Let Google Make Your Leisure Time More Productive

If you're like me, you have precious little time to pursue your hobbies and explore other interests. This week I came across a few Google tools that let you make the most of your time off. First up (with apologies to my buddy Dave Johnson, who writes PCW's photography blog) is a cool new feature in Picasa that helps you organize your photos based on the human faces in them. Then I'll tell you about Fast Flip, which lets you quickly scan online news, and a neat new sports calendar.

Use Picasa to Face-Tag Your Photos

As you've probably discovered after years of taking digital snapshots, keeping a photo library organized can be a nightmare. Far and away your best ally: tags, which are little descriptors attached to each photo.

Unfortunately, it's a major hassle to manually assign tags, which is why I was delighted to see the new automatic-tagging feature in the just-released Google Picasa 3.5.

I've used this photo-management software for years, but it's never been this adept at organization. When you first run the new version, it starts scanning your library for faces, automatically grouping those that look similar (and with impressive accuracy, based on my initial tests).

To get started with face tagging, click the Scanning option under the new People section in the lefthand toolbar. (Depending on the size of your library, it might take Picasa several hours to complete its initial scan--but you can start tagging while it's working.)

You'll immediately see a batch of faces in the main pane. Click "Add a name" under any one of them, type the person's name, and then hit Enter.

In the dialog box that appears, click New Person, and then click OK. (You can also supply a nickname and/or e-mail address at this point; Picasa can sync these tags with your Picasa Web Albums.)

Repeat the process with other faces. If you want Picasa to ignore a face (you might not want to tag everybody, after all), just click the little x in the corner.

Each "new person" you add creates a tag in the aforementioned People section. Click one of those tags to see all the matches Picasa has detected. You can refine these matches further by selecting one or more photos, then clicking the green checkmark if they're accurate (i.e. the correct face) or the red x if they're not.

The more you fiddle with this feature, the more sense it will start to make. Keep in mind that all this scanning and tagging makes no actual changes to your photos. Ultimately, it's just a quick way to find all your photos of, say, your Uncle Ed. Great stuff.

Use Fast Flip to Satisfy Your Need for News

I'm a bit of a news junkie, but the experience of reading news online, well, bites. Sure, you can aggregate your favorite news sites into an RSS reader, but that's hardly the same experience as, say, leafing through a newspaper or magazine.

Enter Fast Flip, a new service from Google Labs. It offers a clever interface for searching, browsing, and discovering Google News content. And while it definitely has a few rough edges (remember, it's just an experiment at this point), it's already my favorite way to consume news online.

Fast Flip is divided into four collapsible main sections: Popular, Sections, Topics, and Sources. Within each you can browse the default content or drill further for more specific results. (Of course, this being Google, you can also run a search.)

I had to play a bit to get the hang of the interface, but once I did, I was sold. To my thinking, this is precisely how online content should be organized and presented. In my dream world of the future, my touchscreen-equipped color Kindle will have an interface just like this for newspapers and magazines.

Speaking of which, there's already a mobile version of Fast Flip for Android and iPhone devices, and it delivers a similar experience: choose a source, topic, or category, then browse the stories by swiping with your finger. It's pretty slick, though the small screen makes reading a bit more challenging.

My esteemed colleague David Coursey thinks Fast Flip is a bust, but I think he was too quick to judge. Let Google tweak the interface, iron out the kinks. This might just be the future of online content.

Add Sports to Your Google Calendar

Holy home runs, Batman! Google Calendar just got a lot more useful. The free Web-based service recently added a mammoth library of sports schedules, meaning you can easily keep tabs on your favorite teams' games.

Assuming you already have a Google account, just head to Calendar and click New: Sports calendars in the upper-right corner.

Click the Sports tab, and then choose the sport you want: Baseball, Basketball, Cricket, Football, Hockey, Rugby, or Soccer. Within each category you'll find virtually every professional and college league and association on the planet.

Keep drilling down until you find the team you want, then click Subscribe to add its calendar.

The new stuff gets added as a separate, independent calendar, one you can toggle on or off at will. If you want to add a particular game to your personal calendar, just click it and choose copy to my calendar.

This is unbelievably useful for someone like me, as I like to know when my favorite teams are playing but don't have the wired-for-sports brain necessary to follow their schedules. This makes it a snap.

Rick Broida writes PC World's Hassle-Free PC blog. Sign up to have Rick's newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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