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Browse Instagram on your iPad with Flow

My search for the best Instagram app for the iPad may be over.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

Since Instagram stubbornly refuses to release a tablet-optimized version of its app, one is left to hunt for a third-party app that lets you browse Instagram writ large. (Disclaimer: Instagram restricts its API so that no third-party app can be used to upload photos.) I've tried out a number of Instagram iPad apps, which met with varying degrees of success. Today, I encountered Flow for Instagram, which is my favorite of the bunch.

The free Flow app boasts a gorgeous design with little touches that makes it easy to use. And aside from the obvious lack of uploading ability, it has nearly all of the features I'm looking for in an iPad Instagram app: the ability to like and comment on photos; search by user, hashtag, and location; swipe from one expanded photo to the next; share photos on Facebook and Twitter and save to my camera roll; explore users outside of those I follow; and bookmark users, tags, and locations I find interesting. If I'm nitpicking, I'd ask for the ability to view Flow in portrait mode; the app supports only landscape.

After launching Flow for the first time and signing into your Instagram account, your feed is presented in a three-by-four grid of thumbnails. A narrow menu bar runs along the left edge. It's the best-looking design I've seen of any Instagram iPad app. You can swipe sideways to scroll through your feed, and the app smartly slows to a stop at the edge of a column of thumbnails so you are never with a static grid where you are staring at half of a photo on the sides of the display.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

Tap a photo to expand it. To the right, you'll see the poster's name and any comment made when it was posted along with the number of likes and any comments below. You can double-tap the photo to like it just as you can on Instagram proper, and you can tap the small heart icon to like or unlike a photo. You can also add a comment, and next to the comment box is a button that brings up your sharing options: Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and save to Camera Roll.

To view your own feed of photos, tap the profile button in the upper-left corner. In the middle of the left-hand menu are buttons to view all the photos you've liked or bookmarked. There is also an explore button (most-popular charts, brands, and tags) and search button (tags, users, and places). The settings button lets you turn on or off autoplay for Instagram videos and usernames in your feed.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

If you have usernames turned off, you can bring them up by long-tapping any photo in the feed you are looking at. Flow has a useful "peek" feature where you can tap a username, profile photo, and hashtags to bring up a small minifeed window. The minifeed window doesn't populate, however, for users that have their account set to private.