Huge photo-sharing community. In-depth photo editing tools. Clean interface. Ephemeral messaging. Live video broadcasting. Direct messaging, with ephemeral option.
Still only shoots square in main app area. Algorithm-based feed. Live video can't be saved.
- Bottom Line
Instagram for Android continues to pack in new functionality, including live video and Snapchat-style stories. It's close to being overstuffed, but still reigns supreme among social photo sharing apps.
It's somewhat daunting to review an app that's been installed more than a billion times, but I'm nothing if not audacious. Along with most of the connected world, I've become a fan of Instagram, not only for its viral social networking potential, but also because the app offers some darned good image editing tools, going beyond mere filters with tools like Tilt Shift and Shadow Tuning. And even while adding live video and Snapchat-like Stories, the latest Instagram Android app, which is free, somehow still manages to look simple and intuitive. Considering you get all this along with one of the most vibrant social platforms on the planet, Instagram is a clear Editors' Choice.
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Before you can install Instagram, you have to give it permission to use quite a few privacy-related features, including your Identity, Contacts, Location, SMS, Photos and Media Files, Camera, Microphone, and Device ID and Call Information. On my test phone, a tried-and-true Samsung Galaxy S6 Active, the app was a 19MB download. That's quite small by today's app standards.
Once it's installed, you need to either create an Instagram account or log in with Facebook. You can then optionally follow all your Facebook friends. Even if you don't, the app suggests people you should follow. You can always search for people to follow on the service, and, unless their account is set to private, you can follow their photo posts immediately. With a private account, hitting the Follow button sends a request to the account holder to approve you.
Before I dive into feature analysis, one overall note about the interface: The app is now more like three or four apps bundled into one. It's the classic Instagram photo-sharing app, it's a Snapchat-like Stories app, and it's a live-video streaming app. The Stories part even sports its own differently behaving camera. Using Instagram as a messaging app is yet a fourth genre the app qualifies for.
Shooting and Editing the Classic Instagram Way
Simply tap the plus sign (+) button at the main interface's bottom center to enter camera mode. From here you not only can shoot a photo to add to your Instagram feed, but you can also choose an image from your photo storage or shoot a video. The shooting interface is simple, with just three buttons—the shutter, front/back camera switch, and flash setting. You can still only shoot square photos in the app, though you can use rectangular images from your device storage.
After shooting comes the fun. It's then that you can apply one of 23 filters, or dig into the app's surprisingly rich photo editing toolset. You can choose which filters will appear using the Manage Filters button or by dragging the thumbnails of those you want to use to the center of the screen. Tapping a filter a second time lets you adjust its strength.
The photo editing tools, though powerful, aren't at all intimidating. At the top of the Edit screen is a sun icon that applies Lux—or autocorrection of lighting. To be honest, I am not overly impressed by this particular adjustment. It sometimes helps with hazy landscapes, but I find it didn't do much for portraits that need some fill light. It just tends to bump up saturation and contrast, as many similar tools do.
The first of Instagram's many adjustments is ability to level and rotate your shots. This is more impressive than it might sound at first blush: It can auto-level your shot, and even change its 3D axis, using the app's Tilt Shift tool. So, if you shoot a building facing up, you can make it look like you were shooting it straight on. The same is true with shooting sideways.
The Vignette tool lets you highlight the center of your image by darkening the edges, but there's no opposite effect—fading the edges to white.
The app's Brightness, Contrast, Structure, Warmth, and Saturation tools all work as you'd expect. One fun effect in the editing tools is simply called Color. This lets you add a tint either to the shadows or highlights in a photo. For some reason, the tool called Sharpen did nothing on my test photo. Its slider is all the way to the left by default, meaning you can only add sharpness—I'd like to see the ability to blur as well by sliding the other direction. Finger painting on local adjustments would also be cool, too.
You can also shoot videos of up to 60 seconds in length, choose cover images for them, and dress them up with the same choice of 23 filter effects. But you don't get any of the image-correction tools like you do with photos.
Next comes actually posting the photo or video, to which you can add a caption, which appears as the post's first comment. Adding hashtags here lets your viewers see lots of similarly themed images. You can also tag the location, and simultaneously post to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Or you can just send it directly to chosen contacts.
Following and Viewing Your Feed
Photo editing in software is useful, but you can do it with any number of apps, such as Adobe Photoshop Express. The real value of Instagram is its enormous community of photo sharers, likers, and commenters. The bottom left Home button gets you to your feed, which you can scroll down eternally to stave off the boredom of that bus or train ride. Your worth is determined by how many hearts people gave your photos by double-tapping on them. Testament to the importance many people attach to this are the many apps you can download whose only purpose is to get you Instagram likes and followers.
If you don't see anything that tickles your fancy, the Search (magnifying glass) icon offers lots of suggestions, many of them videos by celebrity users. And now you can browse your feed, heart, and comment even while you have no service, offline. Once you're back online everything syncs up.
A fairly new capability (but one that in my view is too little, too late) is that you can unpinch to zoom in on a photo in the feed. Call me old-fashioned, but I much prefer Flickr's truly full-size image sharing, not to mention its EXIF info about camera models and shot settings. Flickr's mobile app is surprisingly capable, though it hasn't taken to mimicking Snapchat. Another drawback of the Instagram feed is that now you see sponsored posts in your feed, something Flickr users can avoid with a Pro account, which costs $5.99 per month.
Some users, such as my colleague Max Eddy, take great umbrage at Instagram's algorithmic selection of your feed, based on your interaction history. I don't have a problem with it, since, unlike Max, I don't look at every single post, so I don't mind having the app remove the chaff from the wheat.
There are, of course, a few other photo-based social networks, if you want to reach past the big, obvious ones. PicsArt has a thriving community of image-makers, and it even encourages the remixing of other users' work. 500px is a beautiful app and site that can help you meet the goals of showing your very best photos and potentially making money selling them, too. It also offers challenges like Earth Day pictures. A less famous but still interesting photo sharing site is EyeEm, which still has a social aspect but now emphasizes AI-auto-tagged stock photography. Even further in the pro stock direction is Adobe's Behance, which provides a social network for photography as well as other visual arts.
Instagram Stories bear a striking resemblance to Snapchat. In fact, Stories now has a larger daily user base than Snap's app, at 200 million versus 160 million. Personally, I'd have preferred Stories to be a separate app, as it somewhat dilutes the central Instagram activity, but getting the audience to install another app is undoubtedly a challenge.
Instagram has made such a push for Stories that its features are placed at the very top of the home screen interface. The camera at top left is not for shooting Instagram images, but rather for Stories entries. Its camera interface is also completely different. Instead of square, it's a full-screen rectangle. You don't pick filters by choosing from a gallery along the bottom, but instead by swiping left to right on the screen, and there are only six filters.
In a wholesale lift from Snapchat, you can add stickers and text to your photos, with choices like the time, temperature, and location. You can also add glasses and hats to people's face, and you can insert standard emoji, too. But you don't get the selection of artistic, user-created local stickers that Snapchat has. Nor do you get the fun live video effects like Snapchat's popular "rainbow barf." Also, as in Snapchat, your Instagram Stories live only for 24 hours, but you can set the app to save the photo or video. You can also hide your story from specific users.
First there was Meerkat, then there was Periscope, and finally Facebook Live Video made both of those superfluous. Of course, there's at least theoretically room for more than one live-video streaming service, and Instagram's large built-in audience is attractive to streamers. Instagram Live Video is pretty easy to get going with; it's simply an option from the Stories camera. Tap Start Live Video, and the app tests your connection strength. If it's good enough, you see a three-second countdown, and you're rolling. Snapchat alerts your followers that you're live.
Unlike Facebook Live Videos, Instagram's don't live on, either in your main Instagram feed or in your Stories. So, if you want live videos that are viewable later, you're better off using Facebook or Periscope.
Direct Photo Messaging
Another way that Instagram closely mirrors Snapchat is that it also lets you send disappearing photos and videos in messages. Messages don't even require images; you can simply text chat. One nice thing about Instagram messaging is that you can send a DM from just about anywhere in the app, another user's post, your own, or from the paper airplane icon at top left.
A couple other Instagram goodies are Boomerang and Layout. The first is also available as a standalone app and the second is only available as a standalone app. Boomerang takes a burst of stills that loop during playback. It can be a humorous, if limited, effect. Layout lets you create a collage post, as though that Instagram screen is were huge that you needed to cram more than one photo in it!
Resistance Is Futile
You will use Instagram and you will like it. Everyone else does. And it truly is a power-packed photo and video app with an audience that covers the country and the world. The inclusion of Snapchat and Periscope-like features doesn't detract from the app's appeal, and offline capability is welcome. True photo enthusiasts will still want to upload their work to places like Flickr or 500px. Even those users, however, will likely want to maximize their exposure on the most popular photo platform of the day. Instagram remains a PCMag Editors' Choice for social photo apps, an honor it shares with the surprisingly powerful Flickr app.
Michael Muchmore is PC Magazine’s lead analyst for software and Web applications. A native New Yorker, he has at various times headed up PC Magazine’s coverage of Web development, enterprise software, and display technologies. Michael cowrote one of the first overviews of Web Services (pretty much the progenitor of Web 2.0) for a general audience. Before that he worked on PC Magazine’s Solutions section, which in those days covered programming techniques as well as tips on using popular office software. Most recently he covered Web… More »
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