Google Photos stopped its free unlimited photo backup service earlier this month. To ease you through the change, we've been taking a look at the various options you can consider. Of course, there's the choice of sticking with Google Photos, or you could exploit a first-gen Pixel to keep backing up your pics free forever, or you could move to Amazon Photos or Microsoft OneDrive. The latter two are cloud-based lockers, though, which leaves you at the mercy of a company and its unexpected policy or pricing changes. If you're considering local storage as an alternative or an addition to your cloud service of choice, one of the best and most obvious solutions is Synology. The maker of the famous home NAS servers has been testing its own photos management library for a while in beta and released it in public a week ago. 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.

The Good

Self-hosted No more cloud or unknown servers, your photos are saved somewhere you know and control.
Free* Like all Synology services, Photos is free. You just have to own one of the company's NAS servers.
Organization and filters Facial recognition, grouping by places, decent search, and tons of filters.
Interface The design and experience are as close to Google Photos as they could get.
Sharing You can password protect your public links and set up expiry dates for them.

The Not So Good

Entry price Even though the service is free, you need a Synology DiskStation and some storage drives. That's several hundreds of dollars.
No editing You can't edit a photo or video. Only rotating is possible.
Not so smart All of the AI features aren't as smart, extensive, or developed as Google's.

Pricing

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 updated to the latest DSM 7.0 stable 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 new version compared to the previous 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 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.

Library

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 UIBelow: 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 mobileRight: 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 is a very 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. When the service was still in beta, a bug stopped me from testing sharing because the public links weren't working; I'm glad to report that's been fixed now. People are able to see and download the photos I share with them, but they can't join or add their own pics or comments. The feature is a mixed bag, and I certainly enjoy the extra control I get, but it needs more collaboration.

Sharing folders and various options.

Third-party integrations

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. At the very least, it can be an excellent addition to whatever other service you're using.

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?

Synology Photos
Synology Photos
Developer: Synology Inc.
Price: Free

Updated with more current info

This post has been updated following the public release of DSM 7.0. In the previous version, I had mentioned that sharing wasn't working, but that was fixed, so this information has also been corrected.