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The Good, Bad and Ugly of Media iPad Apps

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I know that year-end “best of” lists are everywhere this week and the next, but since I’ve been downloading and trying out almost every media-related iPad (s aapl) app I can get my hands on since the tablet was first released, I thought the end of 2010 would be a good time to put down in writing some of the ones that have most impressed me, as well as some that I think still need work. As far as the criticisms go, I hope showcasing what some are doing well can help the weakest learn how to adapt and make better use of this new platform.

The Not So Good:

  • The New York Times: Since it is a leader online, it would be nice if the Times was a leader in iPad apps as well, but it just isn’t. The app more or less looks like the newspaper’s website, although it is a little less cluttered looking. But there is very little that’s exciting about it. You get the news stories, and occasionally some video (although that is reserved mostly for the ads). It also crashes — a lot.
  • Wired: The tech magazine was a leader in the sense that it was one of the first to release an iPad app, but it probably should have waited — or at least thought about it a bit more. The issues are huge (500 megabytes average) and take a long time to download, and there isn’t really a lot there other than the magazine, and the occasional creative use of video or some low-level interactivity. It’s nice to look at, but that’s it.
  • The New Yorker: Like Wired and some other magazine apps, this one pretty much just gives you the magazine in a different format, much like the old CD-ROM days. The developers seem to have spent most of their time making sure that the ads look nice, since there are a lot of them. The rest of the content is hard to find and sometimes difficult to navigate. Interestingly, you can post to Twitter and Facebook from inside some ads, but not from inside the articles.

Better, But Still Need Work:

  • Slate: This online magazine gets a bit of a break because it is a small publication (although it is owned by the Washington Post Co.), but its design and content are pretty ho-hum. Articles and photos appear in the grid-style view that has become commonplace online and on the iPad, and there is some good use of videos, but it’s mostly the standard headline and web-page style view. Ads are prominent.
  • Life: This magazine’s app is a nice try, in that it is designed around imagery, which is something the iPad is particularly well-suited for, but it falls short of some better ones. The map of the world with pins for photo galleries is an interesting interface, but many of the galleries are old and frankly not that great. The editor’s picks are better, but some are still fairly lame, like the photo gallery of “Kids on the Phone With Santa.”
  • Washington Post: The Post gets a lot of credit for trying to do something that hardly any other app does, which is to bring in outside content in its “live topics” section, including pulling in Twitter discussion and Facebook comments on the news. But the amount of screen real estate given to these features makes it difficult to use them effectively. And the whole thing seems cluttered, although it does have a “read later” function for offline reading, which is nice.

The Best of the Best:

  • The Big Picture: This app is all about images, just like the feature of the same name that it is based on — but the app is even better than the paper version because there are more photos than will usually fit into a single edition on the website. Each one comes with a short description, but the real power is just the photos themselves. One of the best apps out there.
  • Huffington Post: The new app from the web-based publication — which it calls “NewsGlide” — is really well done. It is very much like CNN’s app, in that it has a lot of visuals and not much text on the front page. It also makes good use of the grid-style view, which allows readers to swipe each individual strip of articles right to left. It looks a little jumbled sometimes, but overall is well designed. Sharing and commenting are also prominent, unlike many other apps.
  • Gourmet Live: This app is mostly magazine content, much like Wired or Esquire or the New Yorker, but what makes it different is that it has added an element of interaction and game-playing that involves allowing the reader to “unlock” new articles, recipes etc. by reading (at which point a somewhat annoying little bell rings). It may not work for everyone, but at least the magazine is trying something different.

Interestingly enough, my favorite media-related apps of all aren’t even on this list, because they aren’t really apps from a specific media entity. The ones that I like to browse through the most when I am looking for things to read are the Twitter iPad app, since the people I follow share some of the most interesting links out there (and they appear inside the media pane of the Twitter app), and “aggregation”-style apps such as Flipboard and a newer Twitter-based app called Tweetmag, both of which are designed to pull in content and display it like an interactive magazine.

All of the apps and publishers on the lists here should probably be thinking about that (if they aren’t already) and figuring out how to deal with it.

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Rego Korosi

20 Responses to “The Good, Bad and Ugly of Media iPad Apps”

  1. Economist and Bloomberg are great, NYT would be if it were more stable. I don’t agree that neato interactive features are required to make a good news app. As mentioned, the Economist is exactly like the print version and that’s why it’s great – it actually does replace the print version 100% in a way that the web version never did, as in next year I will switch to a digital only subscription. The audio edition is also a killer feature, although I tend to download the MP3 version rather than use the in app audio. In any news app, videos for the most part go unwatched as they take too long, are impossible to skim, and require audio. +1 for Twitter app and Tweetmag, I signed up for Twitter just to follow new sources.

  2. the big picture is far from the the best if not one of the worst in my opinion and have missed the key experience into viewing images on the ipad. The web experience far out weighs the app experience but the sad point is the web experience fails on the ipad because of safari memory issues… The big picture have really failed in the key ux requirement of how best to view images on a device such as the ipad.

  3. Best magazine app: The Economist. It actually doesn’t try to do anything beyond the print edition, other than give you an audio version, and it is perfect as is. Fast, rock solid, small in size and you can decrease/increase font size using pinch & zoom depending on how tired your eyes are without messing up the perfect layout.

    Very bad: The NY Times with its constant crashes, incomplete content, not preloading all picture’s no matter what you set the preferences to, limited increase in font size. A total embarrassment, The Times should not only be ashamed for releasing this mess, but for not fixing it, week after week, month after month.

    Branson’s Project and many others like it — the worst. Huge, absurdly huge file size yet missing the most basic features like ANY ability to increase the font size. Whoever came up with this disaster (and all others like it) should be fired instantly. It smells to me like Adobe tools were used – I’d be curious if anyone knows for sure.

  4. sguengerich

    An intriguing one: Branson’s Project. I’ve spend a little time with the free (Jeff Bridges cover) issue and am intrigued by some of the things it’s trying in terms of style, animation, in-story nav, vid, etc. Sort of a cross between Wired and GQ. Feels like an expensive media experiment, but I like a number of things I see.

  5. Jaime López

    I understand that you are referring to Media iPad Apps in English.
    I do not know how it will be in other languages (besides English), but in Spanish we have very good applications, such as El Mundo and especially El País, which even includes digital radio.

  6. Jeff Dickey

    @Todd — most Americans under 65 or so have no clue what “left wing” is other than what some avowedly reich-wing media “personalities” have trained them to pretend to think. Educate yourself, or remember the age-old wisdom that reminds us that it is “better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”

  7. Daniel Neesley

    Beauty and usefulness is in the eye of the beholder.

    While I agree with your low opinion of the NYT app and the Wired Magazine app, I revel in the full glory of the layout and design of the New Yorker app. Just too expensive. But I still buy it every week.