Have You Heard the News? The Benefits of Using a Read Later Service
This article has been updated on 18 December 2014 to reflect that it is now not necessary to have an Instapaper Premium subscription to use it in conjunction with Voice Dream Reader.
The Internet has revolutionised access to information for us all, blind and sighted alike. But the impact of the Internet has been even more transformative for blind people. Once deprived of access to information of all kinds because it was offered in inaccessible, hardcopy print, now we’re confronted with the same problem as sighted people – information overload. It’s a nice problem to have.
So how do we consume that information efficiently? One technology I use to help me read news articles and other items of interest is services that let you file material for later reading.
First, let’s look at the use case for such services. Why would you want to file something for reading later, rather than just reading the article when you come across it? Isn’t procrastination generally a bad thing?
This is one example, along with taking a walk in the fresh air before pressing “Send” on that explosive email, where procrastination has advantages.
When loading web pages to get to that news story that takes your fancy, you may be frustrated by all the superfluous clutter, ads, social network links and more that you have to sift through just to get to the story you came to read. A read later app strips out all that verbose junk, just giving you a clean copy of the story.
When you’re checking Twitter or Facebook to see what your friends are doing, you’re probably in a cursory browsing kind of mode. Yet someone has shared a link to an article that looks good, if only you had the time or were in the mood to read it.
You may be browsing through your RSS feeds in your favourite news reading app, mine is Feeddler on iOS. Flicking through the headlines gives you an overview of what’s going on in the world, but there are some articles of particular interest that you’d like to read in detail, when you have more time.
Seeking some specific information on the web, you may stumble upon an article that isn’t related to the matter in hand, but you think you’d like to read that sometime. True, you could favourite the article in that instance, but there are advantages in having everything you want to read later in the one place.
Perhaps you have a long daily commute, or a flight where Wi-Fi is non-existent or expensive, and would just like to sit back and be read to. Read later apps can download all you’ve saved before you leave home, giving you your own customised newscast. And it doesn’t even use any of your precious mobile data.
Read later apps can help with all these scenarios and more. Typically, sending articles to such apps has been a feature added to apps where it makes sense, such as RSS readers and social networking clients. It used to be necessary for the developer of each of these apps to add support for the service you wished to use. If you used either of the top two, Pocket and Instapaper, chances were good that it would indeed be supported.
iOS 8, by far the most open version of Apple’s mobile operating system yet, has changed the game with its share extensions, just one of the many great new extensibility features I cover at length in my book, “iOS 8 Without the Eye”.
What this means is that you no longer have to depend on every third-party developer to support a favourite app to which you want to send content. Instead, the provider of that service can add a share extension available globally to iOS, and thus to all third-party app developers who support the native iOS Share Menu. In short, iOS 8 has made read later apps much more viable and universal.
There are three technologies that I’ve found to work well when saving content for later reading. iOS and OS X offer their own reading list integrated with Safari, where articles can be saved for later reading. While support for the Reading List was minimal in the past, the universality of the Share Menu in iOS 8 has made it a more attractive option than previously.
My primary reason for not preferring this option is that for VoiceOver users, it requires more manual interaction with your device than other services I’ll profile in this article. For example it is necessary to select the next article you want to read when the current one has finished reading. But it’s free, chances are you are already signed into iCloud, and it just works.
The two most popular apps for storing content to read later are Instapaper and Pocket. Both offer similar functionality. They’re well supported by third-party apps, an advantage as app developers transition to the new native iOS 8 Share Menu. Both apps support browser bookmarklets, so when you’re on your PC, you can easily send articles to either service for reading later. Both also support the sending of articles via email.
When you install their apps from the App Store, a share extension is installed. You’ll need to enable this. When you go to the native iOS 8 Share Menu, I usually do this from Safari to add a new extension, you’ll find a “More” option. This is where new extensions that you’ve not chosen to enable are hiding. Chances are you don’t want to enable every possible share extension currently living on your device. If you’re never going to send an article to the service, enabling the extension just creates unnecessary clutter.
But if you’ve just installed Instapaper or Pocket, you’ll definitely want to make sure its share extension is selected. You can also reorder your extensions, so the services you use the most are first in the menu.
Instapaper and Pocket will give you an excellent experience, both in terms of functionality and accessibility. I seem to recall looking at Pocket some time ago and finding some significant accessibility issues. This is no longer the case, and I’ve found Pocket to now be in good shape in terms of accessibility.
Instapaper requires you to pay a subscription for its premium services, a couple of which may be of real benefit to you. As a rule, third-party apps are only permitted to talk to premium accounts. One welcome exception to this rule is Voice Dream Reader, something I’ll come back to in a moment.
Premium users also get the ability to create a playlist which Instapaper will read using the built-in text-to-speech capability within iOS. This is a fantastic feature. Start the playlist, lock your screen, and read your own personally-compiled newspaper while you do other things.
The feature has limitations, the most significant of which being that the voice is preset based on your region. My voice of choice in iOS is Compact Daniel, but since I’m in New Zealand, my default regional voice is Karen. Unless I choose to change my region in settings, which creates other issues for me elsewhere, I’m stuck with Karen when using the read out loud feature in Instapaper. I’ve written to them, suggesting they offer a user interface element in settings allowing the user to choose from any of the available text-to-speech voices, so fingers crossed.
Premium membership costs $2.99 per month, or $29.99 per year, and is available as an in-app purchase.
Pocket’s free features are more generous. They don’t restrict access by third-party apps, although Pocket offers no text-to-speech capability of its own. If you pay for a Premium membership, you get to build an infinite library of your saved articles which is searchable. While I haven’t invested in this yet, I can certainly see that as an author and blogger who may want to refer to something I read sometime, it’s an attractive offering.
If you don’t have Voice Dream Reader on your iDevice, going with Instapaper Premium for the ability to build a playlist of items to be read back-to-back may be an attractive value proposition. Then again, if you don’t have Voice Dream Reader, I’d have to ask, why not? As I’ve blogged previously, I think this is an outstanding app, with many benefits beyond reading news articles. It would easily make my top 10 must have third-party apps for iOS.
Voice Dream Reader supports both Instapaper and Pocket, allowing you to read articles back-to-back, with the screen locked, in any of the many voices it supports. If you’ve gathered a list of articles from various news sources and just want to have them read to you while you do other things, it’s a straightforward and very pleasant experience.
It is pleasing to note that Voice Dream Reader is authorised to connect to the Instapaper API even when the account is not a premium one. Instapaper should be congratulated for allowing this. It means that if the only formerly premium feature in which you’re interested is connecting Voice Dream to Instapaper, you may now not need to subscribe, thus making Instapaper and Pocket equally attractive options for Voice Dream access.
So you can download the free version of either app which installs its share extension, create an account, and authorise Voice Dream Reader to access your Instapaper or Pocket account via the Voice Dream Reader settings. You could even try both apps and decide which one you think does a better job. On some New Zealand websites for instance, I have found that Instapaper does a better job of extracting just the article text. In a few cases, Pocket is better at eliminating clutter. So the app you settle on may depend on the websites you frequent the most.
In future, there are a couple of enhancements I’d like to see to the Voice Dream Reader interface to both services. First, if you want to read articles back-to-back in Voice Dream Reader, you have no choice but to read articles from newest to oldest. I would prefer to be able to read the articles in the order I added them.
Second, it would be great if an option were available to delete items automatically once they’d been read, with this option only applying to the special Instapaper and Pocket folders.
Typically, I send most of my articles to Pocket via Feeddler RSS Reader, which now lets you get to your sharing options with a simple double-tap and hold on an article headline, and via Twitter.
Twitterific’s handling of read later services is in my view inefficient, and is one of the few outstanding major concerns with the app that prevent me from adopting it as my primary Twitter client on iOS. With Tweetlist,
the native Twitter client and others, choosing to send an article to your read later service sends the text of the article to it, which of course is the whole point of such services. Twitterific, however, only sends the URL of the article. To get the text, you need first to open the article, then use the Share Menu from the open article, an inefficient process that should not be necessary.
In summary, if you read a lot of long-form news or informational articles, consider adding a read later service such as Instapaper or Pocket to your arsenal of tools. Once you grasp how to integrate it with the way you work and read, it’s one of those technologies you’ll not want to live without.
Happy reading, and if you have experiences with such services, do give us the benefit of your experience via the comments.