Foursquare 5.0 hands-on

Foursquare just posted its promised mobile app overhaul this morning, and it's a doozy: virtually everything in 5.0 has been given a fresh look or, in some cases, a complete rethink. The changes are, ideally, to goad us into using Foursquare to find places to visit, not just to check in after we're already past the front door. But is Foursquare pushing too hard? Will mayors want to resign in protest? We're digging in to find out. %Gallery-157474%

Right away, you'll notice that the app is more visual. Go to your friends list and, instead of a plain list of your friends' most recent check-ins, there's a timeline with photos that automatically appear in-line. In terms of at-a-glance "where is everyone?" functionality, it's a step back. But for a real look at what's happening at this moment, it's a leap forward. While each check-in is 'fatter' than before, it's now very easy to comment on a check-in or otherwise do everything you'd want without having to tap more than once or twice.

The real highlight, as you'd imagine, is the revised Explore tab. Foursquare really, really wants you to know what's interesting around you, and it's slickly executed. If you're just looking to try something new, the tab defaults to a set of top picks that go beyond just popularity: there's a strong emphasis on specials, of course, but it'll suggest breakfast in the morning, ideas for a quick snack later, or simply places that friends have visited. Each location gets a much nicer presentation than we saw in the past -- it's somewhat reminiscent of the recently defunct Oink -- and you can filter the recommendations by types, if you're only looking for a nightclub or a shopping trip.

Foursquare 50 handson

Tap the map once and it gets more interesting. The recommendations melt away and you're left with a full-screen map view that shows just the nearby points of interest based on your criteria. Each location shows its popularity and who might be checked in. Need to look for interesting places where you're going, not where you are? Find a place on the map, hit the search button at the bottom, and it will show the relevant hotspots. We'd really prefer that it show more actual info at a glance, but it's an intuitive way to find what you're looking for based on the geography, not the category, without having to type out keywords (as you do in a typical GPS app). There's not much fun in finding that the nearest sushi place is halfway across town; we'd prefer to see what's closest first and what our friends like next.

Even your own profile page gets a sprucing up. It's a small boost, but it's much easier to check your badges (for bragging rights, natch) and tips.

Our main reservation? Lists. They're still hanging around in your profile page and when you investigate locations, but they don't get a dedicated tab or otherwise as much prominence as they used to. We weren't heavy list users in the first place, but their use isn't going to grow with the redesign. As we hinted before, a lot of the 5.0 update's changes could be knocked for letting cosmetics occasionally trump raw functionality, although none of the changes are so grievous as to make us regret checking for an app update.

Foursquare 50 handson

We have yet to investigate the updated Android version of the app (which should be out shortly, if not by the time you read this), but from the time we've had to try the iOS version, we think Foursquare's on to something here. The timeline turns it into more of a social network that encourages more than just scoring a few points -- think of Path and how elegantly it mixes location, photos and status updates. And the new Explore tab manages to crack through a barrier we've often had with earlier Foursquare versions, Yelp or out-of-the-box mapping apps. These rivals often make discovering a new place (or a friend's favorite) a bit of a chore. In Foursquare 5.0, the presentation and interface make you want to try things out, to discover that there's a great Vietnamese place around the corner. We'd like to have more time to try Foursquare in day-to-day use, but when we can already see ourselves replacing two or more apps with one, that's a good sign.