Thursday, April 16, 2009

Reading List Apps Compared: Read It Later, I Need To Read This, Instapaper

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In today's world we are inundated with more information than ever before. Organizing and consuming this information is a struggle. These three applications are tools that help manage lists of web pages that you would like to read. Each allow you to easily add the web page currently open in your browser to the end of your reading list queue.

First, before comparing these apps, why would you need to use them as opposed to something else? Here are some alternatives for saving URLs, listed with drawbacks:
  • Bookmarking in your browser: not shared across multiple computers (unless you use a synchronization app), need to manually distinguish as being meant to be read later
  • Saving in a text file: more clicks to copy/paste each URL, not shared across multiple computers
  • Saving in an online document (i.e. Google docs, wiki page): more clicks to copy/paste each URL
  • Save to delicious.com: need to tag each to distinguish it from others as being meant to be read later
  • Save with ScrapBook Firefox extension: not shared across multiple computers
  • Drag url to desktop/folder: not shared across multiple computers

Note that for each of these alternative solutions, there is not a trivially easy (as in one click) means to mark a page as read or unread.

Read It Later

Now, on to the comparison. First, Read It Later (http://readitlaterlist.com) is available as both a web application, and as a Firefox extension and iPhone/iPod app. For my purposes, I'll focus on the web application. Why? The reason is because I use several different computers on a regular basis, and I do not want to install the Firefox extension on each one. Furthermore, even after installing and configuring the extension, they would need to constantly synch. I prefer the simple usability of the browser bookmarklets.

Read It Later provides three bookmarklets:
  • Read It Later: adds current page in the browser to reading list queue
  • Mark As Read
  • Reading List

Once each button is added to your browser's bookmarks, clicking on them will perform the described action. Clicking on the Read It Later or Mark as Read buttons will show a confirmation message in a small popup window, which appears briefly than promptly closes by itself.

Viewing the Reading List page (screenshot) online, you can view a list of Unread or Read pages, sorted by Date Added (Newest First), Date Added (Oldest First), Alphabetical, or by Site. For each link in the list, it only takes one click to either mark it as read (from the Unread list page) or delete it (from the Read list page).

Finally, Read It Later has a search box to filter the list of links shown to those matching a term you enter. It dynamically updates the page as your type.

I Need To Read This

Now, on to I Need To Read This (http://ineedtoreadthis.com). I Need To Read This provides two bookmarklets:
  • I Need To Read This: adds current page in the browser to reading list queue
  • Read An Article: shows you the oldest unread page in your reading list
Clicking on each will perform the described action - however, unlike Read It Later, I Need To Read This shows a popup window which does not close automatically. Which method is better is up to personal preference (I am actually neutral, each are good in their own way).

I Need To Read This shows two options for viewing your list of pages: the to-read list (screenshot), and the full list with all links including old/read ones. All pages are always sorted by date added with newest shown first.

From the list page there is an option to manually add a page to your reading list by just entering the URL. This has the advantage of not needing to actually load a page in your browser before saving it.

I Need To Read This has a newly developed Firefox extension.

Instapaper

Instapaper (http://www.instapaper.com) has a single bookmarklet called "Read Later". Like with Read It Later, the popup window appears briefly, then closes by itself.

Pages on the reading list (screenshot) have a few additional options:
  • Star this article: starred articles can be viewed in a separate list
  • Text-only version: view a text-only version with the content of the page viewed on instapaper.com
  • Edit: allows you to edit the URL, title (optional), and summary (optional)
  • Delete
Links can be viewed in a list with Unread, Starred, or Deleted items. Instapaper also has the option to manually add a URL, with an optional title and summary.

Instapaper has an iPhone/iPod app in both free and pro versions.


Other Features

All applications allow you to publish your reading list as a public RSS feed. Read It Later allows you to password protect the feed.

Read It Later and I Need To Read This both have Firefox extensions. At this time I prefer the convenience of just using browser bookmarklets, but I might try these again in the future.

Read It Later and Instapaper both have iPhone/iPod apps. The biggest feature of each is offline access to pages in your reading list. This is a big advantage because I have an iPod Touch and don't always have wi-fi access. I have installed both but am not actively using either.

As far as support, the first two both have forums available for you to report a problem or make a suggestion:
http://ideashower.com/support/read-it-later
http://getsatisfaction.com/ineedtoreadthis

The Verdict: Despite the additional features and options available in Read It Later and Instapaper, I am currently using I Need To Read This for my reading list needs because it is so simple, fast, and easy to use. It is the usability and my comfort with the user interface that is the distinguishing advantage, even though this is a very subjective factor. I am looking forward to several key feature additions to bring it up to a level of parity to the other sites. However, if the rate of development for I Need To Read This doesn't keep pace, I may switch to using Read It Later or Instapaper. Regardless, I will keep a close eye on each of these simple, yet extremely useful applications.

Full Feature List Comparison Spreadsheet



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