Since its release in October 2010, Instagram has provided creatively inclined phone-photographers a platform for easily applying filters and borders to photos, and a social network for sharing them. Instagram also offers integration with Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare, ensuring that even if you’ve never heard of the app, you’ve probably seen its handiwork.
Of course, Instragram isn’t the only app to do this; competitors like Hipstamatic and Camera+ offer much of the same functionality. Instagram differs in two important aspects: it’s free, and as of yesterday, it’s available on Android.
I haven’t carried an iPhone as my daily driver since 2008, so I’ve missed out on a lot of the retro/hipster photo app fun. Almost every platform has some kind of equivalent: Retro Camera for Android and Bubblegum for Windows Phone 7 are just two examples. Google has even integrated similar features directly into Android with Ice Cream Sandwich, offering a handful of filters and effects right in the native camera and gallery apps. But the kind of adoption that Instagram has seen -over 30 million users and growing- isn’t just a result of some fun photo filters. Its social networking aspect has been coveted by many on the outside; the kind of people who need to be in on the hip happenings, sure, but also those who find value in social networking based on taking and sharing photos.
From a social standpoint, then, Instagram’s port to Android is a big deal with a capital “B” and “D.” Since I happen to use an Android device (Galaxy Nexus LTE) as my main device these days, I thought I’d download Instagram and see what it’s like to come to the app as a brand-new user. Read on to find out how it’s been!
Downloading and setting up the app was a cinch. Even as someone who hasn’t followed the social-photography trend terribly closely, it was still pretty trippy to see the Instagram icon on my Android phone after so long associating the app with iOS. This has been a long time coming.
Initial setup includes the familiar “welcome to a new social network; find friends from your old social networks!” step. I always find this to be a fun process, as I’m always surprised by just how many friends and follow-ees maintain an electronic avatar in a domain I haven’t visited yet.
Anyway, once you pick a username, pull your contacts in, and follow your Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr friends (or don’t, whatever) you’re dumped into a very streamlined, simple news feed showing recent photo activity. A row of buttons at the bottom of the display allow you to filter the feed. You can choose to display all photos, “popular” photos taken from the world at large, or only interactions with you, i.e., comments, new followers, etc. Dead-center in that row of buttons is a blue camera button, which launches you into the heart of the app’s functionality.
Pressing the little blue button launches you into an extremely bare-bones interface featuring a capture button, flash toggle, and front/rear camera selector (for devices with a front-facing sensor). That latter feature is certainly nice for self-portraits when you’ve got the perfect lighting and ball cap for that late-1970s truck-stop motif that a lot of Instagram’s filters conjure.
The only other control in this mode is a Gallery button that lets you select an existing photo on the device for filter-ification. This mode is outstanding, as it doesn’t confine you to snapping new shots; you can apply filters to any photo in your gallery, or any photo accessible by a file manager like Astro. Some similar apps, like Retro Camera, apply their filters only to photos taken from within the app. Instagram’s implementation is much more versatile, and I had a lot of fun applying effects to pictures I’d taken over the past few months.
Speaking of filters: eighteen are included in a scrollable ribbon running along the bottom of the app, carrying quirky names like “Valencia” and “Earlybird” and “Amaro.” Tapping one applies it to the displayed photo very snappily on my Galaxy Nexus; it’s quite easy to scroll through all 18 filters in about 25 seconds with minimal to no lag. It’s fun to watch yourself gravitate toward certain filters; after only a couple hours, I found myself using “X-Pro” and “Lo-Fi” more than any others, and “Nashville” would be a favorite as well, if it wasn’t already so dreadfully overused by friends on my Facebook feed.
Borders are included in some filters and can be toggled on or off, as can Instagram’s HDR-like Lux feature. The latter “makes your photos more vibrant and brings out details in your photos you couldn’t see before,” according to the Help screen. It appears to do this by boosting midtone contrast a bit, and the effect on a photograph’s texture can be significant:
Pardon the flash. Lux is off on the left, and enabled on the right.
The final step in the process, sharing, is in keeping with the rest of Instagram’s simplicity: you can enter a caption, enable or disable geotagging, and share it with your social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Tumblr are currently supported). You’re then shown your photo in the live stream. Depending on your circle of friends and how many of them you follow, you may be surprised at how slowly the time stream moves; remember that this is a social network based entirely on photo-taking, which requires a bit more time and effort than a quick tweet or “I’m eating this brand of cereal” post on Facebook. Of course, you’ll see plenty of pictures of Corn Flakes boxes with hip filters applied, but unless (or until) you’re following everyone in all of your social feeds, you may find posts on Instagram to have a longer shelf life. Comments and likes show up immediately below your photos in a Tumblr-like stream, and you have the option to allow or disallow push notifications in the settings.
A Few Cons & Wrap-Up
The only cons I’ve found with the experience are minor: there doesn’t appear to be a way to email photos from within the Android version of Instagram, meaning any photos taken need to be shared with your followers. Email capability, along with TiltShift -the ability to restrict focus to one part of a photo for effect- is included in the iOS version and may be coming to Android soon, according to an email co-founder Kevin Systrom sent to Wired recently. In addition, there’s a style-over-substance tradeoff made with cropping: because part of Instagram’s schtick is the “square photo” format of yesteryear, some pictures suffer from having their tops or sides chopped off. On the plus side, the Android version incorporates an “Advanced Camera” mode which automatically crops new photos in the proper square format, making this step unnecessary.
It’s hip to be square.
The bottom line is this: Instagram is a logically-designed app that lets you quickly and easily modify and share your photos. It streamlines the process in a way that most Android users haven’t yet experienced, and it does so without burying them in ads. Can all of this be accomplished by using on-board or third-party editing tools and then uploading to Facebook or Twitter? Absolutely, and sometimes those results will be better. And though it’s approved for use on any Android phone running version 2.2 or later, Instagram might not perform quite as well on older devices. Speaking from my experience on the Galaxy Nexus, though: for speed, ease of use, and just plain fun, Instagram is tough to beat in my book especially for the price they’re asking.
Do you use Instagram? Do you prefer another app? Do you have a phone without a camera and hate such things? Let us know in the comments!
Kevin Systrom statement source: Wired