If I were to write a memoir anytime soon, I’d call it “The Year of Scatterbrained Thinking.” Or maybe “Brain, Interrupted.” Gone are the days, it feels, of deep-diving into media — articles, books, whatever — without a notification, tweet or entirely different device grabbing my attention. I’m probably not alone in this.
But I like reading. And it’s a big part of my job as a writer. So lately I’ve been using read-it-later apps.
These apps — Instapaper, Pocket (formerly Read It Later) and Readability — are pretty self-explanatory. They let you clip or copy online article links and save them to a separate app for reading when you have the time.
Part of their value is how easy they make it for you to save links both on the Web and on your mobile device. For example, you can install “bookmarklets” in your browser that let you save an article link with one tap. On mobile, if you copy a link in iOS, then the next time you open up Instapaper or Readability, the app will ask if you want to save that link.
And you can hook up most of these read-it-later apps to other apps like Twitter, Tweetbot, Zite and Flipboard, so when you’re browsing news content on those apps, you can save links to your read-it-later pile.
But they’re not all the same. First off, they’re not all free. They differ slightly in their designs. Some might let you stream video, let you “follow” people, or offer suggested stories, not just your own picks.
And it’s worth noting there are other tools that offer a similar functionality, though maybe not all of the bells and whistles, to these apps. There’s Reading List in the Safari Web browser, which lets you save a Web page by simply tapping the “plus” button next to the URL bar. Microsoft has a bookmarklet that lets you save any Web link to its note-taking app, OneNote. And Evernote, the popular productivity app, has a tool called Clearly that creates a distraction-free reading environment for your saved-article links.
For the uninitiated, here’s a guide to three leading reading apps:
Betaworks’ Instapaper was my first introduction to read-it-later apps, so I still use that one the most. It’s kind of fun to look back through my wildly divergent reading list over the past couple years, from a first-hand account of a trip to North Korea to an article on how to fry the perfect egg.
For iOS users, there’s a one-time download cost of $3.99; for Android, it’s $2.99. Then, there’s a $1-per-month subscription version of Instapaper, which includes full-text search, a send-to-Kindle option and unlimited highlights (more on that in a bit).
You can access Instapaper anytime from the Web, and it supports extensions for Safari, Chrome and Firefox Web browsers.
Recently, Instapaper got a refresh; it looks and feels better-organized. And there’s another handy new feature called Highlights. This works much like the highlighting feature in Kindle.
If you see a note or passage that you like while reading in Instapaper, you can tap-to-highlight and save the note separately within the app. Users of the free app only get five highlights per month; premium subscribers can highlight to their heart’s content.
The app now has something called Instapaper Daily, which points you toward popular stories on Instapaper. In this way, it acts more like a news curator than a compiler — and there are plenty of aggregator apps out there — but it’s a fast way to check out what others are reading, too.
Lastly, if you’re using Instapaper in the Apple/iOS ecosystem, it can stream saved videos to your TV using AirPlay.
Pocket is the read-it-later app for power users. There are a lot of features, including some custom design settings, so the app takes some getting used to.
Pocket is free to download and use, though like Instapaper, there is a subscription model. It’s available on iOS and Android. It also offers browser extensions for Safari, Firefox and Chrome. There’s a Pocket app for Kindle Fire tablets (though using it on “regular” Kindles will require a workaround), and it’s available on the majority of Kobo e-readers and tablets.
Pocket has a tagging feature that I’ve found helpful. This lets you keyword your articles so that you can later tap on those tags — “Apple,” “Code Conference” or “Public Affairs” — and not have to rely on search, or muddle through a hundred saved articles. Pocket also lets you save image links in addition to news article and video links.
And while Pocket doesn’t offer a daily news digest or a friends feed, there’s a “Shared to Me” folder that holds all of the articles your fellow Pocket friends send to you.
Then there’s Pocket Premium, which costs $5 a month or $45 a year. This is a pretty hefty fee, and a couple of the features, like advanced search and suggested tags, don’t seem worth the cost.
But one added value of Pocket Premium is that you can store a permanent copy of the articles you save. The idea here is that even if the articles disappear on the Internet, you still have an archive.
I’ve found Readability to be the most limited of the three apps. There are recommended articles and your own saved articles, and that’s it. But it’s also free.
Readability is available on iOS, Android and the Web. It offers browser extensions for Safari, Firefox and Chrome, and you can easily send articles to Kindle. When it comes to third-party app integration — the ability to, say, click on a link in another app and send it directly to Readability — this app supports a host of Twitter clients, but not the Twitter app itself.
Readability has just three menu items: Recommended, Reading List and Profile. In the Recommended section, you have the option to follow other Readability users and see what articles they post, similar to the way you would follow people on Twitter. Reading List is your own compilation of articles; within this tab, you can favorite and archive articles. And Profile is your own profile, viewable to the Readability community.
So those are the basics and some stand-out features of popular read-it-later apps. Of course, there are still a few small issues you could run into with these. They promise offline reading, but during a recent flight I was only able to read the introductory page to an article I had saved on Instapaper, not the multi-page article itself, because it hadn’t fully saved in the app.
And the first time you try to access pay-walled content in a read-it-later app, you’ll be prompted to log in to your subscription account (i.e., a New York Times digital subscription) before you can see those articles, which is also not very helpful if you haven’t thought to do this before going offline.
But in general, read-it-later apps can be seriously helpful for newshounds and avid readers. They won’t cure scatterbrained syndrome entirely, but at least all of your must-reads end up in the same place.
Join the conversation: