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A Guide to Google's Hidden Tools

written by: William Springer•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 9/6/2011

Google's idea of a beta is everyone else's idea of a finished product; as a result, many great new products hang around in the shadows for years before making it out to the mass market. What are some useful tools that you should be using, but aren't?

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    Research with Google

    When the Internet first got started, use was primarily restricted to researchers at major universities. Even now, it mains a vital research tool, particularly as the number of research papers published every year balloons. These days, of course, most of these papers are available online, many for free. While the main Google search is of course very useful for locating these, Google also provides a number of specialty tools for the purpose. Naturally, these tools tend to be useful for academic (non-research) papers as well. Of particular use is Google Scholar, which restricts the search to the scholarly literature, allowing users to avoid digging through random websites.

    Discover Google Books: An Online Goldmine of Knowledge

    Finding e-Text with Google Books

    Google Scholar for Power Users

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    Office Work with Google

    When it comes to doing word processing, spreadsheets, and other day to day office tasks, the go-to software to install is Microsoft Office. However, why bother installing software on your computer at all? Google Apps provide much of the same functionality as Office, while keeping everything stored safely online; as a result, you can access your work from anywhere and don't have to worry about losing everything if your hard drive fails! The drawback, of course, is that the documents are stored online (and with another company), which can lead to security concerns if you're handling sensitive information. When collaborating, however, working with Google Apps has the nice advantage of allowing multiple people to work on the same document at the same time.

    Google Apps vs Microsoft Office

    How to Write Group Prjects Using Google Docs

    Dropbox vs Google Docs: Which is Better for Cloud Storage?

    How to Create an Online Collaborative Presentation Using Google Apps

    Use Google Apps to Create a Collaborative Calendar

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    Be Crafty with Google

    One program that the Google people I've talked to have been quite proud of is SketchUp, their 3D modeling software. In the past, creating realistic 3D objects required spending thousands of dollars on software like Maya; now, you can get started with the free version of Google Sketchup. Not only is the software easy to use, but once you've created your objects, Google even provides the 3D Warehouse to share those objects with others. If you create accurate models of real-world objects, you can even have them included in Google Earth! (Of course, the full version of SketchUp does require a purchase.)

    Google SketchUp review

    3D Warehouse for Google Sketchup

    Designing Your House with SketchUp

    Rendering Software for Sketchup

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    What To Do with Umpteen Digital Photos

    One problem with digital cameras is that, since you don't have to pay for film, you end up with lots and lots of photos that need to be sorted, categorized, and color-corrected. Naturally, there's a lot of very good commercial software available for this task; Photoshop, for example, and Lightroom. If you don't care to drop $600 on Photoshop, however, Google has you covered; Picasa offers many of the same features in a free download. Like many of Google's projects (including SketchUp), it was originally created by another company, purchased by Google, spruced up, and offered for free online.

    Picasa Tutorial

    How to Edit Your Photos in Picasa 3

    Categorize Your Photos with Face Recognition using Picasa

    Geotagging Photos in Picasa

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    Find Your Way with Google Maps

    Back in the old days (that is, five years ago), a good GPS was expensive, largely because of the cost of creating the maps. These days, anyone with a smartphone can use Google Maps to turn their phone into a GPS device. Of course, you can always just use it on your computer to print directions as well!

    A similar tool, Google Earth, lets you view actual photos of the world from within downloadable software, and in both cases you can also use Google Street View to take a look around the area you'll be visiting. Not satisfied with just seeing photos of the Earth? You can always take to the heavens with Google Sky and Google Mars!

    Understanding the Difference Between Google Earth and Google Maps

    Google Street View

    Discover Mars with THEMIS

    How to Upload a Geotagged Photo to Google Earth

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    Who Said What Now?

    While one could be forgiven for thinking that nearly the entire internet is in English, there are actually quite a few pages in other languages, and a number of jokes have been made of the... interesting... jobs that software such as Babelfish has done in translation from one language to another. An ongoing research project at Google involves translating software from one language to another, letting the computers figure out how languages work by analyzing documents that have already been translated and looking for patterns. As a result, the software works better for pairs of languages where many documents have been translated between them.

    Translate Text and Webpages with Google

    Getting the Most Out of Google Translate

    Installing and Using the Google Language Translator Toolbar

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    Not Everything Works

    Of course, not everything that Google tries works out. One advantage of having as much money as Google does is that they can afford to invest in a number of small projects and see which ones further their goal of dominating the search market. Some potential products may stay in testing for years before Google decides to discontinue them, such as Google Health (which will be shut down at the end of this year). Others, while not officially shut down, have difficulty gaining any market share due to privacy or usability concerns or simple bad luck. Here are a few articles about programs that, for whatever reason, you've likely never heard of and likely will never see again.

    Google Orkut: A Failed Social Network

    Ten Tips for Using Google Health

    Understanding Google Buzz

    Wave Goodbye to Google Wave

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    Things to Come

    Of course, this isn't even close to being an exhaustive list. Google Labs (which is itself currently being phased out) lists 53 ongoing projects, many of which Google will be either continuing to develop, releasing as open source, or rolling into existing products.

    While not everything can become as popular as the well-known apps like Google News and Google Mail, the creative engineers at Google are always coming up with interesting new projects. Who knows what will show up next?