From its humble beginnings in 1998, Google has become one of the biggest brands on the planet. Founded by computer science students Larry Page and Sergey Brin while at Stanford University, Google's mission statement was - and still is - "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful".
Not only is Google the most-used search engine on the internet but it has even become a verb which appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, you're more likely to say "have you tried Googling it?" rather than "have you tried searching the internet?" and people use the term regardless of the actual search engine, a fact which Google is keen to discourage.
Of course, the company has come a long way in the last 14 years and now has an impressive range of services which - on the whole - are completely free to use. As well as online tools for everything from getting directions (Maps) to tracking visitors to your website (Analytics) there are also applications for your PC such as Picasa for editing and organising photos and the Chrome web browser. Plus, Google now owns YouTube and Blogger, and has its own social networking site, Google+. It even has its own operating system, Android, which runs on a multitude of smartphones and tablets.
Whether you already use Gmail and Docs or you don't yet have a Google account, we'll show you some of Google's great tools and services you may not have heard of. If you like what you see and want to create a free account, just head to google.co.uk and click the Sign in button.
Gmail is one of our favourite Google services: an email account with currently around 10GB of free storage space. You can check and send emails from the website but it's also accessible from many smartphones and tablets. If you prefer to use a desktop application such as Outlook or Incredimail to manage your email, it's easy to add your Gmail account details so that your email is directed there instead.
The website interface is perhaps the most convenient to use, not least because it uses Google's powerful search capability to find information from old emails. You can customise how your inbox looks down to the density of information and it's possible to drag and drop attachments onto a new email, saving time.
There are lots of other useful features including the ability to create 'labels' which are effectively folders into which you can move emails, and you can create filters to automatically send incoming emails to those folders. Gmail has an excellent spam filter, and it's unlikely you'll ever see any. However, you can mark unwanted emails as spam to help ensure similar messages are blocked in future.
One of the best features is 'priority inbox', one of five different inbox styles. This shows unread, important and 'starred' messages at the top so you can easily see the messages that you need to check and refer to. Alternatively, you can choose Important first, which puts messages it thinks will be important to you at the top of the list.
As well as email, Gmail also handles contact information and tasks (a todo list). To switch to these views, click the Gmail link just below the Google logo at the top-left corner. There are many settings that you can tweak. To access these, click the cog icon it the top-right corner and choose Settings from the drop-down menu.
Finally, Gmail also incorporates an instant messaging service, Chat. This appears to the right of your inbox and shows which contacts are online, away or offline. Conversations are saved and appear under the Chats heading in the left-hand column, although you may have to click the More link to see it.
Docs is Google's online office suite and is a good free alternative to Microsoft Office for undemanding users. When you arrive at the Docs homepage, you're presented with a list of your documents and the option to upload more from your computer or create a new document, spreadsheet, presentation, form, drawing or table. See also: Get started with Google Docs
Next page: more on Google Docs, plus Google Calendar, Maps and Earth
Although some of the more advanced features of the latest version of Office may be missing from Docs, there's enough here to keep most people happy. Plus, there's the big advantage of being able to collaborate with other people in real-time. Several people can open a document at the same time and make changes at the same time. It's easy to see who's making changes or adding comments, and there's an instant messaging-style chat column to the right so you can discuss a document without having to add comments to it.
If you use Docs a lot, the list of documents quickly becomes unwieldy. It's easy to use the search bar at the top to find what you want (it even searches the documents' contents) but you're better off creating folders to keep things tidy. Docs calls these 'Collections'.
Currently, there's no easy way to edit documents offline, but a beta tool allows you to view documents and spreadsheets in the Chrome web browser (more on Chrome later in this article). If you do need to edit something, it's simple to download the document: from the File menu choose Download as or Email as attachment. Docs can output in a variety of common formats. This is one way of making it possible to print documents, but if you use Chrome, you can print directly to a local or network printer.
Until Google Drive launched (more on Drive later), you got 1GB of storage for documents, but that's now 5GB. You can, of course, pay for extra space.
As the name suggests, Calendar is Google's online diary. You can launch it from the menu bar at the top of the page when you're logged into your Google account. As you'd expect, you can choose from a variety of views from a single day to a whole month. Adding appointments and meetings is easy as Calendar understands natural language. Click the arrow next to the CREATE button and type a sentence into the Quick Add box such as 'lunch with John 1pm on Friday' or 'team meeting tomorrow 10am'. The event will be added to your calendar on the correct time and date.
You can add more information such as a location and a duration if you instead click the CREATE button. Here, you can also invite guests by entering their email addresses and also choose which calendar the event is added to. Multiple calendars are useful if you want to separate home and work events, for example.
In the main Calendar view, you'll see all your calendars on the left-hand side and you can show or hide your list of Tasks on the right-hand side by clicking the Tasks link. This is the same list you'll see in Gmail and if you've set a deadline for a task and set Tasks , it will appear in the calendar.
Usefully you can share your calendars with other people. To do this, click the arrow next to the name of the calendar you want to share and click Share this Calendar. Simply enter some email addresses and choose what each person sees: either all event details or merely when you're free and busy. You can also give others the ability to edit your calendar and even manage who else can see it.
If you need to use Calendar without an internet connection, you can download the Google Calendar web app from Chrome's app store. Unfortunately, this isn't supported in other web browsers.
Maps and Earth
Maps is one of the clearest mapping tools we've used and has just been updated to include better 3D graphics, 3D photo tours and a 45° aerial view for a limited number of cities. The default top-down view can be changed to show satellite imagery, with roads overlaid. In Chrome, you can install the Google Earth plug -in to view maps in 3D (there's also a separate Google Earth application for Windows).
One of the most useful tools in Maps is Street View. When you drag the orange man icon to the map, streets with Street View information are shown in blue. Drop the icon onto a blue street and the view will switch to 360° street-level photographs which you can zoom and pan around and even move along roads. This is invaluable when you want to see what your destination looks like before setting off.
Next page: More on Google Maps, as well as Google+ and Blogger
To get to a destination using Google Maps, you can click the Get directions button. You can type in a postcode, town, full address or even a station or tourist attraction and Maps will find it. You can choose driving, walking or public transport directions and alternative routes will be shown on the left, even taking traffic into account for driving directions.
It's possible to print maps as well as driving directions and you can share maps with friends by clicking the chain-link icon. This also gives you the option to embed an interactive map on your website - ideal for showing visitors your exact location. If you sign in with your Google account details, you can save routes and locations and custom maps.
Google+ is Google's Facebook rival. It differs from Facebook in that it allows you to categorise your contacts in 'circles' and share posts with whichever circles you like. You can create as many as you want, perhaps for work, friends, and another for family.
Google+ has just had a facelift and is now more streamlined. Down the left-hand side is a menu of sorts, with Home at the top. This shows the most recent posts from people in your circles, with a box at the top where you can post something.
Just as with Facebook, you can type a comment or upload a photo or video, or paste a link to a web page you like. People can comment on your post, and can '+1' it: the same as 'liking' something on Facebook. Before you submit your post, you should select which circles you want to share it with. You can send a message to an individual by entering just their name, or make your post public so every Google+ user can read it.
Above the feed are buttons which let you choose which circle's posts to show. The default is All, but you can quickly find out what your friends are saying and sharing by clicking the Friends button.
Further down the left-hand column is a button called Hangouts. This is where you can start video chats with up to nine people at once. You don't have to have a webcam for a Hangout: a plain microphone will do. When you're in a Hangout you can chat or watch YouTube videos together or play online games. Hangouts On Air let you broadcast your Hangout to the world so people can watch the action live. Afterwards the video is automatically saved to your YouTube account.
If you like to share photos and albums, Google+ gives you unlimited free storage for high-resolution photos, which you can share with the people you want. When you've uploaded images, you can edit them by clicking on them and then the Edit photo link at the top of the page. You can crop, rotate and sharpen images, as well as adding effects, borders and even fake beards.
Google+ borrows the idea of trending from Twitter, and shows you what's currently popular on the social network to the right of your news feed. If you click the Explore button in the left-hand menu you'll see a feed of 'What's hot on Google+'. A slider at the top allows you to choose how much of this feed to show on your home page.
Publishing a blog is easy with Blogger. Google bought Blogger in 2003 and it's still free to use. When you sign up at blogger.com with your usual Google account details you'll get to choose a title for your blog and an address such as myblogname.blogspot.com.
Everything is hosted on Google's servers and it's relatively easy to create new posts. We say relatively as it's not quite as easy as with Tumblr - see Get started with Tumblr - but the blank canvas gives you much more scope in what you can post. This large canvas is just one new feature of the recent redesign.
You can add photos, videos - including those from your YouTube account - and format text just as you would in a word processor. If you so inclined, you can switch to the HTML view and tweak things even more precisely. The menu on the right lets you add tags for the post, a location and whether to allow comments or not. As you'd expect, you can preview posts before publishing them.
Next page: More on Blogger, plus YouTube, Drive and iGoogle
The main menu on Blogger's homepage provides quick access to comments, stats and the layout and template options where you can change how your blog looks. Blogger can automatically filter out spam comments, but it's always worth checking your spam filter to ensure comments from real readers haven't been removed by accident.
You can earn money from your Blog if you enable AdSense (yet another Google service) by clicking the Earnings link in the menu. When people click on ads which appear on your blog you'll start earning money.
YouTube (youtube.com) is the one Google service that need no introduction. Whatever you want to watch, there's a good chance you'll find it on YouTube. Swinging monkeys, people parking their cars badly and 'the coolest guy in the world' are all present and correct.
However, as well as dipping into people's crazy homemade videos, you might not realise that you can also watch the latest TV shows and movies for a fee. Some older films are free, but most cost a couple of pounds. Many TV shows are made available through the provider's catch-up service, and are free but with a scattering of adverts.
If you want to upload your own masterpiece, YouTube supports most formats up to 1080p and up to 15 minutes in length (more depending on your account status). You can annotate your videos and even edit them once uploaded. Some new tools include the ability to trim your video, reduce camera shake and convert it to black and white. There are no storage limits, so you can upload as much footage as you like, for free.
Drive is Google's latest service and aims to compete with the likes of Dropbox and Microsoft's Skydrive. It's a cloud storage service to which you upload your files to store and share them, as well as making it easy to get at your stuff from just about any computer, tablet or smartphone (iPhone and iPad apps should be launched soon).
To sign up for Drive, go to drive.google.com. You'll see your list of documents from Google Docs, since Drive is where all your documents are now stored. It's worth noting that Drive effectively replaces Google Docs on the web, so navigating to docs.google.com will redirect to drive.google.com. Also, signing up for Drive will cause your documents to be split into two sections: those you created yourself (My Drive) and those that others own (Shared with me). You can still use the search bar at the top to quickly find the document you're looking for, though.
As with Dropbox, it's simple to synchronise files from your computer to Google Drive once you've installed the Windows, Mac or Android application. This adds a new folder to the Favorites section in Windows Explorer. Any files you copy to it will automatically be uploaded to your 5GB of storage space. You can create sub-folders and copy any files you like into them. While files are uploading, you'll see a pair of blue arrows but these are replaced with a green tick when the transfer is complete.
In Windows, you'll also see a new icon in the Notification area. Click on it to see the current synch status, how much storage you're using and options to buy more storage. Upgrading to 25GB, for example costs just $2.49 per month (approx. £1.50). This also upgrades your Gmail storage to 25GB.
Most common file types can be opened in Google Docs, so you can click on a JPG photo in Google Drive to view it in your browser. An unusual feature is that OCR (optical character recognition) can scan any PDFs you upload and extract text in to an editable Google document. For more, see our Google Drive review
If you're the sort of person that like to set a homepage for your web browser, it's worth trying out iGoogle. Head to www.google.co.uk/ig and you'll be prompted to sign in if you haven't already. Next, you'll see a wizard called "Create your own homepage in under 30 seconds."
You can choose a theme for the page (there are many garish options) as well as things that interest you and your location. Once you've personalised your iGoogle page, you can add 'gadgets' to it by clicking the Add gadgets button near the top-right corner. There are hundreds, so it's best to search for specific things.
Next page: More on iGoogle, plus Chrome, Analytics and Webmaster Tools
We recommend adding gadgets to iGoogle for Gmail, Maps, BBC News, YouTube, Wikipedia and Google Calendar. This way, you can see a lot of information on one page without having to visit those websites individually. You can also search Google, YouTube or Wikipedia directly from your homepage.
You can rearrange gadgets by dragging and dropping them where you want them to be. Once you're finished, make sure you update your browser's homepage to iGoogle. In Chrome, you can do this by clicking the spanner icon to the right of the search/address bar and choosing Settings. Then, in the Home page section of the Basics page, click the radio button next to Open this page: and enter http://www.google.co.uk/ig.
Google launched its Chrome web browser in 2008 and has release 18 versions since. It was the first to run each tab as a separate process in Windows. This means that if a web page crashed, you can carry on using pages in other tabs instead of the error crashing the entire browser.
Chrome is one of the fastest web browsers and its minimal interface leaves as much space as possible for displaying web pages. It's easy to rearrange the order of tabs by dragging and dropping them, and you can even drag a tab out to create an independent browser window.
You can configure Chrome to start by showing your eight most-visited websites as thumbnails - this saves you having to add them to your bookmark bar. At the bottom of a new tab you can switch from this view to Apps -one of Chrome's other strengths. The Chrome Web Store is full of useful free apps which you can install to Chrome.
These include games such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope as well as more productive tools such as Evernote, TweetDesk, Google Mail Checker and Google Docs Offline. You'll find that some 'apps' are merely shortcuts to websites, but it's simple to remove these from the Apps list if you don't want them.
A particularly useful feature in Chrome is the ability to be able to sign in using your Google account. This, along with the Sync function, lets you see your bookmarks, most visited sites and apps on any computer running Chrome. You can choose what to synch: autofill information, passwords, themes, settings and search history. If you're worried about letting Chrome save passwords for websites, plus all your other synched data, bear in mind that you can tell it to encrypt everything in the Personal Stuff section on the Settings page.
Yet another handy feature is the Recently closed link, tucked away in the bottom-right corner. If you accidentally close a tab, or all tabs, you can click on this to show the most recent 10 sites you were looking at.
When you log in to Analytics, you'll see a Visitors Overview along with data such as the total number of visits, unique visitors, how long they tended to stay and how many were new, as opposed to returning visitors. You can drill down further to find out which country they live in and which operating system and screen resolution their computer has.
Whether you have a small website with largely static pages or a large dynamic site, Analytics will give you the information you need. It will cope with multiple websites, too. To switch between the sites you're monitoring, click the All Accounts button at the top-left.
Analytics goes only so far, but Webmaster Tools is on hand to give you an even bigger hand with your website. Webmaster Tools is free to use and you can sign up at www.google.com/webmasters/tools.
Once you've logged in, you can add your website. You'll have to verify that you own the site in order to use Webmaster Tools, usually by uploading an HTML file to the root of your server. With that done, you'll be able to check your site's health, see where your site ranks for certain search terms and optimise how Google views your site.
Under the Health heading, for example, you can see whether there are any broken link which need fixing and if there is any malware on your site. In the Optimization section you can submit a sitemap, which helps to boost your search ranking with Google. You can also see the keywords which Google has found on your site in order of their significance. If this isn't what you expected or wanted, it probably means you need to rewrite some text.
Next page: Google Reader and Picasa
One feature that's missing from Google's Chrome web browser is an RSS reader. RSS is a way for websites to tell you about new content, similar to a news feed. Subscribing to RSS feeds on your favourite websites is a great way to keep up with what's new without having to visit those sites and search for new content.
Reader is Google's service that allows you to subscribe to feeds and view them in once place. You can subscribe within Reader by clicking the Subscribe button and entering the URL of a website or some search terms to find websites with relevant RSS feeds.
Another way to subscribe is to click the orange RSS icon when you're browsing a website you like. This will take you to the site's RSS feed where you can copy and paste the URL or subscribe directly if there's a button to do so. You can also drag and drop the Subscribe… bookmark from Reader's homepage to your bookmark bar so you can quickly add feeds by clicking the bookmark when you see a page you like.
When you've added some feeds, all you need to do is browse to the Reader homepage to see the latest content from those websites. The interface is much like Gmail's: feeds are presented in a chronological list like emails and each article is marked as 'unread' until you click on it.
Some RSS feeds include the entire story, but many are just a summary so you can click the headline to go directly to the website and read it. If you click the Trends link in the left-hand menu, you can see how many items you've read, how many you clicked on and those you shared.
Picasa is a downloadable application which lets you organise and edit your photos. It's not as powerful as Photoshop, or even Photoshop Elements, but it allows you to crop, rotate and enhance photos at a basic level.
It's a non-destructive editor, which means the original photos aren't modified when you make adjustments: it's merely the changes you've made that are saved. You can save copies of your improved images, though, if you need to.
The latest version - 3.9 - integrates with Google+ and makes it easy to share photos to your circles. Anyone who doesn't use Google+ will get an email with a link to your album so they can still view it. There are also new effects such as adding borders, vignettes (darkened corners) and duo-tones
Another new tool is side-by-side editing (a feature we love in Adobe's Lightroom, reviewed) where you can compare the original with the edited photo, or simply two different photos so you can choose which one you like best.
Windows Explorer isn't a bad way of managing your photos, but Picasa makes it much easier to keep track of your photos. Instead of having to open individual folders to see thumbnails as you do in Windows, Picasa imports photos from folders you specify and displays them in a scrollable timeline. You can quickly jump to particular years and months to find what you're looking for.
It's a good idea to tag photos, as it makes it quicker to find them again. Selecting a batch of photos you took on a recent holiday and tagging them with the destination - Barcelona, for example - means you can find them again (and any others with the same tag) by searching for 'Barcelona'. You can add as many tags as you like.