Newspapers vs iPad apps: a week-long test
I love newspapers. Frequently my desk is piled so high with yellowing copies of The Times and The Guardian I simply cannot see Tim Danton sitting next to me (this, neither of us would dispute, is a good thing). In the interests of full disclosure, I even worked on newspapers for more than five years. So giving up my daily fix of newsprint-smudged fingers is a big deal for me.
Yet, for the past week I’ve done just that. I’ve stopped handing over my £1 every morning to Mr Govani in the shop next to the station, and downloaded the latest copy of The Times and The Daily Telegraph on the iPad before setting off to work, to test whether it’s really possible – desirable, even – to switch from print to screen. Here’s what I found.
THE DAILY ROUTINE
The first obstacle to reading newspapers on an iPad is that it needs a little forethought: a rare commodity in my house first thing in the morning. Instead of simply picking up my rucksack and bowling out of the door (most days remembering to shower and get dressed first), I now have to fire up the iPad and download the latest editions of the newspapers before I kiss the kids goodbye. The PC Pro iPad is Wi-Fi only, so downloading over 3G isn’t an option.
My prime concern before embarking on this test was that the newspapers wouldn’t be ready to download before I left the house at 7am each morning: the newspapers published on the Amazon Kindle, for example, aren’t guaranteed to be ready until 8:30am in some cases. Happily, new versions of both The Times and The Telegraph have been sat waiting for me to download each morning, and they only take a minute or two to download on my relatively sluggish 4Mbits/sec broadband, so they barely disrupt my dash for the door.
Annoyingly, however, it appears iPad owners are only treated to early editions of The Times, with the electronic version bearing all the hallmarks of the papers that are printed early so they have time to reach the more remote parts of the country: no late-breaking news, no manager quotes in football match reports etc. Sure, it must take some time for the The Times designers to format that content correctly for the app, but it seems odd that people buying newspapers on the street might be reading more up-to-date copy than the one I downloaded a few moments ago.
THE COMMUTER TEST
Normally I arrive at my station with five or ten minutes to spare before boarding my train, and spend those idle moments thumbing through the sport section. That’s no problem on the iPad too – the screen is plenty bright enough, even in direct sunlight, and I’ve even got a couple more minutes to soak up the match reports now that I don’t have to queue in the newsagents.
Except, that is, when it rains. While I’m entirely nonchalant at the prospect of a few spatters of rain pock-marking the paper copy of The Times, the iPad has to remain snugly tucked away in my rucksack at the slightest hint of Sussex drizzle.
There are problems at the other end of my commute, too, when I hop on the Tube. While I’m perfectly accustomed to snatching 10 minutes’ worth of reading in between someone else’s armpit on a ridiculously packed Tube train, there’s no way you can whip the iPad out and start thumbing through the columns if you haven’t got a seat. Unlike the paper or even the Kindle, it can’t be held comfortably in one hand, and the thought of dropping it as the train pulls to a sudden halt is too painful to bear. So in terms of sheer convenience and portability, I’m afraid the paper still wins.
THE READING EXPERIENCE
The two iPad newspaper apps I’ve been testing offer a markedly different experience. The Times, with its ambitious/foolhardy (delete according to prejudice) plans to actually make people pay for the news, is by far the most impressive.
It has the look of a newspaper, and just like the paper it’s perfectly possible to thumb the pages from back to front, taking in news, business, features and finally ending on sport. You can also jump straight to the section or article you want, using the navigation bar at the foot of the page.
But this isn’t a straight, PDF facsimile of the paper on the newsstand: the content has been reformatted into a series of elegant, finger-friendly templates that genuinely make the newspaper a pleasure to read. Stories are accompanied by flickable photo galleries, interactive infographics or occasional video clips. The recipes in the Times2 section have been cleverly reformatted so that you get the description when the iPad is held in portrait mode, and the ingredients and instructions when you flip into portrait. There are interactive versions of the cryptic and concise crosswords that you can fill in with the onscreen keyboard.
The novelty may wear off, but it has genuinely made me want to spend more time reading the newspaper. Usually on the way back from work I’ll watch a DVD or play a game on my laptop; this week I’ve been flipping out the iPad and browsing features or reading columns that I’d almost certainly have ignored in the paper.
That’s not to say the reading experience is flawless. The background on The Times app is so brilliantly white it’s actually quite difficult to read for long periods of time without nuking your retinas. I’ve actually had to manually adjust the iPad brightness to delay the onset of epilepsy. It’s also prone to the odd crash, especially when you try and jump to another section using the nav bar. By contrast, my newspaper has six-nines reliability. Worst of all, not all of the content from the newspaper makes it into the iPad version, especially on a Saturday when the excellent magazine and the rest of supplements are mysteriously omitted. And there’s no Sunday newspaper whatsoever. It leaves you feeling ever-so slightly cheated.
The Telegraph app, on the other hand, is a much less ambitious affair. It’s described as “the best of” the daily and Sunday newspaper, which must be a terrific morale boost for the journalists whose stories fail to make the cut. It delivers a fair wedge of stories (between 10-20 for each of the news, sport, business and features sections) as well as the columnists and relentlessly brilliant Matt cartoon. Unlike The Times, there’s no archive of old editions – the latest content simply overwrites the old, and there’s no option to save an article for later reading.
Its front page is near identical to The Times, but far less effort has been put into the design of the articles. Every story is published on the same template, with a headline, big photo at the top, and plain text underneath. There’s none of the joy of discovery or graphical treats that await in The Times. At least it’s toned down the searing background brightness of The Times, although The Telegraph uses a mottled background texture to dampen the glare, which reminded me of reading off an old-school touchscreen PC.
So how much would it cost to swap the newspaper for its iPad brethren? Well, of course, you’re going to have to spend at least £429 on an iPad if you haven’t already got one, which is more than enough to buy you a year’s subscription to a newspaper on its own.
The Times iPad edition currently offers a free 30-day trial, after which it’s £9.99 for 30 days’ access, which can be bought direct from iTunes. Considering the newspaper itself costs £1 from Monday to Friday and £1.50 on Saturday, that’s a saving of at least 50% (when you take the lack of a Sunday newspaper out of the equation). It’s cheaper still if you sign up for The Times and The Sunday Times websites for £2 a week, as you get full access to the websites and the iPad edition as well.
And while I was far less impressed with The Telegraph app, it is completely free, making it stonkingly good value in my eyes.
So would I forego my daily newspaper for the iPad apps? Yes, I absolutely would.
Considering I already spend at least £7.50 a week on daily and Sunday newspapers, the fact that I could save myself £5.50 a week by signing up for a Times subscription means I’m already half-way to paying off the cost of an iPad over the course of a year.
Yes, the iPad’s not as hardy on a rainy platform or sardine-tin Tube train, but in other ways it’s far more convenient: no queue at the corner shop, no death stare when I hand the newsagent a £20 note because I’ve not got any change, not even any need to get out of bed to read the newspaper on a Saturday morning. Bliss.
But most of all, The Times app and (to a lesser extent) The Telegraph have made me want to read more. I’m actually enjoying the physical experience of digesting a newspaper – not just the journalism – for the first time in a long while. And that, for me at least, is almost priceless.