Instapaper’s iPad Update is a Massive Improvement

I’ve made no qualms about the fact that one of my most-used iPad apps is Instapaper. It’s been on my iPad since the first day I got one, making a meaningful difference in my day-to-day life that helps me be more efficient. Thanks to Instapaper, I’m saving anything and everything I find on the Web that I want to “read later.”

That being said, before today’s update for Instapaper to reflect some of the changes made to the iPhone design, the app has been lacking next to some of its colleagues. Today’s update changes a lot of that. Does it make the app better for longtime users on iOS 7? Read on to find out.

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Updated Design

First of all, the big news is that Instapaper on the iPad now matches its iPhone brethren. The first thing you’ll notice is that the app has stripped away some of the darker colours in the menu and gotten rid of any textures that used to exist in the app. I was never a big fan of the menu before; I always felt that it was garish next to the Article view, so I’m glad to see this is improved. Browsing for articles is a little easier on the eyes now.

Instapaper's redesign is flatter, and features a great new Sepia mode.

Instapaper’s redesign is flatter, and features a great new Sepia mode.

Some features have been rearranged, though. The Feature, a collection of well-written web articles selected by the Instapaper team for your reading pleasure, is now tucked away inside a section called Browse. You can also find what your Friends are sharing there as well.

The update also brings the new Sepia mode and a darker Dark mode to the app. The Dark mode is actually much darker than it’s been before. The Instapaper team says this is in response to requests, but I think they might have taken it a bit too far this time around. I loved the Dark mode before and never found it too bright, but those who did will probably prefer this experience. The team notes they also made the scroll bar a little smaller, which must be the case because I find it much less noticeable now than I did before.

The Dark mode is really, really dark now.

The Dark mode is really, really dark now.

As Instapaper is now fully optimized for iOS 7, it downloads articles in the background as wells. This is instantaneous for me. If you need to refresh the app to get an article, you can now pull down on your article list instead of tapping the Refresh button (which has been removed from the app).

Some things, of course, haven’t changed. The text parsing remains the same, as does the quality of the typography, although the Betaworks team says that they’ll be making some changes to the typography soon. I’m hoping these changes are tasteful; as it is, Instapaper relies on some of the best screen type available.

The Feature has been redesigned, but unfortunately, the web browser it opens is too small to be completely legible on iPad mini screens.

The Feature has been redesigned, but unfortunately, the web browser it opens is too small to be completely legible on iPad mini screens.

There are also some things that need a wee bit more fixing, as far as I’m concerned. Take, for example, reading an article from The Feature. Unless you save it to your Instapaper queue, you’ll lose reading space on the screen because the menu’s navigation bar is consistently visible. It’s too bad the web view doesn’t fill the screen here, because it makes articles much more difficult to read — especially on a smaller iPad mini.

The New Organization Features

All of that would be for naught if it weren’t for some of the new features the update introduces to iPad readers. There are new ways to organize articles in the iPad app that I really love on my iPhone. It’s easy to sort by length, save date, or popularity. Tapping on a Timer-like button lets you filter by reading time (less than five minutes, five to ten minutes, and so on). Both of these features are incredibly handy.

Sorting and filtering are great additions. Pictured here: Showing oldest articles first.

Sorting and filtering are great additions. Pictured here: Showing oldest articles first.

The new feature that lets you sort by Popularity is particularly interesting. In a blog post, the Instapaper team discusses their ranking algorithm for the feature, which they call InstaRank. They say an article’s ranking is determined by the following features (quote from the previously-linked blog post):

  • The number of overall saves/reads/likes on the link.
  • The number of saves on the link in the last 4 hours, indicating trending nature.
  • The age of the link, since it was first seen in the Instapaper world.
  • The popularity of the link within its domain, meaning the number of saves/reads/likes on the link compared to the domain average.
  • The popularity of the domain compared to other domains in the Instapaper world, meaning the domain average saves/reads/likes compared to other domains in the last 2 weeks.
  • Whether we see a link from some lesser known domain that receives surprising levels of attention, measured by saves/reads/likes.

As you can see, the feature is actually rather comprehensive. The Instapaper team also says they’re going to make this more user-adjustable, so that if you’d prefer to avoid cases where an article’s popularity quickly decays, you can set an adjustable time period where an article won’t decay for x amount of days. I look forward to seeing power user features like this implemented in the future.

I wonder how useful folders actually are.

I wonder how useful folders actually are.

There are some features in Instapaper that I still question, though. The biggest one is Folders. I don’t know why there’s a constant focus on making Folders more accessible and easier to use in Instapaper. Folders are getting long in the tooth; there’s a reason OS X Mavericks introduced OS-wide Tags. I’d love to see Instapaper move to that model for better organization.

What’s Still Missing

I’m sure that the elephant in the room is video parsing. Since Instapaper 5.0, the team has been working hard on making video parsing better on the platform. For me, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. There’s a new Videos tab in the app, and I think it’s a small step forward, but the way that videos are handled could still use some improvement.

Videos are noticeably low-resolution.

Videos are noticeably low-resolution.

Youtube and Vimeo videos work the best on Instapaper, but the app needs an especially long time to download them in the background. I’m fine with that, but unfortunately, it’s the viewing experience that could use improvement. I saved a video on Vimeo to watch later and the new trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. Both videos were made available only in a tiny screen. Expanding that screen to fit the full display made for a terrible viewing experience; the video quality was clearly low-resolution and looked terrible.

With that in mind, it’s hard to recommend Instapaper as a switch for people who want to watch things later. For those people, Pocket may remain a better choice — even though Instapaper has a much better text parser and a more refined focus on readable typography. Consider your use case wisely.

Final Thoughts

Before, I would have had a hard time picking between Instapaper and Pocket for most people. After all, Pocket was free and its interface was a little more ahead of its time than Instapaper’s. Now, the choice is much easier: People who want to read articles later should definitely be getting Instapaper. The interface is as modern as Pocket’s, and I think the reading experience is definitely better. Features like Sorting and Filtering make it a must-have for anybody who loves to read.

The only people who shouldn’t download Instapaper are those who want to save videos for later. For that use case, Pocket still offers a superior interface. But Instapaper has never been meant for that, and building an interface that can reliably parse text and video for later is nearly impossible. For me, Instapaper’s newest update is a huge win and easily offers the best Read Later experience on iPad.


Summary

Instapaper's big version 5 update finally arrives in style on the iPad, and once again makes it the best app in the Read Later category on the App Store.

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