Apple has pitched the iPad as the future of reading—a device capable of transforming everything from web sites to newspapers and magazines into more engaging, “magical” experiences. This week’s edition of iPad Gems looks at four recent App Store releases that each provide hints as to the future of reading on this device, and are notable for that reason, though they all have significant caveats that preclude them from being end-all, be-all solutions. We diverge a bit from our usual format for this roundup, focusing on the promise, the good, and the bad of each app.
Our top pick of the bunch is GoodReader, but two of the other applications also receive our general-level recommendation. Read on for all the details.
The Promise: The name couldn’t be much cheesier, but A1 Perfect Web Browser for iPad ($3, version 1.0) from Ingenious Creations is a desktop computer-inspired enhancement of the Mobile Safari web browser, “the fastest and most advanced feature-packed fullscreen web browser to date.” A1 adds a collection of small but non-trivial features to Safari, including tabbed browsing, evolving the iPad browsing experience to something that’s much closer to using a Mac or PC.
The Good: A1 includes full support for tabbed browsing, effectively enabling you to skip instantly between numerous web pages—and to load those pages automatically every time the application starts, if you desire—a feature that’s so big and generally well-executed that Apple’s left with little excuse for omitting it in the next release of Safari. Touching a tab brings it up immediately, without any of the forced reloading seen when switching between pages in Safari, and you can use two-finger gestures to swipe between tabs if you desire. The app also includes font rescaling, a “desktop web rendering” feature to let MobileSafari request pages as if it was desktop Safari, Firefox, Opera, Chrome, or Internet Explorer, and various fullscreen modes that temporarily eliminate the iPad’s status bar, the app’s own navigation bar, and tabs to provide more browsing real estate space. In-page search is also supported.
The Bad: A1’s interface looks like a second- or third-rate version of Firefox, lacking the elegance of Mobile Safari and cluttering the screen with various arrows and overlays. An arrow-based scroll bar for faster navigation floats on the right side, with a tab-hiding arrow above it, a full screen arrow above that, and a nav bar hiding arrow yet above that. A transparent page loading status bar floats in the bottom left corner, and the collection of top-of-screen navigation icons looks like it’s straight out of an old version of Firefox, with colorful globe, plus, star, and other icons that draw attention rather than fading into the background. Bookmarks aren’t imported from the iPad’s own Safari, so you’ll need to rebuild them on your own. It’s also worth noting that the $3 asking price is being pitched as a “special price” for a limited time—even $3 will be a bit much for some people given the functionality, and given that the developer sells an iPhone version for only $1.
Conclusion: The key feature of A1 Perfect Web Browser for iPad, fast tabbed browsing, is so entirely useful for web aficionados that this application’s issues—its price and tacky graphic design—will be easy for some people to look past. While the idea of coughing up cash for various browser extensions strikes us as unappealing, the sluggish pace at which Apple has added key features to its core iPhone OS applications has invited supplemental releases like this one, which will have to do until Safari receives the attention it deserves. iLounge Rating: B.
The Promise: Good.iWare’s GoodReader for iPad ($1, version 2.7.7) is—at least as of this article—the least expensive full-featured PDF downloader and reader we’ve seen for the iPad. “If you need to read huge PDF, or TXT files,” says the company’s App Store page, “you’ve come to the right place.” GoodReader starts with a 50/50 paned interface that shows you downloaded documents on the left, and a collection of document acquisition and previewing tools on the right. You can use an integrated browser to access the web to find PDF, HTML, Office, or TXT documents, or quickly add different types of servers—FTP servers, MobileMe, WebDAV and even mail servers—to browse for downloadable documents. GoodReader finds the documents, saves them for offline viewing, and then displays them for you.
The Good: GoodReader’s current $1 price makes it an attractive alternative to ReaddleDocs, the program we’ve been using and enjoying for PDF downloading and viewing on the iPad, and we liked the app’s support for direct FTP server downloads, settings that can really customize everything from the look of downloaded documents to their interactivity, in-document search, and a reflow feature that can transform PDFs into text files for users who need it. Though we initially experienced a hiccup when trying to grab a test file from a web page, the integrated browser and downloader otherwise worked reliably and provided easy-to-understand dialog boxes before downloading documents.
The Bad: Using the documents contained within GoodReader doesn’t feel as smooth or intuitive as with ReaddleDocs. The page-turning mechanism doesn’t work in quite the way one would expect—something GoodReader’s developer is promising to fix in an update—and even the act of calling up the interface overlay for rapid page-skimming, searching, and screen contrast adjustments is a hit-and-miss proposition until you figure out or read about the app’s odd “tap zones.” Page rendering, particularly when zooming into or out of pages, is slower and less fluid than in ReaddleDocs, leading to longer delays when moving through large documents such as our Buyers’ Guides. ReaddleDocs offers different PDF viewing interfaces that may be better and smoother for some users than the one found in GoodReader.
Conclusion: Though the actual document viewing experience is better in ReaddleDocs, GoodReader feels like a “good enough” purchase at its current $1 asking price, and some of the features it includes—particularly the FTP server support—elevate its back-end functionality over Readdle’s. Apple should really include direct PDF downloading support within iTunes and the iPhone OS, but until and unless it does, GoodReader is a solid budget-priced option. Should the price go up relative to ReaddleDocs, it’ll be easier to lean in the latter’s direction. iLounge Rating: B+.
The Promise: Pitched as a “clean and visual news reader for the iPad,” Alphonso Labs’ Pulse News Reader ($4, version 1.1) has been touted by various reviewers this week as a big deal for RSS feed users—a program that displays RSS content as a “visual mosaic of your news.” Unlike the vast majority of RSS applications, Pulse creates an on-screen grid with pictures and text to represent up to 20 simultaneous news sources, rotating to show four stories from each of four sources in portrait mode, or five stories from each of three sources in landscape. Clicking on any story opens a pane that displays the truncated RSS story, transforming with a single touch into the full web version linked from the RSS feed.
The Good: By borrowing and recoloring the core interface design from Bottle Rocket’s NPR application for iPad, Pulse offers a highly attractive representation of RSS news feeds, using sourced images to make the browsing experience more interesting; it’s aided by the speed with which it acquires linked content, and its use of gentle animations to create and retract panes. Scrolling through an individual news source is as easy as swiping left or right on the horizontal bar that represents the feed, and tapping on an individual story to bring up the pane. As with many RSS programs these days, you can sync Google Reader RSS links with Pulse to build your feed database, rather than having to construct the list of news sources manually.
The Bad: Pulse achieves its speed in part through limitation: it is designed to let you know what’s going on now with your favorite news providers, rather than to catch you up on everything you’ve missed from a large collection of sources since last opening the application. Alphonso Labs’ 20-source, 40-article-per-source caps reduce its need to dive deeper into prior content, which won’t be a problem for those looking just for a quick primer on what’s current, but will frustrate power users whose feed needs are broader and deeper. More significantly, the key advantage of Pulse relative to its competitors—the photo-heavy design—is highly dependent on the publications you read; our list of 20 sources had only 7 with partial or complete in-line photos, turning Pulse’s grid display into a substantially text-based affair that offered little advantage over other browsers we use, arguably wasting a lot of space with divider bars and text summaries in the process. Alternate view options would improve the app’s usefulness for other users.
Conclusion: Pulse is a fine example of an application that offers a very satisfying experience for a particular type of user—one who prefers photo-heavy RSS browsing and has the photo-heavy news sources necessary to make use of the application’s key feature. Whether this functionality is worth paying $4 to use is a big question mark, however, given that competing applications such as NewsRack offer greater depth and versatility for similar prices. Like CoolIris, an application that received a lot of hype and attention last year for wrapping news in a scrollable, photo-heavy interface, this app will need more than just a nice visual gimmick to remain noteworthy going forward. iLounge Rating: B-.
The Promise: Conde Nast’s Wired Magazine ($5, version 1.0) is the latest newsstand publication to attempt a transition into iPad format, pitching itself as a “groundbreaking magazine with exclusive iPad content.” On the surface, Wired for the iPad looks like the technology-focused newsstand publication of the same name, but with a little user exploration and experimentation, the app’s novelties start to become obvious before you’ve even left the front cover: key articles are linked from their corresponding front bullet point text, a play button provides access to a video clip from the Toy Story 3 feature article, and rotating the iPad seamlessly transforms every page’s layout from portrait to landscape orientation rather than providing letterboxing or a twin-page view. Wired is notably based on a new Adobe digital publishing solution, which offers developers a superior development solution to anything Apple has made available to magazine or newspaper publishers thus far.
The Good: Though Wired isn’t the eye-popping breakthrough it was hyped and expected to be, the overall quality of the digital reader software and content are definitely big pluses for this app. Wired preserves the smartest feature of the Popular Science+ app, namely the presentation of a magazine as a landscape collection of articles, scrolling downwards for greater depth and detail, while using a cleaner layout—one that cuts down on PopSci’s gimmicky “here’s how to make plain photos more interesting” parallax scrolling tricks in favor of using more engaging real multimedia content.
A feature on a pop-up book lets you actually see the book’s pages opening in a scrollable animation, and an article on Constructing a Song is just one that contains audio clips, letting you can actually hear the pieces come together. Separately, a word puzzle page uses buttons to let you see or hide the solution—missing only the ability to use the keyboard or some other tool to actually solve it on the device—while other pages use buttons to preserve a visual layout while changing the text. There are at least a half-dozen neat tricks in this issue, and the magazine promises that more are to come in the future. We especially loved and admired the orientation-agnostic design, which could not possibly have been easy to come up with, but presents pages so impressively in landscape or portrait that the magazine looks to have been laid out twice over.
The Bad: Unlike publications using far less impressive software than this one, Wired doesn’t enable you to zoom in on text or images, search its contents, or go out to the web from its pages. The absence of search is particularly problematic in that the reader’s only options are to use vertical or horizontal scrolling bars—nicely laid out, we’ll note—to manually hunt through article by article to find whatever’s being sought. There’s also the issue of its content, which promises “41 exclusive interactive extras” relative to the printed magazine, but relies heavily on feature articles that struggle to rival the timeliness of the Wired web site, while dividing the publication’s efforts and possibly its archives, as well. Achieving the correct balance between giving away and selling content will not be easy for any publication in the iPad era, but Wired has a particularly tricky set of challenges ahead, given the number of different formats it’s trying to support and the existing expectations of its readership.
Conclusion: Though we wouldn’t want to pay $5 per month to read it, Wired strikes us as a decidedly more compelling purchase than the printed magazine, though it’s filled with advertising and has lower distribution expenses that should justify a lower asking price. The absence of an in-app system for managing multiple issues and the challenge of coming up with additional and compelling interactive content on a monthly basis lead us to wonder just how much of this issue of Wired is an experiment, and what form the publication will take a month from now, let alone six or twelve months down the line. For now, Wired is a fascinating experiment in digital publishing, and though the software doesn’t have the sort of next-generation wow factor we’d anticipated when we made the purchase, the interface and content are strong enough to merit continued attention as the application evolves. It’s a good start. iLounge Rating: B.