I can never quite tell if Google considers its free Picasa image organizer/editor to be a Major Google Product–it doesn’t update it all that often, or promote it as energetically as it might. But it’s announcing Picasa 3.5 today, which should be available for Windows and OS X by the time you read this or soon thereafter. Google let me get my hands on it a bit early; Picasa fans should like it, and it gives those of us who haven’t checked out the app in a while new reason to revisit it.
The big new feature is face recognition, which Picasa calls Name Tags. It’s not a huge whoop considering that the Web-based Picasa Web Albums photo-sharing service added it more than a year ago; it’s also available in Apple’s iPhoto ’09 and elsewhere. But Picasa scores points for its nicely streamlined implementation of the feature.
The program not only scans all your photos and attempts to identify folks by their facial features–and does quite a good job–but organizes photos into a browsable list of clusters of “Unnamed People” even before you’ve started identifying them by name. That makes it faster to start naming people than iPhoto’s method (you have to pull up photos one at a time and choose the Names feature before the app shows you possible matches). It’s also quicker than Picasa Web Albums’ similar feature, since the software is zippier than the browser-based version, and the pictures of people are larger and easier to browse.
Like Picasa Web Albums, Picasa lets you sync the Name Tags with your Google Contacts, making it easier to enter a person’s name (start typing it, and possible matches pop up). You can also sync Name Tags between Picasa and Picasa Web Albums.
Once you’ve named someone, you can do stuff like make a celebratory photo collage of a friend or relative with just a few clicks.
Another significant new feature: Picasa 3.5′ now has built-in Google Maps, allowing you to manually geotag the locations where you took pictures (previously, you had to do this in Google Earth).
…and the program now lets you optionally upload photos directly to Picasa Web Albums as you import them from your camera or memory card.
In recent years, I’ve done most of my photo organizing (and a smattering of photo editing) in iPhoto, and have mostly been happy with it. But Picasa, unlike iPhoto, runs on both Windows and Mac–and did I mention it’s free? Playing with version 3.5, I’m finding it meatier and easier to use than the Picasa of yore, so I’m tempted to switch, or at least trying using both iPhoto and Picasa in tandem.