The backlash to Instagram's privacy kerfuffle of last month has opened the door for competing social photo apps – and there's no shortage of these. EyeEm, a free app and web service, has been a major beneficiary of this slipup by Instagram. So, what does EyeEm have to offer, besides not being Instagram? True, it is nearly identical to the latter, but EyeEm does offer some slick interface tricks, a more capable web interface, and an emphasis on tagging – always a good way to find photos of interest. But there are downsides to EyeEm as well, sadly...
You can get started with EyeEm either from the website or an app store. At the website www.eyeem.com, you can set up your account simply by clicking the blue Facebook Connect bar, or you can sign up with an email address and password. Once you're signed into the site, you're encouraged to "Connect with your friends or discover amazing new people to follow."
The app is a free download from iTunes, Google Play, or the Windows Phone store. I installed it on my iPhone 4S, a Samsung Galaxy S3, and a Nokia Lumia 820, though this review concentrates on the iPhone version.
When I ran the app for the first time, that familiar message asking permission to send me notifications popped up. But really, the number of apps wanting to interrupt whatever I'm doing with notifications has gotten out of hand. I guess it only really makes sense for this kind of communication-oriented app, however.
After this, the simple interface offered one green button saying: "Find Friends." You can find Facebook and Twitter friends with this, along with a score of recommended accounts to follow, such as the EyeEm team itself. Simply hitting the grey Follow button next to the username got me going. I only had one friend on each network using the app, though I have over a thousand contacts between the two social networks, so I guess it's safe to say that EyeEm has yet to overthrow Instagram.
Next to the big camera icon, along the bottom panel of the UI, are just two choices – Friends and Discover – making Instagram's interface, with five buttons along the bottom, seem positively cluttered in comparison. The Friends view will look familiar to those who've used Instagram and Flickr. Thankfully, though, the images aren't restricted to the squares that Instagram's are. I also liked the fact that you can view the photos full-screen on EyeEm, but some photos in the feed view had too many comments below, spoiling the visual journey of browsing the photo stream. Instagram limits the number of comments displayed.
One annoyance that EyeEm shares with Facebook is that, by default, it shares all your "likes" to your Facebook timeline. So don't start liking photos out of the gate, or at least not snaps you wouldn't want everyone in your Facebook sharing circles to know about. To its credit, at least EyeEm lets you change this setting in the web interface, whereas Instagram makes you burrow through settings menus on the phone.
Soon after creating an account, notifications of new people following me started arriving on my iPhone – even though my only uploaded photo was of the keyboard I'm typing this on! As with Instagram, when you check out another EyeEm user's page, numbers across the top tell you how many photos they've shared, how many followers they have, and how many users they're following.
Tapping on a number takes you to the list of users in the group, and you can take a look at any of their photos, or start following them yourself right away. One thing I wish both services had was an indication of how many photos the user has uploaded in this list, which would save you from viewing a lot of profiles of users who haven't uploaded any.
Shooting with EyeEm
EyeEm really adds nothing to the iPhone camera app, and in fact even dumbs it down a bit – there's no zoom, HDR, or panorama choices. There isn’t even a grid overlay, not to mention the extras you get with the likes of Camera+ or Camera Genius such as separate focus and exposure points or self-timers. Instagram is impressive in that it lets you see filter and border effects even while you're shooting, something EyeEm hasn't mastered yet.
Once you snap the shutter, though, EyeEm comes into its own. You're encouraged to apply one of the 13 well-chosen enhancement filters by simply swiping left and right over the image, and to overlay a border choice by swiping up and down. If you want the Instagram square aspect ratio, a scissors icon lets you choose the crop. But EyeEm lacks another one of Instagram's cooler capabilities – selective focus and tilt-shift.
Another differentiator from Instagram is that the app suggests tags for your images. My test photo of a coffee cup prompted the suggestion "Hanging out," which I suppose wasn't too far off the mark. You can also swipe past this autosuggestion to add your own tags, such as "Coffee cup."
Next, you can add a location by tapping "Add place." I typed the name of our office in, and could then add this as a place choice, with the location presumably taken from my iPhone's GPS tag on the photo. This tagging is a key differentiator with Instagram, which offers Twitter-style hashtags, but doesn't make them a part of every photo. Still, I was able to find nearly 5 million photos of #coffee on Instagram.
EyeEm does web better than Instagram, too: The Facebook-purchased service only let me see my own uploaded photos, while EyeEm's website offered a full range of discovery and exploration of my connection's snaps and popular photos. I could view either in an infinite justified scrolling view, or one by one as a large image slideshow. The Discover tab in particular shows photos grouped by tags like "hanging out," "Chinese food," and "New York City," though not everyone abides by the tags' connotations.
A final cautionary note – one thing EyeEm isn’t concerned with is privacy. Anything you upload will be visible to anyone who's on EyeEm. For posting to the standard social networks, you could use those services' own privacy settings, but there isn't even a privacy section in EyeEm's settings. Instagram does, by contrast, offer a "Photos are private" option.
With Instagram's recent faux pas, the field has opened up for competing social photo sharing apps. Indeed the venerable Flickr recently released a widely praised new version of its iPhone app. But while Flickr's mobile effort is an all-encompassing photo app, EyeEm adheres more closely to the Instagram model, which will suit Instagram defectors.
EyeEm beats Instagram when it comes to what you can do on its website, and it offers some slick interface tricks and more structured tagging to categorise photos. Despite this, Instagram's more impressive photo enhancements and massive audience still ensure that it’s the top dog among purely social photo apps.