GOOGLE CATERS FOR DOZENS OF OUR ONLINE NEEDS, BUT IS IT THE BEST AT ALL OF THEM? NO, SAYS BARRY COLLINS, WHO FINDS EIGHT BETTER ALTERNATIVES
Google caters for dozens of our online needs, but is it the best at all of them? No, says Barry Collins, who nds eight better alternatives
The same way Microsoft leveraged Windows to hook us on to the other products in its portfolio, so Google uses search to drag us towards its other services. But are all of them best in class? No, not even close.
We’ve scoured through Google’s extensive repertoire of software and services and tested them against rivals in each market. If you’ve been sucked into the Google way of doing things, here’s your escape route.
Chrome is the rst app many people install on a new PC, but there are better alternatives – and one of them is conveniently built on the same browser engine.
Vivaldi runs on Chromium, the open-source engine that sits underneath Chrome. That has one big advantage: access to the Chrome Web Store. All the extensions you’ve grown accustomed to in Chrome can also be installed for Vivaldi.
Vivaldi’s much more than Chrome with a fresh lick of paint, though. It provides a tremendous set of tools for power users – people who want a browser to do much more than house their bookmarks and passwords.
Found yourself 20 links deep in a website and don’t want to press Back 20 times to ght your way back to its homepage? Vivaldi’s Rewind button – just along from the regular Back button – will quickly get you back to the start of the domain.
The browser’s Notes feature is a blessing for those of us who spend hours researching stuff online. Highlight a passage of text in the browser, right-click to Copy To Note, and you’ve got a lasting, searchable reference saved, along with a link to the original piece should you ever need to refer back.
The browser even has its own Task Manager, allowing you to squelch troublesome tabs without dragging the rest of the browser down with it.
Vivaldi is supremely customisable, has a strong ethical bent and doesn’t try to force you down Google tunnels at every turn like Chrome does. The only serious downside is that Vivaldi is yet to release its promised mobile version, making cross-device browser sync impossible.
Google Photos has undeniable strengths, especially if you’re an Android user. A seamlessly backed up copy of every photo or video you take on your
VIVALDI IS MUCH MORE THAN JUST GOOGLE CHROME WITH A FRESH LICK OF PAINT
smartphone might be worth it for that alone.
But there are alternatives, with Flickr our top pick. It’s in the midst of transition to new owners, after years of neglect at the hands of Yahoo, but one of the few good things it did for Flickr was give every customer 1TB of free online storage for their photos. This dwarfs the free quota of storage provided by Google Photos, which is shared with Drive, Gmail and any other Google services you may use. After more than a decade of picking up titbits of free storage here and there, my Google storage quota still stands at only 17GB – almost 60 times less space than what Flickr’s handing out.
Google’s Snapseed (available on both Android and iOS) is undeniably brilliant for a free photo-editing app, offering almost all the tools a casual-grade tinkerer would want. If your ambitions are loftier and you’re looking for a Photoshopgrade tool, the Af nity Photo app for iOS (only compatible with high-end iPads) is astonishingly powerful for a reasonable $79.45. Pay careful attention to the bundled video tutorials, though, particularly those on saving and exporting les; for all its strengths, Af nity has a peculiar way of handling les and operating some common tools.
When they write the book on how journalism was murdered, Google News will be amongst the chief suspects. Turning once respected publications into click-chasers, Google’s tight bundling of News into its main search engine is the reason why you’ll see every major newspaper site now writing stories about what hours Tesco keeps on Bank Holidays, just to make sure they’re funnelling enough traf c to their sites.
The standalone Google News site (news. google.com) is a poorly formatted mess. The one thing we do still like about it is a recent conversion to supporting proper journalism courtesy of its Fact Check section, where you’ll nd links to articles such as “What does immigration do to wages?” – a re extinguisher to the ames that Google itself started by rewarding in ammatory clickbait.
Flipboard (both an app and a website at ipboard.com) is our pick for a more personalised news stream. It both asks for your interests up front and learns them as you go along, presenting a tailored stream of headlines in an attractive, magazinestyle format. Once trained, it’s very good at
piquing your interest with stories you’d be unlikely to find on a regular news trawl.
It’s hard to be too critical of Google Drive when it hands you a free bucketful of gigabytes for storage, but it’s not the best in the business.
We use a paid-for version of Google Drive to share files for the production of this very magazine, but its less-than-flawless synchronisation means that older files linger on people’s machines. It also wants to funnel you into the Google way of doing things. Document version history is much easier to manage if you’re using Google Docs for text-based documents rather than Word files, for instance.
Dropbox remains the king of cloud storage in our experience. No service is perfect, but we can’t remember the last time we had a serious sync error, and even if things do go missing, Dropbox makes it easier than Drive to restore an old version and fish out an accidentally deleted file.
Dropbox also has much wider support for third-party integrations. If an app offers cloud storage for its files, it will almost always support Dropbox. The same can’t be said of Google Drive.
If you’re a Dropbox fan but work in an organisation that uses Google Drive, you can get the best of both worlds. The brilliant Cloud HQ (cloudhq.net) lets you sync a Dropbox folder with one on Google Drive. We’ve been using it for over two years now. In that time, the only problem we had was when we temporarily hit our storage limit on Dropbox and the sync failed to resume automatically when files were cleared, but there are understandable reasons for that.
Google Maps is the definition of a generic brand – it’s almost everyone’s go-to service when they need to find where that restaurant is or want directions on their phone. And it’s good, no question.
But there are better services out there, one of them Google-owned. Waze is a better option for turn-by-turn navigation on your smartphone. It has several advantages over Google Maps: the ability to plan multiple journeys in advance and get a notification when it’s time to leave; Spotify integration in the Waze interface, meaning you don’t have to skip between apps at traffic lights to change your playlist; and an unerring ability to divert you around traffic jams being chief
WE CAN’T REMEMBER THE LAST TIME WE HAD A SERIOUS SYNC ERROR WITH DROPBOX
amongst them. We’re somewhat baf ed why Google Maps and Waze still co-exist. Surely it makes little sense for Google to prop up two satnav apps? Let’s hope we’re not tempting fate.
Where both Google Maps and Waze fall down is pinpoint accuracy. Try and meet someone in the middle of Hyde Park, on a beach in Surfer’s or half way up a hill in the Blue Mountains, and Google’s wares are about as much use as a puffer jacket in a sauna. What3words breaks the entire globe into a grid of 3 x 3m squares and gives each of them a three-word name.
So, if you’ve set down your picnic blanket in Hyde Park and want to direct friends to your precise patch, tell them to open what3words, search for “moss.jelly.payer” and they’ll be there in ve.
We’ll square with you – we put Keep on our list and then went to play with it again, just to check it hadn’t got any better since we last ddled with Google’s todo-list-cum-notetaker. We were pleasantly surprised to nd it had improved, with features such as timed reminders for to-do items now appearing in Google Calendar and a new Chrome extension for quickly clipping things you’ve found on the web.
Still, it’s not quite as good as longstanding to-do list apps. Our current favourite is Todoist, which has apps for all the major platforms and a web interface to boot. Todoist’s great strength is its categorisation: to-do tasks can be assigned to different projects, allowing you to see all the jobs you have yet to complete on a speci c job and a chronological list of to-dos across all of your projects.
Entering tasks is a doddle, once you get used to Todoist’s syntax. Enter “Write column Tuesday #PCTA” for example, and it will automatically add a task to write column in the PCTA projects folder with a deadline of Tuesday. There’s no faf ng around with fancy dropdown menus to set the date like there is with some other to-do-listers.
Reminders are synced to your Google calendar if you sign in with your Google account, and you can also add to-do items from Alexa or Google Assistant. Some advanced features are premium ($5.00 per month), but we get by with the freebie version.
TODOIST HAS APPS FOR ALL OF THE MAJOR PLATFORMS AND A WEB INTERFACE TO BOOT
7 PLAY MUSIC
Play Music has one long-standing trump card: it lets you upload your personal music library to Google’s cloud, giving you access to that obscure AC-DC bootleg album you bought on CD in 1992 wherever you may be.
But that’s as far as its appeal goes. There’s no freemium model, as there is with Spotify, allowing you to play songs from the library in exchange for the occasional audio ad. And it doesn’t have anywhere near as many personalisation features as Spotify for subscribers. For example, Spotify’s Daily Mixes provide a never-ending, personalised stream of music from different genres that are perfect for background music, whether you’re working in the office or washing the car.
Google also offers little in the way of exclusive content, while you’ll find a regular (ahem) stream of “Spotify Singles” from big-name artists, where they’ve made live studio recordings exclusively for Spotify subscribers.
There’s not a lot wrong with Google Calendar as a service. And after many years of leaving the web interface to rot, a recent revamp means Calendar finally looks like a modern web app, not a contemporary of Duran Duran.
Still, you can do better. In fact, you could do a lot worse than the Calendar app for Windows 10 when it comes to managing multiple calendars. The month view is clearly presented, with appointments from different calendars colour coded for extra clarity. The weather forecast embedded into the calendar is a thoughtful touch if you have an external meeting or an outdoor event that could be imperilled by the Great British Summer.
The Add Calendars feature tucked away at the bottom of the screen is another valuable addition. This lets you drag in fixtures from various sports leagues or events. At the time of writing, for example, you could add the football World Cup fixtures and make sure you cleared your diary for Australia’s matches.
All manner of sports are covered and you can drag in fixtures for your favourite team.