About two years ago, whilst it was relegated to a bathtub of neglect and apathy, I reluctantly abandoned the Instapaper app (after purchasing a subscription), for Pocket, which was previously known as Read It Later. I try to read articles from a variety of sources whenever time allows, including the seemingly infinite newsfeed of articles from feeds. Channeling all these articles into a cross-platform, all-syncing all-dancing platform made sense.
A bit of back story – in Aug 2013, five years after Instapaper was created, the creator, Marco Arment (also known for being an early employee of Tumblr), sold the service to Betaworks (the same team that was responsible for restoring Digg from ruin back to riches again). Arment, like Pocket creator Nate Weiner, was a clever cookie, but he has never been a fan of Android – he made his fortune on iOS and is regarded as one of the authorities in the Apple ecosystem, alongside John Gruber, Jim Dalrymple and others. Even to produce an Android client for his service was a monumental and dragged-out process, mostly because he didn’t believe that Android would make enough money – it was a task that he eventually delegated to somebody else. Hence the woeful state of affairs. Note that both Instapaper and Pocket have API’s for third party developers to use.
Reading, in nature, because that’s what everybody does.
In any case, these reading services have a useful purpose. They work by being fed links, either via sharing intents, browser extensions, other apps (ie. Flipboard / Feedly / email) or bookmarklets. They wolf them down, strip out any unnecessary clutter from the webpage and show ONLY the relevant article, maybe with a few in-line pictures, all in a standardized layout / font. No ads, no clutter, no distractions, no fuss. If you want to view the original page, that’s only one press away. They also synchronize your reading position across devices, so you can pick up exactly where you left off, extremely useful for lengthier articles and modern-day widespread ADD.
For many, including myself, they are an absolute necessity, because some articles are huge and there’s a time and place for everything. If I’m in a queue waiting for something and somebody sends me a link to an important article, I’d rather save it and absorb it later when I’m more focused and have time. Relying on browser tab history is unreliable and messy. I tried rigging up an auto-emailing system, but the articles languished because it doesn’t remember reading position.
Apart from the two mentioned above, there are also the niche players – Readability, which is a decent offering but not as feature complete and Wallabag (previously Poche). The latter has the distinction of being open-source and self-hosted via LAMP stack, as everything should be, but unfortunately also still lacking in functionality. I installed Wallabag, but I think it’s still at least 6-12 months away from what I would consider ready, especially the Android client. All four options have multi-platform (Android/iOS) as well as web access.
In short, there really wasn’t any practical alternative to Pocket, especially if you were on Android, or so I thought. But Pocket has quirks, notably:
- The sans font (which looks like Proxima) is horrible unless tiny, and the serif font has too much vertical spacing and rapidly gets stale. Some alternative fonts or ability to load TTF/OTF fonts in would be a godsend. I’m abnormally picky with fonts.
- No option for margin adjustment, or line spacing.
- When paging with the toolbar open, 2-3 lines on each page are covered up.
- Youtube videos saved for later would play in Pocket as an embedded video, so you couldn’t subscribe to the channel or view related videos, without manually sending the URL to the dedicated Youtube app.
- The horizontal swipe while paging is finicky and doesn’t always register correctly.
I decided to give Instapaper another try recently, and it addressed all of the above issues. It was a seamless transition to import my content back across. Pocket has an export page, which spits out HTML. Instapaper has an ‘import Pocket‘ link, where you feed that HTML in. Painless. If you have a list of tens of thousands of articles, then it’s worthwhile to edit the HTML to cut out the ‘Read Articles’ section and below (but not the body/html end tags), which greatly speeds up import. I nearly never look through my archive anyway. Once imported, I discovered a few things:
- Betaworks has done a fantastic job modernizing the Android app, the interface is great. As I remembered, articles have a series of dots underneath to show approximately how long the article is, Pocket has nothing like that. You could click on an article expecting a quick read before the bus comes, but instead a novel appears.
- The list display filters are genius: Sort by most popular, or sort by reading time (<5 min, 5-10min, etc), is something that I’ve always wanted in Pocket. If I only have 10 minutes left to read, ideally I want an article around that long. There should be no technical reason why the app doesn’t know the length of the article. Ideally, it should know your reading speed over time and give you accurate estimates.
- Scrolling control, which was either manual scroll / horizontal swipe or volume keys in Pocket, can additionally also be trigged by screen taps on either side, which is great for table reading or people with RSI.
- An additional scroll control, by device tilting, is a godsend for reading while drinking coffee. I thought it would be finicky to calibrate, but it turns out it’s hard coded to scroll on either side of 45 degrees inclination. Works very well, you’ll get reading done while brushing your teeth. It doesn’t work while you’re walking, because the acceleration/deceleration messes it up.
- There’s one thing I can’t fault Arment for, and that’s font selection. There’s a great selection of fonts still available in Instapaper, Tisa (serif) and Ideal (sans) are my go tos. I use Myriad Pro for the system UI, so it fits nicely.
- Instapaper also has a night mode, which can automatically kick in to save your eyeballs.
- For the power users, a full document search, highlights, API, Kindle integration and ad-free website for $1/month is well worth it. Pocket has recently also introduced a paid tier, which includes article archiving, full search and suggested tags, but it’s less useful and more expensive at $5/month. I was getting nervous for a while that they had no viable business model, though I’ve listened to Nate in interviews and he definitely has the right idea.
- Pocket’s document cache, which saves ‘everything’, uses about twice as much space on device storage as Instapaper and creates a rat’s nest of folders (often redundant).
My first image search for Pocket yielded lots of pictures of jeans.
However, there were a few downsides:
- Instapaper doesn’t always pick up every embedded image, nor does it play embedded videos that I can tell. Sometimes, lots of embedded images will mess with pagination.
- There are no thumbnails for the article on the list.
- There appears to be no control over hyphenation or justification.
- Official browser extension support is nearly non-existent, but for Firefox I’m using Paper, which seems to work well.
- There’s no text-to-speech option – For some commuters/runners, this can be a deal breaker.
- Instapaper doesn’t support an instant push update option on the mobile client, the quickest you can background sync is hourly.
- Pocket’s sharing feature is more advanced, everything is handled inhouse.
- Instapaper uses folders (one per article), instead of tags (multiple per article).
- The Tiny RSS plugin doesn’t support keyboard shortcuts by default (unlike OCP), so some JS modding is required.
There are pros and cons of each. For me, the fonts by themselves are a deal-breaker for Pocket. I can live with the rest, but having pleasing fonts to look at is the number one thing for me. It turns reading from a chore into a joy, and makes churning through dozens of articles seem more effortless. I’ve been back to using Instapaper for a few weeks now and my overall reading quantity and quality is up. Either way, whichever you choose will yield a good results, neither of them are poor products at all. For the stats-inclined, Pocket will send you an annual stats rundown of your reading history. Instapaper users can rely on third-party tools, like Clare Legare, or scripts.