It’s been a while since I reported on my iPad–which, since those first few posts, has convinced about 2.7 million more people to give it a try. It’s now become my only travel device, whether I’m going to another city or just commuting to Philadelphia’s business district.

The first thing I tell anyone who asks is exactly what I said here the last time: “It’s a great reader.” Four months later, that assessment still holds true. Most of the time, I find myself immersed in a book’s story and ideas, paying almost no attention to the device that got me there. I’ve also bought more of these e-books than I’d planned, even if the prices that I’m paying for them make me, as a writer, just plain scared.

But what about other kinds of reading?

I’ve now looked at 50-100 iPad apps from magazine and newspaper publishers. Here’s my unscientific survey, rated according to the four criteria below. (Not under consideration in this round: Internet-born pubs such as Slate.com, or magazine-based apps that follow a different model–like The Atlantic’s two offerings, which are more wire-service-inspired.)

Here are the four criteria, and the winners and also-rans in each category.


Is the navigation effective? This might be the most important consideration of all. How does the reader get to an article or book chapter? What hand motions do what, and is any of it tiring? Is it invisible, fun, or both? And if this is supposed to simulate reading on paper, how easy is it to bookmark something, or even (horrors!) take notes?

In general, iPad reading requires a gesture from fingers, thumb, or both. In place of clicks, one physically touches article titles or book chapters on screen. To read further, you “move” the page (up or to the right) to reach the section you want. How easily that can be done is, in some ways, the name of the game — the difference between losing yourself in the story and cursing at the device.

So when it comes to navigation, how do these apps measure up? The big newspapers have it figured out, most opting to place sections side by side, letting you scroll down as you navigate each one and offering website-like tabs at the top and bottom of each page. Ditto for the (not-cheap) magazines using the Zinio app platform (The Economist, Us, and Macworld, for instance), whose pages speed past with a nice flick. Others are a mixed bag: Time is a bit slow (so to speak), Wired and Publishers Weekly take forever to download each issue, and The Nation’s PixelMags app is maddeningly slow in switching from the overall view to an article — annoying when you just want to settle down and read.

How does it look? Is it visually appealing? Are the ads attractive but not obtrusive? Am I impressed but not overly aware of the design?

For eye-popping cool, top honors go to Vanity Fair (see above), which deftly adapts its print layouts and unashamedly doles out apps to its ads (Check out these lip-gloss colors! Drive this cool car!). Other eye-candy apps include Wired, which embeds actual games; San Francisco Magazine and photo-heavy icons like Sports Illustrated and Interview. Though Newsweek’s offering doesn’t live up to the stellar photos it justifiably shows off.

One unsurprising winner is the New York Times’ “Editors’ Choice” app, which offers a newspaper-like simulation of selected NYT content, with color photos. For a full dose of the news, until today you had to resort to the Times‘ terrific iPhone app; the day after this piece was posted, Barnes and Noble announced that  a full NYT  is now available as a $20/month subscription — readable via via the BN e-reader, my second favorite of the commercial ereaders. (I just subscribed; email me or comment if you want to know whether it lived up to its promise.)

Other newspapers with visual cool include USA Today and Le Monde, which embeds videos in its main menu, right next to photography.

Does it play well with the Internet? As attractive and absorbing as a publication may be, many readers still feel the need to go to that vast repository of memory and dialogue — to check a fact, share an article with friends in social networks, or remind themselves of how another writer tackled the same subject. Do readers have to quit the app and open a web browser? For sites with news value, what about late-breaking updates?

At this stage, many of the iPad magazine apps—and some of the newspapers—feel like cul-de-sacs, as if they don’t need to offer anything beyond their own print content. Others do a little more, offering updates and links to their websites, but in a way that feels like an afterthought. Even the otherwise estimable San Francisco offers only the option of sending an e-mail in its “Share” feature. In these uber-connected times, it’s a lost opportunity when the reader, wanting to tap into the Internet, has to CLOSE the app–the digital equivalent of putting the magazine or newspaper down.

So who scores high on connectivity? It’s almost unfair to say Wired, whose connectivity quotient is reflected in its name, but I’ve got to hand it to them–they’ve built a good many windows in their iPad funhouse. Other mags are more tentative: Sports Illustrated keeps running “Scores” and news tabs going–like a website to go with the app–and Time does the same with its newsfeed. The big newspaper sites offer ways to post to Facebook and Twitter. I expect that the industry will keep experimenting, much the same way that e-book platforms quickly started offering routes out to Google and the Web. Just this past week, in fact, a headline came up about a new rollout from Hearst, later this summer, which promised to be “more social” than the publisher’s current offerings. The new app for Oprah’s O magazine, for instance, “will allow readers to comment within the app’s articles, creating the opportunities for something similar to what Hearst envisions as a real-time chat among users.”

Is the app immersive and absorbing on its own terms? For old-school publishers, the fact that the iPad doesn’t multi-task held the promise that if they could just get the attention of readers, they could hold onto it–readers wouldn’t want to quit the app to go anywhere else. I’m sure that’s what Vanity Fair had hoped to do, and it almost succeeds. But the real winners here are Wired, which sates the multitasking brain so that it persuaded one once-skeptical columnist to buy an iPad, and one I never thought I’d end up calling a leader: Interview, the venerable boho mag founded by Andy Warhol. The navigation is singular, and probably patented: once you flick to the right, each page becomes an animated page-turning-over, both fun to look at and useful if you want to zip past full-page ads. (I loved it even more than the curly flip you get turning pages in iBooks.) Gus van Sant’s interview with Madonna would have been compelling no matter what, but I likely wouldn’t have put up with multiple click-throughs to read it in one sitting. If more magazines adopt this kind of visual and navigational verve, the future of e-magazines may be brighter than I first thought.


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