Google is a vast machine with all types of apps, programs, and tools. A lot of these—like Gmail and Google Docs—are clearly useful and beloved by many. But hidden inside Google's network are some awesome, lesser-known gems that can make your life easier.
Over the last couple of years Google has experimented with a lot of products. Hidden beneath popular apps like Gmail, Google Search, and Chrome are a lot of cool features that most people don't mess around with. Here are some of our favorite unsung Google features, from Google Drive apps to Google+ to everything in between.
Use Google Drive Apps for Added Functionality and Features
For most of us, Google Drive is just a fancy rebranding of Google Docs. However, the recent integration of web based apps into Google Drive is starting to get interesting. These apps utilize your Google Drive folder directly either by storing new files there, or integrating with the files you already have. Here are a few of the Drive apps we find useful.
Send and Receive Faxes for Free with Hellofax
HelloFax isn't the only service to send faxes online, but its tight integration with Google Drive makes it incredibly easy to use.
With HelloFax installed, every fax you send with the service is linked directly into Drive. Need to fax some forms? Send them from Drive. Waiting on a fax? HelloFax will stuff it right into your Drive folder so you can access it from anywhere. Most of us only need a fax machine on rare occasions and HelloFax is a handy alternative to a big clunky machine.
Sign Any Document Easily with DocuSign
Just like sending faxes, another thing you probably don't do often is sign and return documents. DocuSign is a Drive app that does just that. You can share documents that need signatures, or add your own directly from your Google Drive. You only get 15 free signatures with the service, but honestly, how often do you need physically sign something?
Edit Photos Right in Your Browser with Pixlr Editor and Aviary
If you're looking for a photo editing app similar in function to Photoshop, Pixlr Editor feature set makes it a pretty good choice. Pixlr Editor doesn't have the abundance of tools as Photoshop, but as a free cloud photo editing tool it works great.
If light touch-ups to photos are more your thing, then Aviary is all you need. Upload your photos into your Google Drive and you can make simple edits like color balance, and blemish correction right inside Drive.
Get Details About Your Google Docs Usage with Spanning Stats
Ever wondered what you actually spend your time doing in Google Docs? Spanning Stats is an app that breaks it down for you in a graph. For most people this means you'll see a breakdown of what's taking up space in your Drive. Advanced users will benefit from graphs that show you the volume of documents created by week, month breakdowns, and more. You also get a nice visualization of the times you typically create new documents.
If you're a fan of the idea of the quantified self, then Spanning Stats is a nice app to keep around in your Google Drive. With Spanning Stats you can see how you're using Drive and hopefully use that information to use your time better.
Google+'s Handy Hidden Features
Google+ hasn't taken off as a social network, but as an open platform for social-type things it works really well.
Use Local to Find and Share Your Favorite Places
Google+'s local tab doesn't really seem that interesting from the description alone: type in an address and Google+ shows you restaurants with a Zagat score. More interesting is the fact your Google+ peers can also write reviews and they'll show as recommendations. Done right, you can get restaurant recommendations from people you know every time you search for restaurants.
Even without the social features, Google Local is handy for finding a good place to eat quickly. Sure, millions of different restaurant recommendation services exist, but Google Local is integrated into where you probably already start most restaurant searches: Google Search.
Organize Your Parties with Events for Open Access and Invitations
Facebook has an Events system, but the problem with it is that you need a Facebook account to use it. Google's brand new Events is a lot easier to use. Create an event, share it with your Google+ friends, or anyone in your email list, and you're done. They don't have to sign up for Google+ just to see the invite.
After the event is going, people can share photos live as they happen directly on the event page by enabling Party Mode in the Google+ app, take a look at photos afterwards, and download all the pictures with one click. As a way to invite and document an event, Google Events is pretty strong.
Store Your Photos in the Google+ Cloud Automatically
Even if you're not using Google+ for much of anything, it's a good place to store photos. Again, you already have the account, so you might as well make use of the space it offers. You can enable the Automatic Upload feature on your iPhone or Android and every picture you take will automatically be stored in the cloud. As a free, easy-to-use backup service, it's not a bad option.
As far as sharing is concerned, you can set up photos so they're visible by certain people in your Google+ circles, or make them private and share them directly through email. The recipient doesn't even need a Google+ account to look at the gallery. If you prefer a desktop client, all the Google+ photo settings integrate seamlessly with Google's free photo management tool, Picasa.
Run Any Meeting Online with Google Hangouts (and Its Apps)
Google+ Hangouts is a simple video chat room that allows up to ten people to participate in a conversation together. It simple to use, and we here at Lifehacker use it for our weekly meetings. More interesting is the abundance of specialized apps developed for Hangouts that add all sorts of functions ranging from whiteboards to video poker. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Cacoo: Cacoo is a full suite of nerdy extras for Hangouts. Inside your Hangouts you can create mind maps, collaborate on diagrams, and even work on office layouts. Cacoo probably isn't something most of us will use every day, but it'll certainly come in handy on occasion.
- SlideShare: SlideShare is all about presentations. You can create slideshow presentations with SlideShare and share them with others in a hangout. Simple, easy, and doesn't require a bit of technical knowledge to use.
- ConceptBoard: Want to collaborate on a big project and let everyone just dump ideas into one simple image? ConceptBoard is a giant whiteboard for your hangouts. It might seem a little silly at first, but it works pretty well if you collaborating on something that needs visuals.
- Screen Sharing: Screen sharing is one of the built-in features of Hangouts that makes it great to use when you need to do tech support for friends or family. In a Hangout, simply click "Screenshare" at the top of your screen and you're done. You can't remotely control someon's computer, but you can share exactly what you're doing (and they can do the same with you) to make troubleshooting easy.
Google Drive and Google+ are certainly where Google is concentrating a lot of its momentum right now. Still, a few of its other minor services are just as interesting.
Everything Else: Apps, Products, and Automated Scripts
As we mentioned from the start, Google has a ton of different services, apps, and features. It's hard to really pay attention to them all, let alone care about most of them. Hidden inside their product list are a few smaller apps that have grown on us over time. Let's take a look at some of our favorites.
Google Schemer as a Planning Tool and Project Idea Generator
At its core, Google Schemer is a great way to find new things to do in your city. You can type in your address into Schemer and see what types of things people are doing around you. We've also talked about using to help achieve your goals because you can set public goals that your friends can track.
Essentially, Schemer is a means to not just find something interesting to do, but to share it with locals and friends. Schemer can help you find new things to do if you're popping into a new city for a night, or just want to explore your own town.
Custom Google Maps for Personalized Navigation
Custom maps in Google Maps are very simple to make and what you end up with is a completely personalized map of a city. We walked you through using custom maps with Yelp to create a personalized, shareable restaurant list, but that's just one of the many options.
You can, for instance, keep a running map of your life in general. Toss in your home address, your work, and places you like to go. As you discover new places, add them to the map, share them with family, and create a list of all your favorite places. Your list is integrated right into Google Maps on your computer so you'll always have an idea of where you are in relation to your favorite hangouts.
Activity Reports to Track Your Google Use
Ever wanted to know what you spend your Gmail time on? Activity Reports breaks it down for you. Activity Reports look at your Google activity and show you what you're looking for the most, how many searches you do, how you use Gmail, and more.
What you do with all this data is up to you, and its usefulness is going to vary depending on how much time you spend on Google. Still, as a look back at how you spend your computer time, Activity Reports are a valuable resource that may help you figure out where you're going wrong (or right) with your computer usage each month.
Google Bookmarks as an Integrated Read-it-Later Service and Browsing History
You can sort these bookmarks into labels so they're easy to find, and you can add any page to the list with a simple bookmarklet. Google Bookmarks doesn't have the flash of a service like Instapaper, but as a place to save links for research, or just to read later, it's nice to have around.
Google Apps Scripts to Automate Everything You Do in Google Apps
Google Apps Scripts are essentially little Automator-style workflows you can create and share that automate tasks between your Google apps. The learning curve for making your own isn't high, but the best part is that you can easily download and utilize other people's scripts directly in your documents (open a new spreadsheet in Google Drive and click Tools > Script Gallery). Recently scripts have been integrated into the Chrome Web Store so using them is going to get that much easier. They come in a wide variety of flavors, but here are a few of our current favorites:
- Gmail Meter: The Gmail Meter script works a lot like the above-mentioned Activity Monitor, but with more data. Each month you get an email with a full list of all your Gmail-related activity. Gmail Meter breaks down your usage in crazy ways, including average word counts, email times, response times, and thread lengths.
- Gmail Attachments to Google Drive: This script sends every attachment sent to your Gmail account directly to your Google Drive. It's simple, but handy if you do a lot of editing in Drive.
- Gmail Snooze: Gmail Snooze does one thing: gives your Gmail Account a snooze button so you can rest and not worry about getting email for a little while.
- Gmail Filter to SMS: You can set up this script and you get a notification you through a text message when an email is labeled a certain way. It could come in handy when you want to shut your email down, but need to keep in touch with one person.
In the past, Google Apps Scripts have been geeky endeavors. With the addition of Google Drive support and the ability to upload scripts to the Chrome Web Store, they'll likely get a lot more user-friendly.
Want to check out a few more of the features tucked into your Google products? Here are a few of our favorite experimental features you add to your favorite Google apps.
As if Gmail wasn't powerful enough, you can find all sorts of goodies and extra features in Gmail Labs. The list is pretty massive, so we've narrowed down our 10 favorite labs to help increase your email productivity.
Title image by Ben Krebs.
We've actually gone through our 10 favorite labs... More »
We've highlighted plenty of Labs features for Gmail, but Calendar has some pretty great Labs offerings, too. Since it's been nearly two years since Labs were added to Calendar, we thought it was about time they got a bit more attention. More »
Today we're taking a look at five great experimental features you can enable in Google Maps that solve a few annoying problems and make using the service easier.
Even Google power users can't keep track of everything Google introduces. As Google integrates its services into a more cohesive whole, tying those services together with apps and scripts is going to become more powerful and more important. Hopefully, getting used to some of the above features and apps now means you'll be better prepared in the future.