Times for iPad. Your Own Personal Newspaper. Reviewed.

by Milind Alvares

Times for iPad. Your Own Personal Newspaper. Reviewed.

by Milind Alvares on August 12, 2010

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Let me start by saying that Acrylic Apps’ Times for iPad is an amazingly beautiful polished piece of software.

Way back, in mid-2008, when Core Animation had just made its way to millions of desktops, Acrylic Apps introduced a radically different concept in news gathering. Instead of the formal approach to list-article approach to RSS, Times presented your reading material as a live virtual newspaper. It was truly revolutionary, and breathtaking to look at.

It didn’t pick up though, and most users fell back to their usual NetNewsWire-esque habit. I don’t know why it didn’t work out, but if I could take a guess, I’d say it was that the real world metaphor didn’t quite fit in to the desktop metaphor. The newspaper like approach failed to transfer that experience using a mouse and keyboard. Times also suffered from major stability issues; it was practically unusable with more than a few feed subscriptions.

Acrylic’s heart and soul Dustin MacDonald was rumoured to have been working on Times 2.0 for Mac, a complete rewrite of the engine, but then out of nowhere, the iPad showed up. Times was destined to be on the iPad, and so he instead set out to create this real live newspaper for the 10 inch tablet.

Es muy bueno!

If you’re familiar with Times on the desktop, the iPad version is everything you’d expect. If not, just imagine a digital newspaper. It’s got sections at the top denoting ‘pages’, and columns that hold your feeds. Times ships with a bunch of feeds like Engadget, Smoking Apples, Uncrate, ESPN, and you can add your feeds using the edit button. Each feed can have a different style, and you can resize the columns to give it some semblance of a newspaper layout.

Add feeds? Feels like an odd thing to do for a feed reader, in this age where everything is ‘Google Reader’. But Times wasn’t built to be a Google Reader client. The design ideologies are so different that doing so would create a total mess of things. Times wasn’t meant to maintain unread counts, nor was it meant to hold the similar folder structure as your GR feeds. It also isn’t meant to be used for more than your most important feeds, which is important to note, considering the amount of junk that goes into a GR account. The very tediousness of adding a feed means you won’t add more than the necessary sites (you would probably be asking for at least importing Google feeds at this point).

It’s time to read. Tap on a story, and Times’ signature downwards page curl reveal the article. Times was one of the only RSS readers which pulled the entire article, and not just the excerpt as limited by some sites. Times for iPad does not have this feature, but does come with a web view so you don’t have to jump to Safari. The reading view however is clean and clear of clutter. Only a few actions show up in the sidebar while in landscape, disappear in portrait.

Another important feature of Times, is its shelf. If you find an interesting article, add it to your shelf, presented as a virtual wood, you guessed it, shelf. Even the articles in the shelf are cutely displayed with the title, and tiny thumbnail image. This thumbnail approach means shelf space is spatially limited; you can only add a certain amount of items in there until that shelf stops being a shelf and looks more like a waste-bin. This means you have to chuck out articles you don’t want to read, or are done reading. Contrast this with Google Reader’s liberal ‘starring’ feature, which leads to an insurmountable list of articles that are vaguely interesting.

It’s imperative to understand that this is not a Google Reader client.

When you’re done reading an article, slide the page fold up (or tap the bottom), and return to your newspaper. The page flip behaves much like the iBooks’ pages. So, we’re done looking at the good stuff, but there’s obviously going to be some baddies too, right?

Los Negativos

There are some complaints about the app itself, and then there’s the rant about the my fundamental issues with ‘this kind of app’, which I’ll get to later. First, Times does not have a Send to Instapaper function. I understand the developer would want to keep the party in-house, but Instapaper or Read it Later is not going to leave the workflow of most users, so there’s no point trying to spoil the experience. That said, MacDonald said he’s not entirely opposed to adding this feature in a future release. Also, if you want your Instapaper articles in Times, you can add its RSS feed to a column, though articles will have to be read using the in-app browser.

Second, the Share/Shelf shortcuts are only viewable while in landscape mode, so you have to flip the iPad to reveal those controls. You also can’t get to the shelf while viewing an article. So if you want to catch up on your shelved articles, it’s tap (shelf) » tap (article) » slide up (dismiss article) » tap (shelf) » tap (article), which is very inconvenient. And slow.

That’s another thing. The app isn’t technically slow — the animations are fluid, and the fetching is reasonable. It’s just built to be a slow app. Tapping each article means waiting through the animation, then sliding the fold up, then selecting another article. I can see how this reflects general approach of the application. Where in other RSS reader you’re processing RSS feeds, with Times you’re meant to read. Still, sometimes you want that quickness, which is where this app comes up short.

The fundamental problem with this kind of app, is that it tries to imitate the newspaper, but forgets about the curator. With a newspaper, there’s someone deciding which article has importance, which article can be shoved in a corner, and articles are never repeated. With Times, there is no weight attached to the article aside from the priority you assign to the entire feed. For instance, I can set the SA feed to show up big and on top, but I can’t control when an linked item gets emphasized while burying an important piece of news. You may argue that meaningful emphasis is hardly a characteristic of any RSS reader, but in this case, it can negatively emphasize articles. And that’s not very efficient for catching up on news.

If you thought ‘why not just have Times equally emphasise all articles’, below is what the result looks like. It’s designed to be displayed like a newspaper, with varying column widths and imagery.

Even in terms of design, it bounds content to narrow columns. Its horizontal space is limited, even though it scrolls sideways to accommodate additional columns (up to four). You also have limited control over the column width, so you can’t have just two columns displayed in landscape, where the ‘page’ has three columns. It’s also got a few bugs in its UI like if you bring the columns down to just one, it stretches beyond one screen while in portrait, or you can’t drag-drop articles to the shelf if the page stretches beyond the display. And lastly, there are a bunch of irregularities in its fake design, where you can see beyond the matrix. But they’re mostly software bugs and should be fixed as the updates show up.

La Conclusión

It’s a little difficult to write a conclusion for this app. On the one hand it’s slick, and provides a leisurely interface for catching up on the day’s news, provides full article feeds instead of excerpts, and its beautiful user interface and effects make you feel like you’re holding a newspaper in your hands. If you want to sit back, and read news from your choicest sources instead of checking your feeds for news updates, this is the app to go with.

But on the other hand, it’s slower than your other RSS reader. It’s not an efficient workflow for processing RSS, which is primarily how I use Reeder. And it sports gimmicky effects that’ll amuse you the duration of a week. Personally, I’ve been using Pulse for checking my 10 most important feeds, and Reeder for everything else. I don’t see Times replacing either of the two.

It’s $7.99 at the App Store, and there’s a bunch of video demos of the user interface on the Times website.

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