Despite the obvious naughty uses, there are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons why you might want to give Snapchat a whirl, and they all center on this social app’s near-perfect ability to give you a wealth of control over the privacy of the pictures and videos you send to your friends. Snapchat has become so popular so fast that more than 200 million snaps are being shared per day.
If you’re looking for a photo app that has comprehensive gallery functionality, fun filters or cloud-based storage, this is not the app for you. But if you want to strap the digital equivalent of a time bomb to every piece of media you send to your friends — we won’t ask why — you’ll be happy to know that you’ll be able to set up Snapchat on iOS or Android nearly as quickly as you can say “selfie.” Here’s how.
2. Sign up for an account. Since you can’t just use an existing Facebook/Google/Your Favorite Social Network account to log your way into the service, you’ll need new credentials. Tap Sign Up. You’ll be asked for your email address, password and your birthday. Tap Sign Up.
3. Pick a username. Select a “unique identifier” for your account that cannot be changed once it’s set. Your friends can use this to find you on the service, and the username will appear underneath your real name in their Snapchat contact list.
4. Friend up. Snapchat will ask you if it can tap into your phone’s contacts list. Unless you have a burning desire to add friends manually, we recommend you grant Snapchat this permission so you can commence friend-adding. iOS users will also be asked to enter in their mobile numbers for easier searching; fret not, Android fans, for you can add this information later — so long as the text-based verification goes smoothly for you.
Once Snapchat comes back with a list of your contacts that it has identified as users of the service, you can add them as friends by clicking the large person-with-a-plus button to the right of their names. If you want to remove them (or block them) later, just long-press on their names until the secondary menu pops up on your screen.
5. Prepping for pictures (or video). Ready? Once you’re on Snapchat’s main screen, taking a picture is pretty easy for those who have ever used their phones’ cameras before. If not, here’s a quick guide: Tap an area of the picture you want your phone to focus on. Tap the big round circle to take a picture. Hold the big round circle to take a video.
6. Save your own shots. The icon to the right of the timer, a downward-facing arrow, allows you to dump the shot you just took into your phone’s traditional gallery. It’s useful if you want to save your shot for future purposes, as there’s no other way to do so once you’ve sent the picture out.
7. Set picture time limit. Tap on the stopwatchlike icon in the lower left and you can set the specific time that you want your picture to be available for a friend to view. You can go all the way from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 1 second to a maximum duration of 10 seconds.
8. Add captions to pictures. Tap in the middle of the picture (on Android) or the more descriptive “Tap to Add Caption” bar on iOS to do just that. If you’re feeling a little nostalgia for "Draw Something," you can also tap on the icon in the upper-right corner of the screen to draw directly onto your image with varying colors of a virtual pen.
9. Send your snaps. Click on the arrow icon in the lower right to get your shot ready to send. Up pops your friends list; select everyone that you want to receive your image, take one final breath of confidence and click on the now-displayed arrow in the lower right-hand corner.
10. Take video. You get fewer options to play with when you’ve taken a video on Snapchat. Namely, you can save the brief video (maximum of 10 seconds) down to your phone, add a caption, and turn the volume up and down. Note: Any changes you make to the volume are reflected in the final video sent to your friends, which follows the same process as the way you go about sending pictures (steps 7 to 9).
11. View Snapchat messages. If you’ve received a Snapchat, or just want to check out the log of Snapchat pictures or videos you’ve sent out to your friends (just the log; not the media itself), tap the little cube icon on the lower-left of Snapchat’s main screen. If you have any to-be-viewed messages, the number will appear over the cube itself.
Once you’re on the messages screen, you’ll see any new pictures or videos that your friends have sent you listed with a “press and hold to view” message underneath them. Don’t do that unless you’re really ready to view the image or video, because that starts the countdown timer for how long you’ll be able to view it. When it runs out, the message will transition over to a “double tap to reply” prompt — do just that to continue your Snapchat “conversation.”
12. Edit Snapchat settings. Tap the gear icon in the window’s upper right corner. You can confirm your mobile number by tapping the associated field if you skipped this part when first setting up Snapchat. You can also open up your Snapchat for messages from anyone on the service — not just your friends — by changing that setting (but make sure you want to do that).
You can also specify how you want Snapchat to notify you when you have new pictures or videos to view, but we were only presented this option on the Android version of the Snapchat app. iPhone and iPad users just have to live with silent, nonvibrating notifications, even if they’ve set up Snapchat to buzz and yell within their iOS settings.
The Android version of Snapchat also gives you the opportunity to lower the quality of the videos the app takes, as well as Snapchat’s default camera orientation. You’ll find both of these settings buried within the “Video Settings” section.
Finally, to keep your Snapchat log nice and tidy, both Android and iOS versions of the app allow you to “Clear Feed” with just two taps of your finger.
David Murphy is a contributing writer for Tom's Guide. He also writes for The Wirecutter, in addition to a number of other PC-themed websites and magazines. Follow him @thedavidmurphy and on Facebook. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.