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Google Photos PWA review: Not quite progressive, not quite an app, but that's OK

Made correctly, Progressive Web Apps can look great across different platforms and provide excellent functionality. Google is the driving company behind PWAs, and it's a positive sign that more of their services are becoming PWAs. But using Google Photos just feels a bit off, almost as if a Google app has invaded my PC.

Using it raises some questions to me about PWAs and what their rise means to our old friend the native UWP app.

To open Google Photos, go to its webpage. What you can do with it from there depends on the browser you're using which we explain further in the review.

A wrapped webpage

While PWAs are at their core websites, a good one could fool the average user into thinking it was a natively built application for a platform. Twitter recently replaced their Windows 10 app with a PWA version of Twitter, and while there are some features still missing, the overall feel of Twitter isn't that different now that it's a PWA.

In contrast, Google Photos feels like it's just a webpage that if "installed" just removes the browser UI. It doesn't look awful, it scales when resized on your desktop and elements move around to fit your screen better, but it also feels a bit off. For example, the PWA has a 3x3 grid icon that opens up a flyout to other Google services. While it's expected that Google would make it easy to jump to other services, only one of the services in the flyout menu is a PWA (Google Maps), and they all just launch a browser page. It seems a bit odd to leave this here.

The biggest thing that sticks out to me is that Google Photos just didn't feel like it belongs on my Windows 10 PC. The design is very Google. It has icons and menus that will be extremely familiar to anyone on the Google ecosystem, but it sticks out like a sore thumb on Windows 10. This could be an inherent flaw in PWAs because they will share a look no matter where you open them, but it doesn't feel the same way when you use Twitter which fits right in on Windows. That could just be because Twitter doesn't have as distinct of a design as Google services but it's still very noticeable when using Google Photos.

Google Photos also lacks some features of the Google Photos app that you can download on Android such as automatically uploading photos that you take. This limitation means less on a PC but is also a restriction that affects Google Photos overall. While the design will likely remain mostly the same, I think it's likely that as many features that can work on a PWA will arrive on Google's PWAs in the future. It's in the company's best interest for their PWAs to not look limited when it comes to features.

Odd installation

Due to a mixture of factors, "installing" Google Photos is a bit odd right now. It's important to remember that you can just go to Google Photos' website and use it in your browser, but if you want to open it as if it was its own application, you'll have to go through some steps.

First, you'll have to have Google Chrome. While you can pin websites from Microsoft Edge, it doesn't remove the browser UI and is really just an attractive shortcut from your Start Menu. Inside of Google Chrome, you can go to chrome://flags and enable service workers. This gives you the option to create a shortcut on your desktop to a browserless version of Google Photos.

Google Photos isn't in the Microsoft Store and requires a browser made by Google to get the best version of it. Hopefully, in the future, this won't be the case, and Google PWAs can feel more like they belong in Windows 10.

Overall thoughts

Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have every Google service look like I'm using a Chromebook on my PC than not be able to use them, but I can't help but miss my native UWP applications that feel like an extension of Windows 10.

Google Photos does a good job of presenting your photos, previewing videos, and looking back on your memories. Uploading is there and installing it does make it feel more like an app than a webpage.

It's difficult to review Google Photos through the lens of a Windows 10 user. It works well, and I think it's a good thing that it has been made into a PWA, but it does feel off if analyzed specifically as part of a Windows 10 experience.

Pros

  • Makes it easy to look back at photos
  • Supports uploading images and videos
  • Can be "installed" to deliver a browserless experience

Cons

  • Not available through the Microsoft Store
  • Requires Google Chrome for the best experience
  • Design sticks out on Windows 10
  • Lacks auto-upload feature of mobile apps
Sean Endicott
Sean Endicott

Sean Endicott is the news writer for Windows Central. If it runs Windows, is made by Microsoft, or has anything to do with either, he's on it. Sean's been with Windows Central since 2017 and is also our resident app expert. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at sean.endicott@futurenet.com.

18 Comments
  • Wow... What a mess! It seems only Apple knows how to set a trend.
  • "...only Apple knows how to set a trend." If there's a company capable of setting a trend on the web I think it's the one with browser that has 50%+ market share... Has there been any sort of official announcement by Google regarding this? All I've seen are reports of people that discovered this either accidentally or through a tech-blog. Some blogs are treating this like a finished product, but I think this is just a case of Google flipping some switches and trying stuff out in preparation of a proper product launch.
  • I hope you're right. I'm more concerned about its accessibility through different browsers. I hope you can't purposefully make it so PWA only work correctly in specific browsers as that would really negatively affect windows and lead to further "app gaps."
  • From what I've read, the whole idea of PWAs is that they are "universal". Developers create one code base that can run on/through any browser that supports PWAs. Does Edge already have full support for them? I know Microsoft has committed to this, but I don't know how far along they are currently.
  • It is as universal as current websites are. "Works best on" will certainly apply just as Edge is left out on some systems now, Google certainly can encode their apps to work better on their browser technology.
  • f**k scroogle
  • "Design sticks out on Windows 10"
    At least it's consistent with their ecosystem.
  • PWAs should really be browser agnostic. The fact that this only runs on Chrome is a non-starter.
  • I would have never expected Googles PWAs to work fluently on Windows, despite the two "partnering" on PWA development. Let's not forgot Googles contribution to the lack of support for Microsoft's store in the first place. If they can get you to use Chrome, they are content that you will be at least flirting with their other services.
  • I know this is talking about PC, but I pin Google Photos on my Android using the Edge browser and it works just fine. Opens as a separate app. Only in Edge on Desktop does it open a new browser window. Same with my website (https://www.joshrobertnay.com). Same behavior as Google Photos. Is it a problem with Microsoft Edge on Desktop and NOT Google Photos and my website? Or maybe there's a particular way to target Edge on Desktop that I'm not aware of in my own coding. It's a mystery. Either way, I usually only care to use apps like Google Photos on my phone and use the website on Desktop anyway, so not sure how big of a deal this is.
  • On desktop, PWAs are supposed to be "installed" from the windows store.
    What you're doing on desktop is just making a shortcut to the webpage, which opens in browser as expected. The behavior on Android doesn't seem right to me, the browser is supposed to PROMPT the user to install on the phone, otherwise it should just be a shortcut to the browser, like the desktop...
  • With a little JavaScript and a little css, it's easy for them to change the style of the page (app) to a platform specific theme. They just don't want to spend the effort.
  • Not sure about the 'cons' listed above, I've just installed it on both my Surface and Lumia 950. It works well but the UI jars when you'r used to Windows apps.
  • Its still better than the crappy Windows 10 Photo app.
  • What makes you think the Photos app is crappy?
  • I actually used this quite a few times on W10M (yes, on mobile) and it worked fine. Of course there's no notification or auto upload support but I was able to use all the other features (manual upload, commenting, creating albums) quite fine (once the upload got stuck but after closing and reopening the page it worked fine). And it was also quite speedy which is something I was not expecting being used to previous G maps (lack of) performance.
  • Don't enable service workers in Google Chrome because when I did, Chrome would not open again.
    chrome://flags and enable service workers. How to fix this?
  • so basically it works like Microsoft's Sway store app. Okay. Thanks for letting us know. If anything, Microsoft provided the example for this.