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A buffet of magazines on a tablet

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Few words fire up the happiness transmitters in your brain more than “free.” But “flat-fee unlimited” comes close.

Unlimited movies (Netflix). Unlimited music (Spotify). Unlimited train travel (Europass). Unlimited seafood buffet (Red Lobster).

And now, ladies and gentlemen: unlimited magazines to read on your tablet. Introducing the Next Issue app.

Five big magazine publishers — Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corporation and Time Inc. — have collaborated to create this service, much the way a collaboration of TV networks started Hulu.com.

And, most likely, they did it for the same reason: to fight fire with fire. That is, they figured: “Well, if the Internet is killing off our traditional delivery mechanisms” (in this case, printed magazines), “maybe we should create our own digital service.”

So here’s the deal: For $10 a month, you can read the latest full issues of 27 magazines on your tablet, and back issues to the beginning of 2012. Each downloaded issue includes the full, colorful design, all articles and even the ads that you’d see in the printed edition.

There are some great magazines in this collection: Better Homes and Gardens, Car and Driver, Condé Nast Traveler, Elle, Esquire, Fitness, Fortune, Glamour, InStyle, Money, Parents, People, Popular Mechanics, Real Simple, This Old House, Time and Vanity Fair.

There are also some slightly less mainstream magazines: All You, Allure, Coastal Living, Cooking Light, Essence, Golf, Health, People StyleWatch, Southern Living, Sports Illustrated Kids, Sunset.

Most of those are monthly magazines. For $5 more a month, or $180 a year in total, you can get the Ultimate plan, which adds a nice set of popular weeklies: Entertainment Weekly, People, Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker. By year’s end, the company hopes to double or triple the number of magazines in its catalog.

There are really two new things to review here: the tablet app itself, and the pricing.

The main thing to know about the app is that it’s available for Android tablets only, and only 7- or 10-inch models, and only those running the 3.0 or 4.0 versions of Android (that’s about 6 percent of Android tablets right now). The company says it will submit an iPad version for Apple’s approval in about six weeks. That approval isn’t a sure thing, however, since Apple offers a rival magazine app.

Next Issue is not, of course, the first app to offer digital magazines on a tablet. Most prominent magazines are already available as apps. The beauty of the Next Issue concept, though, is that it puts all the magazines in one place, using a consistent design and a standard set of controls. You don’t have to learn a different app for every publication.

That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, the magazines within the Next Issue app vary quite a bit in philosophy and operation.

Most titles work just as you’d expect: swipe your finger across the screen to turn the page. Tap anywhere to summon navigation controls, like the “carousel” scroll bar at the bottom of the screen, which lets you fast forward or rewind through the issue, flipping on-screen pages.

But in some, like People and Vanity Fair, you scroll horizontally for some pages, and vertically within an article.

And then there’s Time magazine, whose designers must have inhaled a little too much of the ink fumes from the old days. Its design is an incomprehensible mess. Sometimes you swipe horizontally to turn pages. Sometimes articles scroll vertically, as though printed on a roll of toilet paper. (In those situations, there are no page boundaries, so you can’t do a quick “next page” swipe; you must drag the text up by just the right amount.) Sometimes there’s no text at all, but a redundant “Tap to Read” button.

“Scroll to Read More” notes appear at the bottom of each screen — even if you’re already at the end of an article. Worst of all, the usual navigation bar and carousel scroller don’t appear when you tap, as they do in all the other magazines.

Next Issue makes much of the fact that bonus materials, links and even videos may appear in some magazines, but they’re rare. In Fortune, I found a couple of Web links that revealed financial data about companies mentioned; in People, there were quite a few bonus videos and supplementary materials.

Digital magazines are big files — as big as 400 megabytes an issue — so the app’s designers have bent over backward to make sure you’re downloading and keeping only the issues you want. You can designate up to 12 magazines to download automatically when they’re published (why only 12?). You can limit the amount of your tablet’s storage that’s dedicated to magazines; after that threshold is reached, the app deletes older issues automatically. You can “pin” certain magazines to prevent that auto-deletion.

Nicely enough, you can start reading an article before an entire issue has been downloaded. The app downloads the article you want first, and then finishes the rest of the issue in the background.

Another innovative feature: you can tap an article’s cover blurb (“Lose 100 pounds in 10 minutes!” “Justin Bieber’s hot new socks!”) to jump directly to that article inside. Try that with the printed edition.

It’s nice that the app isn’t very complicated, but it cries out for a few basic enhancements. There’s no way to search for a word or phrase. It would be nice if you could read and sync your place in a magazine across multiple devices, like your laptop or phone, as you can with e-books.

Note, too, that you can’t adjust the type size, as you can in e-books. That’s asking a lot, of course, since magazines are laid out attractively with graphics, sidebars and other layout niceties. Still, Next Issue pages look precisely the same on both 7- and 10-inch tablets — they’re just a little smaller on the 7-inch screen — and aging eyes could sometimes use a break.

Finally, the software has enough little bugs to qualify for admission to an entomology conference.

All right then: what about the price?

On one hand, you don’t really come out ahead unless you have some kind of over-the-top magazine appetite. For example, you could get printed subscriptions to The New Yorker ($70 a year), Esquire ($8), Sports Illustrated ($40), Vanity Fair ($24), and Parents ($10), and still spend less than the $180 a year for a full Next Issue subscription.

You don’t have to sign up for Next Issue’s all-you-can-eat plan. You can subscribe to individual magazines for $2 to $10 a month, or even buy individual issues at regular newsstand prices — $3 to $6 each. Obviously, those numbers make the value proposition even worse. But if you already subscribe to the print edition, most magazines offer the digital one free. Furthermore, these price considerations don’t even acknowledge the elephant in the room: that because there are no printing or shipping costs, a digital magazine really should cost less than the printed edition. (Of course, we haven’t won this battle on the e-book front, either.)

On the other hand, digital magazines offer advantages that printed ones don’t — advantages worth paying for. You’re saving a lot of trees and keeping a lot of paper out of the landfill. You’re getting some pretty amazing instant gratification. You’re buying yourself considerable convenience — having all of those magazines in one place, always ready to go.

You’re also saving yourself a lot of weight and bulk. By carrying the digital version of Vanity Fair alone, you’ll make the money back in chiropractor savings.

So Next Issue isn’t exactly a slam-dunk, but it’s not a dismal failure, either.

If you own a 7- or 10-inch tablet running Android 3.0 or 4.0, by all means try out the 30-day free trial. All six of you.

Everyone else will look forward to the bright future when the iPad edition comes out, more magazine titles become available and the software is more polished. Then all we have to do is wait for the magic phrase “flat-fee unlimited” to come to other corners of life: like plane tickets, movie theaters and health care.


©2012 The New York Times News Service

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