Choosing Between Google, Amazon, & iCloud Photos

PhotoOptions

I recently went down the rabbit hole of figuring out if I am using the right solution for offsite storage of my photo library. I’ve been using iCloud Photos for over a year and am not totally happy with the solution. I decided to try out both Amazon Prime Photos and Google Photos.

My home Internet connection has a 5Mb/s upload speed which feels pathetically slow. I wanted to test each solution with a good chunk of my photo library uploaded which made this a time-consuming experience. Here’s what I came up with after about two weeks of futzing.

My Scenario & Options

  • Using macOS & iOS primarily. Support for Android would be nice but isn’t 100% required.
  • 20k photos & videos
  • 120GB of disk space
  • Sources of images:
    • Canon Digital Rebel (including CRW RAW)
    • Canon 40D DSLR (including CR2 RAW)
    • iPhone 1st gen through iPhone 7 Plus
    • iPod nano videos
    • Other shitty digital cameras over the years
    • Handful of scanned photos & negatives

iCloud Photos

This solution sort of just works for me. I can take pictures on my phone and they’re automatically backed up into iCloud when I’m back onto a WiFi network. My iMac at home downloads all originals so I have a copy of every photo and video on disk without an Internet connection. iCloud sync is built into the Photos Mac app and into iOS.

The downside is every time I take an HD video or a ton of photos it swamps my WiFi connection. During the summer we’re at our camper/cottage and have a very slow 2Mbps down/1Mbps up connection. I have to frequently shut off WiFi on my phone so our connection is usable. There is no way to be explicit about when sync happens.

iCloud Photos can also intelligently cache items on your devices with less storage than your library size. While this seems magical it also means it uses WiFi or cellular data when you want to view a photo or video that isn’t cached on the device yet. Spending an evening reminiscing with friends going through images and videos from years back can easily chew through gigabytes of cellular data. There is also no way to mark an album or set of items as more important so they’re always cached.

Faces also do not sync across iCloud. Every machine/device that is connected has to process faces independently – or so it seems. If I take time to train/teach/curate faces on my iMac they don’t show up on my laptop or iPhone.

Storage is pretty cheap – 200GB is $2.99/month. I’m getting pretty close to that limit which means my only option is to move to 1TB at $9.99/month. When that limit is breached I’d probably end up using iCloud for more file storage (instead of DropBox) since I’ll be paying for it.

Amazon Prime Photos

I have Amazon Prime for our house which means I get their Prime Photos option included. This service provides for unlimited image storage and 5GB of video storage. You can upgrade to unlimited storage of any files for $60/year.

Amazon has a sync tool that you can drag your Apple Photos library file onto and it’ll sync all of your master images. The uploader gives you options for the number of concurrent uploads as well as how much bandwidth each upload can take. If you leave it with the default settings you’ll most likely swamp your connection if you’re at 5Mbps or less so some tweaking is required. Sync can be automatic as well but I don’t have a ton of confidence that it’ll be able to sync changes “magically”.

Uploading took forever and I never let it finish as I wanted to try out the service before investing in a week of uploading. The web interface has face detection, subject detection (find me photos with dogs, etc), and places if you recorded GPS coordinates in the metadata. Randomly some of my RAW images shot with either Canon camera would be mirrored for no real reason. This was a hard stop for me.

Google Photos

Google Photos gives you unlimited photo and video storage for free if you choose their compressed option. With this option they’ll shrink the items down without any real visible difference. You can also buy more storage if you want to store the originals without compression.

The uploader tool seems to understand how an Apple Photos library is structured and handled initial sync really well except for my RAW images. All of the raw images I shot with my Canon Digital Rebel from roughly 2004 – 2008 couldn’t be imported. I should take the time to convert to Adobe Digital Negative format as this is better supported by software since it’s not hardware-specific.

Google’s photo interface is a bit weird especially if you’re not familiar with Android and the material design paradigms. After a while I did get used to it and preferred it over Amazon. I ended up uploading my entire library and purchased 100GB of storage for $1.99. That and the extra storage I earned was just enough to store all of my originals which means iCloud has 20GB or more of bloat.

I ended up not going with Google Photos because of the failed import of all of my older RAW images. Every time I restarted my computer the sync tool would try to re-upload all 2,500 failed images taking time and bandwidth up. If I end up converting those old images into DNG format I may try again.

The Comparison

Storage

  • iCloud Photos – 5GB free, 50GB $1/month, 200GB $3/month, 1TB $10/month, 2TB $20/month.
  • Amazon Prime Photos – Unlimited Photo Storage (included with Prime $99/year), 5GB free for videos & everything else, unlimited everything $60/year (plus annual Prime membership).
  • Google Photos – Unlimited Photo & Video Storage (if you’re okay with compression/reduction in quality), original quality uses Drive storage plans: 15GB free, 100GB $2/month, 1TB $10/month, 2TB $20/month.

Winner? Depends. If you have Amazon Prime already their $60/year unlimited beats them all. If you’re okay with compressed images & videos, Google is the winner. If you want original images & videos stored then iCloud has the best price breaks under 1TB.

Sync

  • iCloud Photos – Relies upon your library being in Apple Photos or iPhoto and on a Mac or solely stored on an iOS 9+ device. Sync is automatic on WiFi on iOS, automatic all the time on any Internet connection on macOS. All metadata except detected faces is synced. Client is integrated with the operating system – nothing else to install. Sync includes new photos, changed metadata, edited photos, and deletion. Devices can also choose to not sync all images and only download on demand.
  • Amazon Prime Photos – Amazon has an app for syncing your Drive folders and also functionality for uploading items without syncing. If you upload your Apple Photos library it knows how to pick out the originals only. Further changes to your library aren’t synced automatically so I’m not sure how well deduping will work later on. Amazon Prime Photos does not then keep your photo library in “sync”.
  • Google Photos – Google has an app for syncing your Drive folders and a Desktop Uploader app. The uploader app knows how to access an Apple Photos library to upload originals and it’ll keep track of changes so Google Photos gets all new items and possibly edited items. It will not remove deleted photos.

Winner? iCloud Photos. Being able to keep a library synced on multiple devices and changes pushed across all of them makes it the clear choice on my end. If you want to make Amazon or Google the “system of record” for your images then real synchronization isn’t as important.

Bells & Whistles

  • iCloud Photos: macOS Photos app, iOS Photos app, and iCloud.com Photos browser. Apps have Face detection, geolocation, shared photo streams, automatically generated albums like “best of last two weeks”, etc. Supports a ton of RAW camera image types going back 13+ years of models.
  • Amazon Prime Photos: iOS & Android apps, Amazon.com Photos browser. Face detection and tagging server-side, geolocation, family albums. RAW image support is advertised to be fairly limited to newer models but does support older cameras albeit buggy.
  • Google Photos: iOS & Android apps, Google.com Photos browser. Face detection, tagging, geolocation, and automatically generated albums are all server-side. Supports a much more limited RAW image format range & uploader app does not gracefully handle failed image uploads.

Winner? Google Photos. The discovery mechanism for finding memories is the best experience by far. Their photos assistant will suggest fun animations, photo treatments, album groupings, and mosaics. iCloud Photos feels like it’s emphasis is on flawless sync rather than server-side experience consistency with the discovery features like faces and locations.

Verdict? Sticking with iCloud Photos

For now I’m sticking with iCloud Photos. I didn’t want to lose any fidelity in my library and I wanted a sync solution that just worked that included deletes and edits. It’s not the cheapest solution after 200GB or the most flexible with the software options for syncing and bandwidth throttling. Amazon’s flakey RAW image support & Google’s graceless unsupported RAW images in their uploader stopped me from picking either of those options.

14 thoughts on “Choosing Between Google, Amazon, & iCloud Photos

  1. > I didn’t want to lose any fidelity in my library and I wanted a sync solution that just worked that included deletes and edits

    I keep using iCloud photo library for this reason. I love how every edit is retained so you can always access the original photo. I just wish Apple Family Sharing allowed sharing an iCloud photo library.

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  2. Ellis Z

    Thanks for this article. I’m still on the fence with switching to Amazon. (Most of my photography has switched from iOS to Android over the past year, although the family still has quite a few iOS devices).

    How close was your choice to switch to Amazon?

    I have a photo library dating back to 1999. (NOT kidding)

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  3. Ellis Z

    Oh, and keep in mind, I don’t use iCloud for sync because my library is well over 1TB. So everything is stored on my Mac at the moment. I sync using iTunes. (Which doesn’t help my Android devices at all) DSLR photos are manually uploaded.

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  4. Rick Hopfer

    Hi Aaron, thanks for your analysis. I am one of the folks who went with Google for their features, one of which is Face Tagging. Unfortunately for very many people, including me, it stopped working and we are making no traction with Google to fix it. Hope you won’t mind that I included a link to this problem. Perhaps The Goigke Photo team will listen to you! Thank you, Rick

    https://groups.google.com/a/googleproductforums.com/d/msgid/photos/1871d379-e786-4761-bce3-a4d863b8e11a%40googleproductforums.com?utm_medium=email&utm_source=footer

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  5. Heather Miller

    Thanks so much for this concise and helpful article. Pros and cons still make final choice tricky but your analysis was brilliantly useful.

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  6. Thank you for the comparison Arron. It helped clarify my options a bit. I’ve been using Prime, Google, Dropbox, and One Drive for a while now. I recently moved back to iOS and upgraded my iCloud storage.

    Dropbox is my default ‘working cloud’ app. Photos and videos are automatically uploaded there over cellular or WiFi. This way they’re on my computers immediately if I want to edit or upload them elsewhere. At the end of the year Dropbox’s camera upload’s folder get’s merged with One Drive’s camera roll folder to conserve DB’s storage. I’ve set the rest of the apps to upload over WiFi only — As you mentioned iCloud seems to do it’s own thing in regards to uploading via cellular or WiFi.

    The rest of the apps each have good and bad. Google’s automated collages and effects is fun. Prime is great for uploading full size originals but if I decide to cancel Prime down the line that’s going to be a problem. iPhoto has neat auto-generated montages and stuff. Extra One Drive storage comes with Office 365 — why not have another backup? 😎

    Eventually I’ll settle on one or two services. It’s just too much to manage. Simple stuff like deleting screenshots across 5 apps is just ridiculous. I try to stay platform agnostic this way if I jump back to Android I can pick up right where I left off; That leaves iCloud out as a permanent solution. I’m thinking Prime and Google Photos as primary offsite backup with Dropbox as a temporary holding area.

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  7. Brian Barton

    My wife and I are looking to have all our photos off of our phones, but still accessible to be viewed. I’m thinking Amazon Photos is the only of these 3 services that will do that?

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    1. Technically all three do it. iCloud Photo has a setting to “optimize storage” on your phone or “download all originals”. Optimize storage means if you look at a photo and download the original it’ll stick around until the phone needs the space. They really don’t describe the rules behind it but I do know on a phone with a lot of free space I can play videos I pulled down a long while back.

      Amazon and Google Photos have controls too for how much you store locally. I haven’t played with them in about a year so I can’t say outright how clear they are.

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  8. Derek

    Haven’t tried iCloud but I have tried Google and Amazon Prime Photos. Google photos seems to be broken (since last year apparently) and won’t recognise all faces. I uploaded a good few thousand pictures and there are many hundreds where no faces have been picked up. It seems to be stuck and won’t recognise any more and yes, I’ve tried all the ‘fixes’, this is a Google problem. When it does work the facial recognition is uncannily good, it picked up pictures of my son from when he was a few hours old to 16 years without any training! I’ve also had problems with hundreds of photos being dumped in the trash without my say so which is really unforgivable and I wouldn’t trust any online service as a soul backup because of this. If only they could fix the problems Google Photos would be incredible. Amazon Photos is very similar to GP in many ways but facial recognition is nowhere near as good requiring my input to identify similar faces which somewhat defeats the object, You also can’t select a picture and find out who’s in it (well at least I can’t) which is another sad and basic omission. So neith APP or GP are perfect which is a real shame. I wonder if these ‘free’ services have been overwhelmed by the amount of data they are processing(?)

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  9. Robert Silvers

    Amazon Prime photos beats google because Amazon sucks up the photos instantly at full speed. Google photos uploads them whenever over a slower amount of time.

    Google photos is only unlimited if it re-compresses. Amazon stores the original, even RAW.

    Google doesn’t preserve your original folder structure. Amazon does.

    No comparison.

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