Saturday, January 22, 2005

 

Picasa2 - No pictures found

I've held off talking about Picasa2 for a few days, in order to give me time to investigate it fairly thoroughly.

First off I should say that when it works, I'm quite impressed with it. A lot of work has been put into the look and feel of the program, and its underlying features and capabilities are impressive, and a huge step up from the previous version.

Things I particularly like about it include:

The showstopping bugs

However, you may have seen the qualification I made of "when it works". Unlike many recent tool releases from Google, or indeed many of the other search vendors, Picasa2 does not carry the "beta" designation, but is supposedly fully finished. However, my experience has been that this is far from the case, and I have had considerable problems running the program.

On my machine I have thousands of images - mainly a combination of digital camera images, scanned images, and web sourced images. The first two of these categories mean I have large groups of very similar format images, but the latter group means I have images that have been produced in many different ways, by different producers using different software packages.


No pictures found when scanning has completed

When Picasa scans my disk to find these images, it spends hours processing, at then end of which it reports "No pictures found"! Whilst it's doing this scanning I can of course still use the program, and it does indeed show me many images it has found, but if I leave it long enough to complete the scan, it somehow forgets all the images it has already discovered. My guess is that somewhere in the web sourced images is an image it does not understand, and that it manages to corrupt its image database in such a way that it can no longer use it to access any images. (Database corruption seems to be an issue of which the Picasa developers are well aware since they provide several answers about it in the Picasa knowledge base). This was not a one off occurrence - I ran the program until it completed its scan a number of times, clearing the database between each run, and the result was always the same - a report of no pictures found.

The only way I have been able to continue to use the program is to change from a "scan all my disk" way of working, to one that only runs the program on selected directories - but that's not what I need this program for. The digital camera images are generally already fairly well organized, whereas the miscellaneous other images are not.

It's not simply the number of files I have - the reviewers guide claims to have tested on 250,000 photos so my 10,000+ images is a mere stroll in the park in comparison.


Program hangs on RAW files

One of the improvements in this release is the support of RAW files. Unforunately if I turn on this option, the program on encountering my RAW images (Minolta format) simply hangs - taking 100% CPU. Whilst the Minolta RAW format is perhaps less well reverse engineered than some of the other RAW formats, other programs do cope, and I would have expected testing at Google to have included images from all currently available cameras. Even if this were not possible, the program should have been coded in such a way that it could detect that it has got stuck on a particular image, perhaps popping up a dialog box after 20 seconds spent on an image (time adjusted for image size and CPU power) to say "I seem to be having problems decoding this image - would you like me to continue?" (or offering a preference to automatically give up on such images).

To make matters worse, when I killed off and restarted Picasa, it put up a dialog to say that it had had a problem with the raw image, but when I went to the disk to confirm that it was a valid image that other programs could handle, I could not find the image. I thought initially that Picasa had deleted the image, but fortunately that was not the case - all it had apparently done was to give the image the hidden attribute, presumably so that a subsequent scan would ignore it. However that means that none of the other programs I use can see it either, which is unacceptable.

Other bugs

The feature where rough thumbnails are displayed then as time permits filled in with better thumbnails fails to interact with the fact that the image may have been rotated between the time the rough thumbnail was shown, and the finer image was created. Many times I ended up with the image shown in one orientation, but the drop shadow around it in the other rotated orientation.

When using the program whilst it is still scanning for images, the mouse cursor flashes most distractingly. It appears as if the scanning routine is trying to set the cursor shape to the hourglass, but the main UI is resetting it.

You can't move the scanning status window off of the main monitor on a multiple monitor system - it responds to being moved vertically, but not to being moved horizontally.

One of the program's big advantages is that it does not change your images on disk - merely recording what transformations to apply to the image between reading it off disk, and displaying it on the screen. However this regard for the integrity of the original images does not extend to all exported images. I processed a lot of images which I "exported as web page", electing to use the original size images. All the unrotated images were exported as their original files as expected, but all the images whose only transformation was a rotation by 90 degrees were horribly degraded - it turns out that instead of applying the rotation transformation to the JPEG file directly (a lossless operation offered by the IJG software which Picasa uses), the images are being decompressed, rotated, and then recompressed at the current quality settings. Again unacceptable behaviour. I regard this as a bug since the unrotated images are not being recompressed, but the rotated ones are - if all images were being recompressed then it might just be justifyable as a feature (but a poor one at that!) Note that the "Export to folder" option does not does not suffer from the same problem - so Picasa does know how to do lossless rotation, but is not applying it in all places that it should.

As a further point to note, when Picasa writes JPG files out to disk (generally as a result of some export feature), it is not writing them in optimized form. This is merely a case of not setting the correct parameters when calling the IJG library that the program uses. Writing the files in optimized form saves up to 10% of disk space, especially on thumbnail images.

A trivial point, but one that maybe indicates that testing was no so thorough, the help page for the Gift CD feature is in a different font to the rest of the help. Perhaps this was a feature that was slipped in late in the development cycle.

Features than could be much improved

Marking a number of digital camera images then pressing the rotate button takes an incredibly long time. It looks as if the program may be returning to the original images on disk, and producing new thunbnails, whereas it could and should simply be rotating the existing thumbnails - an operation that is orders of magnitude faster (and since rotation of jpegs is a lossless operation) just as accurate.

When browsing to select a folder (say to export to), this must always be done by navigating through a graphical directory tree. If only the dialog allowed for an entry box into which I could type the name of the folder to use, then this would be much quicker.

The histogram overlays the image, using transparency. Why not simply move the histogram to the unused space on the left of the screen, under the effects chooser?

Similarly for the 1:1 zoom feature - why does this overlay the image, when there is plenty of space for it on the left of the screen. In its current arrangement, it is impossible to zoom view the bottom right of an image, since it is always hidden behind the zoom window itself.

When viewing the properties of an image, the popup window that displays them is not resizable, and is far too small to show the necessary information. In addition, it does not seem to be possible to select the information, so that it can be pasted into another application. Just as with the histogram and zoom windows, this information would be much better if it were displayed continuously, using that large blank space on the left of the screen.

I cannot find how to select multiple thumbnails at once, when they are in different folders. Pressing control when selecting an image adds it to the images already in the tray, as long as you are in the same folder as all the existing images, but as soon as you select an image in another folder the tray contents are reset without warning. You can choose to hold images that are in the tray by selecting them in the tray and marking them as hold, but I need a mode where I can quickly select many images from different folders to work on.

On a related area, I ran a search which finds a load of images. I then want to do some operation on all the found images - perhaps to add a label to them, or to export them. I can't see how to do this - all commands seem to operate either on a single folder, or on the contents of the picture tray.

The defocus the UI when there is a choice to be made (such as when abandoning an effect to switch to the tuning tab) gives me a headache. There is a perfectly standard method of greying out things when they are not available which is a much better effect than turning all of the controls out of focus - but even that is unnecessary in this case - the popup dialog is modal, so I am already prevented from using the controls, without needing to have them visually distinguished. Photographers spend a lot of effort in ensuring pin-sharp focus, so its a spectacularly poor choice of UI design to make them stare at deliberatly out of focus controls.

I run with multiple monitors, which offers me a very widescreen display, and is incredibly productive in many situations. In particular it is ideal for photo work, where I can have one screen showing a screen of thumbnails, where the other screen shows me the particular individual image I am working on. Unfortunately Picasa does not work in this mode - it only has a single window which shows either thumbnails or a single image - which is far less productive. Please allow me to have the thumbnail view and the detail view in different windows, and even better allow me to have multiple detail view windows open at once, so I can do side by side comparisons of images.

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