During its first-ever appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2006 (see my show report), Internet search giant Google unveiled two initiatives, both of which are aimed, in part, to counter Microsoft, the company it considers a primary competitor. The first is called the Google Video Store: Users of this service will be able to buy and rent a wide range of video content online, including prime-time and classic TV shows from CBS, NBA games from this season and the past, Sony BMG music videos, and news and historical content from ITN. The second initiative, and the focus of this review, is Google Pack. Google describes Google Pack as a free collection of safe, useful software from Google and other companies that improves the user experience online and on the [Windows] desktop.

That description is vague and potentially inaccurate. Google Pack is indeed a collection of free software. Whether it's useful or improves the online experience is, I suppose, up to the individual. From what I can see, Google Pack is decidedly mixed. And if you're interested in installing this package, you're going to want to choose which applications you install quite carefully.

The problems are legion. First, few users will want all of the applications Google is offering here. And though some of the applications are quite good, most of them spew system tray, Quick Launch, and desktop icons all over your system, and silently pad your PC with additional tasks to run at boot-up, slowing the boot process and taking up valuable resources. The effect is similar to that you get when you purchase new PC from a company such as HP: There are unwanted and unnecessary programs strewn all over the system, and you can spend hours removing them all. In some ways, that's the worst part about getting a new PC, isn't it?

And that, of course, is what makes Google's claims about this suite of applications somewhat suspect. Google feels that customers often spend "days or weeks" making their PCs useful, and thus Google Pack is designed to offer up all the essential software a typical user might want. Google, of course, doesn't make much software of its own. And if you examine the 13 applications the company is providing with Google Pack, you'll discover that only four of them were developed by Google in-house (two others were developed by companies that Google recently purchased; the rest are third party applications). What Google is bringing to the table is, apparently, its decision about which software you need, and an integrated installer that can manage the install of each application you select automatically.

And though Google goes to great pains to tout how each application in Google Pack is free, it's worth noting that many of these applications feature annoying upgrade advertisements aimed at getting you to purchase the full versions. They're limited in other ways too, as I'll describe below. But most problematic, many of these applications aren't even up-to-date. For example, the free version of Norton Antivirus includes virus definitions that are, as of this writing, an astonishing four months out of date. And the spyware definitions in Ad-Aware SE were over 120 days out of date when I installed that application. That's simply irresponsible. The sheer amount of work that a user needs to perform in order to make sure that each application Google provides is updated completely contradicts the benefits of having an integrated installer with "only one license agreement ? and no wizards." That's only true until you actually try to use any of these applications.

As you'll see below, this bizarre collection of applications, each with its own distinct user interface, level of quality, and method of updating, actually does more to credit Microsoft's integration strategy than it does to prove the notion that Google knows anything about creating software. Let's take a look.

Installing Google Pack

You install Google Pack by visiting the Google Pack Web site, though the suite is also currently linked to from the main Google Web site as well. The Web page offers a simple download link, which actually downloads the Google Pack Installer, a small Windows desktop application that analyzes the choices you make and then later downloads and installs the applications you selected (Figure).

From the Web page, you can select from up to 13 different applications, which are described below. By default, 9 of the 13 applications are selected for install; these include Google Earth, Google Desktop, Picasa, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, Google Pack Screensaver, Mozilla Firefox with Google Toolbar, Ad-Aware SE Personal, Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition, and Adobe Reader 7. However, you can deselect any of these and/or add the remaining five applications, which include Google Talk, RealPlayer 10.5, GalleryPlayer HD Images, and Trillian. For purposes of this overview, I installed all of the applications on a test machine, and a select group of applications on my main notebook.

When you run Google Updater in Windows, you're presented with a simple front-end that downloads and installs each application you selected (Figure). You can later access this application to view installed applications and configure preferences. The installation process is fairly painless and will vary in length depending on which applications you chose to install. Interestingly, it appears to download and install them in order based on file size, with the smallest applications installed first.

As you install the Google Pack applications, you'll notice two things. First, as promised, you're not prompted to step through installation wizards or required to interact with the front-end in any way; the entire thing is indeed automated. Second, your desktop, Quick Launch toolbar, and system tray begin filling up with an unwelcome number of icons. By the time this thing is done, your PC will look like the victim of a nasty spyware attack (Figure). Additionally, some of the applications will begin popping up notifications of various kinds. For example, Google Desktop, Google Talk, and RealPlayer all trigger different kinds of alerts. And of course your Start Menu will be full of new items.

When the installation process is complete--a full install took about 13 minutes on my test system--the Google Pack Installer will note that you can now manage the application suite from the Installed Software tab. This means you can launch the applications or get application-specific from there (which would be silly) or uninstall them (which could be valuable).

In the Preferences tab, you can specify various configuration options, such as whether you want to be notified when there are updates, whether Google Pack Installer should display a system tray icon, and so on (Figure).

Despite what the Google Pack Installer says, however, you're not done. Oh, no, not even close. As you launch each application, you'll discover that various other installation tasks still need to occur. For example, Google Talk must be configured with your GMail information. Google Desktop Search has to be configured with various preferences. Norton Antivirus has to be updated three times, each of which requires a reboot (Figure). Ad-Aware SE Personal and RealPlayer 10.5 both need to be updated, and the latter will optionally install even more crud on your system if you let it, plus you'll have to register with RealNetworks to get the update. Mozilla Firefox needs to be configured for the Google Toolbar, and you have to determine whether to import IE settings and make Firefox your default browser. Google Earth? It needs to be configured for DirectX or OpenGL, only one of which worked on my test system, and then only after much trial and error. Google Pack Screensaver is fun, but it can't understand nested subfolders, so you have to manually point it to the picture folders you want to use. And so on. It's a time consuming and mind-numbing process. Only Adobe Reader 7 was reasonably up to date and lacking a configuration requirement.

I consider myself to be reasonably competent with a PC, and I was already familiar with most of the applications found in Google Pack. But it still took me about 90 minutes from start to finish, along with several system reboots, to get this suite of applications up and running on my test PC. There's just no real integration here, and the fact that many of these applications require so much updating speaks poorly of this effort.

Google Pack walkthrough: A look at the applications

The applications found in the Google Pack suite are all over the map: Some are excellent, some ... not so much. Some of them are just plain odd. In this section I'll examine each of the applications you can download.

Adobe Reader 7

Adobe Reader 7 is the latest version of what used to be called Acrobat Reader and, unlike most of the other applications in this suite, it's absolutely up to date with the latest version (7.0.5). Adobe Reader is a hugely useful application and absolutely necessary for enjoying PDF content.

Ad-Aware SE Personal

Ad-Aware is a well-known anti-spyware application, though it's far inferior to Microsoft Defender (previously known as Microsoft AntiSpyware; see my preview). The SE Personal edition found in Google Pack is particularly limited because it can only perform manual spyware scans and does not keep your system protected constantly (Figure). For this reason, I strongly advise SuperSite for Windows users to avoid this application and get something that provides real-time protection. You can download the Windows AntiSpyware Beta from the Microsoft Web site. If you don't mind spending a bit of money, the best PC security solution you can buy today is Zone Alarm Security Suite. This $60 a year package includes integrated spyware and virus protection, a two-way firewall, phishing and spam blocking, and other security features. This the solution I use on my own PCs. You can find out more on the Zone Alarm Web site.

GalleryPlayer HD Images

GalleryPlayer HD is a basically a front-end for collections of high-quality high-definition (HD) imagery. However, you don't get GalleryPlayer HD with Google Pack. Indeed, you don't even get a trial version of the player. Instead, you get a folder full of medium-resolution GalleryPlayer HD images, which you can use as desktop wallpaper or in photo slideshows (Figure).

Yes, seriously.

You see, GalleryPlayer makes money through subscriptions and paid downloads. I don't begrudge them this opportunity, as the images they offer are indeed gorgeous looking, especially when viewed on an HDTV display. But GalleryPlayer charges a lot of money for its service, and it's not the type of thing the typical PC user would be interested in. Besides, the images provided in Google Pack are stamped with a large GalleryPlayer logo. That's not the type of thing I want to see on my own desktop.

Google Desktop

I actually like Google Desktop quite a bit, though I think that Microsoft's Windows Desktop Search (see my review) is the superior product because of its deep integration with the Windows shell. For this reason, I use the free Microsoft offering instead. That said, Google Desktop has a few things going for it. First, it can be configured to display as a nifty Sidebar, similar to the old Windows Vista sidebar. (You can also configure it as a more typical taskbar-mounted Deskbar or a floating Deskbar.) It integrates with other Google services, such as Google Talk, which is convenient if you're using those services. And finally, it can trigger Google Web searches, though you can configure Windows Desktop Search to do so as well.

Google Earth

Google Earth is a cool application, though its usefulness to the typical PC user is absolutely open to debate. Originally developed by Keyhole and purchased after Microsoft announced Virtual Earth, Google Earth is a satellite imagery-based mapping application that lets you zoom in close to select areas around the globe (Figure). Some of the imagery is literally awe-inspiring. But, again, Google isn't the only company offering such imagery, and I don't find this to be a critical PC application like word processing or even digital media playing.

Google Pack Screensaver

If you're into digital photography and inexplicably don't have some sort of photo slideshow screensaver on your PC (which seems impossible to me, but whatever), then you might find Google Pack Screensaver interesting. An exclusive offering found only in Google Pack, Google Pack Screensaver is, well, a screensaver that displays your photo collection and animates between individual photos in three ways, via a collage effect, a wipe, or a cross fade (Figure). The former is the most interesting, as it creates a visual effect similar to that of someone dumping Polaroid images on your desktop over time.

The only real problem I have with this screensaver is that it can't be configured to understand subfolders. So if you have multiple nested subfolders like I do, and want to add them to the Google Pack Screensaver, get ready for a lot of clicking.

Google Talk

Last year, Google introduced Google Talk, its Jabber-based instant messaging (IM) client, with some fanfare. Since then, the Spartan application, which doesn't even offer graphical emoticons, has withered while more the full-featured competition has continued improving. It's unclear whether Google Talk has a future, but from what I can see right now, it's dead in the water. Don't bother.

Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer

If you simply must use Internet Explorer (IE), then the Google Toolbar is a decent add-on. It provides a handy Google search box, pop-up blocking (a must in IE 6 or earlier), and form auto-fill, among other features. I don't recommend using IE at all if you can help it, but Google Toolbar makes it a bit less painful.

Mozilla Firefox with Google Toolbar

Speaking of IE, I do recommend that you use Mozilla's excellent Firefox Web browser instead of Microsoft's increasingly dangerous offering. Firefox is everything that IE isn't: Safe, lightweight, and feature-packed. And if it should crash--and it won't--then it won't take down the entire Windows shell with it. Google Pack ships with the latest version of Mozilla Firefox--1.5--and the excellent Google Toolbar, which offers features similar to that of the IE version. Both are highly recommended.

Norton Antivirus 2005 Special Edition

Let me be very clear here. I can't stand Norton Antivirus. The full retail version of this product is bloated and slow, and it adversely affects the performance of every PC on which its installed. The same is true, sadly, of McAfee VirusScan, its leading competitor. For this reason, I use ZoneAlarm Security Suite (as mentioned above). So while I appreciate that the version of Norton included in Google Pack is free (at least until July 2006), and is in fact better than nothing (once it's been updated with new virus definitions), I still can't abide by the thought of this piece of junk consuming valuable resources on my PCs.

Picasa 2

Though Google isn't the original developer of this fine application, Picasa is the one Google application in this entire package that I can wholeheartedly recommend. A photo management and editing package similar but superior to Apple's highly-rated iPhoto, Picasa is a must-have application for everyone who owns a digital camera. This wonderful piece of software offers simple photo management tools (Figure) with various sorting options and photo labeling (meta data) capabilities, and provides simple yet powerful photo editing tools that even true beginners can use (Figure). You can launch slideshows, create collages, send photos to blogs and Web sites, order prints, and perform virtually any other photo-related task you can think of. I especially like the way the application blurs in the background when a dialog pops up, to ensure you're focused on the right thing.

RealPlayer

RealPlayer 10.5 isn't a horrible media player application (Figure), though the version included in Google Pack isn't up-to-date, and if you do choose to update it, you'll need to register with RealNetworks (Figure). It supports virtually every digital media file format on earth, includes an integrated music service (RealPlayer Music Store), and includes numerous other features. However, it's worth noting that Google Pack only includes the freebie RealPlayer, which doesn't include such necessary features as DVD playback, high quality video support, streaming content control, advanced video controls, RealAudio Lossless support, advanced CD burning features like song normalization, analog recording, and much more. The Plus version of RealPlayer, which does offer these and other exclusive features, costs $19.99, though you'll be hard pressed to find it on Real's site, since the company wants to sell you a SuperPass subscription instead.

Trillian

Trillian is an instant messaging (IM) client that lets you simultaneously access AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger, and IRC accounts, all from a single window (Figure). The reason this is necessary is that most of the major IM services refuse to interoperate, though there are signs that that behavior is beginning to end. In any event, if you're young and energetic enough to handle or need multiple IM accounts, Trillian is a great way to go. The Google Pack version is, of course, the Basic Trillian client. Trillian Pro is a $25 upgrade that adds support for multiple identities per IM service type and some other features. I'm clearly outside of the demographic that needs or wants multiple IM service access, but I can see where this would be useful for many people. That said, the problem with Trillian is that you can't access the newest features of any IM service. So when Microsoft adds new functionality to its latest MSN Messenger (or, soon, Windows Live Messenger) client, you won't be able to use it in Trillian right away, if ever.

Application wrap-up

If I were going to grade the applications included in Google Pack, only Adobe Reader 7, Mozilla Firefox and Picasa are unqualified recommendations. Applications such as Google Desktop, Google Toolbar for IE, Google Earth, and RealPlayer are somewhat interesting, depending on your needs. The rest are mostly shovelware and are not recommended for typical PC users. Some, like Norton and Ad-Aware, are arguably dangerous as shipped by Google. Don't use these applications if you can avoid them, or at least insure that they're up to date.

What's missing?

What's really interesting about Google Pack is that Google chose not to bundle some of its other applications, like Google Web Accelerator, Blogger for Word, and GMail Notifier, and didn't provide a way for users to sign up for a GMail account. Some of these features would be just as valuable, I'd think, as the applications that did get included in the suite.

Conclusions

While virtually every computer company on earth is scared to death of Google, and virtually every PC user seems to be in love with them, Google Pack serves nicely as a reality check. Not only is Google human, buts the flaws in Google Pack suggest that this company has a long, long way to go before it can ever justify its insanely lofty stock price. Google Pack is a mixed bag of applications, some useful and some not, though virtually all are deficient in some way as packaged here. I applaud Google for trying to make the PC experience simpler and more secure, but shipping out-of-date security products is even worse than not shipping them at all, because users will get a false sense of security and believe they're protected when in fact they are not. Google Pack is still in beta, so the more glaring issues can be fixed by a final release, if there is one. But this initial version of Google Pack is an embarrassment to the company. It's just a mess.