Hands-on: Flickr gets a stunning new look, but still feels incomplete

After years of languishing mostly unchanged, Flickr—the one-time leader in photo-sharing sites—finally got a major overhaul on Monday. With the update, everyone now gets 1TB of storage (for photos up to 200MB and videos up to 1GB or three minutes each), and the site itself got a massive facelift. I took some time to play with the new-look Flickr, and while the updated photo sharing service is a solid upgrade overall, it feels unfinished to a degree.

Welcome to new Flickr

When you log into Flickr, you’ll see something like this.

The first thing you’ll notice when you log into Flickr is a completely new look. Instead of a homepage that is mostly text with image thumbnails, you’ll instead be greeted with a stream of big, beautiful photos from your Flickr friends, as well as recommended photos from others. The interface has a clean, simple, flat appearance, similar to what Microsoft uses with Windows Phone 8.

Profile pages

Profile pages look stunning.

The image-heavy look carries over to profile pages: At the top of each profile page is space for a cover photo—sort of like what you’ll find on Facebook—followed by a grid layout that displays a photostream in reverse chronological order. As you resize your browser window, the photos resize with it in a responsive design that makes use of every last inch of screen space you give them.

On the Photostream tab, three buttons in the upper right let you initiate a photo slideshow complete with a pan-and-zoom effects, access sharing options to share photos via a link, via email, or another social network (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Tumblr), and choose other viewing options.

Clicking the Sets tab shows you any photosets that user has created (or your sets, if you’re viewing your own page); meanwhile, clicking Favorites will show you all the photos that person (or you) favorited.

These pages are presented beautifully, and they’re reasonably easy to navigate, too. The one thing I didn’t like was how clicking photos sent you to a new page to view the photo instead of in a pop-over photo viewer as you get on Facebook. You can get something close to this by mousing over a photo and selecting the tiny double-arrows icon to view the image in the lightbox, but I’d prefer it if this were the default behavior, with a link to a photo page with more information.

A nice behavior change is what happens when you click a photo. Click once and it opens in a new page, click again and it opens in the lightbox, click a third time and it starts a slideshow starting with that image.

Searching for photos

Same as it ever was…except prettier.

When you search for photos, you’ll get a layout similar to the profile pages—a grid of photos that adjusts to fit the browser window. All the usual photo searching options are there as before: You can sort photos by relevance, date, or interesting-ness (which appears to be based on the number of views and favorites a photo has recieved). You can also still get at advanced search options, like whether to use SafeSearch and exclude potentially objectionable photos, or to search for photos with a Creative Commons license.

Aside from the new look, though, searching for photos is largely unchanged over the old version of Flickr, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your feelings toward Flickr search.

Photo pages

Flickr’s new photo pages aren’t a huge improvement over the old version.

From a functional standpoint, Flickr’s new photo pages aren’t all that different from the old ones: From here, you can comment on a photo, mark it as a favorite, view its EXIF data and licensing information, and more. The major difference here is that the photo itself itself is larger than it was in the previous design.

Compared to the rest of the redesigned site, though, the photo page feels like an afterthought from a cosmetic standpoint, especially after playing with the whiz-bang shininess of the homepage and profile pages. It’s as if Yahoo took the old photo page design, changed the top half, and left the bottom half of the page intact. It doesn’t make the new Flickr harder to use, but it does make it feel a little incomplete.

Uploading photos

The new Flickr features a slightly updated photo uploader still that lets you easily upload large batches of photos. You can select Choose photos and videos and upload that way, or you can drag and drop items you want to upload directly into your browser window.

Once you do that, you can give titles to your uploaded items, add descriptions, tags, and people, add them to sets or groups, and set the license and privacy level. You can also reorder images by dragging them around or rotate them as needed. The layout of the page and placement of options seem to be different, as is the black background, but functionality is roughly the same as before. The image uploader worked well in my hands-on, but I was also using it on a speedy connection at the TechHive offices, so I wasn’t able to try it out on a more typical home Internet connection.

The one gothca with the image uploader is that simply sticking them in the image uploader will not publish them; you have to click the blue “Upload” button in the upper right corner for it to actually publish them to your photostream. Flickr will nag you if you try to leave the Uploader before you actually upload and publish your photos, though.

Updated Android app

Flickr’s website isn’t the only thing that’s improved: On Monday Yahoo also released an update to the Flickr Android app that puts it on a par with the version that’s currently available for iOS. We tried out the latest version of the app on a phone running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and were quite pleased with what we saw. Whereas previous versions of the app felt like shoddy Instagram clones, the new Flickr app puts a much bigger emphasis on browsing through photos rather than taking them.

The updated Android app.

The first thing you see after signing in to the app is a wall of photos that you can browse through by swiping left or right on each individual row. The photos are pulled in from your friends’ photostreams, but you’ll also see photos from people Flickr thinks you should follow. Tapping a photo brings up a fullscreen version of the image, where you can comment, star, or view more information about the photo, such as what camera the photographer used and where the picture was taken.

Once you get sick of looking at your friends’ “artistic” efforts, the Explore section of the app is a veritable treasure trove of great looking images. Flickr lets you filter by recent and popular photos taken nearby, giving you a good idea of that area’s local color. For instance, most of the images taken near the South Beach neighborhood of San Francisco featured naked people and hipsters—an accurate representation of the types of things you’d see here.

If you’re itching to show off your own photography skills, Flickr provides a number of photo editing options to get your images into tip-top shape. You can crop photos, adjust the contrast and saturation, and even add text to help your photo stand out. There are also a number of generic filters you can slap onto your photo to give it the “Instagram” treatment, but the advanced options should prove enticing to more serious mobile photographers.

The app is available for free from the Play Store and is worth checking out if you consider yourself a photography buff—or just like to stare at pretty images on your smartphone.

Expect improvements, not miracles

By and large, the new-look Flickr is a nice improvement over the old version, and it’s hard not to like the free TB of storage. That said, it does feel incomplete in spots, and in terms of functionality, it isn’t a huge improvement over the old Flickr. It’s great to see Yahoo give Flickr more attention, though, so here’s hoping for still more improvements and upgrades in the future.

[Assistant Editor Armando Rodriguez contributed the Android app coverage to this story.]

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