Facebook has kept itself rather busy in the last month or so with such tasks as going public and purchasing popular photo-sharing app Instagram, but that doesn't mean it stopped working on other projects in the meantime. This realization is apparent with the launch of Facebook Camera, a photo-centric application that chooses to remain separated from the company's general mobile representation. It's still connected with the social network, of course, but it brings a fresh user interface and some light Photoshop-esque features to the table: filters, cropping, zoom, twist and so on. We had the opportunity to grab the new app and take it for a spin on an iPhone, so check out the gallery and continue below for our first impressions.
Facebook Camera hands-on
First, let's discuss what Facebook Camera is not: it's not the first fruits of Mark Zuckerberg's decision to purchase Instagram for $1 billion, since the acquisition is still under review by the FTC and likely won't be made final for another six to twelve months. There are a lot of intriguing similarities, but everything in this final product was already well in motion prior to the buyout. This app could, however, provide the newly merged company with a good canvas on which to base future Instragram-like features.
It's also not necessarily new or groundbreaking. There is no shortage of image enhancement apps on iOS, and the unique twist this particular version brings is its natural tie-in with the social network. This also isn't the first time Facebook has attempted to create a spotlight on the photo-sharing aspect of the smartphone experience, as seen in version 1.9 of its Android app. The main difference there, however, was that the camera was only a direct shortcut transplanted onto the home panel, and it lacked any of the filters or other features the new iOS iteration boasts.
As a quick note, the app is compatible with the iPhone 3GS and newer, the fourth-gen iPod touch, iPad 2 (WiFi and 3G versions) and new iPad (WiFi and LTE versions). iPad users, if you're hoping for a cool new user interface that takes advantage of the larger display, prepare to be disappointed -- it just subscribes to the "one app fits all" mentality by using the default iPhone / iPod touch version.
Navigating the app
After signing in with your Facebook credentials, you're greeted by a user interface that begins with two panels. The top window shows the most recent images in your camera roll, while the bottom provides you with a feed of pictures taken by your friends using a layout nearly identical to what you'd see in the main iOS app. You can click on individual pictures or choose to go into a specific friend's page. In the feed panel above the updates you'll find four options: refresh, friends, me and settings. The first and last selections are self-explanatory. As for the middle two, you can choose to view pictures from your peers, or -- if you have an interest in your own vanity -- you can opt to gaze upon only photos you're tagged in.
As you move down your feed, you'll notice that the picture window on the top of the screen has disappeared; it isn't a stationary panel that moves along with you as scroll down. Thus, if you want to take a new picture or choose from your camera roll, just tap the status bar above the app (the same way you would get to the top of a web page in Safari) and you'll be zipped up to where you started your photographic journey.
The top panel only displays three photos and a camera access button by default, but if you drag the bottom window down, a full page of images will be revealed, along with a bar of options below. A home button is offered on the bottom left, if you want to go back to your feeds. If you'd like to keep going, however, checkmark the shots you want to tweak or share (or both) and press the "compose" button on the bottom right corner.
In the compose section, you can do the normal stuff you'd expect to be able to do on the main app, such as typing a message, tagging friends and sharing your location. In addition, though, you now can tap on one of the images you've already added. Doing this will take you into the editing screen. Here is the magical place in which you can crop, zoom or add filters to pictures. You can also deselect the image if you get into the editing page and change your mind about including it in your status update. Again, this isn't anything drastically new for iOS in general, but it's a nice option to have if you're a hardcore Facebook user that does a lot of photo sharing.
Facebook Camera executes well enough, though we'd prefer to see more collaboration between the company's iOS apps. As it currently stands, the main app doesn't give you any built-in options to adjust photos, nor does it even allow you to seamlessly switch over to Camera and continue the draft of your status update. Perhaps these enhancements are coming in a future version of the Facebook app, but for right now, it's a point of frustration that you can't get all of your work done within the same program. If you frequent the social network, we have a hard time believing you'll enjoy leaving the app to make adjustments to a photo that you want to post. App switching is readily available on iOS, of course, but it's still another step in the process that can easily throw off your groove.
Let's be perfectly forthcoming here: we have no issues with Facebook's decision to make a separate camera app, we'd just prefer to see some of this core functionality included within the main setup. Camera as a standalone program is an indication of the company's expansion strategy. Its sights are set beyond the horizon, finding new ways to expand its sphere of influence beyond its current membership of 900 million members. Recently, we discussed the idea of Facebook offering more value to the average consumer than simply being a "social network." Arguably, the company has already pushed beyond this designation and is quickly becoming an all-encompassing network comprised of a myriad of services and features. In the near future we envision Mark Zuckerberg & co. pushing out several different standalone apps, each one expanding on a feature in a way that many non-members will find appealing. Camera is one such example of this -- why not offer a free alternative to third-party apps (like Camera+) that also happens to give Facebook newbies a chance to share memories with their family? It's just another way to offer value that new users may find more enticing than reading the latest meme circulating the web.
Were we wowed by Facebook Camera? Not really, but we weren't disappointed in it either. Aside from the lack of collaboration between the two apps, we didn't see any bugs or flaws in execution, and Facebook was smart to stick with a user interface similar in style to its primary iOS app. It was nice to have a few extra tweaking options to play around with before zipping our snapshots off into the social networking ether, but the app offers us nothing we couldn't already do in other third-party apps. Ultimately, Facebook is giving you one less reason to consider shelling out a buck or two for a similar program in the App Store, and doing so may entice non-members to set up an account and begin sharing photos.
More importantly, however, is the potential we see in such an app. It's an indication that the company is looking to expand, offering more services and features than a simple social network provides. Facebook Camera is also good preparation for the day the buyout of Instagram is officially approved. We imagine that once these two companies are able to strategize their first moves as one entity, this app could become a solid foundation to establishing a happy life together. It's intriguing that one simple program could lead to so many possibilities, and that adds an element of excitement to Facebook's future.