With Google Photos discontinuing free unlimited photo backups starting next week, we’ve been taking a look at the various alternatives available on the market to replace the service. Both options we’ve looked at so far — Amazon Photos and Microsoft OneDrive — are cloud-based lockers, so today we’re going to take another approach and check out a local storage alternative. Synology, the maker of the famous home NAS servers, has been testing its own photos management library for a while and in my experience, it’s as close to Google Photos as you could ever get. Plus, it’s free… as long as you own one of the company’s DiskStations.
If you already own a DiskStation NAS, you have almost everything you need to get started with Synology Photos. The only “price” to pay is that you need to join the DSM 7.0 Beta and sacrifice your entire server to a beta software version in order to get the new Photos experience. In my case, setting things up was a breeze with DSM v7 and I didn’t encounter any issues save for a small hiccup with Plex that was solved with a bit of Googling. Otherwise, I’m not facing any problems with this beta version compared to the stable v6.2.
Things are a bit more complicated — and pricey — if you don’t have a DiskStation. You’ll have to make an investment of several hundreds of dollars to get one and deck it with some hard or solid-state drives. I tested the service on a Synology DiskStation 220+, which costs $300 without any storage, so the investment can easily go up to $500 if you want to add a pair of 4TB HDDs, and more if you opt for a larger capacity or SSDs.
The clear benefit, though, is that you now own your own at-home network storage, where you can keep more than just photos and videos — think documents, personal work, movies, TV series, music files, etc…). You also control every aspect of this storage, so you can firewall it from the outside world, or you can make it accessible online when you’re not home. You can also let every Synology user have a private locker for their own pics and videos, while also allowing everyone to share a common library. There are clearly more benefits to this approach: your storage = your data = you’re in control.
Setup and automatic backups
Getting started with Synology Photos is as simple as downloading the application from the Beta packages section of the Package center. Then you have to put your media files and folders inside the photo folder either in the root Synology directory (shared with all users) or in your own user folder (only accessible to you). Unlike previous iterations of the brand’s photo management software, you can’t choose any other directories, so you’ll have to work within this constraint.
You have to use the main photo folder in the root storage, or the one under your “home” folder.
Transferring files manually from a USB drive or an external driver is possible, but I also recommend using the Synology Photos or DS File apps on your phone to set up automatic wireless backups to the server. The latter is a seamless experience, regardless of the app you choose. Set it up once and any photo or video you take will be saved to your Synology once you’re on the same network. It’s the same thing as Google Photos’ backups, except the files are being sent to your own server in your home.
Left: Automatic backups from Synology Photos. Right: Or from DS File (with fewer options).
Once set up, Synology offers some interesting settings, like controlling the way date and time are displayed, changing the sorting order and view mode, but more importantly, you get to choose what happens with duplicate files and whether all users get access to facial recognition or not.
To any Google Photos user, it’s abundantly clear where Synology Photos got its interface inspiration from. Save for the coral accent colors, it eerily resembles Google’s service, both on web and mobile. The timeline view and time scrubber on the right, the different tabs, the day or month or year view, and the way you multi-select items are the same. Even the interface when changing a photo’s date and time (only on the web, same as Google, sadly) or hiding or merging people is similar. This familiar experience welcomes you into Synology’s service and helps you quickly get comfortable with the UI. In a way, the basic Synology Photos experience is a carbon copy of Google’s, and for many users this may be more than enough in daily use.
Above: Web UI. Below: Mobile UI. Both look very familiar, don’t they?
The two services do differ a lot, though, when you dig below the surface. Where Google Photos relies on AI to automatically improve your experience (powerful search, automated albums and groupings, maps timeline view, etc…), Synology has a more hands-off approach to your pics. It has some smart features, but it does better if you prefer to do things your way. Browsing by folders and sub-folders is possible on mobile and web, moving media from one to another is as simple as dragging and dropping on the web, and there’s filters galore on the web too. You can look for media by file type, date, people, location, but also by camera, lens, focal length, exposure time, aperture, and ISO.
Left: Folder view on mobile. Right: Extensive filters on the web.
Where Synology Photos struggles is, predictably, with the smart functionality. Facial recognition seems decent until you realize that you need to merge 100 instances of the same person, because Synology thought they’re all different faces. It’s not that it failed to group them, it’s that it put 350 photos in a pile, 240 in another, 200 in another,…, down to smaller groups of two or three photos each. Many are even pics of the same person wearing the same thing in the same place surrounded by the same people. There’s no reason why these would be grouped under different faces, but there you have it.
Facial groupings look familiar. You can also merge or show/hide faces in the same way.
Synology is also hell-bent on cataloging any face it sees. That blurry person in the background? The twenty people in a random crowd next to your main subject? The face-like shape in a poster 30 feet away? The cartoon faces in a Marvel puzzle? All of these were among the faces it recognized. Google Photos has long ago learned to hide these automatically. Not Synology, though.
It recognized Ronaldinho from a poster, a person from a crowd, and the Captain America cartoon.
I spent over five hours going through the entirety of the face groupings assigning names, merging the ones that should be grouped together, and hiding the ones I didn’t care about. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by how good Google Photos is, or maybe Synology’s algorithm will need more data to learn and improve (and could it ever rival Google’s data at any point?!), but as it stands, the Synology library needs a lot of hand-holding to become usable. Once it’s set up, though, it shouldn’t require a lot of managing, save for checking the face tags every few weeks to make sure no duplicates showed up all of a sudden.
Additionally, Synology doesn’t recognize objects or themes in your photos, so you can’t search for burgers or sunsets — unless you manually tag every photo. It doesn’t infer location based on your location history or the buildings and monuments in your pics. And it doesn’t automatically create albums for your trips, collages for your photos, or animations from your videos or burst pics. All of those features we take for granted in Google’s service are nowhere to be seen.
Left two: Results are different if you add “and.” Right two: Simple queries like cats and dogs don’t yield any results.
Editing and sharing
There’s simply no editing option available in Synology Photos. You can only rotate still photos, and that only in the web client. Cropping, modifying the brightness or saturation, applying filters, stabilizing, and any of the other edit options aren’t present. Maybe this’ll be added later — this is still a beta software after all.
Sharing in Synology seems to be a powerful tool. You can share individual media files, full albums, or multiple-select items and share them on the spot. In all cases, an album is created (like Google Photos used to do), and you’re offered multiple options including sharing internally to other Synology users or making the media available publicly with the link. Extra controls let you allow or forbid downloading of the shared files, require a password to access them, and set an expiration date on the public link. It all sounds excellent, except that the public links don’t work for me, no matter what I do; they’re only accessible when I’m connected to my home network. Maybe there’s something wrong in my Synology external access setting that I can’t figure out, or maybe the feature is still limited because of the beta nature of Synology Photos and DSM 7.0. I’ll update this post if I get it working.
Sharing folders and various options.
Synology Photos plays nice with Chromecasts, so you can cast still images and videos directly to your TV. This works with the older Chromecasts, the new Google TV unit, and with Android TV boxes and units. However, there’s no real integration with Google Assistant or smart displays. So you can’t request specific photos to be shown on your TV or display with a voice command, and you can’t use it as a source for ambient display backdrops with your Chromecast or display.
Synology Photos is one of the best Google Photos alternatives available now. Be it in its interface or features, it comes close, but let’s face it, there’s no beating the amount of smart functionality Google is offering. If you don’t own a Synology server, I don’t know if its Photos service on its own is worth the investment — you could pay for Google One storage for years and not even come close to how much buying a DiskStation with drives would cost. But for those of you who already own one, there’s no question in my head: you should try out the Photos service and see how well it works for you and how much you’re willing to compromise on the smart features.
Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that having both services is the best solution. One cloud storage that offers a gazillion features and more, and one local storage that acts as my original-resolution backup (and that I can fully control and access from anywhere). The two are seamlessly set to back up without my manual intervention, and they don’t mess with each other, so why not run both?