Instagram App Feature Requests

I have three app feature requests for the folks over at Instagram. The developers have steadily improved the app since it came out in 2010, but a few potentially convenient options are still absent. As a reference point, as of this writing, the latest version of the Instagram iOS app is 5.0.11.

  1. I want the ability toggle image filters on and off. After I snap a photo, I’m taken to the filter selection screen. I usually tap through the filters to see if any of them enhance my photo in an interesting way. After I scroll past the first few, the “Normal” picture option has moved off the screen. If I want to compare the filtered photo against the original unfiltered photo, I have to scroll the filter list back to the start and tap “Normal.” This has always annoyed me. I want to be able to tap any filter in the list to turn it on, then tap it again to turn it back off, so I can clearly see the difference. Am I the only person who has longed for this? If only one of these three suggestions are implemented, I want it to be this one. Make it so!
  2. Users should be allowed to delete individual comments posted to their photos. If there is a way to do this currently, I am not aware of it. I’ve tried, but haven’t found a way to delete comments. This should have been implemented long ago. Such a feature would be of particular use for popular users and celebrities whose photos garner thousands of comments, some of which can get rather ugly.
  3. Users should be allowed to edit their picture posts/descriptions. If I hastily post a picture and realize that I’ve made an embarrassing typo, I have to delete the picture entirely, upload a new one, and type a new description. I shouldn’t have to do all that. That is just a waste of time, effort, and resources. Facebook began allowing users to edit their status updates a while back, and considering that they own Instagram, I had expected the feature to be added to the app by now.

I Don’t Need An App For That

There is a temptation to load your phone up with as many apps as possible, installing one for everything you think you may ever need. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone. At one point I had 150 apps on my iPhone.

I began to realize over time that I really didn’t need a lot of those apps. There were some that I hadn’t used in over a year.

When I upgraded to the iPhone 5, instead of restoring my previous state, I decided to completely start over and only add the apps that I really used. I’m glad that I made that decision at the time. It was like cleaning house. That was about a year and a half ago, and since that time, my app count has inevitably crept back up again.

I’ve now reached a point where I’ve decided that it’s time to again get rid of apps that I don’t need. I went in and deleted scores apps I hadn’t been using. I didn’t stop there, though. I even deleted apps for services that I actually use. The reason I did that is because there are a lot of services that have excellent mobile websites that do the same job that the custom app does. I’ll give you some examples.

Bitly. I use Bitly every now and then to shorten long URLs. Bitly has an iOS app but I’ve actually never downloaded it. Browsing bitly.com in mobile Safari or Chrome is perfectly sufficient. It retains my login and I am able to perform every task I need from their website. No app necessary!

Wikipedia is another good example. I had the app installed on my phone for years and barely ever used it. I would always do a Google search on what I wanted to know about and I came to realize that I always browsed Wikipedia using only the web browser. Their mobile website does everything that the dedicated app does. It even looks the same.

Shopping apps are another example. I’ve had the Target app on my phone for years but I can only recall having used it one time. Before I recently deleted the app, I browsed over to target.com in Safari, and as you would expect, they have a very clean mobile website that lets me search and shop for anything I am looking for. Again, no need for the app, or others like it.

I could go on and on. Mobile banking, news sites, and more. All of them have full-functioning websites that allow you to do everything you can do from the app. As a general rule, if the service in question merely delivers information, you’re probably fine just using their website to obtain it.

I created a bookmarks folder on my iPhone for services like the ones I’ve listed above that have perfectly useful mobile sites. To save a bookmark as an icon on iOS, simply tap “add to home screen” in Safari. The icon added usually looks indistinguishable from the native app.

If you have apps on your phone that you don’t use very often, it’s worth it to browse the mobile website for that service and see how close the experience can be to using a native app. You may be surprised. If you’re using push notifications, however, you need to continue using an app for such interactivity. For example, if you use eBay and rely on the app for notifications about items and auctions, you’ll want to keep that app installed.

Go forth and do some digital spring cleaning. It can be very liberating.

Half-Baked iOS 6 Reminders

I began writing about the lackluster Reminders app in iOS 6 more than a week ago, but I thought I’d wait until after the announcement of iOS 7 to see if improvements were on the way. Since iOS 7 won’t be released for a few more months, I’ve decided to proceed with my issues about Reminders.

Reminders feels a little half-baked. Its primary purpose is to remind me about something, but that function is its biggest weakness. Hear me out.

When I get a text message in the Messages app, it will alert me twice if I don’t acknowledge it the first time. If my phone is sitting on the desk in front of me and it lights up with a text message, I can lean over and look at the lock screen and read it. If I don’t need to reply right away, I’ll just let it be. When I do this, the phone doesn’t know that I read the message because I didn’t physically interact with it. A couple of minutes later, it will chime again with the same message to make certain that I saw it. This behavior used to be optional, and I would usually leave that option turned off because I found it slightly bothersome. At some point in the updates to iOS, Apple, in its infinite wisdom, decided to remove the ability to disable the second reminder. I find that rather annoying because when I’m driving and the phone is in my pocket, I can’t tell if a second chime is a new message or just the same old one popping back up.

Contrast that behavior with the Reminders app. In Reminders, there is no option whatsoever for a second notification. None! You can’t get a second notification even if you wanted one. I find that to be ridiculous to say the least. Apple is so hell bent on making sure I don’t miss a text message that I can no longer disable second notices on them. But in Reminders, an app whose sole purpose is to remind me about things, I can’t choose to receive multiple notices. That single issue makes me not want to use Reminders at all.

When you go into the system settings and look at the available options for the Reminders app, you’ll notice that there basically are none. The only setting I see is being able to change the default list that future reminders will be added to. That is all. Below that is an empty screen.

I put Reminders on my home screen so that if I do miss an alert about a reminder, I’ll at least notice a red badge on the icon. The problem is that it doesn’t always work. I have missed reminders and later unlocked my phone to find no badge icon at all. Granted, it doesn’t fail every time. It usually works, but I have seen it not work a couple of times, and I have read complaints on online forums from other users registering the same complaint. This degree of unreliability is unacceptable.

Let me give you two examples of how I’ve used Reminders in different situations.

In one instance, I checked out a book from my local library. While I was leaving the library, I set my phone to remind me weeks later on the morning that it was due. I set it to remind me early so that I’d make sure to bring the book with me when I left the house in the morning. In that instance, I didn’t require multiple notifications. At some point during that day I’d notice the reminder and have time to return the book.

In another instance, I was at a party. I set Reminders to remind me to send an important text message to a friend at a specific time during the night. I made sure that my phone was not on vibrate and that Reminders was using the loudest possible sound effect in my library. An hour after I was supposed to send the text message, I happened to pull my phone from my pocket to see a message from the friend I was supposed to have written. I’d completely missed the reminder. I couldn’t hear the notification because it was too noisy at the party, and I somehow didn’t feel my phone vibrate in my pocket either. The popup alert was also obscured by the more recent text message I’d received. This also happened to be an instance where a badge icon did not show a missed notification. The only way I knew I’d missed it (besides my friend writing me) was pulling down the Notification Center and seeing an entry for Reminders that I was supposed to have written them. It was that night that I knew that Reminders wasn’t up to snuff. In hindsight, I suppose I could have gone to the extreme length of setting an alarm in the Clock app, but I never dreamed that such a drastic measure would have been necessary.

Reminders does have a few cool features such as location-based reminders, although I’ve never used that and do not intend to. There is an option to set the priority level of individual reminders, but I can’t tell that the priority level does anything but change the appearance of the reminder in the app itself. I hope that in iOS 7 the Reminders app gets some needed new features and customizations. In its current state, it generally works, but I don’t find it to be entirely useful.

I’m currently experimenting with a third party app called Alarmed. It has a lot more features than Reminders, and allows for endless nagging at intervals as often as every minute! Alarmed lets you set quick reminders or “super reminders,” and has a large library of alert sounds to choose from. I find that it works well and it has positive reviews in the App Store. I’ll continue to use both apps, depending on my individual circumstances, and cross my fingers that Reminders gets an update in iOS 7 later this year that makes it useful for all of my needs.

WhatsApp Modern Messaging

There are a vast number of messaging solutions available today. I use many different services to send messages to people. The one that has risen to the top to become my messenger of choice is WhatsApp. Before I tell you what I like about it, let me give a rundown on what I don’t like about some of the other solutions.

Traditional SMS text messaging is an unnecessarily costly money making scam. I also think it’s grown a little stale with its outdated 160 character limitation. Sure you can run over 160 and your message will be sent as two messages, but that gets on peoples nerves.

Most of my contacts use standard text, so to get around the cost issue of purchasing an unlimited text plan, I use my Google Voice number with everyone and text via the GV app (or via the GV website) for free. Google Voice doesn’t support MMS, so there is no photo sharing available (which I have complained about endlessly.)

What bothers me the most about the Google Voice is its iOS app. It is old and clunky. There are some people who like to write three texts back-to-back to convey a single thought. You probably know someone like that. That degree of hammering reveals just how terrible the GV app is. It is terrible! It can’t handle that kind of deluge. In addition, when I’m looking at the current conversation thread and I receive a new message, I have to exit the thread, go back to the conversations area, wait for it to refresh, then tap to go back into the thread to read the new text message. Ridiculous. I grew tired of waiting for Google Voice to step it up with better features, so I started looking elsewhere.

Instant messenger clients are a good solution. AIM, Yahoo, Gchat, and others are all fine systems. Gchat is my favorite in this category because it automatically saves chat archives. Gchat is also the most popular in my circles thanks to it’s tie-in with Gmail. I don’t really have any complaints to make about using IM as a solution over texting. It is better for sure. But not that many people use it or sign in on a regular basis.

Apple’s iMessage is great, but it only works on iOS devices, so a lot of people in my contact list cannot make use of it. That makes it a deal-breaker for the best overall messaging solution. Also, in my experience, iMessage doesn’t insert timestamps into the message thread often enough. I can’t tell when an individual message was sent or often times when an entire conversation was started.

Facebook Messenger is popular these days. It looks good and it works great. My problem with it is that the notifications are spotty. Countless times I’ve fired up the real Facebook app and seen a little red 1 or 2 on the messages icon. No notification had been received from the Messenger app about those mysterious messages. I don’t know the percentage of failure. Perhaps 1 in 10 or 20? It’s often enough that I don’t trust FB Messenger to alert me about every incoming message so I don’t feel like I can rely on it.

WhatsApp does everything that I want. It’s cross-platform, meaning it is on every mobile OS in use today. It’s customizable. I like the font-size options, wallpaper options, and the ability to choose my own notification sound. I like the timestamp attached to every message (unlike iMessage where I simply cannot tell when a message was sent.) I like the little green checkmarks that show each message was 1) Delivered and 2) Read. I like that it shows when the other person is typing and when they were last active. I like that I can set my status upfront, such as “Available” or “Sleeping” or what have you. I like that I can send any kind of media through it and that media can be automatically saved to your camera roll or local storage on your phone. I also like that I can send voice memos to someone on the fly. Group chat is an option as well.

Compared to SMS (which is expensive and limited to 160 characters), GV (which is clunky, also limited to 160 characters, and lacks MMS support), iMessage (not universal), and Facebook Messenger (somewhat unreliable), I think WhatsApp does everything I need and then some. I’ve been using it exclusively with a few friends and it works great. I’m going to try to get more people on board.

One potential downside with WhatsApp is that you are limited to the phone app only. There does not exist a true web-based WhatsApp solution. It’s good to break away from my phone once in a while and message people from my computer where I can write faster with a keyboard. I’d like to see a computer-based option for sending and receiving messages on WhatsApp. Besides that one omission, I think WhatsApp is better than the competition at this point in time.

WhatsApp is 99¢ in the App Store. It is well worth that for a money saving ad-free texting solution. Even better, the app is free at the time of this writing for the 2012 holiday season. Go get it!

Pedometer Ultimate GPS+ for iPhone

I had long been interested in buying a pedometer to track my number of steps and walking distance. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she uses her iPod Nano as a pedometer. The newest generations of iPod Nanos have an accelerometer that can be used to track your motion. This got me thinking. My iPhone has an accelerometer. Perhaps I could download a pedometer app for my phone instead of buying a standalone unit.

A quick search of the App Store yielded many such apps. I researched the most popular offerings and decided to try a couple of them. I eventually settled on Pedometer Ultimate GPS+. After extensively reading dozens of reviews of this app and others, I’m fairly confident that Pedometer Ultimate GPS+ is the best solution on the iPhone today. I’ve been using the app for a few weeks now. It does everything I need, and so much more.

I only load the app when I’m taking a long walk or bike ride. Considering that this is on my phone, it isn’t the kind of pedometer that you can clip on and count your steps for an entire day. It must run as an application on your phone, and if left to run all day, it won’t take long to exhaust your battery. The app uses a combination of the accelerometer and GPS to track movement and distance. As with any mobile app, constant use of the GPS radio shortens battery life significantly. If you’re concerned about battery life, you can disable GPS usage in the app settings, but I don’t recommend it.

The fact that this solution uses GPS technology is what sets it high and above traditional pedometers. The app generates a detailed map of exactly where you’ve been and how far you’ve traveled, overlaid onto a Google Maps satellite image, which you can save and export via email or Dropbox. In fact, you can export all of the data collected by the pedometer, including: Step count, speed, pace, distance, elevation, calories burned, and more. Data can be exported in several formats, including a file you can import into an Excel spreadsheet. It can even post your achievements to Facebook and Twitter.

The app interface is customizable, and is filled with information about every aspect of your journey. It can look overwhelming at first, but I don’t feel that it’s cluttered. If you like to listen to music on your device while you’re exercising, it couldn’t be easier. The app has built-in onscreen controls for music playback without having to switch out of the app.

You can use the app to set daily goals about a variety of factors and it will speak aloud and tell you when you have reached those goals and thresholds. The daily goals aren’t that useful to me personally, because I’m only using the app when I set out on long journeys. I rarely would use it more than once in a given day, so daily goals aren’t very important to me.

I do have a complaint about the audio announcements. For some reason, the voice that speaks aloud comes through the speakerphone and not through my headphones when I’m playing music. That doesn’t make sense to me, and I haven’t found a way to change this behavior. I can’t understand what it is saying to me when the phone is in my pocket and I have music blasting in my ears.

Pedometer Ultimate GPS+ has a cycling mode which uses the GPS exclusively to map your course, distance, and speed. It works very well. It even has a dashboard view that displays an analog speedometer and odometer, which I think is a nice touch. In addition, the app supports the use of external sensors, such as a heart rate monitor and the Wahoo Fitness receiver. I have no interest in those, but that kind of support is a nice addition for those who are inclined to use them.

There appears to be some debate within the iTunes App Store reviews as to the accuracy of the pedometer. A number of users have declared that it is spot-on. Others claim that it is way off. The sensitivity of the accelerometer can be calibrated and adjusted manually, if need be. It is also important that your phone be located on your body where it can accurately detect movement. The app tutorial points out that the worst place to attach your phone is on an armband, which many people use when working out or jogging. You won’t get accurate motion readings when it is placed there. The best location is clipped to your waist. I don’t have a belt clip for my phone, so I’ve been keeping it in my pocket. I tested the app alongside a friend who accompanied me on a walk using his own standard pedometer. After more than 1500 steps, my app was reporting a step count that was within 20 steps of his unit. In my experience, the app has been quite accurate, despite using it in my pocket.

The company that makes Pedometer Ultimate GPS+, Vaiden Software, also has two older pedometer apps in the App Store: Pedometer Free GPS+ and Pedometer Pro GPS+. I researched the benefits of each of them. I suggest that you don’t pay attention to either of those apps. The Ultimate app is the newest and most current of the three. The Free and Pro apps are slightly older offerings that do offer most of the features of the Ultimate app, but aren’t quite as robust. Did I mention that the Ultimate app is free?

Pedometer Ultimate GPS+ is available for the iPhone and iPod Touch. The GPS features are not available in the iPod Touch, since it currently lacks a GPS radio. The app itself is free, but there are two levels of paid in-app upgrades that extend its capabilities: Pro and Ultra. The Pro pack is $2.99 and the Ultra Pack is $4.99. Most of the features are available in the free version, but you’ll want to upgrade to a paid version to remove ads, store unlimited history, export maps and data, or use the cycling mode. I bought the Ultra Pack and highly recommend it. If you’re unsure if you want to spend the money, they offer a free 48-hour trial of the Ultra Pack. After the trial, you can still use the free version. But don’t be a cheapskate. This product is well worth five bucks, and then some.

Pedometer Ultimate GPS+ screenshot

Sparrow for iOS is Incomplete

I love Sparrow mail on the desktop, but I’m not as thrilled with the mobile app. I downloaded the iPhone app last month, the day that it was released. I was already enjoying the desktop version and was overjoyed that it was released as an iOS app. I paid $2.99 for it, sight unseen.

Sparrow for iOS is superbly beautifully designed, but lacks some key features, even in the latest version (currently 1.1). I just noticed recently that I can’t even compose email in landscape mode! Insanity! That is the final straw. I’m going to stop using it until a more feature-complete version is released.

My complaints include:

  • No landscape message composition! (inexcusable)
  • No push notifications. (they explained this and plan to add it in 1.2)
  • No way to disable loading of remote images, which slows everything down and bugs the hell out of me.
  • No easy way to flip through unread messages once I am already reading one. I have to go back to the inbox after reading each message, which is very annoying.
  • No way to add a Gmail label to a message I’m currently reading. (that I can find)

Instead, I have decided to switch to the Gmail app from Google. It isn’t as pretty or slick to the touch as Sparrow, but it is quite functional. It is capable of everything that I just complained about above. I think it’s a good solution. Google has vowed to continue rolling out newer versions of it, but they are pretty slow. I hope it improves over time. Likewise for Sparrow.

Google Voice’s Shoddy MMS Rollout

I have been a longtime user of Google Voice. It is an excellent service with many great features. I’ve written about it before, but today I want to rant about it’s lack of a key feature — MMS text messaging. Hello, Google, are you listening? I complained about this back in early 2011.

My patience has run out on waiting for Google to implement MMS. I use Google Voice as my primary texting messaging system but as such, I still cannot send or receive pictures in my text messages.

Granted, I personally think that text messaging by definition should not involve multimedia content like photos, but the fact is that real users expect and demand it. I’m tired of explaining to people that I cannot get texts with pictures. When someone texts me a photo, I receive absolutely nothing on my end. I have to ask people to use my real mobile number, or send the photo via email. It confuses people that I have to give them two phone numbers.

I was reading a blog post that the Google Voice team wrote back in October 2011 where they announced that MMS was finally being rolled out. Fast-forward six months later to April and I just received my first MMS message with a photo this week. I received a text message that read: “MMS Received.” I had to then check my Gmail account to read an email from Google with the picture attached. I think that is an acceptable way to make this work and I don’t really have a problem with that methodology. I was thrilled! But my excitement was short-lived.

Here is the kicker! According to Google, this half-assed MMS system will only work when the person composing the text message is a Sprint customer. Say what?! That is completely and utterly inexcusable! It’s bad enough that I still cannot compose my own MMS messages, but now I can only receive them from users of only one phone company? Come the hell on. I literally only know three people who use Sprint. Useless.

I want Google get their act together and make MMS work fully across the board for everyone. At the same time, the Google Voice iPhone app needs a complete do-over. It’s ridiculous that a company with such vast resources and talent has not made this happen.

Instagram is Just a Toy

I’m assuming that you already know about Instagram. It’s a mobile app that is used for social photo sharing. Users take snapshots, apply a fun selection of filters, then upload them. Your friends the Instagram app to see your photos in a stream along with the other people that they follow. It’s like Twitter, but with pictures instead of words. Your friends can “like” or comment on your photos. All photos are square, like a digital Polaroid. The filters within the app are designed to make your photo look aged or over-processed. This is deliberate and turns digital photography into a retro experience. There is even a filter called “1977.”

I have been an Instagram user since the beginning and I have used it off and on. I’ve started using it more recently, and I can’t shake the feeling that it is too limited in its purpose.

Instagram is only available if are using an Apple mobile device (iPhone, iPod or iPad.) Despite being on the market since 2010, they have still yet to release an Android version of the app. The developers have been saying that it’s coming, but no date has been announced that I am aware of. I’m disappointed that it has taken so long. I have a lot of friends who have Android phones and I would like to share Instagram photos with them. You can’t share your photo stream on the web. You are able to send someone a single image using a link, but there is no general web interface to Instagram. You cannot manage your account or browse your photos on a computer. I find that to be a real turn-off. It limits Instagram to being just a toy.

As I have already mentioned, all pictures have to be square. That means that you need to take those pictures using the Instagram app itself, which makes the square pictures. The problem with that is that if you are taking a picture of something important, all you end up with is a square picture in your photo library. If you forego the Instagram camera and use the real camera app, then import it into Instagram, the result is a rectangular photo is that letterboxed with black bars. I’d wish they would drop the square dimension requirement. If that ruins the spirit of the app, then at least let me choose between black or white bars when letterboxing my image. The background of the app is white, so a white border would look less obtrusive than the thick black ones they use now.

Some users manage to post some amazing quality photos on Instagram. I’m not sure how they are achieving this. When I take a picture with my phone, I can’t always tell if it is really in focus just by viewing it on the screen of the phone itself. Often times, once I get one of my pictures onto my computer and see it on a large screen, I realize that portions are blurry, or the lighting isn’t as good as I’d hoped. Perhaps I am too picky, but if I am going to take the time to upload a picture somewhere, I want to do it once and have it be the best quality it can be. I’ve gone so far as to take a normal photograph, send it to my computer, edit and enhance it in Photoshop, crop it to a perfect square, re-sync the new image back to my phone, then use the phone to post it to Instagram. That is a ridiculous work flow, but it’s the best way to get a picture into my stream that meets my quality standards. That said, I am probably over-thinking the whole thing.

Overall, Instagram is a cool service that is built around photos of questionable quality. Again, it’s a toy. It’s fun to play with, but I still prefer to use Flickr for my online photos. With Flickr I can view and share the best quality photos on my phone, computer, or TV. All it is lacking is the fun social model that Instagram has. There is a different use case for each service, I suppose. What if Flickr or Picasa bought Instagram and incorporated its features? It’s crossed my mind. I can’t decide if that would be a good idea or not.

Instagram