The Instagram social network is certainly popular enough that it’s inspired a range of Insta-gimmicks, and the Instacube is another one of those, revisiting the digital photo frame in the retro square format for anywhere that needs a touch of the old, but also the new.
What is it?
Remember the digital photo frame?
Sure you do. You may have tried to put it out of your memory, but there’s a good chance you’ve owned one at one point in time, the old LCD replacement for framed photos that you bought with good intentions now sitting at the bottom of a pile of discarded technology somewhere in your home.
Well, it’s back, and it’s squarer than ever, as Instacube returns to an idea that most had forgotten about.
But rather than relying on a traditional rectangular photo frame that grabs its images from a microSD card, the Instacube resembles a square frame and pulls in images from the Instagram social network.
To make this happen, the Instacube runs a special app on its hardware to connect to your WiFi network and download images from either your feed, liked images, a user of your choice, or a hashtag.
Three physical hardware buttons are provided up top, with a power button, menu button, and a love heart button to like images that pop up as you go.
The 6.5 inch LCD on the Instacube runs a resolution of 600×600 and can also be used to control the square photo frame, with a few touchscreen icons to control actions, as well as a pinch to zoom gesture supported to show you multiple images at once.
The Instacube sits within a thick frame of plastic, and is charged by a 5V 2A microUSB adaptor commonly used for charging Android tablets. A 3.5mm headphone jack is also included as is a speaker.
It’s been ages since a digital photo frame crossed our review desks, and for the most part, we’ve been fine with that. Digital photo frames are one of those pieces of technology that made sense when LCDs began to overtake everything, but faded off in the distance like the idea of web TV, which too is slowly seeing a resurgence in smart TVs.
We actually replaced our digital photo frames with real paper photos in real plastic or metal frames almost immediately after realising that we didn’t need a digital photo frame running the entire time and sucking up power, but if you’re still using one, that’s totally fine, too.
Interestingly, the idea is back in a new form, as Instagram’s social network has inspired a group of designers and engineers to bring digital photo frames back to life to show an Instagram feed.
The product that does this is called the “Instacube,” a device that isn’t quite a cube, or is closer to be cube-ish, provided you take a cube and slice it in half.
With this not-quite-cube, you’ll find a square screen fitted in a 6cm thick plastic body, with a matte plastic on the top half and a glossy plastic on the bottom. A 6.5 inch touchscreen sits inside this body, with a bunch of internals making this photo frame closer to a tablet than a digital photo frame.
But when you pick it up, you’ll be more reminded of a toy than either a tablet or a photo frame, with the plastic body feeling cheap and chunky, even though the Instacube is relatively light.
Plug it in and you’ll find it gets to charging, but you don’t need to keep it plugged in if you want to use it, and can simply hold down the circular button up top to switch it on.
Do that and the screen comes to life as the Instacube photo frame loads its operating system, and about thirty seconds later, its software.
From here, regardless of when you used the Instacube last, it will try to connect to a WiFi network, rarely remembering the last network you connected it to, and asking you to search.
Even if it does remember, chances are the Instacube will think you need to sign into a hotspot (even if you don’t) and load up Google’s homepage. Just click “done” and let the Instacube load what it’s supposed to load: the Instagram feed.
When this loads up and logs into Instagram, you’ll be given a choice of feed options. You might want to see what your friends are doing, or keep the Instacube showing your own pictures, or your liked pictures.
All of these are possible, and the menu lets you flick left to right to choose the option, with a keyboard popping up to let you search through the user or hashtag you want to track.
For the most part, the Instacube can run by itself once you’ve configured it, transitioning through your feed, liked images, a hashtag, or a user’s account, but you can also speed things up and handle things directly by pinching apart and zooming out, showing you a grid of nine photos, and then touching the photo you want to see.
You can also double tap anywhere on the screen to show other interface options, such as the top left arrow to bring up the main Instacube menu, the top right love heart to like an image (an option that also has a hardware button), the bottom grid icon to load up settings for the device, the button in bottom middle to pause the slideshow, and a button in the bottom right corner to bring up those network settings once again.
Otherwise, viewing the images is pretty automatic after you’ve selected a feed to pull from, with the screen staying on the entire time, or at least until the built in battery runs out.
It’s not the greatest screen, that’s for sure, and the pixel clarity of 130 pixels per inch is well below Apple’s Retina rating of 324 pixels per inch on its similarly-sized 7.9 inch iPad Mini with Retina. That means images look dotty and pixelated, even if they only appear on screen for a few seconds.
Instacube’s choice in screen doesn’t help much in these matters, because it has the same problem that many low-end tablets have. You’ll find usable horizontal viewing angles, but downright disastrous vertical viewing angles, which is a condition known to affect the cheaper Twisted Nematic (TN) panels used in budget tablets and computer screens.
Not helping it is the fact that this is a digital photo frame, and thus will generally keep to a specific position somewhere in your home. If that position is higher than your eye level, the weak vertical viewing angles will be present every time you glance upon the Instacube, showing up with washed out and degraded colours, which are next to impossible to ignore.
Keep it in your eyeline and it’ll be fine, with usable horizontals, but put it higher or lower relative to where your height is and, well, let’s just say you’d prefer not to look at it.
Sunlight is also this screen’s worst enemy, so if you put the Instacube in the path of direct light, expect to see, well, nothing, as the screen isn’t bright enough to look past it.
Also not great is the battery life, which comes in at a maximum of four hours.
You could totally leave it plugged in the entire time, but the included cable is short, chunky, and hard to leave plugged in while the Instacube is sitting upright. The cable is just an ordinary microUSB and takes a 2A, so it will support the same 10W charge plug other tablets are reliant on, except with the same plug used for phones.
There are also other issues with the software that certainly could do with some patching.
For instance, the app only lets you choose one thing to load at the one time. You can watch the feed from one Instagram user, or one Instagram hash tag, but not two or three of each, meaning if you want to let the Instacube look at the feed of every member of your family, you’ll have to get each member to include a specific hashtag and watch that.
It’s a tad limiting, which given the social nature of Instagram, probably shouldn’t be.
You can find a setting for letting the videos automatically play, but it never seems to save. Ever. Meaning videos won’t play, regardless of how many times you turn the “automatically play videos” setting on.
We’re also not fans of how the images load, which is as they appear in the feed. There is no randomisation here, and no way to shuffle through the pictures. They load as they’re posted, and there’s no way around it.
Perhaps the one positive to come out of this is that the app should be able to update itself, so if or when Instacube needs to update itself with fixes for these flaws, it can happen with little fiddling from your end.
Really, though, the Instacube’s biggest issue stems from what it’s built on and the price associated with it, and that is you’re essentially paying for a low-grade Android tablet that does one thing: showcase Instagram pictures. It’s also not a very impressive tablet at that, loading one piece of software on a low-grade touchscreen, and coming in at a retail price of $219.
The software loads automatically, so you’ll never really see the Android interface, except when you need to type in something — where you’ll see an Android keyboard predating those used in Android 4.X — and when the battery warnings pop up.
But that’s all it is, and really, you’re paying a premium because it’s an Android tablet.
We can’t help but think that if this were a dedicated digital photo frame with a custom app used for picking up on the Instagram feed, you’d be paying a price closer to the $100 mark, rather than $219, a cost which we suspect comes from the fact that you’re buying an Android tablet rather than a dedicated photo frame.
It would be nice to see the software come out on Google’s Play Store, making it possible to run it on any spare Android tablet you have, but we can’t see that happening. Instacube has to have a reason for you to buy its hardware, after all.
There are many out there who hate upon Instagram, but the truth of the matter is the social photographic network has made social photography more popular than ever, giving people a reason to take pictures of anything and add a vintage spin, turning whatever you have into something both old school and new school.
So many of us rely on Instagram these days that it’s become a staple app for use with our phones. Basically, if the app isn’t on a mobile platform, or is incompatible with a device, there’s a very good chance young people won’t pick it up and use it. Even Windows Phone’s growth halted while Instagram wasn’t available on the platform (now it is, providing the Lumia 1020’s 40 megapixel shots access to the Instagram software and network).
And there are certainly some very cool Instagram gimmicks out there, including prints from your feed and the Boomf marshmallows made from photos you like.
The Instacube is another creative gimmick based on our love for Instagram, but right now, it feels closer to being a gimmick you’ll get tired of quickly. Like all digital photo frames, you’ll probably find yourself unplugging this and throwing it in the closet within a month, so it’s not helped by that.
But the price and hardware are other limiting factors, and for $219, it’s hard to recommend to all but the die-hard Instagram addicts that can’t live without looking at what’s new in their world of Instagram.