While the iPad has solved the problem of too many paper magazines accumulating in my office, it has created another problem — me spending way too much money on impulse magazine purchases. Now that the latest version of the Kindle app also supports digital magazines, I have even more ways to spend money. I’m going to share with you my experiences reading magazines with Zinio’s app, the Amazon Kindle app and Apple’s Newsstand in terms of price, quality and selection. Note that my reading habits tend to lean towards tech, photography, writing and music, so that’s where my selection bias is.
Zinio is the oldest, most mature magazine platform on the iPad, and as a result has the largest selection. The music and photography sections are well stocked. The only writing magazine available I like is The Writer (Writer’s Digest is missing) and for Apple-related magazines Macworld magazine is available, but MacLife is not. As an aside, while Zinio does carry adult magazines, those are not available on the iPad app due to Apple’s guidelines. Where Zinio’s selection truly shines is the large back issue catalog — Digital Camera World has issues going back to 2002. News and tech-related magazines tend to have a short shelf life, but for arts magazines I love I can go that far back. The News section seems well stocked, but, oddly, the the Russian version of Forbes is the only one available.
The shopping experience is very unobtrusive. Since Zinio’s primary business is selling magazines, it’s very easy to browse the store and purchase magazines from either your browser or app. Zinio does a good job at organizing the magazines into sections, so you can browse just by Photography or Music sections. It would be nice to see another sub-level where I could sort by just guitar-oriented magazines.
Zinio has the highest up-front cost of the three options because most subscriptions are for the year, and individual prices are close to newsstand prices.
The first few releases of the app were rough going with each page taking a while to come into focus, but with the latest version of the app, I barely notice it on an iPad and never notice it on an iPad 2. The text has a nice weight and the images look fine. You can sort your reading view by issue release date or title, but you can’t group them by section. The quality varies on the table of contents between magazines. Some magazines just show you the content page; others have an interactive table of contents, making it easy to get to the article you want to read. There is an option to display a lengthy article in an easy-to-read text format, but it not used nearly enough. You can bookmark pages, but not highlight passages.
Of the three options, Amazon has the poorest digital selection with roughly 420 Kindle magazines available. Amazon’s Arts and Entertainment digital magazine section has only 120 magazines; Zinio’s Photography section (also under its Arts section) has 118 magazines alone. That said, there are a few magazines like Guitar World that are available on Amazon, but not Zinio. Searching the store is a bit of a hassle. The default sections are too broad making it hard to narrow your selection. Also the keywording isn’t implemented well; searching on Photography did not bring up Digital Camera World, but searching on Camera did.
There are also no back issues available. This is a problem if you get into a new interest and want to get a backlog of magazines. As I mentioned in the Zinio section, it’s nice to get into a new hobby like photography and be able to scour the back issues.
In terms of pricing, I found Amazon to be the most consumer-friendly. Most magazines can be subscribed to month-to-month for about $1 to $2.99 and a free 14-day trial is available for all magazines. Unlike Zinio, you do not have to purchase a full year upfront.
Your magazines are well-integrated into the Kindle app, showing up in both the All Items view and the Newsstand tab. I found the page layout view to be the poorest of the three, with the text being slightly heavier than Newsstand and Zinio; it’s about halfway between regular and semi-bold. Against a white background it’s not bad, but it really looks poor against a color. What is nice is Amazon’s Text view for magazines is much more useful than Zinio’s. It’s supported on each page and you can customize the layout and fonts.
Finding old issues you want to download, again, isn’t clean. All of your old issues are in a Periodicals: Back Issues folder. Back Issues also seem to go into the Archived section of the Newsstand tab. What’s a little weird is if you archive a magazine it only shows up in the Archived area, not also the Periodicals: Back Issues folder.
Newsstand isn’t one service. Instead, it’s a collection of magazine apps that are grouped by Apple into their Newsstand folder in iOS 5. While each app does have its own idiosyncrasies, there are some common themes I’ll be mentioning here.
The selection for Newsstand roughly falls between Kindle and Zinio with around 1,620 Newsstand apps available. However, it’s in searching the thing falls down on its face. You can either search the store for the magazine and then refine the search for Apps only, or you can scroll through the entire Newsstand catalogue. It’s darn near impossible to browse a section. Shutterbug magazine will show that it’s in the Photo and Video section, but clicking on that section shows me all of the Photo and Video apps; not just Newsstand apps. You also cannot search and purchase through the web.
Most magazines are available for monthly $1 to $2.99 subscriptions with a few I’ve seen having a minimum of a three-month subscription. There are no free trials. Back issues vary from app to app; some only go back to when the app was launched, some go back over a year.
For the most part, reading a Newsstand magazine is on par with reading a PDF of the magazine. While that’s largely true of Zinio and Amazon, at least they offer niceties like the table of contents and a text view; the Newsstand apps I’ve tried do not. Also, there is no bookmarking or text selecting. Newsstand apps take a second or so to focus in on my iPad, but it’s better on my iPad 2. However, unlike the Kindle app, the text looks fine in page layout view.
While Newsstand does a decent job of grouping magazine apps together, the entire reading experience feels kludgy. If you have a lot of apps, it’s hard to find out which ones have recent copies since the app stays in the same place in Newsstand even after a new issue has been downloaded — although some of the apps show a “new issue” flag on the app. You can turn on notifications and badges, but I limit my notifications to alerts that are truly important.
An obvious point that bears mentioning is that Newsstand is the only one of the three that’s not cross-platform. One of the draws of Zinio and Amazon Kindle is they do work on non-Apple devices. If you also have a Kindle Fire in addition to your iPad, Newsstand is not the choice for you.
Where my purchases go
When I look for a magazine, Zinio still remains my first destination since that’s where the bulk of my library resides. After that, I look on Amazon for a Kindle version. If it’s not on Kindle but is on Newsstand, well, frankly I make a decision if I really need the magazine that badly. There are two reasons I choose the Kindle second, even though the quality is the poorest of the three: it shows up with the rest of my books in the Kindle app, so I only have two apps that I need to look towards for reading — and it is cross-platform. One thing I’m trying really hard to do is make sure the content I consume is cross-platform. With iOS, I know I’ve got some lock-in on apps, but since Zinio and Amazon have gone out of their respective ways to make sure my content can be read on different platforms I know I can read my books and magazines on a Kindle Fire if I get one.