As Michael Muchmore pointed out in his review of the iPhone version of Instagram, debating whether or not to get it is largely academic. It's hugely popular, and for a good reason: The clean attractive interface and collection of filters provides a great way to show off your smartphone photos. The recent inclusion of video was a swipe at Vine, but a lack of key features might leave some users of the Android Instagram app feeling robbed.
Signing up for Instagram is fairly straightforward, and even easier if you volunteer to connect your account to Facebook. The influence of Facebook, Instagram's owners, is pretty clear when you're prompted multiple times to connect your account. I didn't connect my Facebook account, and actually had some trouble logging in. The layout of the page makes it hard to tell what information is required (all of it, except your phone number and Facebook).
A recent update added a photo map to the profile page, which is a fun way to drill through your various images. Instead of a map full of photos, Instagram organises pictures by stacks. Tapping a stack spreads more stacks or individual images across a smaller portion of the map. It's a really smart design and presents a lot of information.
Though you'll probably spend most of your time in your home feed, looking at the photos and videos your friends have uploaded, the Following tab of the News feed is particularly powerful. Here you can see what photos the people you're following have liked. This might feel a little invasive, but it's great for discovering new content.
Shooting with Instagram
Instagram is smart because it doesn't try to replace your camera app. You can take photos from within Instagram, but it's just as easy to upload images you've already taken – either with your smartphone or with another camera. The Instagram camera gives you some tools, like a grid, flash control, and front/rear camera toggle. You can also tap the image to focus it, but zoom is not available.
Once you have your image – and I must say, photos look great on the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy S4 I used in testing – you can apply Instagram's famous filters. These do everything from turning up the blues, to bringing out the reds, to discarding colour entirely. The 20 filters may overwhelm you at first, but you'll quickly get a feel for their best uses. Take note of the filter Rise, which can help bring out colour in low light shots.
Beyond the filters, you can also add blur effects. These come in two flavours, single point and horizontal, and can be placed anywhere on the screen. Pinching and zooming make them larger or smaller, and they can be manipulated to create different effects on your images.
You can also brighten the image by tapping the sunburst icon. I use this option frequently, so I was confused to see that it was missing on the Galaxy S4. Perhaps the photos taken with this phone are already perfect – who knows.
Though YouTube is the granddaddy of online video hosting, Vine took a different approach when it launched. Instead of minutes-long videos, Vine limits you to six seconds which loop endlessly. When adding video, Instagram made sure to include double the length and features sorely missed from Vine. To record, tap the big red button and release to stop recording. You'll notice that most devices have a slight lag between tapping record and the phone actually starting to record, which is irritating and makes shooting short sketches more difficult.
Each segment of video is added sequentially, and you can delete the most recent chunk by tapping the garbage can icon on the left. If you've made a Vine video, then you'll appreciate how the simple ability to remove a clip saves you from having to start over each time you mess up.
Instagram stayed true to form and introduced 13 new video-only filters. You can only add one filter per video, but you can switch between filters while your video is playing in preview which is important, as some filters work better in certain lighting conditions than others.
Despite these features, Instagram video on Android left me disappointed. Unlike photos, Instagram forces you to shoot video from within the Instagram camera. This is a bit annoying, since it keeps you from editing video beforehand (a practice common among some professional Instagram photographers). During my testing, I also noticed audio distortion when filming with the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 phones, though I had no such issue with the Nexus 7.
One of the video features Instagram touted at launch was the ability to choose your own "cover" image, which is displayed when the video is not playing. You select it by scrubbing through your video, but the feature was sluggish and difficult on all the Android devices I tested, though crisp and easy on iOS. On both iOS and Android, Instagram has a bad habit of losing videos – though hopefully it's just the teething pains that come with rolling out a complicated new product.
Most irritating of all is the fact that Instagram did not include the ability to flip between front and rear-facing cameras once you've started filming. You have to choose which camera you want to use before you start, and stick with it. Not being able to change cameras makes it hard to include yourself in your videos, and is especially irritating because Instagram for iPhone had this feature at launch. Notably, Vine for Android also lacks this feature.
Though Instagram has a built-in audience, and close ties with Facebook, your photos are fairly mobile. You can share images as you publish them through Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, and Foursquare. Photos already published to Instagram can also be exported and shared through the messaging system of your choice by tapping the ellipses next to each image.
Instagram has also recently added people tagging, in addition to location tagging. Again, people tagging is probably a Facebook influence, and tags can be added either prior to publishing (or after) by tapping the ellipses buttons. However, unlike Facebook, only you can tag people in images. Thankfully, you can hide or report photos in which other people have tagged you.
If you reach for your phone to snap an image when life presents you with something interesting, then Instagram is right for you. The app's trademark filters can add some needed depth to smartphone pictures, though some turn up their nose at these optional additions. But the app's real draw is the community, who are eager to see and share their great photos.
It's not clear where video will fit with Instagram, but its implementation on Android left me disappointed. Of the three devices I tested on, only the Nexus 7 recorded video without audio distortion. Worst of all, Instagram won't let you flip between front and rear-facing cameras once you've started filming – a feature Vine also neglected, but that is mysteriously present on Instagram and Vine for iOS.
Instagram remains a good photo app, though the video portion of the app really needs some work. Hopefully the weight of so many Android users will spur the company to make the necessary changes.