Since its inception, the iOS App Store has birthed many an app battle. Whether it be Rovio taking on the world (and winning) or minnows like Draw Something causing a stir amongst the big guns, success is not guaranteed but competition is one thing you can count on.
Read later apps are no different, since the original iOS apps were released by Read It Later (now Pocket) and Instapaper in 2008, competition to be the de facto standard has been fierce. Cue the release of Readability in March, another competitor and another piece of the pie to fight for. Want to know which app is best? How do their features compare? Stick around to find out.
What’s the Deal?
Instapaper is currently the only paid app of the three contenders, costing $4.99. At first glance, this may seem expensive but after using the app it soon becomes clear that it is a relative steal. The fact the app is almost completely managed by one man, developer Marco Arment, is impressive and is becoming a rarity in today’s iOS App Store.
Pocket, the reincarnation of Read It Later, is the result of a major top-down revamp signaling a move away from the traditional text-based article. In dropping many of its predecessors features, Pocket has streamlined its service and now focuses upon video and imagery — hence the name change. The app is also now free to use.
Being the proverbial “new kid on the block,” Readability has caused quite a stir after its release in March. Introducing itself as a free download, it undoubtedly influenced Pocket’s decision to re-release for free. Given the quality of the app overall and the quality features offered, Readability is worth trying.
Interface and Design
After logging into all of the apps, you are presented with the list of previously saved content and articles, in chronological order, ready to be consumed. Sorting the list is possible from both Instapaper and Pocket, though Readability doesn’t yet support the action. Instapaper’s sorting options are very rudimentary, sorting content by “newest” and “oldest” is the best the app offers.
Pocket excels at sorting content and features a button on its menu bar that allows to sort by content type, Articles, Video or Images thus allowing easy sifting through the list. The app also features neat thumbnail images for all of the saved items allowing for easier identification, a unique feature that works very well with video content.
Pocket and Readability employ similar navigation capabilities by providing a simple menu bar on top of their respective reading lists. Access to archives and favourites items is from the menu’s as is Pocket’s sorting system. However, Readability’s menu extends by tapping the “…” button, which reveals the above menu options including the in-app web browser and settings.
Instapaper, on the other hand, is more feature-rich than its rivals and requires a dedicated page to list its navigation options. By tapping Browse above the reading list you are presented with the above screen enabling access to the standard archives etc, and also unique options such as The Feature.
Reading Experience and Style Options
Despite Pocket’s decision to move away from the common article, read later apps are still dominated by text-based content, and as a result, the way in which apps present words is a key issue. All of the apps have customisation options (some more extensive than others) and the ability to read in “Full-Screen Mode” without the presence of menus.
The best Full-Screen mode is presented by Instapaper; any distractions are removed by the absence of the iOS status bar at the top and this allows for the reader’s full attention to be on the text. To navigate back to the reading list or to toggle the app’s options is possible by simply tapping the screen to reveal a minimalistic menu.
Pocket also removes the status bar from the top but leaves behind the option to read in Web View which can be distracting even though this disappears as you scroll down the page. The presentation of an article’s primary image is also well done compared to its rivals, though personally I prefer a clean, text-only page.
Readability on the other hand, is not bad per se, but the fact the status bar remains throughout the article is slightly annoying whilst reading. Where Readability excels in the reading experience is when put into Dark Mode.
Despite the promise of Pocket, when it comes to style variation and customisable content it falls flat — really flat. Only two font variations and text-resizing are available and hopefully, in an update, this will be remedied. In the meantime, Pocket struggles to keep up with its rivals with regard to the basic expectations of a user, which will hinder the uptake of the app.
Instapaper’s 4.0 update brought with it an extensive array of fonts and is now the top dog in this regard. Coupled with the fact that every aspect of an article can be moulded and re-sized to your own specifications, it is hard to look anywhere else but Instapaper for quality. Readability however, given its free price-point, is not far behind. The app features five custom fonts and re-sizable text and once again is a tempting, cheaper alternative.
Welcome to the Dark Side
Like to read at night? Struggle with a bright LCD display? Scared of waking up your partner? If so, dark mode reading is built with you in mind. By flipping the standard white background to a shade of grey, not only is the ambient light reduced, the impact on your eyes is minimized making reading that much more comfortable.
Instapaper offers a disappointing dark mode option that is just as bad to use when reading at night, as compared to the normal white background mode. The contrast of the straight black background and white text is off putting and makes reading that little bit less enjoyable. However, a “twilight sepia” tint is also available (pictured below) and is magnificent to use.
Reading in the sepia tint is almost akin to an old library book, stained and tanned over time which gives a real authentic reading experience. Speaking of authentic, Instapaper’s 4.2 update brought with it iBooks-esque pagination animation (see below), allowing you to flip pages naturally. Swiping to change pages is quick and intuitive, though it is possible to change page without the animations.
Readability was the first app to offer such a refined dark mode experience and offers a masterclass in presenting the feature. The white text is presented against a subtle grayscale background that is a joy to use when reading at night, reducing the fatigue an LCD screen can cause.
Pocket, courtesy of a recent update, has caught up with the opposition and actually improves upon Readability’s offering. Featuring a true full screen and a grayscale background, Pocket’s developers have raised the bar and the feature is genuinely a pleasure to use. Another feature in Pocket, inspired by Instapaper, is the sepia tint background option which is almost identical in implementation as Instapaper, and is the default background for me in both apps.
Finding and Adding New Content
The traditional means of saving content are still in use and for any of the apps a bookmarklet is available for your computer’s browser allowing you to save directly to your reading list. However, as the differences between computers and mobile devices become increasingly nuanced, read later apps must find new ways of adding content.
Pocket, again, lacks compared to its competitors and is sorely behind the time. It has no way of actually finding new content from within the app itself. The web-view reading mode is shown above but is not an actual browser — quite the disappointment. Readability and Instapaper on the other hand boast built in web browsers allowing you to search your favourite websites and save them for later without the need for a computer.
There is huge third-party support for all of the apps, and it is possible to add content to your content lists directly from other apps such as Twitter, Reeder, Zite and hundreds more. However, Instapaper once again steals the show with some great unique features for adding new content.
Sharing content is possible in all of three of the apps, detailed in the next section, but Instapaper takes this one step further. By linking your account with Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, the “Friends” page in Instapaper acts in an RSS-like fashion and collects all links in one place for you to read. Nifty.
The Feature is another great presence within Instapaper and offers handpicked articles from around the web and those that are most popular amongst users, then presents them in a list ready to be read. A dedicated editor curates the content, thus guaranteeing reliable and quality pieces.
Despite its many flaws, Pocket is truly at home when handling video content; videos are played from within the app rather than re-routing to the source through Safari like Instapaper does. Though video cannot be saved for offline viewing, it is still a great feature and, as of yet, unsurpassed.
After reading a great article it is useful to share the piece with others and/or take snippets from it for other use. Instapaper and Pocket have great sharing functionality and allow for sharing articles across a multitude of other apps on your iPhone. Readability, rather disappointingly, is restricted to using Facebook, Twitter and email to share articles.
Pocket is actually the most generous app in this sense and allows for sharing to sites such as Reddit, Pinboard and Evernote whilst also linking to apps such as Things and OmniFocus natively on your iPhone — access to these options is possible by tapping More. Instapaper acts in a similar manner and by tapping Accounts on the above screen you can link up to Tumblr, Evernote and the standard social networks.
And the Winner is …
Instapaper is, without doubt, the best read later app there is. It currently sits proudly in both my iPhone and iPad’s dock and I have recommended it to every friend looking for a read later app. However, for those who think $4.99 is too steep a price to pay, Readability is not a bad substitute and provides a great service. It may be a surprise, but Pocket is also present, rather than Readability, on my devices by virtue of its tremendous video handling capabilities so if you save a lot of video it could be the app for you.