iOS Gems: Instapaper, Pocket + Readability
The iPhone, iPod touch, and particularly the iPad are all designed to let you read without a traditional computer screen. Many iOS users simply browse the web through Safari or open links from their e-mail and social media feeds, but the increasing volume of web content has spawned a genre of intermediary apps—programs that save articles so you can read them later. The best of these apps actually serve two specific purposes on a mobile device: first, optimizing the content for smaller screens, often by removing ads and other extraneous graphics and text, and second, providing the ability to read items offline, even when no data connection is available.
Today we take a look at the three most popular third-party apps that provide deferred offline reading experiences: Instapaper, Readability and Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later). Each of these are good to great apps that offer their own unique features; which one is the best fit will largely depend on your personal needs and preferences.
Safari Reader and Reading List
Before we begin, it’s worth considering what Apple itself has brought to the table in the form of Safari’s Reader and Reading List features, both of which work together to provide some of the functionality of third-party read-later apps.
Safari Reader originally made its debut with Safari 5 for Mac and Windows in the summer of 2010, bringing with it the ability to render web page articles in a clean, distraction-free reading view. This feature did not come to iOS devices, however, until the release of iOS 5.0 last fall. Safari Reader on the iOS side also adds the ability to e-mail out the full text of an article rather than simply a link to the web page.
Also introduced in iOS 5 and Safari 5.1 was a new Reading List feature, which provides the ability to basically bookmark pages in a special section within Safari for later reading. Reading List synchronizes via iCloud and provides status tracking of read and unread items. It does not, however, provide any offline caching, so while items will sync up between devices for later reading, you will need to be online in order to view anything on your Reading List.
Further, although you can use Reading List and Reader in tandem to provide a clean, text-based view of articles, the Reader view is not opened by default, meaning that you are required to load the entire native web page first before you will be able to switch to the Reader view, which requires additional time and bandwidth.
Apple has also not published any APIs on iOS or OS X specific to the Reading List feature, meaning that adding items to your Reading List on iOS requires manually opening them in Safari first—a process that can be cumbersome when working with third-party apps such as Twitter clients and RSS readers. In the more open OS X world, an AppleScript shortcut has been implemented by some apps such as Reeder for Mac, allowing users to quickly add items directly to the Safari Reading List.
Regardless, Safari’s Reading List has the advantage of being integrated and free, and even for users of third-party read-later apps, this option may still be useful for quickly loading up an article or web page on another device.
Marco Arment’s Instapaper ($5) is probably the best known of the read-later apps on the iOS platform. Instapaper was not the first online service to offer read-later bookmarking, but it was built with an iOS application from its very inception, and was originally focused almost entirely on iOS devices.
In many ways, Instapaper is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the read-later space on iOS. Not only was it the first service with an iOS app, but it quickly became the most-integrated service in terms of third-party utilities ranging from Twitter clients to RSS readers; numerous apps implemented Instapaper integration to allow users to quickly save articles to the service, often simply by tapping on a link or menu item without even requiring the user to actually open it first. You can also save articles from the iOS Safari browser or any desktop web browser by installing an optional bookmarklet, or simply copy a link to their clipboard and open Instapaper, which will offer to save the link to your reading list.
The Instapaper app is the most full-featured of the three, providing a number of configuration options and integration with third-party services and apps. Users can choose from 12 different fonts, day and night reading modes, and adjust screen brightness, font size, line spacing, and margins. Users can also enable an iBooks-style full-screen reading view, where all menu bars and the iOS scroll bar are hidden, displaying only the text of the article itself. Tapping a link within an article provides options for opening it directly in Instapaper’s in-app browser, copying it to the clipboard or adding it to the reading list for later. Unfortunately, while font choices from the article screen are applied to the main reading list view, font sizes are not, and in some cases, particularly on the iPhone, the reading list screen itself can be difficult to read legibly—a minor, but unusual omission in an app that provides such versatility otherwise. The iPad version displays articles in a grid view more appropriate for the larger screen, although you can choose to switch back to the traditional list view if you prefer that look.
Instapaper includes a number of other interesting and thoughtful UI features. Swiping left to right from the reading view returns to the reading list, and the app includes its own orientation lock independent of the system-wide iOS setting. Day and night reading modes can be set automatically based on the time of day and the user’s location, with an intermediate sepia mode during twilight hours. Users can also choose from traditional iOS scrolling for reading articles or enable tap/swipe pagination for a more e-book like reading experience; a tilt-scrolling mode is also available that automatically scrolls through text, teleprompter-style, using the accelerometer to control the scrolling speed and direction. A “Return to Position” button also helpfully appears to allow users to easily return to their reading position in a longer article in the event of accidentally scrolling to the top of an article by tapping the iOS status bar. Words can be looked up using either Wikipedia or the iOS 5 built-in dictionary, and Instapaper also handles in-line footnotes from most websites, providing a pop-over reference to the footnote without changing reading positions.
Read articles can be archived, deleted, or filed into a specific folder for future reference. A trashcan icon is somewhat unintuitively used in the UI to represent both the delete and archive functions; users are provided with the choice of deleting or archiving after tapping the trashcan, although this may be confusing to new users. Swiping across an article in the reading list view presents a shortcut menu with options for filing, deleting/archiving, or opening an article directly in the browser/copying its link.
Users can also “Like” articles, which not only adds them to a favorites list, but optionally makes them publicly available in the user’s online Instapaper profile. Users can also configure automatic sharing of all liked articles to one or more online services such as Facebook and Twitter. Liked articles also cannot be deleted, as this would remove them from the user’s profile; only the archive and move to folder options will be available unless the user first un-likes the item.
Instapaper can share articles via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinboard, and Evernote as well as e-mailing out a link or the full text of an article, copying the text of an article to the iOS clipboard, or printing the text of an article via AirPrint. Tumblr users can also choose to share articles on the service as published, draft or queued posts. Integration with a number of other third-party iOS apps is also available, providing features such as sending an article as a task to OmniFocus, copying it to Pastebot, or using Tweetbot to post the article link to Twitter instead of Instapaper’s own built-in sharing services.
Last fall, Instapaper also added a new set of social features that took it a step beyond simply being a client for saving your own links and bookmarks. A Friends section now provides a reading list of everything that your friends are sharing on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr; links from here open in the in-app browser by default, from there you can save any links you’re interested in to your own Instapaper reading list for later. An additional section sourced from The Feature (formerly known as Give Me Something To Read) also provides a hand-picked list of articles and essays saved by other Instapaper users. Users who choose to subscribe to Instapaper for $1/month can also take advantage of a built-in search feature that allows users to search the full content of every article in their Instapaper collection, regardless of whether it is archived or filed into a folder. Users can purchase a subscription either via in-app purchase or on the Instapaper web site via Paypal.
Instapaper is by far the most widely supported and sophisticated iOS deferred reading app available; functionally, it’s also the best of the bunch. Our only major issue is largely cosmetic and has more to do with how Instapaper collects and parses articles on the back-end; while Instapaper seems to be able to scrape text from a much wider range of web sites, the text-only views in Instapaper are less “clean” than the other apps. For example, it’s not uncommon with Instapaper to see extraneous header and footer information or graphics included with the article text. Despite this, however, Instapaper appears to be very reliable in ensuring that the text itself is available regardless of what extra content appears, and can even handle “paywalled” sites—as a rule, if you can read it in your browser, you can save it to Instapaper; the other apps were not always as compatible with various web sites, so the issue clearly seems to be a tradeoff. In the earlier days of Instapaper, Marco Arment maintained separate “Pro” and “Free” versions of the app, but has since chosen to merge these into a single, $5 app simply dubbed “Instapaper.” Although Instapaper is the only deferred reading app that is not free, you get what you pay for in this case—a fully-featured “power user” application that provides a wide variety of reading styles and options, along with integration with additional content sources and third-party sharing services and iOS apps. If it was prettier, it would be close to perfect. iLounge Rating: A-.
The most recent deferred reading service in the game, Readability (Free*) is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Instapaper, focusing on aesthetics and simplicity rather than trying to deliver a set of advanced features. The Readability service debuted a little over a year ago with a controversial business model: users would pay $5/month or more to use the service and Readability would donate 70% of that money to authors proportional to the amount of content being accessed through the service for a given site. The idea was to compensate web sites and authors for lost ad revenue due to articles being read in an ad-free presentation, however it was (and remains) an opt-in service for those sites and authors, and end users don’t really get any indication of which sites had opted in and how much of their money was actually going to support authors. Most online publications barely knew Readability existed, many who did chose to ignore it, and some sites and authors even took the extreme move of blocking Readability from accessing their content entirely.
Due to issues with Apple’s in-app subscription policies, the company’s first attempt at a native iOS app was rejected, and it chose to instead simply go with an iOS-optimized web app while also pursuing Readability reading list integration into third-party apps such as Reeder, Pulse, Longform, and Early Edition 2. This integration provided users with native access to their saved Readability content directly within reading apps that they were already using. This actually makes Readability somewhat unique in that users can continue to save links and read them without requiring the company’s own iOS app, albeit with more limited functionality in some third-party apps.
Readability’s own native iOS app was released on March 1 as a universal app, providing direct access to the Readability service with a user interface and graphical presentation similar to the web version along with a few additional features. Focused on providing a clean and simplified user interface, Readability eschews most organizational and sharing features found in the other two apps, providing simply a Reading List, Favorites and Archive for organizing articles and sharing article links via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. No full article sharing options are available here either—only links can be shared, which are shortened using Readability’s own rdd.me links.
When reading an article, users can choose from six different fonts in a range of sizes along with day and night reading modes. Favorite, archive, delete and sharing options can also be found on the bottom menu bar; the right-most button brings up a second menu bar, rather than a full options menu. Tapping anywhere else on the screen while reading hides either menu bar, although the iOS status bar remains visible at the top throughout.
Swipe gestures are used extensively in Readability, and in fact almost exclusively for certain interactions; for example, returning from an article view to the reading list requires a right-to-left swipe gesture—there’s no “back” button at all. Fortunately, the app provides tutorial instructions throughout the first time you use it, so new users should be able to discover and navigate using these gestures easily enough. Swiping left to right in the reading list will also bring up a shortcut menu of options for starring, archiving or deleting the selected item.
Readability provides a built-in web browser for searching and adding links from directly within the app, and will also helpfully offer to add any links it finds on the clipboard when you open the app. Like Instapaper, you can also add links to Readability using a web browser bookmarklet or a third-party app that provides direct Readability integration. However, users may find that there are fewer of these apps available; the number is increasing as Readability becomes more popular, but most apps that allow saving to deferred reading services are still limited to Instapaper and Read It Later. Notable apps that have added Readability integration include Tweetbot, Twitterrific, Echofon, Reeder, Pulse, Longform and Early Edition 2.
As noted above, the Readability service originally provided two levels of functionality; limited access for free and a minimum $5/month “Premium” subscription for full access to all features. Earlier this year, shortly before the release of its native iOS app, Readability effectively made subscriptions completely optional. Users can now access all of Readability’s features for free, including the Readability app itself; subscriptions are only required for those users who want to support Readability and it’s author-revenue-sharing business model. Both on the web and in the app, Readability does a good job of presenting articles in a clean reading view without any of the extraneous cruft that sometimes sneaks in with Instapaper’s rendering engine. This provides a much more pleasant reading experience, but it’s also worth mentioning that there are many sites that Readability doesn’t do a good job of parsing—in some cases articles cannot be saved into Readability at all and will be rendered as an error page or some other page element rather than the actual article. Further, Readability’s controversial business model has led some authors to block their content from being saved by Readability entirely. This means that your mileage may vary in terms of how useful Readability is depending on the sites that you frequent and where you want to save content from.
Readability is a nice-looking app that provides a minimalist reading experience while being fun to use, although sadly the company hasn’t done anything particularly special for its iPad UI, which is effectively just scaled up from the iPhone version. It’s also worth noting that Readability can be the slowest of the three apps in terms of refreshing new content, especially when a large number of items are being downloaded; although users can choose to omit the download of archived articles, unlike Instapaper this is an all-or-nothing choice—you either get your entire archive on your device, or none of it. Regardless, users with relatively simple offline reading needs will probably find it to be a good fit, and the free price tag is hard to complain about, although the more limited compatibility with content may be an issue for some users. Users who prefer reading their Readability content in other apps such as Reeder may also still find the standalone iOS app to be a useful companion for managing their Readability content. iLounge Rating: B+.
Pocket (free) is the evolution of Read It Later, one of the first mainstream deferred reading services to arrive on the web. Although Read It Later pre-dates Instapaper by at least a year, it was later to the game with an iOS app, resulting in Instapaper becoming a more popular service on the iOS platform. The original Read It Later iOS app was also somewhat more limited in scope and functionality, perhaps leading to both the Pocket re-branding and major redesign for version 4.0.
While Instapaper is the Swiss army knife of deferred reading apps, and Readability takes a deliberately minimalist approach, Pocket lands somewhere right in the middle of these two extremes. Pocket provides a more robust feature set comparable to Instapaper while delivering the more pleasant UI design and reading experience of Readability.
Further, a major advantage of Pocket is that users can take advantage of widespread third-party adoption similar to that of Instapaper. Despite the re-branding, Pocket is essentially still the same basic service under the hood and can therefore still be used by all third-party apps with “Read It Later” integration. As updates roll out, most apps will eventually change “Read It Later” references to “Pocket” (as Tweetbot has recently done), but regardless this is simply a matter of two different names for the same service.
Pocket takes its UI design a step or two beyond Readability, and well beyond Instapaper’s spartan approach. On the iPhone and iPod touch, a standard, linear reading list is displayed that also includes thumbnails for each article; the iPad version provides something completely different with content presented in a variable-sized grid, again with images included to enhance the experience. As with the other two apps, swiping left-to-right on any individual item presents a shortcut menu with options for tagging, archiving, starring, deleting or sharing.
Unfortunately, the display options in reading view are a bit more limited than in the other apps, with a choice of toggling between only two fonts—a serif and sans-serif option—as well as font size, justification, brightness and day/night mode options. Unlike the other apps, display settings made here other than brightness apply only to the actual reading view and don’t translate back to the list view; this unfortunately even includes the dark mode setting, making for a jarring transition between the reading view and list views when dark mode is engaged. A menu bar, found at the bottom on the iPhone and iPod touch and at the top on the iPad, provides access to these formatting options along with a back button and options for archiving, starring and sharing the current article.
Like Instapaper, tapping on the screen hides both the menu bar and iOS status bar to present a clean reading view. Options found in the top menu bar on the iPad or at the top of the article view on the iPhone and iPod touch also allow the article to be manually reloaded and allow the user to switch between the Pocket-rendered view and the original web page. Pocket can also be configured to select the best view automatically, allowing the web view to be displayed instead for those articles that can’t be rendered properly by Pocket. In our own experience this feature was somewhat hit-and-miss; Pocket seemed to only select the web view when the Pocket-rendered version contained nothing at all, as opposed to situations where the text-only view had not rendered the content properly. Regardless, users can easily switch manually between them at any time, so it’s not a serious issue either way.
Pocket also has its own independent orientation lock that appears as a bezel image when rotating the device; users can simply tap to lock or unlock the current orientation, preventing the screen from inadvertently flipping around during normal reading. Pocket does lack the “swipe-back” gesture to return to the reading list that used in the other two apps, however only users who have come from Instapaper or Readability are likely to notice or care about this omission. Another nice touch is that links saved to Pocket from certain Twitter apps will provide a heading at the top of the article displaying the tweet from whence the article came, along with an option to retweet the link right from within Pocket.
Pocket provides content organization in the form of tags, rather than folders. Items can simply be archived with no tags, or assigned one or more user-defined tags; users can filter and search based on these tags to help locate content. The tag system provides more flexibility than folders for archiving content as multiple tags can be applied to a given item. Sadly, tags can only be applied from the main reading list; there appears to be no way to apply them while in the actual reading view, an unfortunate deficiency for users who prefer to file things away immediately after reading them.
Pocket also provides the widest range of sharing features, with the ability to copy or e-mail links, send out an entire article via e-mail, and share on Box.com, Buffer, Delicious, Diigo, Evernote, Facebook, Google Reader, LinkedIn, Pinboard, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Tumblr and Twitter. It’s also worth mentioning that Pocket is the only one of the three apps that leverages the built-in Twitter integration in iOS 5, allowing the user to tweet out a link without having to set up a Twitter account directly within the app. Third-party app integration is also available, similar to Instapaper but with a more limited set of options: EchoFon, OmniFocus, Things, Twittelator Pro and Twitter.
Users can toggle any of the sharing options on or off by tapping the Edit button in the top-right corner of the sharing list, allowing them to narrow the list to only those services that they actually use. As another nice added touch, the initial sharing pop-up menu that appears when tapping the sharing button will provide quick access to the last three sharing services or apps used, with a “More” button to access the full list of enabled services.
Pocket also provides unique, special handling of videos and images, treating them as entities in their own right rather than just trying to scrape text content from sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Users can filter the reading list to display only articles, videos or images, and the video and image views are presented even on the iPhone in a more appropriate thumbnail grid, rather than a list. Videos are also presented in an embedded video player view—even a nice popover window in the iPad version—and can be played back from right inside Pocket.
Pocket is also able to access content from specific sites that require subscriptions by allowing the user to enter their account credentials directly into the app. A list of typical sites such as ESPN Insider, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are included, along with the option to try and log into other sites not on the list. This differs from Instapaper which is basically able to save anything the user can see in their browser without requiring the user to supply their credentials to the app, but is a reasonable solution for users who don’t mind doing so, and has the added advantage of providing compatibility with links from third-party apps; since the Pocket service is able to log in to access the content directly, the user does not need to open an article link in a browser first in order to save it.
Pocket provides a very nice solution, combining many of the best features of Instapaper with Readability-style UI design and polish, while also adding its own very useful features such as tag-based organization and direct support for video and images. Sadly, the Pocket service does suffer from some of the same limitations as the other apps with regard to rendering pages, but does at least try to provide a more transparent display of the web view for those items that it can’t render as proper articles. Pocket is a very nicely designed and polished app that should meet the needs of most users and best of all, both the service and the app are entirely free. Unfortunately, despite the major redesign, Pocket 4.0 is in many ways more like a “1.0” version and has a few minor UI issues that currently detract slightly from its overall usability. They will hopefully be cleared up in future updates, making what is currently a very attractive app a full-fledged rival in power to Instapaper. iLounge Rating: A-.
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