InstaReel for Instagram: Desktop Photo Browsing Made Easy

It would be fair to say that only one photography app can even claim to be king of them all – Instagram. Despite its daft requirement for images to be square, and its quirky filters – to give them a sympathetic description – it has revolutionized the way we share images, and has rapidly risen to be one of the most popular social networks in the world.

What makes these achievements even more remarkable is that this is a mobile-only platform, and for some time, it was an iOS exclusive too. Until Instagram’s surge in popularity, no other network creators had the bare-faced effrontery, let alone the skill and nous, to go mobile only. Facebook‘s recent $1bn acquisition of Instagram only highlights the brilliance of the people behind the app.

Whilst all this mobile stuff is very forward thinking, many of us have wished, over the years, for the ability to play with Instagram on a larger screen – on a computer, in other words. The current web-friendly version of Instagram’s website is the closest we’ve ever got to an official desktop environment, so it is little wonder that independent developers have stood up to fill the gap.

One such developer, FIPLAB, has created InstaReel for Instagram, a $2.99 native Mac Instagram browser. Without image uploading – the critical part of the Instagram experience – though, can InstaReel truly be better than just using your phone? Time to find out…

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The Interface

As a desktop client of a mobile platform, InstaReel has its work cut out to find the right design balance. Mostly speaking, though, I think a good job has been done.

InstaReel’s window and ubiquitous controls are a stylish white-on-graphite colour scheme, with blue trim. It may not be a completely “flat” design, but it is at the more minimal, refined end of the UI spectrum. It is also a design which retains much of the Instagram feel about it, utilizing carbon copies of the service’s icons, and retaining a similar layout.

InstaReel's blue-on-graphite looks pretty good

InstaReel’s blue-on-graphite looks pretty good.

By default, InstaReel is one of those annoying apps which disappears every time you click elsewhere, only providing a menu bar icon to retrieve what you were doing. Thankfully, you don’t have to stick with the default. Clicking the anchor icon makes InstaReel always remain on top, and a rummage through the preferences reveals that you can actually make InstaReel operate like any other app – i.e. windows remain visible behind other apps, a dock icon is available, and so on.

You can fix InstaReel's annoying habit of disappearing by utilising the preferences.

You can fix InstaReel’s annoying habit of disappearing by utilising the preferences.

In Action

Of course, Instagram is about image sharing. But in reality, we spend just as much time browsing, commenting and liking our way through other users’ photos as we do posting photos ourselves. It is for these tasks that InstaReel was designed, and in these areas, it does provide a respectable improvement on the touchscreen interface.

The Feed view in InstaReel is one of the more immediately notable enhancements. As you adjust the size of the app’s window, the stream of images first becomes enlarged, and then separates into two columns. This two-by-two layout really speeds up the browsing process – in fact, it is a shame that three- or four-column browsing isn’t available, as this would closely resemble Flickr‘s redesign. Each image can be liked without leaving the stream view, although I, for one, found the heart-shaped icon really quite small to locate with the mouse.

The two-column browsing makes flicking through your stream much speedier.

The two-column browsing makes flicking through your stream much speedier.

Hovering over images in your feed gives you a quick view of the comments which have been attached, and clicking on an image swipes you sideways to the photo view, which closely mimics Instagram’s equivalent page. On the surface, InstaReel doesn’t provide anything new here, but right-click on the photo, and you discover a decent bag of tricks. From the pop-up menu, you can like the photo, copy the photo’s URL, view the image’s Instagram photo page in your browser, or save the image to your hard drive (I’m watching you, copyright dodgers). The final option is to view the image in OSX’s Quick Look. In theory, this is a really nice idea; in practice, I could never get it to locate the image.

A summary of comments can be seen by hovering a photo in InstaReel.

A summary of comments can be seen by hovering a photo in InstaReel.

Away from these niggles, InstaReel is a simple pleasure to use. All the usual tabs are present – Popular, Favourites, Profile and Search – as is a list of your outstanding notifications. Speaking of notifications, InstaReel can (if you so wish) provide you with desktop pop-ups, as folks like and comment on your pictures, and the menu bar icon also turns red to provide further indication.

One of InstaReel's biggest advantages – notifications on desktop.

One of InstaReel’s biggest advantages – notifications on desktop.

Stability

Unfortunately, there is one other issue with this app. Despite the fact that I installed InstaReel via the App Store, and I have been running it on Mountain Lion, stability seems to be an issue. During my testing, InstaReel crashed and burned a number of times, usually while loading a stream of images. A future update could fix this problem, but in the meantime, it did cause me some frustration.

I spent too long looking at these.

I spent too long looking at these.

Conclusion

It would be fair to say that, in spite of its evident competence as a desktop Instagram client, InstaReel is a mixed bag.

The design may not be revolutionary, but it is both passively pleasing, and practical. The ability to resize your Feed from small, to large, to two columns, makes for efficient browsing and use of screen space, and for those who are avid photo sharers, the ability to receive desktop notifications is a significant improvement over browsing Instagram’s website.

There are problems, though. Instability, whilst easily fixable with an update, is a notable problem, considering that this app comes with a price tag. Equally, the broken Quick Look integration is a frustration, especially given that it would be a neat little feature if it were to function properly.

If you are an Instagram power user, then InstaReel is definitely worth a buy, even with the niggles. The more casual snapper of square photos might want to wait for an update or two, though. I will, however, continue to use InstaReel on desktop, in spite of its faults, because it is still good way of browsing Instagram on your Mac.


Summary

A competent, but flawed offering. Currently one for the power user, but with updates, its appeal may broaden.

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