Foursquare's updated app sports a new design and tons of highly personalized recommendations.
Foursquare underwent some big changes this year when the company split its existing app into two; social check-in app Swarm and the new Foursquare, designed entirely to help you find somewhere to go. The decision to break up the apps drew ire from Foursquare fans who didn't want to download Swarm just to check into places or see their friends' activity.
Yet, for Foursquare, the move is an opportunity to shift its focus away from check-ins and mayorships -- the social gamification features that made it popular in the first place -- and toward building the one app you check when you want to find the hottest restaurants, bars, shops, and attractions at home or while traveling.
With its latest update, the app gets even better at showing you the best of the best around you, from coffee shops and speakeasy bars, to hot yoga studios and specialty shoe stores.
To begin using Foursquare, you first need to log in with your account. If you don't already have one, the app supports Facebook log-in for an extra-quick setup.
Whether you've had a Foursquare account for years or are just getting started, after you sign into the updated app for the first time, it'll ask you to identify your "tastes" -- which include specific food dishes, restaurant atmosphere, and general types of businesses. These can be specific, such as macaroni and cheese or cask ales, or more broad, like ocean views or bookstores.
You pick your tastes from a screen full of prepopulated phrases, and you can search for anything you don't see. Choose as many tastes as you want, and Foursquare then uses that information to hunt for places nearby you that fit your taste criteria, no matter where you go. At any time, you can edit or add to your tastes; just tap the Foursquare icon at the top of the app.
After you've set up the app, you're taken to the main discovery screen, with a search bar up top and a grouping of recommendations below. In the past, Foursquare's main screen showed you everything that was nearby, but now the app focuses on finding places grouped by interests and categories.
To say that Foursquare has tons of recommendations for restaurants, bars, and businesses is an understatement. The discovery screen is packed with suggestions based on your location, the time of day, your predetermined tastes, plus suggestions from your finds and popular keywords that other users close to you are using to search.
While the previous versions of Foursquare were a bit bare-bones and confusing, the updated app is the opposite. Because Foursquare packs that home screen with so much information, it can feel overwhelming, and I still felt that way even after using the app for a few days. The new branding and layout are pretty, but the design is too cluttered.
The home screen also constantly changes throughout the day and as you travel around town, to find you new places. Swiping around will help you find nearly everything you need, but if it's not enough, use the handy search bar to get more specific. You can see your search results on a map and filter them by price, distance, and whether or not your friends have recommended it.
When you've found a place you want to check out, tap it to see its full Foursquare listing. Similar to Yelp, business pages on Foursquare contain a lot of useful information, including hours, address, a map, menus, phone numbers, payment options, and photos. There are also several Foursquare-only stats, including a numbered rating and tips from the community, and a group of keywords that describe the business, which are intended to help you get a feel for the place. If any of your Foursquare friends have checked in, you'll see that too.
A new feature Foursquare added in this update is a dedicated page called "What's good here" and you get to it by tapping the arrow icon at the bottom of the screen. The app pinpoints your current location, finds the closest Foursquare business, and shows you tips for that place. The idea is if you're waiting for a table at a new restaurant, you don't even need to hunt for it in the app -- instead all the tips you might want are already waiting for you. Keep in mind that Foursquare is constantly tracking your location to make this feature work, so if that bothers you, you might not want to use the app.
In earlier versions of the app, you'd get a notification every once in a while asking if you were near a trending place or a place where you've checked in before. This takes that one step further, guessing where you are and showing helpful, relevant information. On this page, there's also a shortcut to check-in on Swarm, provided you have the app installed.
Checking into a place put Foursquare on the map, but that feature is now gone from the app. The only way to check in is to use the separate Swarm app , which also has a set of social features to connect with your Foursquare friends.
If you find a place in the Foursquare app that you want to check into, there's a small Check In button on its business page that launches Swarm. I will say that the transition from Foursquare to Swarm is seamless, but going from the Swarm app back to Foursquare isn't smooth at all on iOS. You'll either need to hit the Home button to reopen Foursquare from your home screen, or -- for a slightly faster method -- double-tap the Home button to select it from previously running apps.
Either way, it feels like the check-ins that made Foursquare popular in the first place are even further removed with the inability to quickly get back to the app from Swarm.
Even though the check-ins are gone, the Foursquare app still has some fun gaming elements to keep you coming back.
One of those is rating places you've checked into, which not only gives you something to do while when you're bored, but also helps Foursquare give you and others better recommendations. To get started, tap the pen-and-paper icon at the top of app, which brings up a menu where you can leave tips at places you've been. At the bottom of the screen, there's an option to rate places you've been.
You're then asked a multiple-choice question about a location where you've checked in, such as whether you like it, if it's good for groups, what's good there, or if it has outdoor seating. For the "do you like this place?" question, you can leave a tip after you answer, but it's not required. I had fun rating places, but I feel like the answers are a bit limited -- there's no room for nuanced descriptions, like you might get with a Yelp review.
In recent years, Foursquare has sought to set itself apart from competitor Yelp, where you can leave lengthy reviews about nearly any business. Instead of reviews, you can only leave short tips on Foursquare about the food, decor, service, or atmosphere of a business. Those tips help Foursquare understand more about the businesses all around you, so it can make better recommendations for you and the entire community.
The way Foursquare encourages you to leave tips is with another game element called Expertise. The app pays attention to the types of places where you leave tips and how the community responds to your tips. As you leave tips that others "like" in the app, you'll earn an expertise badge, which shows that you're a trusted source for those kinds of places. For instance, I have expertise in gyms, sandwiches, and farmers markets because I've left enough tips for places in each of those categories and other Foursquare users found those tips helpful.
Go to your profile page (tap the portrait logo on the bottom-right of the app) and -- if you've left a lot of tips -- you'll see your Expertise badges. If you liked the older check-in badges, you'll be a bit disappointed by the expertise badges, because they aren't as fun to earn. Instead, it takes a bit of work because you have to write a lot of tips that the community finds useful or entertaining.
While the Foursquare app is certainly a powerful way to find any kind of restaurant, clothing store, or other kind of business, I have some problems with the interface. Foursquare underwent a major redesign, with a new logo, color scheme, and layout that's so packed with information that it's hard to decipher all of it.
Still, if you can get past the overwhelming design, Foursquare offers an massive database of photos, tips, and general information about the sights and tastes around you. For that reason, it's a great tool for locals and travelers alike to get a snapshot of the hottest places, with the key details you need to check them out. Anyone seeking in-depth reviews will still want to check out Yelp, but Foursquare has found its niche in social and personalized recommendations, and it's still great for that.
Jason Parker contributed to this review.