the candler blog

Readability, Instapaper and Reading on iOS

Technology

After months of buildup and failed launches, Readability’s iOS app is finally here. I downloaded it this morning and started tossing articles in it. So, how does it stack up?

While I recognize that there is a cottage industry of “read later” apps on iOS, to me, the gold standard against which all are measured is Instapaper. I’ve been using Instapaper for a few years now and it has completely changed the way I approach browsing the web.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a new app in the shadow of a well established one, but for me, and I’m guessing many other iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch owners, whether or not Readability stays installed hinges on the question, “Is it better than Instapaper?” So, is it?

Typefaces

Readability ships with five typefaces, all designed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. They are:

Sentinel

Vitesse

Mercury

Whitney

Gotham Narrow

The app has a special page where users can learn (at great length) about each one and then purchase them from the renowned foundry. My favorite so far is Sentinel, which H&F-J describes thusly:

Unbound by traditions that deny italics, by technologies that limit its design, or by ornamental details that restrict its range of weights, Sentinel is a fresh take on this useful and lovely style, offering for the first time a complete family that’s serviceable for both text and display.

Vitesse, on the other hand, is a font I could never see myself reaching for when opening the app. It’s pretty good looking for headlines (it is, after all, a geometric slab) but the body of an article looks like scribbly garbage to me. It gives me a headache. I have no idea why it was included. A much better choice would have been to use it for headlines and pair it with something more readable.

Mercury is a nice serif, basically a more readable, more adorned version of Georgia. Whitney and Gotham Narrow are two very welcome sans-serif additions. Both offer a bit more breathing room than Helvetica and are altogether more lively. Gotham Narrow, in particular, looks beautiful at its smallest size on the iPad and iPhone.

All five typefaces are available on both the iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch, whereas Instapaper offers three on the iPhone/iPod Touch (Georgia, Verdana and Helvetica) plus three more on the iPad (Hoefler, Baskerville and Palatino). All of Instapaper’s fonts ship with the iPad; Readability’s fonts are all custom.

Most of the time, a user of either service will stick to one font, at least one per device. I think four of the five fonts that ship with Readability are absolutely gorgeous and make reading on an iOS device easier and more enjoyable. Comparatively, I rarely stray from Georgia, Hoefler and Helvetica in Instapaper. The fonts in Readability do look better, but there’s more to these apps than fonts.

Appearance

When you open Readability, you are presented with your “Reading List,” all of the articles you have bookmarked for later viewing. You can view “Favorites” and your “Archive.” Much like older versions of Instapaper, articles are displayed in a list, each article taking up a full horizontal row. The iPad will display about six articles at once in portrait view, five in landscape. Instapaper, which has since moved to a grid layout, displays about the same (four in landscape), but you can see more of the first few sentences of the articles.

When you tap on an article in Readability, you enter article view. For a brief moment, controls appear along the bottom of the screen and then shrink out of view. Tapping the screen brings them up again. Instapaper on the iPad has controls along the top of the app and they never disappear. Instead your article scrolls underneath the controls.

Besides switching between the five aforementioned fonts, you can also adjust the font size, article column width and choose from “Day” and “Night” modes. Both modes look clean and crisp. I prefer Readability’s “Night” mode to Instapaper’s “Dark” mode. They have gone with a background that is a little more gray than black, which feels slightly lower contrast and is a bit easier on the eyes in a darkened room. Additionally, Readability’s stronger fonts really pop with the light on dark theme; in Instapaper I’ve always found it more difficult to read in Dark mode.

Sharing

In Readability, you can Favorite, Archive, Delete and Share the current article. The sharing button offers the ability to tweet, post to Facebook, email, copy link or open in Safari. Instapaper does all this and more, a lot more actually. There is no option to share specific text, only a link to the whole article.

Annoyingly, all links are sent through the Readability’s rdd.me link shortening service. So far these links seem to be a bit unpredictable. Sometimes they take you to the full page, sometimes they take you to the page with a frame on top explaining what Readability is and other times they take you to the article already in Readability web view. I’d much prefer this was an option that could be turned off. Generally, when I share a URL, I like to share the whole URL with people so they know where they’re going. This is especially ridiculous when sending an e-mail, where there are no character limits.

When it comes to sharing, Readability looks like a joke next to Instapaper. Most users don’t need all the bells, but some of the features, like sharing selected text in Instapaper, seem stupidly obvious. That being said, most of the time I don’t use an app like this to share links; I use it for reading.

Reading

Sitting back and giving something a long read is really the test of this kind of an app. It’s why they exist. The fonts and the color schemes are important, but there are other things that alter the reading experience.

One feature of Instapaper that didn’t make it into Readability is the “Page View.” In Instapaper, you can either scroll through an article vertically, or have it cut off at a “page” which is basically the bottom of the screen. You can then swipe through an article instead of scrolling.

This changes the way I think about web writing. If given the option to scroll, be it on an iOS device or a desktop, I tend to move around an article for no reason. I usually bring whatever paragraph I’m currently on up to the top of the page, even if that means scrolling a bit every few seconds. I have done this, habitually, for as long as I have used the Internet. With Instapaper’s page view, I stop scrolling and focus more on reading, like when I’m reading a book.

The scrolling motion has been a distraction akin to doodling (I also click and highlight text like a madman when I’m in a browser, just because). It’s not something that gets in my way, necessarily, but when I don’t have the option, I find I focus more on the actual text. Readability can only scroll through your text vertically. It’s not such a bad thing, but I really do like Instapaper’s single page view.

On the iPad version of both apps, the clock and status bar are always visible at the top of the screen. This is quite annoying and I wish both would do away with them. On the iPhone/iPod Touch version of Instapaper, the clock is hidden but your controls are always visible at the bottom of the screen. While the controls can be hidden with a tap in Readability, the clock is always visible, which is far more annoying on such a small screen. Both apps are a wash in this regard.

Everything Else

Instapaper and Readability are two apps that will duke it out for my attention for a little while. Instapaper is more widely integrated into apps, but Readability is holding its own with a nice. Readability’s web view is far more sophisticated than Instapaper’s (though it just got a lot better).

While both services are free, Instapaper costs $4.99 and Readability for iOS is free. Both offer paid subscriptions as well. For $1 per month, you can access some of Instapaper’s extra features, including full text search of your account and access to third-party apps. For a minimum of $5 per month, Readability will pay out 70% of your fee to the writers whose sites you read most. As far as I can tell, as a user you don’t get anything extra (besides good karma) for subscribing.

It’s hard to argue with free, but Instapaper is clearly the more mature platform. Most of the pitfalls of Readability 1.0 remind me of older versions of Instapaper, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Out of the gate, Readability is in a very good place. More and more apps are adopting their API and those Hoefler & Frere-Jones fonts look amazing.

All told, Readability feels like the biggest competition Instapaper has faced yet in an increasingly crowded space. I’m excited to see how both apps try to outdo each other over the next few months. Will Readability overtake Instapaper on my home screen? I don’t know yet, but it sure is something I’m considering.

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