iOS App Review: Readability provides convenience for mobile reading

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Readability

Oftentimes throughout the day I’ll run across interesting blog posts or other web pages that I simply don’t have time to read at that moment, or would prefer to read at my leisure. Several “read-it-later” services are available to address this need and Readability is one well worth looking at.

The idea is a familiar one: As you’re browsing the Web on your computer, you flag web pages to read later. So, how is this different from bookmarking web pages, using Safari’s Reading List, or a service like Delicious or Pinboard ? First of all, Readability doesn’t simply save links to those pages you want to return to; it also saves their content and converts it to a minimal format—that is, just the essential text and graphics, without any headers, ads or other clutter to get in the way. (This happens via the Readability plug-in that you install in your web browser. You can also email URLs to a special email address that the Readability service provides you.) Since a copy of the Web pages you save get sent to Readability, LLC’s server, this means that you need to create an account with the service first. (This account is free and easy to setup.)

One way to view the pages you’ve saved is by logging into your Readability account in a browser. The Web app’s interface is clean, simple and easy-to-use. Your Reading List is organized with the most recently saved articles at the top, with older ones below. Clicking on an article’s title opens the saved (and simplified) Web page. On the left side, you have a row of action buttons—Favorite, Archive, Font Size, Sharing options, and so forth—as well as a link at the top to view the original (non-minimized) web page. Kindle owners will like the ability to send a copy of the article to that device. You also have an option to download a copy in ePub format, which you’ll be able to read on a variety of other devices.

As pleasant as Readability’s Web interface is to use, I prefer to catch up on my reading when I’m not at my computer. I do this with the free Readability app designed for the iPhone and iPad. Besides providing the convenience of reading at my leisure, the iOS app doesn’t even require an active Internet connection to read the articles I’ve saved. (Of course, you’ll need an Internet connection to retrieve new articles, follow links in your saved articles and so forth.)

Launch the app, and it automatically downloads recently saved articles to your device. The iOS app provides a group of navigation buttons for Reading List, Favorites and Archive. Their location is optimized depending on whether you’re using an iPhone or an iPad and if you’re holding that device in landscape or portrait orientation.

Tapping on an article opens the simplified copy of the Web page where; after reading the article, you can then mark it as a favorite, send it to your archive, delete it, or share it via Facebook, Twitter or email. Like the navigation buttons, the location of these buttons is nicely optimized for the device and orientation that you’re using.

A quick swipe to the right takes you back to your Reading List. Swiping an item in the Reading List reveals the Favorites, Archive and Delete buttons so that you can access those common actions more quickly. One of my favorite Readability features is what I call its “infinite scroll”—as you’re reading a page, when you scroll past the bottom (or top), Readability will load the next (or previous) page in your Reading List automatically.

Readability has a pretty responsive design that reflects the device you’re using and the orientation you’re reading in (the iPhone and portrait, in this case). Swipe on an item in your reading list, and action buttons appear.

Tapping on any link in a saved page will open the original version of that Web page in Readability’s built-in browser. From there, tapping on the browser’s Read Now button will open a simplified view of that page while tapping on the Read Later button will add that page to your Reading List for viewing later. However, if you tap and hold on a link, a handy pop-up menu appears where you can quickly select among those choices in addition to opening the link in Safari or copying the link to the clipboard.

Back in the Reading List, there are several other useful options: You can download new articles from the server by either tapping the Refresh button or, as I prefer, using a pull-to-refresh action. You can search your saved pages for key words or phrases, and you can also enter a URL or a search phrase in order to load any web page into Readability’s web browser.

In addition to your Reading List, Favorites and Archives, the Readability app provides two other special views: “Top Reads,” which is a selection of the most-read articles on Readability within the past day and “Longform Picks,” a curated list of lengthy articles from the site.

Power users might complain that there’s no option to change the Reading List’s sort order, tag your posts, follow other Readability users, and so forth. If you think those are important features, then Readability may not be for you. Additionally, I’ve found that the service usually does a good job rendering just the essential text and graphics; my only complaint is that image captions are sometimes difficult to discern from the regular content.

I do have one small ease-of-use concern with Readability, though. While techies would have no problem installing the Readability Mobile Safari bookmarklet, regular users would probably find it challenging. (It’s likely that Mobile Safari can share some of the blame here.)

Despite these minor issues, Readability’s workflow is very simple, and the minimalistic design of both the website and the free universal iOS app is consistent, eye-pleasing and easy to use. So I think Readability is a smart choice for a read-it-later app, at a price that can’t be beat.

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At a Glance
  • Readability's workflow is very simple, and the minimalistic design of both the website and the free universal iOS app is consistent, eye-pleasing and easy to use.

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