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Digital Photos To Go, Part 4: Android + Cloud

As you may recall from previous articles in this series, Windows Phone includes automatic but limited cloud upload of all phone-based photos as part of the OS. And the iPhone 4S (and other iOS 5-based devices) can be configured to one-up that functionality with full-sized, full-quality, automatic cloud uploading of photos if you configure a free iCloud account.

But what about Android, the most popular mobile platform?

Oddly enough, Google doesn't include this kind of functionality with Android, though perhaps that will change in the coming months. For now, however, the company offers a solution to this need that sits in the middle, functionality-wise, between what Microsoft and Apple offer.

To enable this capability, you'll need to find, download, install, and configure Google's free Google+ app for Android. And you'll need to do this even if you never intend to use Google+, the social networking service, as is the case with me. But that's fine because the Google+ app also works with Google's back-end cloud service for photos, which is called Picasaweb. (Picasaweb and Google+ share the same online storage space for photos.)

This strategy makes plenty of perfect sense, by the way: Microsoft's free uploader works with its SkyDrive service and Apple's works with its iCloud service. It's almost like these companies were trying to offer some kind of an integrated experience or something.

OK, let's jump right in.

First: Get a Google account, understand the photos capabilities

OK, you already have a Google account, I know. I'm not actually sure if its possible to use an Android device without configuring a Google account, but let's just say most people would never want to do such a thing and move on. Certainly, you'll need it for what I'm about to describe.

Of course, even very heavy users of popular Google services like Search and Gmail are probably unfamiliar with Google Picasaweb. So head on over to that web site and click the Gear icon in the top right of the window and then choose Photo Settings. Then, visit the Privacy and Permissions tab to view and configure features related to how other people will be able to view and otherwise access (download, order prints) your personal photos.

We'll look at Picasaweb more in a bit, but it's a good idea to at least take a look at this site before moving on, especially if you've never used it before. Ditto for Google+: That service's Photos site is in many ways friendlier looking than Picasaweb, and it has better sharing features, especially if you want to share via Google+. 

Get and configure the Google+ mobile app on your Android phone

Next, grab your Android device and launch the Android Marketplace, Google's online store for apps and other content. There are probably several ways to find the Google+ app, but the simplest, of course, is to use search. So tap the Search icon in the top right of the screen (it resembles a magnifying glass) and then type Google+ and tap Enter. Then select Google+ from the results list and install it as you would any other Android app.

The Google+ app does a number of things, but all we're worried about here is the photo uploading feature, which is called Instant Upload. The first time you run the Google+ app, you'll be prompted to enable Instant Upload, so do so if possible. 

(If you've already installed the Google+ app and did not enable this feature, you do so after the fact inside the app by tapping the Menu button and choosing Settings and then scrolling down to the Instant Upload section.)

When you configure Instant Update, you choose choose between "Over a Wi-Fi or mobile network," "Over Wi-Fi only," and "Turn off Instant Upload." As the note on the screen says, Instant Upload will "upload photos to a private album on Google+. You can share them at any time from your device or computer."

As it turns out, the private album is actually stored in Google Picasaweb, not Google+. But you can access it, and the photos it contains, from either service later as you'll soon see. (This way, if you intend to use the Google+ service but not Picasaweb, you won't need to visit a separate site.)

The Google+ app's main screen is a simple white page with a grid of five icons. One of them, conspicuously, is called Photos. We'll get to that in a moment. First, be sure to thoroughly configure the app and how it interacts with your photos. To do so, tap the phone's Menu button and choose Settings.

The app's Settings interface is divided into several areas, like Google+ notifications, Messenger notifications, and so on, and you'll want to really go through them all and configure the app to your liking. But again, we're just worried about the photo capabilities here. So navigate down to Photo settings, where you'll find the following settings:

Turn on Instant Upload. This should be set to On, obviously.

When to upload photos. Here, you can choose between "Over a Wi-Fi or mobile network" or "Over Wi-Fi only." Choose accordingly, since cellular-based photo uploads could easily overwhelm your data plan if you're not careful. 

Roaming uploads. This can be set to On or Off. Check with your wireless carrier to see whether data access while roaming incurs additional fees.

Battery uploads. This can also be set to On or Off. When On, uploads will occur while the device is on battery power. When Off, uploads will only occur when the phone is charging.

Upload now. A handy way to manually upload photos at any time.

With configuration complete, you can check out the Google+ app's Photos functionality. This interface provides a very graphical grid of photos from a number of locations, laid out in a style that will be familiar to you if you visit the Android Market a lot. There are sections with different photo sources, such as From Your Circle, Photos Of You, From Your Phone, and then, if you're a preexisting Picasaweb user, all of the folders from that service, in reverse chronological order (with the newest photos on the top).

(The first two sections noted above are from Google+. If you use the service, you'll understand what they're for. Otherwise, you can ignore them.)

Obviously, the section called From Your Phone contains pictures that were taken on your phone. But this isn't simply another view to the pictures on your phone. It's a phone-based version of that private album that was alluded to earlier. It's called Instant Upload on  Google Picasaweb, or you can access it from the "Photos from your phone" link in Google+ Photos.

The "private" moniker, fortunately, is serious. That is, photos and videos that are uploaded from your phone via Instant Upload are visible only to you until you share them explicitly with others. This is much easier in Google+.

Access your photos on your Windows-based PC

Once the Google+ app is up and running on the phone, any photos you take with the device will be uploaded to Google Picasaweb/Google+ according to the rules you configured. You can access them on your Windows-based PC in three basic ways: Via the Picasaweb web site, via the Google+ web site, or through the Picasa application. Let's take a quick look at all three.

Picasasweb. While it's pretty bare-boned, the Picasaweb web site is a good front-end for Google's voluminous cloud storage service (and unlike with Microsoft's SkyDrive, you can inexpensively buy additional storage if you'd like). As noted previously, photos uploaded from your phone are placed in the Instant Upload folder (or "album"), which is private by default. From this interface, you can play a web-based slideshow, upload additional photos, order prints, configure a number of things related to the album, individual photos, and so on. You can also download the album to Picasa, make a collage, or make a downloadable slideshow in movie (H.264) format. And you can optionally view the photos on a map (if they're geotagged), and so on.


Google+. While I'm not personally a fan of the Google+ service--it's just a rip-off of Facebook and Twitter in my opinion--I have to admit that it provides a much friendlier and prettier interface than does Picasaweb. And if you just stick to its Photos area--it's the second item in the Google+ toolbar--it's particularly refined. Here, you can choose from Photos from your circles (the default view), Photos from your phone, Photos of you, Photos from your posts, and your albums. That latter option provides a view that's very similar to the one provided in Picasaweb, but with nice flyover animations.


The Photos from your phone choice lets you view your Instant Uploads pictures, of course, and provides a sharing interface with multiple picture selection capabilities. (Note, however, that sharing is limited to Google+.)

Picasa. Google's excellent Picasa application for Windows provides photo management, editing, and sharing capabilities, and if you logon to your Google account, you can access your automatically uploaded photos too. To do so, click the Sign in with your Google Account link in the upper right of the Picasa window and provide your Google credentials. (You can ignore the new Google+ Photos link that replaces it; that just launches the service in your web browser.)

To download your Instant Upload album to the PC, choose File and then Import Albums from Google+. 


Picasa will download the album and all the pictures it contains and file it under Web Albums in the navigation bar. To keep the folder synced between Google+/Picasaweb and your PC, enable the Sync to Web switch you'll see on the right side of the window when the Instant Uploads folder is selected. (Be sure to click the Change Settings button first to make sure full-sized photos are synced, if that's what you're looking for, and to enable automatic syncing.)


View your photos on your Google TV
If you're the lucky owner of a Google TV, you can of course access your Instant Uploads and other Picasaweb/Google+-based photos from this handy living room interface as well. To do so, you'll need to first download and install Google's Photos for Google TV app from the Android Market. Then, add your account to the app and wait for it to make the connection. In the default Photos view, you'll see all of your online albums, including Instant Uploads.


From here, just open Instant Uploads, select a photo, and then click Play on your Google TV remote to start a slideshow. (Press the Menu button to see a few slideshow-related settings.)

So there you go: Automatic photo uploads from Android. Enjoy!

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