Google Photos is ending free, unlimited photo and video storage in June. I was wondering whether going full in with iCloud Photos as an alternative is worth it. Let me tell you what I found out so far, including test results.
The importance of iCloud
First, all iPhone and iPad owners should have an iCloud account. Your device gets backed up to iCloud when charging and on wi-fi. It’s vital to have backups in case your device gets replaced, lost, stolen, broken, or needs to be reset. Yes, you can backup to a computer – if you remember, and if you have the right cable, and if you do it manually. But it’s become much easier to do this automatically via iCloud. My backups for my iPhone and iPad take up more than 100 GB, so I have been using the 200 GB iCloud plan.
Also, if you have multiple devices (an iPhone, an iPad, a Mac) using iCloud is practical and useful for syncing across the devices – Notes, Messages, and much more. It’s one of the features of Apple that really does “just work.”
This post is more about whether you might want to use the optional full iCloud Photos syncing feature, and possibly the iCloud Desktop and Documents syncing feature as well.
Until now I have not used that feature. I’ve just used the default Photo Stream feature which syncs the latest still photos (not videos) across devices.
The issue – Google Photos is ending free, unlimited storage
My Photos library on my Mac is over 300 GB in size. Apple’s iCloud storage plans jump from 200 GB for $2.99/month to 2 TB for $9.99 a month (for personal users). Rather than increasing my iCloud plan, I have been using Google Photos for full photos syncing. It’s a great service, and it offers free, unlimited cloud storage of all your photos and videos. It’s fast, full of features, and works well on all devices on all platforms. It’s a great choice if you have a mix of different devices like a Windows computer, and Android phone, an iPad, etc.
However, Google announced they are ending their free, unlimited photo storage in June, 2021 (agh). So I needed to rethink how I store and sync my tens of thousands of photos which go back decades. You can keep any photos you already stored in Google Photos after that for free, but going forward that you will need a paid Google One storage plan if your photos and email and other files exceed the free 15 GB everybody gets.
The size of my Apple Photos library on my Mac is about 330 GB. I have an internal 512 GB SSD, so the Photos library is on an external SSD drive. Plus I have all Photos automatically synced to Google Photos.
I already have a 100 GB Google One plan (cost $19.99/year) because my Gmail and other files like Docs and Sheets exceeds the free 15 GB limit. Currently I’m using 22 GB of that storage, leaving 93 GB of extra space. Starting in June, I will start eating into that extra space for Google Photos added. That might last a long time, so there is no time crunch. But this change prompted me to investigate iCloud Photos as an alternative – or extra service.
Using Google Photos and Apple Photos
I quite like Google Photos, and have used Apple Photos mainly as a backup. I also use Apple Photos all the time when taking photos. It’s easy to use to edit and share new photos I take with my iPhone camera. I’ve always thought of it as being a temporary holding place for Photos until I back them up on my external SSD. But I only get around to doing that every 6 months or so. When I do that, it also gets backed up in the cloud via Backblaze. My Apple Photos don’t get backed up with Time Machine or Carbon Copy Cloner because neither recommends backing up external drives. If I get a larger internal drive someday then both services will also back up the Apple Photos library.
My main photos backup has been Google Photos. Also, the iPhone Photos which haven’t been synced to my Mac yet get backed up as part of my daily iCloud phone backup.
There are some albums in Apple Photos on my Mac which I have been syncing to my iPhone when I connect it with a lightning cable to the Mac to import photos and videos. The syncing is cumbersome this way. Going full iCloud Photos would completely solve that problem. So that is one thing in Apple Photos favor: all the albums are synced everywhere.
With the free, unlimited Google Photos the choice seemed easy enough. But since they are ending that, I have to decide whether to go full in on iCloud Photos or pay Google for more storage going forward when I run out of current space. There are pluses and minuses to both. And it becomes a bit more difficult to decide since the 330 GB of Photos I already have synced with Google Photos remains there, grandfathered in. The main concern is new photos.
So – what are the choices?
The choices are:
(1) Switch to using iCloud Photos. This requires an extra $7.99/month to upgrade to the 2 TB plan.
(2) Keep doing things the way I am now and pay Google to upgrade to their 2 TB plan when I run out of my 115 GB (100 GB paid and 15 GB free) space eventually. Their 2 TB is $9.99/month (for personal users) or $99.99/year – $70 more per year than I am paying now. Not so much in the grander scheme of things.
(3) Do both. With iCloud, you can also sync your Mac Desktop and Documents folder and see almost everything from all devices, which sounds cool. I might make more use out of my iPad Pro with the keyboard case if everything was there. And remember, the whole manual import into Photos on my Mac becomes unnecessary.
Free storage at Apple and Google
Apple is notoriously cheap with their free storage. Everybody gets a measly 5 GB, which quickly turns into being insufficient for backups of devices. Some get by ok with an inexpensive 50 GB plan. I had a 200 GB plan, about half of which was used by iPhone and iPad backups. To give iCloud Photos a try, I upgraded to 2 TB.
Google gives everybody 15 GB of free storage, which you can use for your Gmail and online files and documents you create with Google apps. I upgraded my plan a few years ago to 100 GB because my mail volume had gotten large over time. Google Photos itself is separate from this storage and has been unlimited.
So one question you need to ask yourself is how much storage do you actually need? If you’re not really into taking photos (I love taking photos) maybe 15 GB is sufficient. In my case it’s not nearly enough, and come June, since I’m already over 300 GB, I will eventually need to pay for a larger storage plan to continue doing things the way I have been.
Some iCloud Photos Conveniences
There are additional benefits of iCloud Photos vs Google Photos. All devices see all edits. And, as mentioned above, there is no need to connect my iPhone to my Mac to import into Photos library anymore. And there are more benefits if you turn on Desktop/Documents syncing, which you might as well do if you have 2 TB of storage. That way you have access to all your files on all your devices: Mac, iPhone, and iPad. And even via the web at icloud.com. So it’s an attractive option for somebody with multiple Apple devices. The so-called “Apple ecosystem.”
One simple example of this – I just received an email from a friend with a few interesting photos. I can save them on my iPhone and, voila, they are in my Photos on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone. With just Google Photos they do also instantly sync there, so that is one way to go. But having them also in Apple Photos in original format, and synced to all my devices, means I can add descriptions to photos and add them to albums right then, without needing to manually import them. It’s not instantaneous by any means. But if I wait a few minutes the new album I create on my iPhone does eventually appear on my Mac and iPad. That’s convenient.
Previously I never got around to creating many albums on my iPhone because they weren’t properly synced with my Mac. Instead I manually synced selected albums from my Mac. With iCloud Photos turned on they are all everywhere. And can be shared (see below for more on sharing).
Also, you can upload photos from your Apple Photos library to Instagram. It appears you cannot do that directly from Google Photos. In fact, you should take into account that most iPhone photography based apps are designed to deal with your standard Apple Photos app rather than Google Photos. You may find that to be of overriding importance and decide to use iCloud Photos, if you need to access more than your recent photos on the device or those in the default Photo Stream.
Caution about Optimized Storage on the Mac and External Backups
iCloud offers an option to “optimize” storage on your devices, keeping just what you currently need on the device and offloading files not in use to iCloud if you start running out of space. This is useful for devices with limited space. But there are dangers to using optimized storage on the Mac for backups. Time Machine, CCC, and Backblaze can’t back up the originals if they aren’t present on your Mac.
Sometimes you need to use the Optimize Storage feature if you have a small capacity Mac drive, and smaller storage sizes for your other devices. If your Mac has enough space, though, I recommend not using Optimize Storage and, instead, keeping originals on your Mac. Then your external backups will all be complete.
How Long it Took to Upload the Photos
Even though I have about 900 Mbps upload according to Netspeed, syncing gets throttled at iCloud. So it took about 3 days for the initial upload of all the photos. Just getting started took quite a while before uploading began. You can monitor progress several ways: (1) at the bottom of the Photos app on the Mac it shows the status (updating, uploading) and there is also a pause link. (2) Also on the iPhone it showing a Syncing… status. (3) You can also look at your photos via the web at icloud.com and see what’s there.
After Mac syncing finished there were 47,129 photos, 2,641 videos and 21 “items” (whatever they are) in iCloud. After they uploaded, iCloud now was using 393.6 GB of 2 TB.
When the Mac syncing was done, I turned on iCloud photos on my iPhone with Optimize iPhone Storage on (the default). Via iCloud.com I saw the number of photos start to increase again. Simultaneously I saw things getting updated in Photos on my Mac.
While iCloud.com also lets you view your photos, the features via the web are limited. There is no editing, and there doesn’t even seem to be a search feature. But at least you can monitor things and view, download, share, manage albums somewhat, and upload photos from any browser.
People Album Issues – Google Photos is Better
Just this topic deserves its own separate blog post. But I’ll explain here.
A major difference between Google Photos and iCloud Photos that I noticed since syncing everything over are the automatically generated People albums. These are the albums automatically created by both services with the faces of people you have pictures of. Pets too.
The People albums feature in Google Photos works better. The scanning (face detection) takes place on the Google server, thus it is fast and shows up on all devices at the same time.
With iCloud Photos, iCloud itself is not doing any scanning. So the People album results can be different on all devices. Plus there was an issue preventing scanning from proceeding on my iPhone, even though all devices were locked and connected to power (reason and solution below).
After several days, on my Mac the People album showed 149 people, while on my iPhone it showed just 28 people. On my iPhone it said at the bottom of the album that there were 3,986 Photos Scanned and 47,675 Photos Remaining. That message did not change for a week.
On my iPad, the People album showed 148 people and the message said 1927 Photos Scanned, 49,733 Photos Remaining. That message also didn’t changed for several days, but eventually caught up.
In Google Photos I lost count trying to count them all, but it seems like over 900 in the People albums. And I can see them on all devices immediately. That is a big win for Google Photos.
7 days after starting:
On the iPhone, the number of photos scanned still remained the same. And the number of People albums remained at 144, a bit less than on my Mac. On the iPad, the number of scanned photos increased by 2 to 47,147 and remaining dropped by 2 to 4,551.
And as of 11/23/2020:
On the iPhone, the number of photos scanned still remained the same. On the iPad, it appears the scanning finally finished. At least there is no notice. The iPad doesn’t report the number of people found as it does in Photos app on the Mac (where it reports 149 people found). I wonder why that indicator would disappear. But that’s a separate issue.
So it was very very slow incremental progress… And the scanning was basically stuck on iPhone.
Solution to the iPhone Scanning People!
Per a user’s advice at Reddit I found the cause. They suggested that when the iPhone is charging on a Qi charger that there somehow isn’t enough power to also do background tasks like the scanning.
I was skeptical, but they were correct. I connected the iPhone to a direct lightning cable charger and in just an hour it scanned 7,768 photos and is continuing. I can’t believe it!
A full day later and it only had scanned 7,968 photos on my iPhone. A few hours later it was up to 8,777 photos scanned. Checking again later it went up to 9,813 photos. Then 10,533…. 11,540. So it seemed like it was picking up speed. But then it stopped scanning for the rest of the day. The next morning there were 11,547 scanned (just 7 more) with 40,189 remaining. Currently it’s slowly proceeding again – 11,749 scanned 39,989 remaining. 11,753… 13,374… (days going by)… Still not done. A couple of days later… 16,078. A day later… 16,098… 16,120. You get the point. I don’t know when it’s going to finish. There are still 35,680 photos remaining to be scanned on my iPhone.
I think it’s fair to say that the implementation of People scanning in iCloud Photos is poor. I wonder why Apple can’t just have the People album scanning data sync across devices?
Apple Support replied to me about this:
“If the syncing process works faster on wired charging, that is an expected behavior with the same possible reasons you have found online.”
My reply to them:
“Actually, it’s more like it doesn’t proceed by even one more scanned photo after a week when on the Qi charger. That’s expected behavior? 🙂 Even on wired charge it’s incredibly slow. Since I wrote you yesterday, it’s only scanned 200 more images, with 43,753 left to go.”
Anyway, while I think there are various benefits to iCloud Photos, this particular feature, I think it’s fair to say, is much better in Google Photos. It finds many more people faces (and pet faces), and does the work on the Google servers so things sync across devices basically instantly.
Overall Performance of People Albums – Google Photos is Better
Photos in general also seems slower than Google Photos. I’m opening up a People album in Google Photos on my Mac just now and it basically instantly opened up and found photos going back years.
In Photos on my Mac it took a noticeable amount of time for the album to open, and there were just a small fraction of the People found.
Plus in Google Photos when you open up a People album you see dates when you scroll through. In Photos app you don’t.
A cursory check of other searches (flowers, elephants, other things) shows more results in Google Photo as well.
Sharing Photos and Videos – Google Photos is Better
It’s very easy to share in Google Photos. You can just create a sharing link and post it anywhere.
For Apple Photos there isn’t a simple, single option to just create a sharing link. It’s doable but a bit more complicated. You need to (1) add an album to Shared Albums and (2) from there set it up to be the kind of shared album you want with a public link.
So it’s perfectly doable. It just requires more steps than with Google Photos.
Google shared album links also work better. When you share an Apple Photos album link in, say, LINE (the popular messaging app in Japan) the link just says “iCloud Photo Sharing” and there is no preview. But with a link to a Google Photos album you see the album name, a preview, and the number of photos shared.
A friend I shared both links with said the Google Photos album showed up immediately, while there was a noticeable delay in seeing the shared iCloud Photos album. The order of the items shown in Google Photos is the order you set. In iCloud Photos it’s just chronological – newest to oldest.
Sharing Links to Individual Photos & Videos – Google Photos is Better
In Apple Photos, there isn’t an any way to share a permanent link to just one photo or video, like you can in Google Photos! While you can use the sharing icon to create a link to a single photo or video, it’s temporary, with an expiration date. That’s not really good for embedding in posts or sharing a video link via email.
Of course you can create a shared album with one item, but that’s a bit more round-about than being able to create a direct link.
Google Photos is probably the best choice if you do a lot of sharing with public links. However, iCloud Photos does work also, with more restrictions.
As mentioned above, sharing photos to Instagram (actual photos, not links) and other iPhone apps works better from Apple Photos though, because most apps are designed to read from the iPhone Photos library.
For now, for the extra $7/month I will keep my 2 TB iCloud subscription and also experiment with my Mac Desktop and Documents syncing in the cloud and shared across devices. I’ll report back on that later. Also, for that cost, not having to manually sync via a cable connection for backup from time to time seems worth it. And I’ll probably create more albums in Apple Photos going forward. But for sharing links I’ll probably use Google Photos more.
Sorry for the long post. I didn’t have time to write a short one.