June 1, 2021, is the day that the free unlimited compressed photo backup & cloud storage on Google Photos ends. From now on, you’ll have to pay for cloud storage for your photos. So you’re probably searching for alternatives to Google Photos, but none of the others recommended in all of these articles are really comparable to what Google Photos used to be, and none of them are free for unlimited storage either.
Personally, I never used Google Photos as my only backup, it was always just a 3rd level backup since the free version doesn’t save full-quality images. However, it was pretty great for searching my photo library since the image recognition worked pretty nicely. It wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly better than nothing… and it was great to be able to see my full photo gallery from any phone. I still keep all of my full-resolution photos organized by year and day on my server, but having 13 terabytes of photos in the cloud was pretty nice, too. Paying for that much storage on Google Photos would be $100 per month!
I could just use Plex
So why don’t I just use Plex? I already have Plex for streaming videos and music throughout the house as well as remotely, but I never turned on the Photos aspect of the Plex server. It seems like maybe that would be a good way to access my photos remotely from the phone.
Plex has some cool view options for your photo library. You can look at it in a “timeline” mode that just shows everything in sequence, or you can look at in the normal folder structure view, or there’s a “Recommended” view that shows some automatically selected samples from different decades or “on this day” from a past year.
The search capability doesn’t do any image recognition like Google Photos does though, but it does search filenames and folder names. So if I remember to add the proper names to my folders, it’s pretty good.
Syncing to the Server
The Plex apps have automatic Camera Roll Upload, too! This could be practically perfect… Oh wait, Plex is also removing the automatic Camera Roll backup feature in June of 2021. Still, I already have Plex, so let’s give it a try. In the Plex Forums, there are a couple of auto-sync recommendations. The “FolderSync” app for Android sounds pretty good for automatically copying camera roll photos to the server, but I think I want to have more control over my photo library now, so I’m going to manually copy photos to the server periodically using “Material Files“. This open-source file manager has great support for SMB file shares, so I made a shortcut to my “2021” photos folder where I can easily move all of my photos whenever I want. It also has an FTP server built-in, so I can turn that on and access the phone’s photo storage from a desktop (or any other FTP client) if I want to transfer files the other way. FTP isn’t a secure file transfer protocol though, so I’ll only use that on the local network. Having the manual option means I won’t have unexpected network usage or battery level loss since I will choose when the images sync. I shoot everything in RAW, too, so I certainly don’t want to transfer those huge file sizes automatically. I’ve also got a VPN server on my home network so I can copy files to the server remotely and securely from where ever I want. Making a home VPN server is really easy with a cheap Raspberry Pi computer and PiVPN.io scripts.
Meanwhile, on the server, I’ve got a series of rules set up on RoboBasket that will automatically create folders for each day within a year and move the image files to the proper folders so that everything is well organized.
Plex Server has a free option that will handle all of the personal media streaming. If you want to use the Android or iOS mobile apps instead of a web browser, each of those cost $5 as a one-time cost (unless you have a Plex Pass in which case they’re free). Apps for other systems like Xbox, PlayStation, and a huge list of other devices are often free. Plex also has a premium “Plex Pass” option that costs either $120 one-time forever price, or $5/month, or $40/year. The Plex Pass doesn’t add anything to your photo library features, but it does add some other nice things to your video & television watching capabilities. It adds the option to use a TV tuner to record shows from cable or HD over-the-air broadcasts, and it adds the option to download content to client devices for offline viewing. It also enables 4K playback and a discount for a Tidal subscription if you want unlimited music streaming. UPDATE: Another big cost difference is the fact that you need a server computer at home with a good amount of storage, Plex server installed, and an always-on internet connection.
The ending of Google’s free photo cloud storage service is certainly sad, but this is just another reminder that becoming too dependent on cloud services that you can’t control is probably a bad idea… and having diverse alternatives is a good idea. Sure, Plex may not last forever either, but it gives me a little more control over my media library streaming capabilities as well as my photo library backups. Still, it is certainly less feature-rich and syncing/management is more complicated, but perhaps that’s the price of freedom.