The biggest problem with Apple’s products is that they keep people within a walled garden. There’s a lot of benefits to the walled garden in some cases — namely security — but there can also be annoying detractions. One example is the DRM in the iBooks app that makes it altogether impossible to read anything you purchased on anything other than an iPad (I’d love it if Apple used .mobi instead so I could put anything I purchase from them on my Kindle).
But then there are some walls in Apple’s garden that nobody likes, like Newsstand. Newsstand is one of those apps that Apple let get away. Not only are most of the magazines in Newsstand difficult to search for in its Store (Apple really needs to merge the Newsstand with the iBooks Store), but they’re also merely digital scans of paper-based media with a few hyperlinks thrown in for good measure. Newsstand’s proprietary format and wooden shelves have driven a lot of people away from the app and towards its only clear, cross-platform alternative: Zinio.
Reinventing The Magazine
Reading a magazine on a tablet is problematic. First of all, the screens can be too small. The original 10″ iPad is a halfway-decent size for reading magazines, but it’s still not as big as a print edition. The iPad mini offers a whole different problem, where it’s simply too small (and currently, too low-resolution) to make reading feasible. Newsstand does nothing to help this situation, but Zinio has found the answer and I think it’s the app’s most shining feature. They use a text parser.
It’s obvious and brilliant. Just like the way that the Reader view in Safari will parse the page of text and return it in an easy-to-read, ad-less format, so too does the text parser in Zinio. Reading a magazine article with a small font can be done with the tap of a button.
Of course, some people will prefer to read articles “traditionally,” and that option is still there. You can pinch to zoom over text and read any way you would expect — not unlike Safari, actually, but especially similar to Newsstand. Personally, I think the text parser is a much less high-maintenance way to read a magazine.
The nice thing about the text parser is that it reveals Zinio‘s long-term goals: To reinvent the magazine for a tablet screen. The text parser is a stop-gap, a simple solution to a larger problem created by magazine publishers who refuse to create truly optimized experiences for touch screens. Zinio is smart enough to know that the majority of magazine publishers are not interested in coming up with good digital experiences, so it does their work for them. Instantly, they’re way ahead of the game.
The Finer Details
Your magazine subscriptions can be handled with a Zinio account, which you can either sign up for or log into with your Facebook account. I created an account and have no regrets; email communication isn’t too frequent and I get to avoid the obvious problem with a centralized log-in system. Creating an account, apart from the obvious subscription management purposes, also lets you sign in on non-Apple devices to retrieve your subscription. If you have an iPad and, say, a Nexus 7, you’d likely find this a really useful feature.
One handy feature is the ability to email articles. In my testing, I was able to email the parsed version of an article to anybody I wanted regardless of where the article came from, which surprised me. I don’t want to say you can share anything that you read since I don’t know the details of Zinio’s licensing with various publishers and news corporations, but I never ran into any snags. The big bummer with digital media is that you can’t share it like you would physical media, and this alleviates part of the problem.
Magazines have two tables of contents: A visual layout and one that is text-based, not unlike the text parser I brought up earlier. I (of course) prefer the text-based layout because it loads much faster, particularly on my iPad mini. Beyond that, it just looks a little bit cleaner to my eyes and I’m glad the option is there.
Browsing through the app to look through your personal subscription and adding more is self-explanatory. Zinio is kind enough to provide a brief tutorial when you open the app to get you on your feet, but it never feels overly difficult. I had an easier time finding magazines in the catalog with Zinio than I did with Newsstand, and unless it was purposefully-exclusive (like Marco Arment’s The Magazine), I never struggled with finding anything in the store.
The only real downside to Zinio‘s experience comes from magazine publishers. Let’s say that there’s text close to a page’s natural margin. Zinio doesn’t display pages in the traditional sense, so there were a couple times when words were cut from the edges of the page. There’s not much Zinio can do about that; really, the fault lies with the publisher. For the record, reading the article with the text parser solved the problem,
My Final Verdict
Zinio is nothing more than a stop-gap. It’s an app that stores physical magazines in digital formats across your devices, and it does a good job with a fine user interface. I preferred the experience over Newsstand, but I will add that Zinio isn’t quite as minimalist. Of course, it also doesn’t heavily feature wooden bookshelves.
But really, Zinio is halfway there. It solves a problem created by major publishers who haven’t figured out how to handle digital publications yet with its text parser, but I would prefer seeing magazines that better fit the iPad’s screen to begin with. That transition is going to take years, and by the time it’s been figured out, I suspect the rest of us will have already moved on to “the next big thing.”
Despite that, as an app, I can’t give Zinio anything less than a top-rate recommendation. I wish the interface was slightly more minimalist, but that’s a very personal preference. Most people are going to love how easy the app is to navigate. Everybody in their right minds will love the text parser. And for some people, the app’s cross-platform compatibility makes it a winner. Zinio comes strongly recommended for anybody looking for a great way to read magazines digitally.