It's hard out there for a photo app these days. After the runaway success of Instagram, a lot of imitators popped up thinking that if they offered the same "snap, filter and share" features, users would flock to them, as well.

Sadly, this means that we have legions of piss-poor imitations without any clear alternatives; as the filter features became more ubiquitous, they almost provoke a roll of the eyes when announced. Unless an app fixes glaring problems with the market leader or offers some other kind of of advantage, users will find themselves wondering "What's the point?"

I was interested when it was announced that Google would be acquiring the Snapseed because it seemed almost in reaction to Facebook's purchase of Instagram. Snapseed had amassed a great following on iOS for offering a slick photo editing environment, so when they popped up on Android I felt it was worth a look.

When you boot up the app for the first time, you're greeted with an overlay explaining the features. When you load or take a photo, you enter it into a menu for editing. You have numerous options, each with their own degrees of transformation: for example, I chose the "Grunge" filter for the photo below, along with some saturation options, color correction and tilt shifting.

2012-12-12 14.08.43

2012-12-12 14.07.22 2012-12-12 14.08.25 2012-12-12 14.07.42

As many photo editors will tell you, working with images comes down to the ability to be precise. However, in a touch environment, the user tends to be much more reliant on sight and what looks good as opposed to what graphs and histograms will tell you. Snapseed is controlled by pinching and swiping, which will manipulate effects in varying degrees. You will often reach one extreme by the time you drag your finger to either side of the screen, allowing you to see what's just right for the particular photo.

Swiping up and down will also bring up a context menu that will allow you to select different parts of the particular filter to edit; for instance, you can change certain patterns that are applied along with color effects. This will be extremely different from what Instagram users are used to, as there are just so many more possibilities with fine control when compared to Instagram's "click and forget" functionality.

The filters themselves are varied and can produce a cool number of looks for each photo. As you can see in the screenshots, the Grunge filter seemed to make my hands look about fifty times more grimey than usual. There are also frames, cropping, and straightening options.

2012-12-12 14.09.00

2012-12-12 14.10.37 2012-12-12 14.13.25

However, for those who want something a little more... mature, Snapseed allows for a really speedy correction of color/brightness settings for quick sharing. This is akin to Camera+, an app for iOS that can make a picture look a lot better than it really is without seeming overly fake. This goes a long way toward making me want to continue using this app, as sometimes the best editing is when you can't even tell it's there.

While it's not an incredibly fine editing software, Snapseed allows for a greater amount of time and effort to be put into a picture's presentation before it's shared. It also does so without any loss of quality, which is another big improvement over Instagram. As any user of that service will tell you, the more you edit, the more the quality degrades sharply. You won't find that problem here, unless you're choosing filters that specifically changes what's in focus and what isn't.

Some minor complaints can be levied at the minimalist nature of the UI, and the reliance on gestures to get things done. By tucking different options away in a vertical swipe menu, it can be difficult to remember what's available; especially with oodles of UI space on the button bar, it seems like a waste not to use it. However, I can say I'm thankful for the "compare" feature, as it beats having to undo your work to see how much it's changed.

Snapseed can be found on the Play Store for free, and offers functionality that's worth much more. If you're planning to work with photos in any capacity on your Android, or want to have it just in case, you won't go wrong with an install.

Matt Demers
Matt Demers is a Toronto writer that deals primarily in the area of Android, comics and other nerdy pursuits. You can find his work on Twitter and sites across the Internet.

  • saimin

    Best photo editor yet for Android, especially if you have high quality images and/or hate those cheesy Instagram filters.

    • New_Guy

      Does it maintain the quality? Nearly every app on the market degrades the quality as you edit. Sooooo annoying.

      • saimin

        All photo editors degrade image detail, even Photoshop, but Snapseed does not degrade your photos as badly as Instagram and the like. Part of that is because Snapseed allows you to make more subtle edits, including changes to only small regions of a photo.

  • Sam Hollis

    IMO, they should have re-branded it as Picasa Mobile, and rolled it into the stock Gallery app.

    • http://twitter.com/redbullcat Phil Oakley

      Pretty sure by this time next year Picasa will be dead, with all the functionality rolled into Google Drive.

      • http://twitter.com/cthonctic Cthonctic

        Including the desktop client? That would be quite a surprise indeed.

      • IncCo

        More like .. into Google+

        • http://twitter.com/redbullcat Phil Oakley

          I am of the belief the pictures that are instantly uploaded through Google+ should also be viewable and editable in Google Drive.

  • Fawaz Azeem

    I am having a great time playing around with snapseed. It's really easy to make a photo look a lot better than the original image, however it's also easy to make it look fake. But that's not a snapseed issue. I love the easy access to various setting by swiping up and down, it's similar to how Google update the camera app in 4.2 and I hope more apps start to use that feature.

  • Charlotte Kamers

    I have recently installed the application and I think they
    did a good job designing the user interface of this application.

    First of all, it isn’t difficult to learn how to work with
    the application. When you first start the app, a tutorial is displayed on top
    of the interface, which indicates the functionality of every button on the
    screen and explains the different swipe moves you can use. Every time you
    select a filter you haven’t used jet, the tutorial of that filter is
    automatically displayed. The user shouldn’t be afraid to forget the swipe moves
    he has to use to manipulate the pictures, he can always display the tutorial
    again by clicking on the question mark at the top left corner.

    In order to make it even easier to remember the different
    swipe movements, the designers used a limited set of swipe moves that are
    already familiar by most users. The only movements you have to remember are “slide
    horizontally”, “slide vertically”, “pinch” and “spread”. The pinch and spread
    movements are well known by most users and are used consistently with other
    apps to minimize or to enlarge an object. The slide vertically and slide horizontally
    moves are used to select a setting and to set the strength of that setting. These
    are new functions, but are used consistently through the whole app, so it is
    easier to remember.

    Because of the tutorial, the limited set of swipe movements
    and the consistent use of these swipe movements, the learning threshold of this
    app is very low.

    In the desktop version of this application, sliders are used
    to set all settings. Because sliders aren’t easy to control with a touch
    interface, they put a lot of effort into finding a decent way to replace them. The
    main problem of sliders is that you cover the most important information with
    your finger while you are using them. They also take up a lot of space which
    should be used for displaying the picture. They solved this in a clever way by
    implementing the “slide horizontal” and “slide vertical” movements. In order to
    select a setting, you slide vertically at any place of the screen. A menu pops
    up and you select the right setting. This menu never appears beneath your
    finger, so you can always see what you are selecting. By swiping horizontally
    you can select the value of that setting. When you release your finger the menu
    disappears. In order to let the user know what setting and value they have
    selected, the active setting and value are displayed in the middle of the
    bottom bar.

    As a last point I would like to comment on the size and
    placement of the buttons. The most used buttons, the select filter buttons, are
    big enough so that they aren’t completely covered by the users thumb. This allows
    the user to see the visual feedback of the button once it is pressed. Furthermore,
    there are several places of the screen that are easier to access with your
    thumb than other places. The zone where you can most easily reach with your
    thumb is called the “thumb hotzone”, for right handed people this is the bottom
    left corner and for left handed people the bottom right corner. In the main
    menu the select filter buttons are placed on the bottom of the screen, this
    makes it easy for left and right handed people to press on these buttons. The take
    picture, upload picture and other buttons are placed on top of the screen. Normally
    you should only use these functionalities once for every picture, so it makes
    sense to place them on top of the screen where it is more difficult to reach
    them. In the screens where you can adapt the pictures the cancel button is placed
    on the bottom left and the apply button is placed on the bottom right of the
    screen. These are the places of the screen that are the easiest to reach and
    these buttons have to be used every time you adapt your picture. The question
    mark and the compare button are on top of the screen. these are buttons that
    are less frequently used, so it makes sense to place them on top.

    I would conclude that the designers put a lot of effort into
    designing the user interface of this application and I think they succeeded in
    making an app that is easy to use.