With its latest update, Foursquare has evolved beyond its roots of checking in to businesses and unlocking badges and special offers from those businesses. Now the app lets you explore your local area based on data culled from other Foursquare users while still retaining the gamelike features of its roots.
While the original app was always well-designed, the new features make it even more useful. Recommendations for smaller towns can be sparse, and the settings can be somewhat overwhelming, but it remains an essential download for avid Foursquare users.
When you first launch Foursquare, you'll need to set up an account using your Facebook information or an e-mail address. When you're finished, you'll see your friends list split into two different categories: local and worldwide. The local list (naturally) will show you friends who are nearby, while the worldwide list displays your other friends.
Foursquare's original and signature feature is checking you in to places when you visit. Your last check-in is displayed at the top of the list, along with a count of likes and comments on your check-in. To get more information about a place you last visited, Foursquare occasionally will display a green box with two or three quick questions about the venue. You don't have to answer, but your responses help provide important details about the business, which can be seen by other users.
You can find alerts such as friend requests, likes, and comments by tapping on the comment icon in the top-right corner of the main screen. Tapping on the three-line icon on the top-left opens up a menu where you can find links to view your friends list and To-Do list, add more friends, and change settings and your profile.
Checking in requires you to tap on the location circle at the bottom of the screen, which then opens up a list of the closest venues to your current location. A search bar at the top of the list makes it easy to narrow down venues should you be in an area with several. You can then tap on a venue, enter a comment with the check-in, then decide if you want it to post to Facebook or Twitter, or just to other Foursquare users.
There's also a more hidden way to check in from this screen. If who want to make the check-in public, but don't want to add a comment, tap and hold the venue name until the green progress bar fills the top of the screen. It's a minor feature, but makes a quick check-in much easier.
While checking in is still a vital part of the service Foursquare offers, it's the data gathered from all users that turns it into a must-have app. Called Foursquare Explore, the feature is a powerful recommendation engine developed to leverage the amount of data Foursquare has accumulated by tracking user check-ins over the years. The data contains over 4.5 billion (as of September 2013) check-ins across the globe since the service launched in 2009.
Explore runs your check-in data through algorithms on the back end and spits out personalized recommendations tailored for your interests. It takes into account your check-ins, the check-ins of your friends, venues you have "hearted" (aka liked), and venues that you didn't enjoy. You also see your historical check-in data that the app uses to deliver eerily accurate recommendations.
Using Foursquare Explore is straightforward. You launch the app, tap on the search bar at the top of the screen and either enter a search term, or select a predefined query from the available list.
Most of the queries revolve around food, and let's be honest, that's typically what you care about the most when visiting a new city. I've had tremendous luck when using Explore to find both a local pub or a family-friendly restaurant when away from home. In San Francisco, Las Vegas, Boulder, Colo., and other locales, it has yet to let me down with a recommendation of a new place. You might consider that to be a bold statement, but I stand by it.
You also can narrow down your results by typing in a day of the week, a search term like "children," or keywords from tips left on a venue by fellow users. Using the predefined searches is a convenient way to learn how Explore works, and expand from there. Try the Specials search to find local places offering discounts simply for checking in to the venue.