Windows 8 deep dive: get to know your Photos app

It makes your pictures look pretty, but is Microsoft's snazzy new Photos app powerful enough to meet your needs?

It's easy to take a good photo management app for granted. Now that we store and share so many of our photos online, the value of a good program for organizing, displaying, and editing images can be difficult to appreciateuntil you find yourself without one. In the past I was happy to stick with the default Windows Photo Viewer, but there's no Windows Photo Viewer app in the Windows Store. In its place you'll find Photos, a media management app designed by Microsoft to make it easy for you to view photos and videos from disparate devices and social networks in one central location.

If that's all you want your photo management app to do, Photos has you covered. But if you want to edit or organize your photos, you'll need more power than Photos provides. Thankfully, an App Store is built into every copy of Windows 8, with plenty of alternatives available in it. But before we get to those, let's look at what Photos doesand doesn't dobest.

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What Photos does well

Photos does an adequate job of pulling your photos from disparate devices and services, organizing them, and presenting them to you in a pleasant, easy-to-navigate interface. If you're using Windows 8 on a tablet that has a high-quality screen, launching the Photos app transforms your device into a slick photo album that lets you swipe seamlessly back and forth through images from your DSLR camera, Facebook, SkyDrive account, and other PCs on your network.

Navigating through your photos feels intuitive. Tap an album to open it, swipe back and forth between images, or pinch to zoom out and see an entire album at a glance. When you zoom out, you'll notice that Photos shrinks your images to the size of a thumbnail, algorithmically cropping and orienting each thumbnail based on the components of the image. It's a small but welcome luxury, especially if you're fed up with squinting at image tiles or the preview pane in Windows 7. If you just need a slick platform for browsing through your photos and videos, the Photos app is a reasonable option.

The home screen of the Photos app lets you browse through all of your photos stored across multiple devices and services.

Photos also capitalizes on the sharing features built into Windows 8 by letting you display photos, slideshows, and videos on connected devices via the Devices charm. If you have an Xbox 360 or a home-theater PC hooked up to your HDTV, for example, you can easily select a slideshow or video in your Photos app, open the Windows 8 Charms bar, and use the Devices charm to output your media to your TV. Though Photos isn't quite as good as a dedicated wireless media streaming systemsuch as AirPlay or even YouTube mobile device pairingthe feature works well if you have the necessary hardware.

Where Photos falls short

Photos is functional and pretty, but it's not very powerful. If you want to edit images and you're using Windows 8 on a PC instead of a mobile device, the Windows 8 Photos app pales in comparison to several more-useful image management apps that you can download for free. Photos does a great job of automatically pulling images from specific services (like Facebook or SkyDrive), but it doesn't give advanced users much control over how to load images into Photos or how to edit and control such content once it's there.

As it stands, the Photos app doesn't offer enough options for editing your photos.

Photos currently offers no options for editing, resizing, or rotating photos, and that's an embarrassing omission by Microsoft. Even the rudimentary Windows Photo Viewer that came bundled with every copy of Windows 7 allowed you to rotate, crop, and rename your photos, so it's vexing that the Photos app doesn't include similar functions. Sure, you can download the free Windows Essentials Photo Gallery tool (which functions in much the same way that the old Photo Viewer did), but it's a desktop app, so Windows 8 RT users are out of luck.

Key options and settings

The Photos interface is spartan, but a few useful features lie buried in the Charms bar. The Search function works the way you'd expect it to: Bring up the Charms bar by swiping in from the right side of the screen (or by moving your mouse to the right-hand corners of the screen) and click Search to search your PC for a specific file name. Opening Search while you're inside the Photos app will cause the default search to run through Photos, but you can change that arrangement by tapping a different search area.

The Share charm is a little more practical, because you can use it while you're viewing a specific photo or folder of photos, and share that data with another Windows 8 app, with another human being (via email or SkyDrive), or with the world at large (via the Windows 8 People app). Presumably you'll also be able to share directly to Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks once they release their own Windows 8 apps; but at this writing, you can't.

Lets take a quick look at the settings you can fiddle with when you pull up the Charms bar within the Photos app.

You exercise most of the control you have over Photos from the Options menu.

The Options menu is the nerve center of Photos. The menu displays the Microsoft account youre currently using, offers you the option of refreshing the Photos Live Tile with random photos, and lets you select the source from which Photos pulls images and video. The list of media sources includes Facebook, Flickr, SkyDrive, and any folders containing images on the device youre using or on the devices connected to it. You control where Photos can pull photos by selecting the checkboxes next to each service. Usually, its as simple as that.

When it comes to Facebook, though, things arent so simple. Getting Facebook and your Photos app to work together entails linking the two accounts, which you may already have done while setting up your Microsoft account or using the People app. Click the Options link next to your Facebook checkbox in the Photos Options menu, and you'll jump to a page of settings for your Microsoft account, where you can configure Photos to pull images and videos from your Facebook account and even publish photos and videos to your Facebook page.

Tying Facebook to your Photos app requires you to link your Facebook account to your Microsoft account, at which point the two services will start sharing data across multiple apps and devices.

You can also choose to connect your Flickr account to your Microsoft account, so your Flickr photos will appear in your Photo app. Unfortunately theres no option to post photos from the Photo app to your Flickr account, but having easy access to your Flickr albums is still a pleasure.

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