Review: Dropbox’s Carousel Photo-Sharing App
Dropbox’s new photo app, Carousel, is smartly designed, but that won’t ensure success.
As we take more photos, we’ll need tools to help store, organize, and share them.
Like anyone else who’s owned several phones, computers, and cameras over the past 10 years, I’ve got photos all over the place. They’re stored on my iPhone, my personal laptop, my new work laptop, my old work laptop, stashed with services like Flickr and Facebook, and forgotten on dusty memory cards on the edges of my desk. I always intend to organize them someday, but that day never quite comes.
The latest effort to get us lazy photographers to clean up our acts comes from Dropbox, the popular file-storing and -sharing service: last week, the company introduced Carousel, a new, free smartphone app that lets you corral and share photos and videos that you’ve stored in your Dropbox account.
On the face of it, Carousel makes sense. Dropbox has 275 million users, plenty of whom are already using the site to store at least some photos. A standalone photo app could encourage a lot more of these uploads, and might convince some people to upgrade from their free Dropbox accounts to paid ones. It also makes sense for Dropbox to offer more services to help organize and make sense of the growing mountain of data it stores.
The move also shows how important photo storage and sharing is becoming to the giants of the Web. Facebook, for example, is home to over 400 billion photos that users have uploaded, and it also owns the popular photo app Instagram, which people have used to share 20 billion photos. Some startups are using clever new approaches to lure users. Everpix, for example, uses machine learning to figure out what was in your photos (see “A Photo Service That Understands the Contents of Your Images”).
I decided to give Carousel a whirl, using it to upload, organize, and share all of my photos, or at least all the ones I could find. I hoped it would convince me to abandon my hodgepodge approach, which on the iPhone centers around Apple’s default Photos app—which isn’t awesome, but it’s there, and I’m used to it. Carousel’s smart design and sharing feature make it promising. That may not be enough to convince a critical mass of users to sign up, though, if they’re also wedded to a “good enough” app on their phones.
To get going, I set my iPhone to automatically upload all my photos to Dropbox, synched existing photos with my Dropbox account, and added all my photos from Flickr and Facebook. To make sure as many images as possible were automatically uploaded to Dropbox going forward, I even set up a few rules using IFTTT (“If This, Then That”) to do things like add new Facebook photos that I’m tagged in to my Dropbox account.
If you’ve got a ton of photos, you’ll likely hit your first snag during this organization process. Dropbox’s free “basic” account offers two gigabytes of storage, and you can get another three gigabytes for enabling automatic photo uploads via the Dropbox or Carousel app. The problem is, I have about 3,200 photos of various file sizes stored to my account, taking up about 3.4 gigabytes of my total storage space. Depending on how prolific a shooter you are, the free storage may be enough to start with but I bet it won’t be nearly enough over time. It’s potentially a boon for Dropbox if it shifts more people over to its paid service, which starts at $10 per month (or $99 per year) for 100 gigabytes of storage—but it’s also irritating to the casual user.
For the dated and location-tagged photos, browsing is a breeze with Carousel. By default, it shows off your photos in a giant vertical scroll, similar to the day-by-day photo layout in the iPhone’s default Photos app. A clever timeline across the bottom of the display lets you quickly scroll through photos over time; as you swipe through each month, it stretches on the timeline to make it easier to stop on any one day. If you tap a little arrow all the way to the right on the timeline, it will quickly snap back to the present day. You can also just swipe up and down, but I found the timeline easier to navigate.
The app organizes your photos into small sets—which appeared to be determined by when an image was captured—each containing a handful of small thumbnails and, often, one larger thumbnail (reportedly, Dropbox scans the photos for faces and assigns each a “smile score” so it can pick the best image for this larger thumbnail; Dropbox would only say that its software uses a few visual cues to determine which photo this will be). If you happen to geotag your photos, you’ll see location data at the top of your photo sets, too.
A problem I encountered early on is what I like to refer to as Carousel’s gray graveyard. This is the area at the head of your timeline, before time began, where all the photos that Carousel says are missing dates are corralled into one big file dump. I wanted to clean up these photos, but couldn’t really figure out what to do with them as there was no option to move them into a dated set or give each one a date.
At least it was easy to hide images by just swiping them downwards—that doesn’t delete them, but removes them from the main photo timeline. You can see all the videos and photos you’ve hidden within the app’s settings, and either delete them or restore them to the timeline.
Sharing is simple, too. Tapping a little sharing icon at the top of each set of photos lets you share them with friends (you can deselect images by tapping on them). You can also share individual images by first tapping on a thumbnail to see a larger version of the photo—then you can swipe upward on that image, and any others in this zoomed-in view, to gather a stack of them. This made it easy to gather a bunch of forgotten photos of myself and my best friend, add a short message, and send them to her via the app.
If the recipients of your photos have the Carousel app, as my friend did, it’s a fun experience. The app includes a clever messaging feature, which let us send photo sets and messages back and forth with ease. Anyone with the app that you send photos to can save images they like to their own timeline (and, by extension, to their Dropbox); unfortunately, my friend couldn’t do this because her Dropbox was already clogged with files.
If, like all of my other friends and family, the photo recipients don’t have Carousel on their smartphone, it’s trickier. You can send images to any e-mail or phone number, but all they’ll get is a small picture along with a request to download the app. To get around this, you can ask Carousel to make a link to an image or selection of images that you can then e-mail, but it’s a messier experience and they won’t be able to respond within Carousel to tell you how great (or, occasionally, terrible) your photos are.
This annoyance encapsulates Carousel’s biggest hurdles: getting people to download it, and then convincing them to use it.
Though I sent pictures to a number of buddies, only one decided to install the app. For Carousel to steal some of this attention, it may need to add some more compelling features. Otherwise, it risks becoming another app you use once and then forget about—if you’re even willing to try it out in the first place.
Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.Subscribe today