Editor's note, March 13, 2014: This review was updated to cover new design and features added in the latest version.
Instagram (iPhone|Android) is a popular photo- and video-sharing app that requires only a couple of touches to produce retro-looking projects and then share them with friends and other Instagram members. The latest version of the app, version 5.1, adds a slick new design, which makes the app look more modern. You can now also send private messages to one or more friends, instead of sharing them with everyone, with a feature called Direct.
What's really special about the Instagram phenomenon is how users have used the app to create a story about their everyday lives through stylized photos and videos.
You start by signing up with Instagram with an e-mail address, username, and password. From there you can configure Instagram to autopost to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Foursquare, and Posterous, or just choose to share images from within the app or via email. You can also turn any of these options on or off if you don't want to share your shots with everyone.
Once you're connected, you'll be able to snap a photo wherever you are, move and scale the image, add an effect with a touch of your finger, and then touch Done to share your photographic moment with the world. The app comes with several free custom-designed filters that can give your image various retro effects, a grainy black-and-white look, or even adjustable tilt-shift options. The newest filter adds a grainy black-and-white filter called Willow (for both iOS and Android), giving you one more option for photos with that old-timey look. When you're satisfied with your shot, you can add a caption along with geotagging, then share it right away.
Thanks to a recent update, the app now gives you the option to send a private photo or video to one or more friends, without sharing it to your Instagram feed. On the main screen, there's an in-box at the top right, where you can view all the photos and videos you've sent and those sent to you. From there you can send new direct photo or video by tapping the plus sign and following the prompts.
Your friends can comment on the direct 'grams you send them, but no one else can see the likes or comments. The idea is similar to Snapchat, the app that sends private photo messages. The difference here is that images and videos don't disappear like they do on Snapchat.
With Instagram, you can shoot videos and add filters much like you would with photos. In the camera mode, there's button to switch from photo to video. Just like Twitter's Vine app, when shooting a video, you touch to shoot and let go to stop shooting. Where Vine has 6 seconds of shooting time, Instagram lets you shoot for 15 seconds. You also can delete sections of your video as you're making it, letting you quickly fix a section of your video without having to start over from scratch. You can then pick from 13 new filters and you can preview each of them live as your video is playing -- no need to wait for a render. To make your videos more stable, Instagram also has what the company calls Cinema, which help make your video much more smooth if you shoot while moving.
After only a few minutes of use, it's easy to see how Instagram's video features could unseat Vine as the go-to social video app. With Instagram, you get more time to shoot, you can choose from several filters, you can pick your cover frame, and you get the giant Instagram audience to showcase your work. There will still definitely be an audience for creative, six-second videos on Vine, and the continuous loop is something not found on Instagram, but for the most part, Instagram is the best of class.