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Hands-On: Why Spool Could be the First Real Instapaper, Read It Later Challenger

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Just a few minutes after I posted a story about Instapaper’s latest updates earlier this week, I received my private beta invite for Spool, a free Instapaper-like tool for the browser, iOS and Android. While Instapaper and Read It Later mostly focus on making articles and other written content available for offline reading on mobile devices, Spool also adds audio and video to the mix. For iOS users, this also means that they can watch Flash-based videos on their devices with Spool that would otherwise be unavailable, as Spool’s backend handles the conversion automatically.

This focus on video means, for example, that you can watch videos embedded in a New York Times article, for example, that wouldn’t be available for viewing otherwise. It’s worth noting, though, that these audio and video clips are also available for offline viewing.spool_online

Pros:

Besides the video and audio aspects of the app, Spool does a number of other smart things, too. Because it actually uses a crawler to discover the text and other content on the pages you bookmark, it can also detect multi-page articles (the kind neither readers nor Google really like, but that drive up pageviews for publishers). It then hops from page to page in those articles, saves them all and assembles them back into one long article for you. In my tests, this worked very well, though some of the crud on the pages (page numbers etc.) sometimes found its way into the saved articles.

Using the service also couldn’t be any easier. You just install the Chrome or Firefox extension and you’re good to go. On your phone, you can also use Spool’s built-in browser to discover content and then save it from there (though this isn’t as easy as having a bookmarklet available for mobile Safari).

The service also has built-in support for augmenting links in Google Reader, Google+, Google News, Twitter, Facebook, Quora and Techmeme with an inline Spool button, making adding content very easy.

Cons:

Now, there are obviously some features and tools that are still missing. There are no bookmarklets for mobile browsers, for example (Spool only makes browser plugins available right now). You also can’t organize your bookmarked articles in folders besides Spool’s default Favorites and Archived directories. There is also generally a short delay between bookmarking an article and being able to read it online or on your phone.

There are also still some cosmetic issues here and there. While the overall design of the app is pretty much what you would expect, some of the text formatting is a bit off. Depending on the source of your bookmarks, Spool seems to have a dislike for paragraph breaks, for example.

Verdict:

Having spent quite some time with Spool now, I’m not ready to give up Instapaper yet, but given that this is just a private beta so far, I can’t wait to see where the Spool team takes this app.

All of these services, of course, have to face the fact that Apple itself could be working on a similar product right now. Safari’s Reading Lists so far aren’t quite up to par yet, but Apple will surely continue to develop this feature and may just put all of these firms out of business in the long run (especially those that just focus on iOS).

If you want to give the service a try, head over here to request an invite.

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4:41 pm


Instapaper 4.0 Brings Redesigned Interface, Wikipedia Support and Search to its iPhone and iPad Apps

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Instapaper,  the popular distraction-free offline reading app for iOS, was probably among the first few apps I installed on both my iPhone and iPad and it has never left their respective homescreens since. Today, its developer Marco Arment launched version 4 of the app. It’s available in iTunes now and brings numerous new features that both new and existing users will appreciate. Among these are a redesigned interface , the ability to multi-select articles to archive, delete or move them in bulk, the ability to look up words in Wikipedia and support for footnotes from most websites.

The new design, which is most noticeable on the iPad, moves away from the list view and towards a more grid-like display of your saved articles. According to Instapaper’s developer, this makes for a more touch-friendly interface. The navigation options on the iPad are also now always in the left sidebar.

On the iPhone, the changes are a bit more subtle, but regular users will appreciate that the top status bar is now off by default, giving you more space for your articles (there is an option to turn it back on, though). With the status bar gone, though, you can obviously not check the time while you’re reading. To do so, you have to click on the Actions button in the lower toolbar, which will let the status bar slide back in for a moment.

More Social

Instapaper now also lets you connect your Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts to pull in all the articles your friends have shared on these services. Until now, Instapaper only showed articles your friends liked on these services when they were also Instapaper users. It’s worth noting, though, that these links aren’t downloaded in the text-only view by default, but that you actually have to open up the actual website in the app first and tap the “Read Later” button before they are saved. This will likely make publishers happy, as they can still count ad impressions, though it may confuse the app’s users a bit at first.

Paid Search

One interesting new feature is also the ability to search through the articles you have already downloaded. This is a paid feature, however, available through in-app purchasing and Paypal. This new features costs $2.99 per 3 months.

But There’s More…

Other minor updates include better support for displaying the names of authors and publications, support for Wikipedia definitions, footnotes (though, arguably, only a few websites really use them), and an app directory that showcases Instapaper-compatible apps.

There are, of course, a number of smaller tweaks as well. You can find a full list here.



3:35 pm


Safari’s New Reading Lists Are Glorified Bookmarks – Not Instapaper Killers

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When Apple announced iOS 5 earlier this week, a lot of the discussion after the announcement was about the third-party tools Apple may have killed by copying a good part of their functionality. One of the most obvious candidates for this death row was Instapaper, the popular tool that allows its users to easily save articles for later and then displays them in a pleasant, text-centric view without ads or widgets. With Safari’s new Reading List feature, which also allows users to bookmark stories, sync them between computers and then read them later, it did indeed look as if Apple was going to put a stake through Instapaper’s heart. After spending some time with Safari on iOS, though, I can’t help but feel that Apple’s tool is far too limited to pose a real challenge to Instapaper.

Reading Lists: Just Specialized Bookmarks

safari_cant_openApple’s Reading Lists are basically just glorified bookmarks. While Instapaper lets you save articles in its easy to read text-only view, Reading Lists don’t make use of Reader, Apple’s new text-only mode for Safari at all. Reading Lists just take you to the original article and then you have to click the Reader button – Instapaper already formats the story for easy reading. Even if you add an article to your Reading List while you’re using Safari’s Reader feature, you will still just get a bookmark to the original page.

Another problem with Apple’s tool is that there doesn’t seem to be an offline mode. iOS 5 is obviously still in beta and this could change, but for now, you can’t save a few articles before you leave and then read them on the plane. That leaves Instapaper or its close competitors Read It Later and Readability as the only real option for those who want convenient offline reading.

This, combined with the fact that you will have to use Safari on the desktop to make use of this feature, makes me think that Instapaper can only profit from Apple’s efforts. As users get frustrated with the limitations of Apple’s Reader and Reading List, they will likely look to Instapaper and Co. as alternatives.



9:18 pm


Pulse News Reader Takes Baby Steps Towards the Web

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Pulse was one of the first news readers apps for the iPad and still remains among the most popular and best feed reader apps (and is now available on Android and iPhone as well). Until today, though, the service was missing a real web component for when you wanted to read stories on your desktop. The new Pulse.me service aims to change this by allowing you to save stories from the Pulse apps for later reading on the Web. In addition, Pulse also allows you to sync these reading lists with established services like Instapaper, Evernote and Read It Later, as well as your Pulse account on other devices.

Overall, while the new Pulse.me site is well designed, the service still feels a bit limiting unless you do most of your reading in Pulse itself. It’s missing a ‘read later’ bookmarklet for the Web, for example, that would allow you to pick any story on the Internet and save it for later reading on Pulse.me.

Mashable’s Jennifer Van Grove says she has “reason to believe that a way to save web stories to Pulse.me is in the works.” That would be nice indeed, as the combination of Pulse’s new web service and the wide availability of its apps would make for a very strong Instapaper competitor once these features are available.

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3:43 pm