so amazingly simple. If I need to share the video of a water leak in my apartment with the landlord, I can create and email the link in two taps. Want to share an album of my favorite home screen themes? Boom, here's a link, and people can even add their own!
I already pay for Google One, so Photos doesn't cost extra
Now that Google Photos is no longer free, it's part of Google One, which covers your Google Drive storage, Gmail storage — yes, Gmail alone can eat your 15GB of free storage depending on how rapidly you accumulate emails — and a few other backup functions. Storage plans for Google One go $20/year for 100GB, $30/year for 200GB, or $100/year for 2TB, and considering how much stuff you can fit into two terabytes — especially since you can share that storage with family members — that's quite reasonably priced.
And let's remember that even if you're doing original quality uploads, unless you're taking hours of 4K video a week, it will take you months if not years to fill a 2TB Google One plan. It's also ridiculously easy to go in and purge old photos you no longer need once you do need to make room.
If you're paying for Google One — which you are if you're a Google Drive user at all and/or an Android user that can take advantage of the free device backups — then Google Photos is and will remain a no-brainer as your photo service of choice. Once your throw in the free VPN and customer support for all Google products, Google One more than pays for itself, and Google Photos is all the more incentive to grab a Google One plan.
Sticking with Google Photos just makes sense
Even if another service made more financial sense — which I've yet to find — Google Photos has spent half a decade learning my family faces. It's organized years of professional and personal photography, recognizing which phone I'm photographing during these case reviews, and grouping together my photos from around Walt Disney World.
While I don't order photo books often or use Google Photos slideshows on my Chromecast with Google TV or smart displays, of the best Google services on my phone, Google Photos is second only to Google Keep. While the free ride is over, it's still a great value for an even better product.
Free backups for less
This is the most affordable phone that still gets free high-quality Google Photos backups.
This phone is compact in both size and price, but it still offers up the latest software and features from Google. You can already try Android 12's beta with the Pixel 4a, and I've been returning to the camera on the Pixel 4a over those on the Galaxy S21 because the Pixel is just more consistent, especially at close range.
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Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.