When it comes to entertainment and information, we tend to like the all-you-can-eat model: whether it's streaming music on Spotify or watching shows on Netflix, more and more of us expect to get everything for a flat fee. Could that work for other kinds of content too, such as magazines and newspapers? Readly and Readbug say yes, while Flipboard and Apple's imminent News say "hmmm."
The four services are very different, but they all have the same aim: to give you something interesting to read. Readly and Readbug take the Spotify Premium model with flat fees giving you access to all their content, but Flipboard and Apple News are ad-funded. Have any of them got reading right? Let's find out.
We reviewed Readly back in 2014, and while we liked the app we had some reservations. In particular, the catalogue wasn't as big as we'd like. The catalogue is much, much bigger now and includes pretty much every magazine you might see on a newsagent's shelf including T3, Total Film, Marie Claire, FHM, Empire, Car, Top Gear, cooking magazines, specialist magazines, trashy supermarket titles, kids' comics and so on, with unlimited access for just £9.99 per month. It's available for iOS, Android, Windows and Kindle Fire.
Readly's catalogue doesn't just include current issues but back issues too, and new issues appear almost as soon as they hit print. The issues are perfect reproductions of the print editions, so they work best on Retina/HD screens. Expect to do a lot of zooming in and out if you're using a small or low-res device.
One of our concerns last year was that Readly didn't have parental controls, so Kids' National Geographic could be racked next to trashy tabloids with appalling cover lines. That's changed and the app now supports multiple accounts.
Readly is exceptional value for money. With magazines typically costing around five quid per issue, if you read just three titles a month you're saving cash. We've put our money where our mouths are with this one: we're happy subscribers using our own cash, not a PR-provided account. On a Retina iPad or similar Android tablet, it's a superb way to read magazines.
If Readly is a supermarket magazine rack, the iOS-only Readbug is your local indie emporium, stuffed with niche titles the wider world might not even have heard of with a friendly expert telling you about the good stuff. It reproduces photography perfectly but the text is rendered separately, so it's a lot easier on the eyes than Readly, and there's a daily, hand-picked best-of to show you interesting content. The digital text isn't always perfect – the typography is a little inconsistent and we'd have liked the option to specify our own fonts and sizes – but Readbug does a great job of preserving the print layouts (and the magazines' ads). Readbug uses algorithms to analyse what you read and help find related content too.
Like Readly, Readbug is £9.99 per month, and like Readly you get access to back issues as well as current ones. And like Readly, Readbug is great value for money – with one major caveat, which is that its catalogue is relatively small and definitely won't appeal to everybody. The catalogue currently contains 37 titles including Dazed, AnOther Magazine, Under The Radar, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies and Things & Ink. It's very pretty and a joy to use, but if your tastes are firmly mainstream this isn't the app for you.
Flipboard is an odd thing: it's partly a good-looking RSS feed reader, partly a place for you to share the things that interest you and partly a social media-powered recommendation engine. It shows you content from the sites you've chosen as favourites and from other users' Flipboard magazines (if you wish) and it can also grab content from your Facebook and Twitter feeds, creating what in theory should be the perfect magazine.
Flipboard is available for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows, Windows Phone and (since February 2015) online in your web browser. Rather than charge a subscription fee, Flipboard pays its way with ads.
Flipboard looks good (although we prefer the rival app Zite it bought last year, and whose recommendation system is now part of Flipboard), but its success largely depends on you: if you choose your interests wisely, follow good user-created Flipboard magazines and don't connect Facebook if you like lots of companies' pages then you'll get a much better experience.
The Flipboard app on iOS has just been updated to make it more social. Magazine creators can ask readers questions, comment on the stories they link to, add images or request others get involved. If you prefer reading to be a passive activity that won't be of much interest, but it's great if you want to share what you see online.
Apple News is a bit of a mystery at the moment. We know it's going to be ad-funded, we know it's going to be based around RSS news feeds, and we know that human curation is going to be a key part of it because Apple is busy hiring journalists and editors. But until it actually launches in Autumn 2015, we don't know whether it's any good.
We know some of the partners who have already signed up, a list that includes Wired, ESPN, the Guardian and the Atlantic, but it's unclear whether you'll be able to add your own feeds to the app or whether you'll be limited to the content Apple chooses for you. The demo certainly looks good, but then so did the original iPhone demo – and we know now that the phone Steve Jobs was waving about was barely functional.
News might be the death of Flipboard and the future of newspapers. Then again, it might just be another Ping. We'll let you know in the autumn.