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Big changes just rolled out to Google Photos. The service, which has since 2015 offered free photo uploads, will now count every pic you upload against your Google account storage cap. You can save photos as original quality or "high," but they both take up space. Unless you've still got a first-gen Pixel. Google pledged to offer free photo backups for life on that phone, and it's holding to that. Here's how you can use the 2016 Pixel to keep the free upload gravy train running.
Step one, of course, is to make sure you've got the necessary hardware. If you've got a circa-2016 Pixel or Pixel XL hiding in your closet, great. If not, you can snag a used device for $100 or less around the internet. It's fine if the device has seen some wear and tear—it'll still upload photos just fine.
While the upload limits for other phones are changing, the unlimited upload guarantee remains in place for the OG Pixels. So, any images you snap with that old but still surprisingly capable camera will upload in original quality without eating into your storage. But you don't want to carry a five-year-old phone, right? We simply need to move photos from the phone on which they were taken over to the OG Pixel. When those pics upload, Google Photos treats them as if they were taken on the Pixel (i.e. they don't count against your cap).
You can move files manually between phones if you like needlessly tedious things, but setting up a folder sync utility means the Pixel can just live in a drawer someplace. There are numerous ways to sync files, but I'm using an app called Resilio Sync. There's a similar app called FolderSync that lots of people use for similar tasks, but I've found Resilio to be faster and easier to set up. You could also configure and run an FTP server on your Pixel if you're the DIY sort.
You can connect your devices in Resilio by creating a share of the Camera folder on your non-Pixel, and then scanning the resulting QR code on the Pixel. I like that the client codes only work for a few days unless you increase that limit yourself, and you can restrict access to certain WiFi networks. The files will sync over to a new sub-directory on the Pixel when the phones can see each other, but it defaults to selective sync. Turn that off, and all new files should automatically sync as they're taken. There are a ton of advanced options to further customize the app, too.
With folder synchronization set up, you can open Google Photos on the Pixel, and it will ask if you want to sync the newly discovered folder. Confirm, and all those images will go right up to the cloud for free. We've tested this with a fresh Google account and can confirm photos and videos taken on a Galaxy S21 Ultra are uploading from the Pixel in original quality and taking up zero space. It's possible Google will change its mind and kill this workaround, but we can only speculate on that.
Honestly, it's a lot easier to just pay Google a few bucks for more storage, but this is the simplest way to leverage the Pixel loophole: new phone to old phone to cloud. Direct app-to-app connections are always at the mercy of Android's background app handling, which can be aggressive on some phones. The Pixel can search for a connection endlessly because it can remain plugged in. However, you might have to give the app on your new phone a kick every now and then so it doesn't lose background access. That's a small price to pay for unlimited photo storage.