iPad apps: news and magazines

Apple's done a pretty good job convincing the old media that the iPad will save their industry, so we've taken our time trying out the launch titles in the App Store -- it's plain to see that different publishers have radically different ideas about how you're supposed to buy and consume their content, and everything from pricing to UI is currently up in the air. But while the apps we've seen so far are definitely intriguing, we haven't seen any silver bullets yet -- and to be perfectly honest, in several cases we wondered why an app was preferable to an iPad-optimized web site, or even (gasp) a paper subscription. Let's run down the launch lineup, shall we?

Update: We added in NPR and Zinio by popular request, check 'em out below!

The Wall Street Journal (free app, $3.99/week subscription required for full content) - This is one of the superstar halo launch apps for the iPad, but honestly, we have no idea why. Everything about it is a little confusing -- it's free, but it constantly reminds you that you need an expensive subscription to get anything more than what's available on the WSJ website. The interface is beautiful, but you navigate it with a set of gestures totally alien to the iPhone OS, like pinch-to-go-back -- a gesture that Fusion Garage actually took out of the JooJoo because it was confusing. It's also the slowest app on our iPad: moving around it is seriously laggy, and there's a big delay between pushing a video play button and getting any feedback that the video's about to play. Yes, the WSJ app is a beautiful digital representation of a paper newspaper, but that doesn't make it a good app -- just swiping up and down to change sections is slow and unresponsive to the point of irritation. We'd much rather buy a cheaper paper sub to the WSJ with bundled online access to the videos and archives than play around with this noise. [See in iTunes]

New York Times Editor's Choice (free) - The NYT's early entry into the iPad game hasn't gotten as much hype as the WSJ, but it's actually quite well-done. The content is an abbreviated edition of today's paper -- hence, "editor's choice" -- but it's all presented beautifully, and navigation is simple and intuitive. Sure, there's less content available than on even the iPhone app, and there's no font re-sizing, or video, or full-screen slideshows, but the app is extremely effective at just getting out of the way and letting you read -- in fact, we prefer it to the NYT's website. Could more be done here? Absolutely, yes, but in terms of using the iPad as a replacement for the morning newspaper, the NYT app is about as close as it gets. [See in iTunes]

Associated Press (free) - Unlike several of the other publications, the AP didn't try and fake a newspaper layout with its iPad app -- it's gone with a bulletin board vibe instead. Navigation within each section is horizontal, rather than vertical, and individual stories pop over the main interface in a modal window with arrows at the top that let you click through the previous and next articles. The picture and video browsers are sparse, with thumbnails laid out horizontally as if on a table, and don't really tell you what you're looking at when you browse -- you have to tap each image for more info. The videos look good when played back full screen, but you can't expand the photos, which is odd. Overall, it's a nice app with room for improvement -- we love the customization options and offline reading capabilities, but the AP is just scratching the surface here. But hey -- it's free! [See in iTunes]

USA Today (free app, will require paid subscription after July 4) - The first app we managed to crash on the iPad! That's not a good sign. It's also, well, kind of ugly. Seriously -- we wouldn't hold up USA Today's web site as a paragon of design or beauty, but it blows the front page of the iPad app out of the water. Just look at all those broken paragraphs! Happily, things improve mightily once you click into an article, and the gestures used to navigate make sense -- down to read more, left / right to move between pieces. We're not seeing any video content, and you can't zoom in on article images, although there is a "Day in Pictures" slideshow. All in all, it's a totally passable free app, but we can't say it offers nearly enough on top of the website to justify whatever subscription fee will go into effect this summer. [See in iTunes]

Thomson Reuters News Pro (free) - Our favorite news app so far. The Reuters app doesn't chase its tail trying to reinvent dead mediums -- it just fills the screen with high-quality content. Even better, it does it for free. Content is organized well and the UI is dead simple, although it could stand a little tweaking with gestures: swipes to move between articles instead of tiny little buttons would be nice in all views, instead of just the slide show view. Video plays well and can be made full screen, the stocks viewer offers a nicely multitouch price graph and customizable news results, and there's a constantly updated currency converter, for some reason. Is it better than the website, which offers the same content and is updated slightly faster? Not really, but we'd say the iPad-specific interface tweaks and speedier load times make it worth a download -- especially since it's free. [See in iTunes]

BBC News (free) - Our third-favorite news app, only because there's no full-screen article view -- you're stuck reading in this two-pane view -- and you can't zoom in on photos. That said, it is a free app, there's plenty of video, and it streams BBC Radio live. As with all of these apps, there's some UI quirkiness here, but it's nothing terrible: you open articles from the news feed by locating and tapping an absolutely minuscule icon on the right, text zooming is done with two icons rather than a slider or pinching, and it's never quite clear when the radio will or won't play. Again, it's not so much better than the BBC website that it'd be worth paying for, but it's free, fast, and well-done, so it's hard to complain. [See in iTunes]

Le Monde ($.99 app, today's paper free, archive requires purchase) - It's not just the English rags that are trying to save themselves from obsolescence -- premier French paper Le Monde also has an iPad app out. We're not too up on our French, but we will say the app is much more pleasant than the paper's website -- the main interface is an extremely faithful rendition of the physical paper, and you can easily pop into several different iPad-specific layouts that are slightly easier to read. There's no full-screen photo viewer, nor are there any videos, but actually just getting around the paper is simple, intuitive, and attractive. Unfortunately, you have to download each day's content in full before you can browse it, a process which requires time and storage space -- and older editions cost either €.79 each or come along with the €15/mo subscription. It's not a bad riff on "freemium" if you read the paper every day, though -- especially since the app is so much better than the website. Take note, Rupert -- the WSJ just got totally shown up by the French. [See in iTunes]

Time ($4.99 per issue) - Oh, Time. This is another premier launch app, and it's equally baffling as to why -- especially since all this content -- and more! -- is available for free on the web, and a 56-issue paper subscription runs around $20. That means the presentation alone has to justify the insane $4.99 per issue, and while we won't deny the presentation is gorgeous, it's simply not functional or polished enough to make the case. You can't zoom in on photos, for example. When it downloads an issue the app is named "April 12, 2010" (or whatever) on the homescreen instead of "Time" -- and each issue requires a separate icon. Launching the app in portrait mode results in layout weirdness until you rotate it to landscape and back again to trigger the correct portrait layout. It's easy to accidentally swipe horizontally to the next article instead vertically for the next page -- and when you swipe back you've lost your place. There's no search. The portrait and landscape modes have different layouts, so there are super embarrassing typos in some views that don't share the same typesetting. All in all, it feels like the developers and designers at Time have managed to build themselves a very nice demo of what a Time app could be like -- it's going to take some serious polish and rethinking of pricing to make it into what a Time app should actually be. [See in iTunes]

Popular Science (free app, $4.99 per issue) - If Time is a very nice tech demo of a magazine app, than Popular Science is a drug-addled science fiction nightmare. As with Time, most of PopSci's content is available for free on the web, so the cost of each iPad issue has to be justified by presentation -- a challenge this app simply fails to meet. As with the WSJ app, the primary problem here is a totally unique set of navigation gestures that are unintuitive and oftentimes lead to strange results. Yes, primary navigation is done with swipes -- vertical for the next page, horizontal for the next article -- but after that it's some really weird stuff, like a two-finger "push" that only works in the lower middle of the display to bring up the contents and issue browser. Tapping on the left side of the display makes all the text invisible so you can see the images more clearly, but it doesn't actually make the images bigger -- and if there's no image on the page it just results in a blank white screen. The table of contents page in the magazine isn't clickable, so you can't navigate with it -- and if you try to tap on it, there's a good chance you'll hit the left side of the display and it'll disappear entirely. There's no pinch-to-zoom on the photos, and no search of the text. If you're wondering why anyone would pay $5 per issue for this experience when a full year's paper subscription costs $14 and all the content is easily accessible for free in Safari, well -- so are we. [See in iTunes]

Zinio (free app, magazine pricing ranges) - Zinio's an old standby in the digital magazine game, and it feels like the iPad is exactly the device the service has been waiting for. Zinio provides faithful digital versions of print magazines, with an added overlay of interactivity -- it's basically a PDF you can click. That means single page layouts look amazing on the iPad's screen, and two-pages layouts look even better turned horizontally, since there's no page fold. There are tons of titles, from Spin to OK! to Cycling, and pricing is basically the same as single issues off the newsstand or year-long subscriptions -- and subscriptions to arrive in the background. Sounds perfect, right? It would be, except actually browsing a magazine is frustratingly slow -- every page turn requires loading time, opening magazine issues requires more, and switching from portrait to landscape is a harrowing experience of flickering imagery and mutilated layouts. Don't get us wrong -- there's a lot of promise here, and it's worth downloading the free app and checking out some of the free content -- but without a significant performance boost the Zinio app simply can't compete with the dedicated magazine apps. [See in iTunes]

NPR (free) - Considering how well done the NPR web site and iPhone app are, it's no surprise that the iPad app is also a pleasure to use, and here we are with smiles on our faces. Obviously the big feature here is streaming audio in addition to the articles, and it works like a charm, with easy-to-use playlist features and controls. Unfortunately, hitting play on an audio stream for the first time brings up a large advertising overlay, which slides over whatever you're looking at -- but if that's what it takes for free content, well, we can't complain too much. There's also some rudimentary Twitter and Facebook integration in addition to the share-by-email function, which is pretty fun. We just wish we could keep the app running in the background to keep listening while we do other things -- let's hope iPhone OS 4.0 helps a very good NPR app experience become a great NPR app experience. [See in iTunes]