Bright, modern design. Refined take on personal journaling. Fine-grain controls for notifications and privacy settings.
Occasional difficulty in finding locations. App settings are buried. Could benefit from Foursquare-powered recommendations.
- Bottom Line
Foursquare's Swarm is a compelling take on life- and location-logging, with a reworked interface and a welcome simplification of features.
A few years back, Foursquare (and later its spinoff, Swarm) had users hooked on collecting coins, claiming mayorships, and chasing friends on check-in leaderboards. Somewhere along the line, this craze died down and other forms of social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat, picked up the slack. Now, after a massive redesign and rebranding effort, Swarm is back, but don't confuse it with Foursquare's current search-centric City Guide app. Swarm has a new focus on life logging and more streamlined features, though it (thankfully) keeps the same bright and inviting orange color scheme. Swarm is available for iOS app and as an Android App, which is what I'm reviewing here.
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If you used Swarm in the past and decided it wasn't your style, you should consider trying it out again, since much has changed. A new timeline and map offer an intuitive way to revisit all the places you've checked in. The orange highlights are as prominent and eye-catching as ever, but the app uses them in more constructive ways. Social and gamification (coins, leaderboards, and mayorships) aspects have even been scaled down, cutting back on distractions.
View All 6 Photos in Gallery It's clear that a lot of work went into making this latest release feel fresh. The app looks great and benefits from its new, narrower focus, but there are still other design touches and features that would improve the overall experience, such as better location tracking and easier access to the app settings. it doesn't offer as many recommendation features as Yelp or the social functionalities of Facebook, nor does it seem to be chasing those two apps. You have to decide for yourself whether to love or hate Swarm's simplicity; we lean toward the former, mostly.
Meet the New Swarm
The latest redesign of Swarm brings it a more sophisticated aesthetic. The vibrant orange color might still be jarring at first, but it's broken up with ample white space. I tested Swarm on my Google Pixel and found the app responsive and fluid in use. Account setup is fairly typical. You either create a profile with Swarm or use an existing Google account. A quick walkthrough of the main features follows before you reach the main interface. Note that the iOS variant is almost identical to the Android version, except that it uses Apple Maps in place of Google Maps.
The main view now shows a map of your current location, a count of the check-ins and places you've been, and the number of categories of places you've visited. I wish that this map looked less generic, as it feels a bit out of step with the rest of the app's design. Underneath the map, there's a new timeline interface with a continuous list of all your check-ins in reverse chronological order. This timeline includes all of your check-ins, so if you wanted to scroll back to your very first one, there's nothing stopping you. Tapping on any one of these check-ins brings up the Check-in Insights page, which shows any associated photos and comments and a breakdown of earned coins. I like the new layout and find the timeline insightful, even if it does underscore the monotony of my weekday commutes.
Back on the main page, the bottom bar has a large check-in button in the middle, with icons for your timeline and friends list on either side, though swiping to switch between the two also works. Much like your personal timeline, your friend's timelines scroll back as far as their first check-in. You don't have to worry about people charting out your day, though, since there are ample privacy settings to limit what your friends or the public can see on your profile.
There's a persistent top navigation bar with your profile, a search bar, and the notification inbox. The profile section offers a map with a list of broader locations you've visited and a breakdown of the traditional gamification features, such as coins, leaderboards, and mayorships. There's also a section for all of your photos and a list of your friend. Unfortunately, this is the only place you can access the app's settings, which are more hidden than I prefer.
Use the Swarm
Swarm's purpose has been simplified after a year-long user research effort by the Swarm team, and it now primarily focuses on personal life logging. It's designed to highlight habits and trends based on the places you visit and the types of activities you frequent. Most of the gamification features, including mayorships and coins, have been moved to the background, though they still function the same way as before. Still, I wish that the app used Foursquare ratings to recommend places to visit, based on a combination of your location and trends. In fact, Swarm doesn't really have any discovery features at all, which is an unfortunate omission. Yelp, for example, also has check-in features, but integrates them more completely into its primary business-rating functionality.
The prominent check-in button on the home page helps clarify Swarm's new purpose. Simply select a location from the generated list of locations or enter one of your own. The automatic location gathering wasn't always accurate in testing, but correcting it is a quick process. The composer also gives you the option to add a photo, comment, or sticker to your entry. However, I find the composer interface somewhat jumbled; the cartoon-like stickers and large fonts make it look less serious than the rest of the app.
You can tag your friends in an entry and they'll be automatically checked in as well. This really streamlines the check-in process for groups and couples. Once you've checked in, Swarm lets you share that activity through Facebook or Twitter. Otherwise, you can hide the update entirely and just use check-ins for your own tracking and enjoyment. Although the social aspect has been scaled back, you can still tap the heart icon on a friend's check-in or add a friendly comment, or buzz on over to your notification inbox for the latest updates.
Private (and Quiet) Swarms
The Settings themselves are straightforward, but finding them in the Swarm app is not so intuitive. To access settings, tap on your hexagonally shaped profile photo (Swarm goes all in with the bee influence) and then the gear icon in the upper right on the next screen. Most other Android apps make the settings accessible from anywhere via a right-swipe menu, so it's annoying that Swarm doesn't follow this practice. Once you find them, the settings are well laid out, however, and I particularly like how Swarm handles notifications and privacy options.
Notifications are broken down into a two-column checklist for opt in (or out) to phone and email alerts for every conceivable action in Swarm. The three categories: General, Game, and Social, are highly itemized and offer great levels of control, so if you want to avoid the latter two aspects entirely, Swarm lets you do so.
Swarm also deserves credit for making a host of fine-grain privacy settings easy to understand and configure. You can limit who can see your email or phone number, should you decide to add this information, and you can also prevent friends from checking you in. You can hide your profile from public listings of check-ins and from owners of your check-in locations. Yelp and Facebook both include similar privacy features.
You can even completely shut down Swarm's background location gathering—which, by default, Swarm can do even when the app is closed—and prevent Foursquare from using your data to sell behaviorally targeted ads outside its app and website. You'll need to disable this to prevent this sort of tracking. If you simply want to keep a list of the places you've been, Swarm gives you that option.
A Streamlined Swarm
The previous version of the Swarm app had a confused identity, and tried to get too many social, gamification, and planning features to work together seamlessly. Swarm's latest version takes a hard step back and succeeds with its better-defined goal. If you just enjoy logging places you've visited, then you'll love Swarm now more than ever.
It's smart, fun, and easy in a way that Foursquare—with its ever-expanding list of features—never was, though we wish that Swarm had some recommendation features. If you are looking for a do-everything, always-interacting social app like Facebook or a business-rating platform like Yelp, Swarm isn't for you. Still, with the exception of possibly adding recommendations, we hope Swarm sticks with its new, simplified mission.
Ben Moore is a Junior Analyst for PCMag’s software team. He has previously written for Laptop Mag, Neowin.net, and Tom’s Guide on everything from hardware to business acquisitions across the tech industry. Ben holds a degree in New Media and Digital Design from Fordham University at Lincoln Center, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of The Observer, the student-run newspaper. He spends his free time taking photos and reading books. You can follow him on Twitter at @benmoore214. More »
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