Updated: Sept. 25, 2013
Bookmarking has been part of Internet browsing since nearly the beginning of the browser. For a long while, bookmarking was tied to client-side storage in the application, and could only be accessed at a user's computer. As technology advanced, services like Yahoo's Delicious caught on to the idea of enabling pages on the Internet to be saved server-side, therefore being accessible wherever you could reach the bookmarking website.
But circa 2007, in the booming age of mobile devices and the changing behaviors of readers, bookmarking a full web page and loading it up on the train into work isn't as convenient a reading experience as it could have been. So, in the year of the iPhone, this whole "read it later" thing began. Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later) started life as a single-platform Firefox extension that didn't do much beyond saving articles for later (without device sync); Instapaper, a bookmarklet and text parser for the iPhone (which had just debuted), focused on parsing article text and having a synchronized list between platforms (the app launched when the App Store did in 2008). Both have evolved into more realized products of their original visions, and have refined their services and ecosystems. Today, the read-it-later economy is strong, and even traditional bookmarking/note-taking services like Delicious and Evernote have attempted to enter it.
What I hope to do with this evaluation is score each service on several integral components of what a read later service should ideally comprise. Obviously both of these services are self-referential for the read later service, and so they've helped shape what a service like this should look like (in addition to how it should function). But there are several other considerations that can be included as well -- expectations of a multi-platform user, design philosophies of servicing websites and apps in 2013, the speed and ease of use of a product. I've grouped these evaluations into the following:
- Website Design
- Text Parser Quality
- Mobile App Design & Functionality
- App Ecosystem Integration
- Desktop App Design & Functionality
- Ease of Use
These are weighted in no particular order, with several evaluated subjectively on a scale of Poor, Okay, Good, Great, and Excellent, other binarily as Yes/No. The full scorecard is located at the tail-end of this evaluation.
A Quick Bit of History
Originally intended only for desktop computers (as a browser extension for Firefox), Read It Later was first started in August 2007 by Nathan Weiner. It ran alonside Instapaper in the early days as an alternative once it had its app and syncing service up and running. In its more mature days, Read It Later earned venture capital investments) of $2.5 million in 2011, and in 2012, an additional round of $5.0 million. To put all that money to use, I suppose Read It Later needed to be renamed Pocket (which happened in 2012) to shed its one-trick name to accommodate a larger spread of users by aiming to be the premier Internet collection service.
Today, Pocket is available for free on iOS, Android, and BlackBerry OS, as well as multiple web browsers (with official, smart extensions) and on desktop OSes.
Humbly founded by Marco Arment in 2008 to scratch his itch for an easier way to save and read articles while commuting, Instapaper never received any rounds of investment and was completely self-funded. Instapaper as an app launched at the commencement of the Apple App Store with two options: one Pro version at $10, another free version with a limitation on the number of articles a user could save.
Now, Instapaper has switched ownership -- Marco sold Instapaper to Betaworks in April 2013 -- and app prices/have changed. Instapaper is now a $4.99 iOS app with an optional $1.00/month subscription for advanced features such as full-text search, API hook-up with third-party apps, better Kindle article integration (like higher Kindle article limits and a “Send to Kindle” bookmarklet), and the ability to disable ads on the instapaper.com site. It is also available on Android, and can be accessed through various apps on desktop computers like ReadKit (subscription required).
Saving Articles for Reading Later
When we want to read something, we want the experience to be distraction-free. The traditional book format is a fine example of this. You are given text, you read that text -- no fuss. Some periodicals are great examples of this, too -- The New Yorker, for instance, has clean typographic layouts that focus on the body of text for a given article, and sprinkle in relatively dsitractionless column ads and cartoon panels. The Internet, however, is a minefield. If you read anything I've written in the past, you know my stance on it. For instance: just gawk at the hostile reading experiences exhibit I've been building. It isn't pretty reading things on websites, and it's even harder to read things when you have several other tasks to complete at any given moment you've accidentally stumbled upon something great. In these circumstances, a read-it-later service is undeniably useful.
When you come to an article you'd like to save, both Instapaper and Pocket have several options for triggering their services' text parsers to crawl it (or a paginated series of pages). These parsers will scrape the page's code and pull out only the text pertinent to the article, eschewing ads/navigation/miscellaneous media/etc., and bring that text into your user account for storage (and, obviously, reading later when you when the time). Triggers and places for parsing include:
- Bookmarklets for Desktop and Mobile Browsers
- Browser Extensions (Pocket has an official one, Instapaper unofficial ones)
- Send Link Via Email (by which both services will then go out and capture the page's article relatively quickly -- usually within a few minutes)
- In-App Browser (only via Instapaper can you navigate in an in-app browser to then save articles for later)
- Via Other Apps (both Instapaper and Pocket have rich app ecosystem integrations, whereby you can save a shared link in a Twitter app, for instance, with either service -- Pocket has a public list available)
- Built-in on Websites (certain websites leverage the APIs for one or both services, like qz.com and thefeature.net)
By having so many seamless options to save articles, neither service has an upperhand. While there are some minor advantages to Pocket's current capabilities in this area, like its official extension that does a great job of identifying certain websites -- like Twitter and Hacker News -- and adding a "save to pocket" link next to identified articles, it isn't strong enough to vouch entirely for Pocket. Since Marco's sale of Instapaper, perhaps we'll see feature parity between them in this area soon.
The quality of the parsed text, however, is still uneven. Instapaper has historically done a fantastic job with pagination, but I've seen it fail on a few complicated websites. It also struggles with login/paywall sites like NSFWCorp. Pocket handles this kind of thing elegantly by acknowledging the presence of a paywall and prompting for a username/password. This kind of smart integration gives Pocket an edge in accessibility to certain kinds of sites -- certainly worth consideration in your choice of service use.
Functionality & Aesthetics
I'll break this down into two sections, as most users will likely engage with the services on their websites and apps:
Instapaper has historically had a spartan, clean interface, and to this day it still is succinct and functional -- it focuses on the text, and that's it. Its 4.0 version in 2012 was a big update adding new functionality and menus, but the app usage was never negatively impacted. Pocket is equally as clean, though, and visually it identifies different media better (videos are indicated with overlay icon). Instapaper infrequently will correctly identify video and do something similar, but it was never designed to filter precisely for videos like Pocket can.
Reading is the big draw for these apps, and while both services tend to match one another for options, there are glaring differences in crucial areas like fonts. Instapaper's reading canvas has a default setting of black text on white with text rendered in left-aligned only. You can set spacing and margin/width customizations as you see fit, though (which is especially nice on the iPad), and text colors can vary between dark, sepia, light, as well as an intelligent function for auto-detecting sunset based on location to dim from light to sepia to dark (and vice versa) at the right time of day. Pocket has these same tonal options (sans the "change of day" feature), and both services allow for text sizing to be scaled as well as access to the brightness controls.
Instapaper, however, has the upper-hand for customization. For instance, how you actually read an article can be switched from page-flipping to tilt-scrolling, and regular scrolling (tilt-scrolling, which has been around for years in Instapaper, permits you to literally tilt the device to cascade the text like an inverse waterfall; While it seems like a neat idea, in practice I find normal scrolling the best method of reading). Pocket can only scroll and page flip, and the latter is strangely designed -- there is no activation for it, you just perform a "flip" finger gesture against the screen and it turns on, but scrolling vertically again turns it off. (While this seems nice and simple, being in page-flipping doesn't lock you into the method of reading, so it seems flimsy.) Additionally, while Instapaper offers several fonts from which to choose -- including the beautiful, default Elena by Process Type Foundry, and even a Dyslexia-formatted font called Dyslexie -- Pocket is limited to a sans-serif and serif font selection.
Users tend to take action with their reading materials after they're done -- Sharing on a social platform or via email may be one such action, or perhaps saving quotes from an article into another app. Neither service misses in this department. Both Instapaper and Pocket allow a user to favorite an article, archive it, or organize it either by folder (Instapaper) or tag (Pocket). Sharing is extensive, with Instapaper edging out Pocket on the quality and variety of actions. In Instapaper, you can email an article to someone (either an email link or full text -- it uses the original article URL but does provide a "via Instapaper" in the email template); take actions to post to the usual suspects of social platforms; take actions to copy an article link, full article text, and/or post or create an item to several different apps, including Tweetbot, OmniFocus, Due, Drafts, and Simplenote (it will auto-detect which apps you have that are compatible). Pocket similarly shares many of these functions albeit with small differences, like missing out on the full article shares.
Interacting with articles in-app is also a bit different between the services. Both apps use the Tweetbot-inspired (or was it original Loren Brichter Tweetie?) item-swipe for performing actions like adding tags/adding to folder, archiving, favoriting (Pocket-only), trashing, or sharing. Pocket may be a bit assumptive in allowing you to favorite an article without even reading it, but it's a minor design fallacy. Favoriting in Instapaper allows for some permutations aside from merely having a "folder" for your prized collection. In version 4.0, Instapaper added a subtle social network feature that allows its users to anonymously (and secretly) follow friends' or other users' favorites (called "Liked") collections. It also pulls in shared links from Twitter users you follow and curates them in the same section in the app, called Friends. It's a neat function that isn't distracting or too entrenched in social media (you can't comment or like what yours friends are reading, it's simply a straight-forward curation service). Instapaper also has a section called The Feature that updates frequently with the most Instapapered articles across all its users. Pocket misses out on these added features, and while it doesn't impact the overall product's purpose, it does feel inadequate next to Instapaper's rich ecosystem.
Lastly: article state sync. I forget when Instapaper introduced this, but it's fantastic. While it currently only works on across apps, Instapaper will remember where you are in any saved article and sync that state between devices (but not the website). Surprisingly, Pocket does not yet do this. The holy grail is getting that sync up to the website-level (for both services), so we'll see what happens as they continue to evolve the products.
Overall, Instapaper provides a more compelling app and reading experience.
While the apps are an integral part of the reading wherever experience, reading and managing your account at the website-level still needs to be a suitable option. Pocket has a much stronger design and functionality for its website than Instapaper offers (note as of August 2013: Instapaper is undergoing a website update currently available for beta use; this evaluation will be updated to reflect the new site design). Pocket has a flexible grid that allows articles to be viewed as a list or summary card, with sorting options for article type and switching between lists/tags. It'll even animate GIFs in the preview cards if it is contained within the article. Whereas Pocket's site design seems roomier, crisper, and fluid, Instapaper's still seems stuck in a design that would've been antiquated even five years ago. Folder settings are clumsy, the article list is very static, and there are inconsistencies in button styles, layout, and pop-up tools that distract. At least both services' reading component on-site is minimal and distraction-free.
Searching articles is also slightly different between services. On Pocket, search is surprisingly slow for what it ought to be -- testing a two-article inbox with contextual search (I'd presume?) of a single word found in one of the article's titles took over five seconds. The same thing re-enacted in Instapaper took only two. Granted, Instapaper's full-text search functionality is only available to paying subscribers, so Pocket does do a better job with its accessibility.
Overall, Pocket is better at the website stuff thus far.
I can't readily recommend one service over another by suggesting you try both -- Instapaper has a $4.99 entry fee whereas Pocket does not -- but my evaluation and experience using both of these services suggests that Instapaper is the superior service as of today. Its terrific apps, tight article syncing, breadth of article actions, and external app integrations make it the smartest choice. You also pay for the app and can support it via a subscription which -- while not entirely a guarantee of sustained business -- is at least indicative of long-term viability. While it's anyone's guess how Betaworks will handle the ownership transition, I trust Mr. Arment made an informed decision.
Either service is worth using, and they both far exceed other read-it-later solutions out there (nice try with the Reading List, Apple). If you're looking for something specific between the two feature-wise, reference the scorecard that follows.
iOS 7 Updates
Sept. 25, 2013
September 18 brought a new version of iOS to Apple devices, heralding a drastically different direction in design and functionality. As such, both Instapaper and Pocket updated their app versions (5.0 and 4.6 respectively) to accommodate.
These changes do not impact my original review of the two apps back in June, but features and UI direction are worth noting:
- New, subtly-changed icons have replaced the old ones. Instapaper's is notably brighter and leaner, Pocket's looks slightly less dimensional but retains much of its original design
- Both now support iOS 7's background sync, a notably awesome addition for not having to worry about launching the app to sync (or setting a location trigger to sync)
- Adjustments to reading views (Pocket made the most progress here, only because they had -- and still have -- catching up to do with Instapaper's numerous reading options; fonts are still limited in Pocket)
- Swipe from left-to-right to return to list view (both apps have this now, even though Instapaper had this option from previous incarnations); this is a great move for consistency and to oblige Apple's lead on the new gesture as standard fare
There are new features Instapaper added to earn that 5.0 mark, which are worth pointing out here. As these are new features for read-it-later apps, I've actually gone ahead and updated the Scorecard to accommodate a few of them as new checkpoints (because, yes, they are fabulously useful).
- Sorting/Filtering: You can now sort by newest, oldest, longest, shortest, popularity, and shuffle. Additionally, you may filter by reading time (e.g., "less than 5 minutes" or "over an hour")
- InstaRank: The popularity sort mentioned above is powered by InstaRank, an algorithmic ranking and sorting system to filter articles according to various attributes. According to their blog post on this, some of these attributes include the number of overall saves/reads/likes, age of the link, popularity of the domain compared to other domains in the Instapaper world, and so forth.
- Separate video category: Pocket was the first to identify and separate videos saved for later, and Instapaper has finally caught up.
- Language translations: Instapaper now supports 13 languages
Updated Sept 25, 2013
|Page Tones (Light, Dark, Sepia)||x||x|
|Line Spacing Controls||x|
|Organization (folders, tags)||x||x|
|Share Actual Article Link||x|
|Share Actual Article Text||x|
|Share Link with Other App||x||x|
|Ease of Use||Great||Great|
|Send Via Email||x||x|
|App Integration: Quantity||Great||Excellent|
|Windows Phone App||No||No|