The Good, Bad and Ugly of Media iPad Apps

I know that year-end “best of” lists are everywhere this week and the next, but since I’ve been downloading and trying out almost every media-related iPad (s aapl) app I can get my hands on since the tablet was first released, I thought the end of 2010 would be a good time to put down in writing some of the ones that have most impressed me, as well as some that I think still need work. As far as the criticisms go, I hope showcasing what some are doing well can help the weakest learn how to adapt and make better use of this new platform.

The Not So Good:

  • The New York Times: Since it is a leader online, it would be nice if the Times was a leader in iPad apps as well, but it just isn’t. The app more or less looks like the newspaper’s website, although it is a little less cluttered looking. But there is very little that’s exciting about it. You get the news stories, and occasionally some video (although that is reserved mostly for the ads). It also crashes — a lot.
  • Wired: The tech magazine was a leader in the sense that it was one of the first to release an iPad app, but it probably should have waited — or at least thought about it a bit more. The issues are huge (500 megabytes average) and take a long time to download, and there isn’t really a lot there other than the magazine, and the occasional creative use of video or some low-level interactivity. It’s nice to look at, but that’s it.
  • The New Yorker: Like Wired and some other magazine apps, this one pretty much just gives you the magazine in a different format, much like the old CD-ROM days. The developers seem to have spent most of their time making sure that the ads look nice, since there are a lot of them. The rest of the content is hard to find and sometimes difficult to navigate. Interestingly, you can post to Twitter and Facebook from inside some ads, but not from inside the articles.

Better, But Still Need Work:

  • Slate: This online magazine gets a bit of a break because it is a small publication (although it is owned by the Washington Post Co.), but its design and content are pretty ho-hum. Articles and photos appear in the grid-style view that has become commonplace online and on the iPad, and there is some good use of videos, but it’s mostly the standard headline and web-page style view. Ads are prominent.
  • Life: This magazine’s app is a nice try, in that it is designed around imagery, which is something the iPad is particularly well-suited for, but it falls short of some better ones. The map of the world with pins for photo galleries is an interesting interface, but many of the galleries are old and frankly not that great. The editor’s picks are better, but some are still fairly lame, like the photo gallery of “Kids on the Phone With Santa.”
  • Washington Post: The Post gets a lot of credit for trying to do something that hardly any other app does, which is to bring in outside content in its “live topics” section, including pulling in Twitter discussion and Facebook comments on the news. But the amount of screen real estate given to these features makes it difficult to use them effectively. And the whole thing seems cluttered, although it does have a “read later” function for offline reading, which is nice.

The Best of the Best:

  • The Big Picture: This app is all about images, just like the feature of the same name that it is based on — but the app is even better than the paper version because there are more photos than will usually fit into a single edition on the website. Each one comes with a short description, but the real power is just the photos themselves. One of the best apps out there.
  • Huffington Post: The new app from the web-based publication — which it calls “NewsGlide” — is really well done. It is very much like CNN’s app, in that it has a lot of visuals and not much text on the front page. It also makes good use of the grid-style view, which allows readers to swipe each individual strip of articles right to left. It looks a little jumbled sometimes, but overall is well designed. Sharing and commenting are also prominent, unlike many other apps.
  • Gourmet Live: This app is mostly magazine content, much like Wired or Esquire or the New Yorker, but what makes it different is that it has added an element of interaction and game-playing that involves allowing the reader to “unlock” new articles, recipes etc. by reading (at which point a somewhat annoying little bell rings). It may not work for everyone, but at least the magazine is trying something different.

Interestingly enough, my favorite media-related apps of all aren’t even on this list, because they aren’t really apps from a specific media entity. The ones that I like to browse through the most when I am looking for things to read are the Twitter iPad app, since the people I follow share some of the most interesting links out there (and they appear inside the media pane of the Twitter app), and “aggregation”-style apps such as Flipboard and a newer Twitter-based app called Tweetmag, both of which are designed to pull in content and display it like an interactive magazine.

All of the apps and publishers on the lists here should probably be thinking about that (if they aren’t already) and figuring out how to deal with it.

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Rego Korosi