Paying for individual items is for the olden times: from Breaking Bad to the new Beck album, we expect to have everything everywhere for a convenient – and low – monthly fee. It works for TV, movies, books and music. But can it work for magazines? Readly hopes so.
Readly’s proposition is simple: unlimited magazines for £9.99 per month. It has magazines for anglers and audiophiles, kids and pensioners, high-flyers and home-makers. It has titles dedicated to classic cars and to classic albums. It even has Commando comics.
You can’t fault the price, but Readly isn’t quite perfect yet…
Readly is rather like WH Smith without the horrible carpets and special offer chocolate bars. You’ll find trashy supermarket tabloids and Management Today, InStyle and Cycling Fitness, National Geographic Kids and NME.
It’s a thoroughly non-techy selection, so while you can read The Lady there’s nothing about Linux, and while there’s plenty on caravans and motorhomes there’s nothing about gaming or Macs.
We were sad to see that many of our favourites were missing: there’s no Q or Car, no Total Film or Empire, no T3 or Esquire, no GQ or Red.
With some magazines there’s a gap between publication and titles arriving on Readly: for example NME hits the shops on a Wednesday and Chat on a Thursday, but when we looked for the latest issues in Readly on a Friday morning neither publication had been updated.
There was a similar issue with some monthly titles too.
The delay doesn’t apply to all publications, though, and the cover date is shown underneath each thumbnail. Some magazines provide back issues too.
It’s worth noting that while there’s a selection of children’s magazines – The Beano, National Geographic Kids and so on – there are no parental controls, so the kids’ titles are sharing shelf space with trashy tabloids of the “A POLTERGEIST had SEX with our DOG” variety.
Readly is available for iPad and iPhone, Android, Windows 8/RT and Kindle Fire/HDX. A web-based app is imminent.
The mobile app looks very like Amazon’s Kindle app, showing thumbnails of each magazine’s front cover. You can sort in three ways – new arrivals first, by title or by most recently read – and you can search for specific titles or browse categories, although some of those categories are currently empty or very sparsely populated.
Downloading is fast, storage demands aren’t excessive – after downloading four different magazines, Readly was only taking up 285MB of space on our iPad – and there’s a toggle to enable or disable cellular data for when you’re out and about or abroad. In a nice touch you can start reading magazines immediately, without waiting for the full issue to download first, and downloaded issues work offline.
Browsing is fast and fluid: it’s just like swooping around a photo library, and a thumbnail viewer pops up for easy navigation. If your device is in portrait mode you’ll see single pages full screen, and in landscape you’ll see half of the page at a time. On a Windows PC you have a choice of one or two-page viewing, with the single page taking up the full screen width. Two-page viewing was illegible on our 1,366 x 768 PC, however, and single-page was massive. It would be nice to set a custom zoom level.
Readly really shines on a tablet with a retina display, where portrait mode is perfectly readable unless the magazine designer’s gone small-typeface crazy. Portrait is pointless on phones, though, even retina ones: the text is simply too small.
The reading experience
Readly provides perfect digital versions of printed magazines – and that’s its weakness, because those magazines have been designed for print, not pixels.
What you’re essentially looking at is a picture of each page: text doesn’t reflow to fit the screen and layouts don’t change from their printed versions. That means two things: a lot of scrolling, and a lot of mysteries.
Take the following NME headline, for example: CONTRIBUTE CANON BUMS. What could it possibly mean? In print it’s the second half of a two-page spread headlined “I wanted to contribute to the great canon of classic albums,” but when you land on the digital page it’s shorn of context and sense.
That happens a lot: again and again we found ourselves seeing only part of the picture. It’s faintly annoying on a tablet and utterly frustrating on a phone, like trying to see an entire house by peering through the letterbox.
Scrolling aside, though, Readly is pretty good on tablets – and while it’s at its best on a tablet such as the iPad Air, it’s perfectly decent on lower-res devices such as iPad minis too.
It’s the sort of app you’ll love on a long train or plane journey, although for poolside or beachside reading we think you’d be better off with a Kindle Paperwhite.
If the magazines you want are in the catalogue, Readly is fantastic value for money: you only need to read a few magazines each month to justify the price and if you’re a magazine junkie you’ll save a fortune. Is it the future? Hmmmm.
While it’s nice to save money, Readly is a new price on a fairly old idea: it’s really just a pretty image viewer. That’s fine, but digital magazines can be so much more.
Wouldn’t it be great if Delicious hooked into your recipe manager app, if you could hear the engines roar in Autocar or if you could get a 3D look at the outfits in Look?
Looking again at the big-name omissions from Readly’s catalogue, some of the gaps are no doubt contractual, but some are philosophical: for example T3, MacFormat, Total Film and Esquire aren’t there, and those titles just happen to have really good iPad apps.
The T3 app is a good example: while it shares content with its inky parent, it’s a digital-focused design that doesn’t make your eyes go funny on an iPhone.
TechRadar’s publisher Future makes print mags, electronic editions and apps of all kinds including some of those mentioned above – but as a fan of both printed magazines and of magazine apps, I can’t help feeling that Readly falls uncomfortably between the two.
Reading shrunken facsimiles of magazines isn’t as pleasurable as kicking back with the same ones in their printed form, and while these editions are electronic they don’t take advantage of any of the fun things digital devices can do.