July 16th, 2012 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Digital Magazines

Anybody who knows me reasonably well can tell you that I love magazines. I read a wide variety, although it will not come as a surprise that computer and photography oriented titles head up the list.

Comic books were a big part of my reading experience as a kid, and my comics reading spilled over into magazines. The comic book store I went to carried a few sci-fi magazines like Analog, but the first title I purchased on a regular basis was Starlog, which covered news and articles about Sci-Fi movies, TV Shows, and books.

As the years went by, my magazine appetite increased. As I became interested in photography, I started reading all the photography magazines I could find. Then computer magazines got added into the mix.

Maybe it was because I had started out as a comics collector, but I developed the habit of keeping magazines even after I was finished reading them. In some cases this was justified by their potential as reference material, but in many cases there was simply no good reason to keep them. But I did it anyway.

The concept of eBooks was around for a long time before Amazon came along and made it into an industry. For well over a decade before that, there had been attempts to sell eBooks you could read on your computer, but that idea never really caught on. There were always too many compromises involved. Not enough titles available. Not really portable. Even reading on a laptop is pretty clunky compared to a book. Text on computer screens was low-rez and extended reading could make your eyes hurt. But Amazon figured out how to do it right. A small, portable reader device with good battery life. A screen that was just good enough to read without hurting your eyes. And most importantly, a large catalog of current titles.

Just under three years ago, or thereabouts, I bought my first eReader device, the Amazon Kindle. It had been out for around a year at that point, and they’d finally gotten all little glitches out of the hardware, software, and the supply chain. Once it arrived, I was pretty much instantly in love and soon I was carrying it around everywhere.

The Kindle was supposed to allow you to read digital versions of your favorite magazines as well as books, but this never really seemed to work for me. Reading a digital version of a paperback novel is one thing, but a magazine relies too much on color and layout that just didn’t translate very well to a monochrome LCD screen. So while I was reading books constantly, I pretty much passed on the magazines.

As much as I loved the Kindle, when Apple announced the iPad, I knew this was the hardware I really wanted. Amazon had a Kindle reader app for the iPhone, and it was expected to be available for the iPad. I was a little concerned that the lower dots-per-inch color screen might not be as easy on the eyes, but I was looking forward to seeing how digital magazines would work.

The Digital Letdown

It turned out that digital magazines worked OK. Not great, but OK. Compared to expectations, they were a bit of a letdown. The biggest issues were problems with reading small text, and inconsistency in design and navigation. That latter problem was due in large part to the fact that there was no standard for creating a digital magazine and several competing delivery platforms, so three different magazines would have three different methods for doing things like showing the menu, moving from page to page, and so forth.

A big part of the problem had to do with the technical requirements of adapting a magazine’s design and layout for a mobile device. Things like embedding fonts in order to preserve a particular design were not things that eBooks had to deal with. Most eBooks have basic text which can be reformatted according to the device’s screen size and users preferences. Some may have a few inline illustrations. It’s pretty easy to translate from a paper edition into digital. The lack of color on some devices may be an issue, but there’s not really anything a publisher can do about that, except maybe to make sure that the graphics look reasonable on such a device.

The other problem in the early days was simply that many magazines didn’t have digital editions yet. Over the next couple of years, however, that situation gradually changed. Today, popular magazines that don’t have digital editions are now the exception rather than the rule.

Enter The NEW iPad

When the new iPad, also known as the iPad 3, was released earlier this year, digital magazine publishers had to step up their game. One big change was the addition of the Newsstand feature. This added a new category in the App Store for magazines and newspapers, and consolidated magazine applications into one easy to find location on your device, with a nice bookshelf style display, much like iBooks.

While the newsstand was a welcome addition, the main new feature of the new tablet was the ultra high-resolution retina display. Text in web pages and eBooks looked marvelous at even tiny sizes provided your vision was good enough to see it. However, it turned out that digital magazines created for the original iPad just didn’t look very good at all on the new device. Text was frequently fuzzy and full of jaggies. To be fair, it hadn’t looked all that great on the original iPad screen, but at least then you were willing to blame it on the lower resolution screen. It wasn’t just small text either. Even normal sized text generally didn’t look very good. Clearly the magazine publishers needed to update their software or their file format or something.

Well, it took them a couple of months, but over the last few weeks there have been dozens of updates to magazine applications in the app store. Most of the latest digital editions look much, much better on the new screen.

Still Not Quite Perfect

While there’re much better looking now, there is clearly still some room for improvement with the applications themselves. With most of them, there is clearly some sort of bitmap and vector graphics rendering going on in order to presen the magazine layout the way it’s intended to be viewed. It’s not a simple matter of having a JPEG image for each page. However, even on the relatively snappy new iPad, it still takes a couple of seconds in some cases to render each page.

The problem is, it doesn’t seem that most of the applications do that until the user actually navigates to a page. Even though the device is largely sitting idle while a user is reading a page, they are not making any attempts to pre-render the pages on either side of the one currently being viewed so they’re ready to go when the user is finished with the current page.

They should also be trying to do some minimal caching of pages previously rendered so that they’re ready to go with the user returns to them. This doesn’t necessarily have to be RAM-based if available memory is an issue.

Ultimately, however, these are all relatively minor gripes. For the most part, they’ll go away down the road as the applications become more sophisticated, the devices get faster, and the screens get more pixels.

Gained In Translation

The fact that digital magazines take up essentially no space physically is one of the big reasons I like them, just as it is with eBooks. I am, unfortunately, somewhat of a hoarder when it comes to magazines. It’s nice to be able to read what I want to read, not have to throw it away, and yet have it take up no extra space in my house.

A few digital magazines have made attempts at more than merely translating their print edition into digital format. For example, the digital editions of Sports Illustrated and Maxim Magazine have embedded video and extra pictures that aren’t found in the print edition.

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