At some point in elementary school my sister was required to study San Francisco, which – if you've only ever lived in the Midwest – is a far-off, exotic city. She took an interest in the place, and over the dinner table she'd rattle off facts about the city, like how many hills there are (seven) and how many mosquitos there are (none). In contrast to our part of the country, an extremely flat, mosquito-riddled hellscape, San Fransisco seemed like almost a mythical place.

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Jumping ahead a few years, my sister was on the verge of turning thirty, and we decided to celebrate with a trip to the destination of her choice. Naturally, San Francisco was at the top of the list. At last, she'd finally get to experience the seven mosquito-free hills for herself.

In four days we covered most of the standard stuff – the bridge, the prison, the endless souvenir gift shop that is the Fisherman's Wharf. We drank Irish coffees at the cafe that claims to have invented them (but probably didn't), ate avocado toast at the place that claims to have invented it (and probably did), and took a lot of selfies in front of iconic things.

Our technique on this kind of shot needs work, but you get the idea.

During the course of the trip, we documented our adventure the way most older millennials do: on our phones. When we returned to our respective homes, she requested that I add my photos to a shared Google Photos album so she could show our mother over dinner. I already backup my iPhone photos to the Google Photos app, so that was easy enough to do.

I also wanted to show the Alcatraz photos to my boyfriend (disused prisons are his thing) but flipping through them on my phone clearly wasn't going to do them justice. Then I remembered the Chromecast plugged into the back of our TV, and within a few minutes I had a good old fashioned "How I Spent my Summer Vacation at a Former Federal Penitentiary" slideshow going.

To commemorate the whole trip, it occurred to me that a photo book might make a nice birthday present for my kid sister. And at this point, the whole thing starts to sound like a commercial for Google Photos: I selected images, added a title and text, paid for and shipped the whole thing from my phone while commuting to work on the bus. I didn't even need to get out my wallet, because Google remembers my credit card number.

Here's the thing: having the device I use to capture the images integrated into an ecosystem designed for sharing actually is really useful. My photos from that trip didn't die on a hard drive – they came to life. And sure, my iPhone SE takes some pretty lousy photos in low light. But you know what? They're fine. Nobody I showed them to complained about detail retention. And I wasn't looking to blow them up and put them on my wall, I just wanted to remember a trip that was about hanging out with my sister.

There's still room for improvement – the Assistant feature continues to be a mixed bag of sometimes nice, sometimes ridiculous AI-generated albums, videos and "stylized" photos. At least it does a good job of auto-suggesting items to archive, like screengrabs and pictures of packaged dinner re-heating instructions. But really, it's fine because it's not a core feature – anything useful the Assistant does is basically a bonus.

An automatically generated "stylized" photo courtesy of Google Photos Assistant. Just... no.

I think what impresses me most is that I didn't at any point decide "Alright, I'm going to go all in on the Google ecosystem." It just happened organically. I didn't think I was the kind of person who would want to play a summer vacation slideshow on her TV – until I was. When the technology is seamless and available at your fingertips, it turns out you're more likely to use it. And if that means more people doing more to share their photos, then that's enough for me to call Google Photos my gear of the year.