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Iris: A Beautiful and Simple Instagram App for iPad

Instagram may have been acquired by Facebook, but this isn't stopping third-party developers from coming up with clever solutions to use the Instagram API. If anything, if Facebook will live up to its promise of keeping Instagram alive while growing and improving its network, everyone's favorite photo sharing service may see even bigger numbers and user adoption. And there's no better way to use official APIs than building software the developers of the original app are ignoring, at least for now.

For the past few weeks, I have been trying a new Instagram app for the iPad called Iris. It's available now on the App Store and it's optimized for the Retina display. While Instagram has started experimenting with a new API to allow other developers to upload pictures to the service, Iris doesn't let you upload photos using the iPad's camera and the app's custom interface. Instead, Iris is another app focused on providing a beautiful experience for browsing and liking Instagram photos, and, in my opinion, it is the most attractive solution that's been brought to the market to date.

Iris puts great focus on large thumbnails for photos, a light background to make Instagram's filters really pop, and a dark sidebar to switch between your feed, popular items, profile, and search. Iris allows you to browse either via large thumbnail previews or smaller ones; the layout change can be activated with a switch in the lower left corner. In the lower right corner, the developers have implemented a "pull to refresh" command, which literally requires you to pull a slider to refresh the main view. You can also hit the associated refresh button if you feel uncomfortable with pulling, but I found the gesture quite clever and fun. Unlike other apps, Iris doesn't have standard pull to refresh at the top of the view.

To navigate, Iris uses a mix of tabs, "load more" buttons, and panels. For instance, the main feed gives you a vertical list of photos from people you follow, and once you reach the end of the list you can hit a "load more" button to fetch more items. I found the refresh times acceptable, and I like the custom popup dialog that shows up when you load sections or refresh pages. You can tap on a photo to bring it up at its original size; you can like with a double tap (like the original Instagram), or by hitting the heart icon below a photo. In the same area, you can find buttons to comment, and view a photo's location. Comments are displayed in a panel that loads at the side of the screen and is reminiscent of Loren Brichter's Twitter for iPad. If you tap on a user's avatar while viewing a photo, the user's profile will slide up from the bottom of the screen, and, if I had to point out a minor UI annoyance I noticed, you'll have to hit a "back" button to make the profile view slide down again. I find the action confusing as back buttons are typically associated with the content area moving to the right.

The Popular section is pretty self-explanatory; I did find some nice touches in the profile view. You can view the people you follow and your followers in dedicated panels; you can follow/unfollow in-app, and of course check out another user's complete set of photos. In your Profile, you can also hit a globe icon to have a history of your Instagram shots displayed as Iris pins on a Google map -- it's a neat summarization of the places you "visited" with Instagram.

The search function of the app is very basic as well: you can search for people and "tags". While people results will open in the aforementioned side panel, tags will simply return associated photo results in a regular grid view.

If Instagram were to release an official iPad app, I think it'd be extremely similar to Iris' approach. A minimal, beautiful interface for the Instagram community that takes advantage of the iPad's display to lay out large thumbnails and photos. Instagram would obviously want to implement a camera in a (possible) official app -- right now, Iris doesn't let you upload anything, and has to display photos at low resolution on the iPad's Retina display. The effect, however, is nice (especially thanks to filters, which help hiding some pixellation here and there), and I bet it gets a lot better on older iPad models.

Iris offers a simple, good-looking and enjoyable Instagram experience on the iPad, so if you've been looking for a great iPad app to browse your favorite photos, $1.99 should be a no-brainer.

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