To longtime Android users such as myself, the name Instagram might not mean much. Sure, we see the vignetted photos invading our Facebook and Twitter streams, and we notice the instagr.am links all over the place, but other than that, we don't really get it. I mean, what is it, exactly? Is it just a bunch of camera filters? Is it a Tumblr-like social network? Well, now that everyone's favorite hipster photo app is available, let's take a close look at how the Android version (download) of this uberpopular app works.
First thing I need to mention is that Instagram is a lot more than just a free photo enhancement app for your phone. It connects its users to a photo-based social network that's more than 30 million users strong. With this powerful social functionality, the app makes it incredibly easy to not just polish and share photos, but also to keep tabs on friends through the built-in Instagram photo stream. So it looks like the answer is yes, Instagram's got a bit of Tumblr blood in it, and that's good.
Start by signing up for Instagram with an e-mail address, username, and password. From there, you can link your account to your Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Tumblr accounts. But don't worry, whenever you snap a picture, Instagram will still ask you which account(s) you want to share with. Linking just makes it so you don't have to log in every time. If you choose not to share with any linked accounts, then your photo will simply live on your Instagram profile, and will be pushed out to your followers' Instagram feeds.
Once you're all connected, you can start snapping photos with the Instagram camera, which comes with simple flash controls and a camera-switch button to go from front-facing to rear-facing in a single tap. Beyond that, though, there's not much else to the basic shooter. There's no spot focusing, and no cropping or zooming once a shot is taken. Interestingly, though, you can crop and zoom in on photos imported from other apps into Instagram. What's up with that?
After you snap your photo, Instagram gives you the option to use any of its 18 photo filters, each of which adds a slightly different look to your work. While each of the filters is uniquely interesting, what I noticed is that all of them evoke a similar retro/vintage feel. This isn't necessarily bad (unless you think vintage is ugly), but it is worth noting. At this point in the workflow, you also get the option to rotate your photo, add a border, or enhance its brightness.
Even though the Instagram camera is solid and performs well as is, I would love to see a few additions in the next update. For one, this Android app absolutely needs Live Preview. As it is now, you can't preview filters before snapping, the way iPhone Instagrammers can, and that's bad. Also, it would be nice to get the Tilt Shift/Blur feature that iPhone users use to achieve the popular Toy Camera effect. Lucky for Android users, the folks behind Instagram assure us that they intend to bridge these differences in future updates.
With a decidedly basic camera and solid, but not groundbreaking, filters, the most attractive part of the Instagram app is definitely its user community. Once signed up, you can follow other Instagram users on the Feed page and have them follow you back. You can Like photos, make comments, and even browse trending photos through the Popular on Instagram tab. From the looks of it, the community is bustling with activity and is vibrant enough for someone with just the right photography aesthetic to gain a mass following. And this, I think, is the key to Instagram's power: the ease with which it allows its community to share and interact with each others' photos. So, even if you don't plan on using the built-in camera, this vibrant community alone is a good enough reason to download the app. And in any case, you can always pretty up your pics in another app and share them through Instagram.
So, if you're hungry for followers, and you love sharing your photos with as large an audience as possible, then the reality is that downloading Instagram is a must. It has a huge network in tow, and it makes it dead simple to share and interact with your friends' photos. On the other hand, if you're mainly looking for a high-end photo enhancement app to really make your pics shine, then this is probably not the right option.
Instagram for Android (download) is available for free.