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

Post image for Times for iPad. Your Own Personal Newspaper. Reviewed.

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.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Brooke-Smith

Thanks for the review. Just took a look at the videos of the interface on the Acrylic Apps website. The interface is indeed pretty. Videos seem to dwell at little on the actual effects and animations rather than the functionality though – I’m left asking – “what does this do for me?”.

   

Jhanlon

How is this app different from The Early Edition?

   

Milind Alvares

It’s much better than The Early Edition. It’s faster, more organised, and well, The Early Edition went a little overboard with its newspaper thing.

   

dorian_grey

Very good article, Milind! Not the usual “looks great, go buy it (have to say this cause I got a promo code from the dev)”-conclusion known from other blogs, but really helpful and your reader’s benefit in mind.

   

Atomicbeat

Quick question:

How does this compare to Pulse which is my current news aggregator?
Many thanks for the review.

   

Milind Alvares

Quick answer: I shall continue to use Pulse, but along with Reeder.

Times does have its advantages. It can handle more feeds, both technically and in terms of user interface. It can also handle more kinds of feeds, where Pulse is best use with image heavy feeds. If I had to use just one RSS reader, and the choice was Pulse and Times, I’d probably choose Times. I suppose I’ve confused you further.

   

Atomicbeat

>I suppose I’ve confused you further.
Errr yes kind of….
Perhaps it might be clearer if you explain what you like about Pulse as you said you will continue to use it.
I appreciate your responses – many thanks!

   

Milind Alvares

Here’s what Pulse does for me. It takes 10 of my most treasured feeds — feeds I’m compelled to check every morning and evening — and emphasises each of them. Emphasises them greatly. Large thumbnail imagery means I can see clearly what each article is about, and its limited nature means I never have too much to go over. Once I’ve looked at Pulse, I can go about my daily activities, twitter around, and then maybe at some point of time check up on Reeder for all the not-as-important-but-quite-so feeds that I’ve added to Google Reader.

If I remove Reeder from the equation, it means I have around 40 feeds I need to check. Even if Pulse could technically support unlimited feeds, which it doesn’t, it wouldn’t emphasise my important feeds enough, nor would I be able to view so many articles in thumbnails. If Reeder, or any traditional RSS styled client, were removed from the equation, I’d want Times. Its UI can handle way more feeds than Pulse can. While technically limitless, each page can handle around 10-15 feeds, so if you have 7-8 pages set up, Times has got you covered. Times is that middle ground between emphasis and variety.

My main arguments against Times, is that it feels fake after a while. I felt like that while using its desktop app, and now it feels the same on the iPad. When you pick up the newspaper, or even visit a website, the headline that you see, along with a featured image, those are all there for a reason. Because they’re important and you must read them. Those featured blocks up there on this site for instance, those are there because they were manually added there. With Times its a whole lot more random. Now if Times were to have some sort of Fever° like algorithm to determine importance (maybe based on retweets or something), that would be a wholly different take.

   

Rob

So could you use Google Reader to rip through your feeds starring or sharing the ones you want to read later and then connect this app to the starred or shared feed? This way you pare down the list in Google Reader and then leisurely enjoy the articles using Times.

   

Milind Alvares

That would be just one feed in your Times app, so how would that work out right? You need more feeds to make Times work.

One of our twitter followers asked something to the tune of “How many more of these do we need?”. I say there’s room for a lot more. We not only have different tastes, we also have different moods. Sometimes you want to look at them in Reeder, otherwise in Pulse, and one fine day when you’re just sitting around, looking for something to be occupied with, you launch the Times app and peruse at your leisure. A hit or miss. Maybe even have a sports section, where otherwise only tech is allowed.

   

Eelco de Vries

I like this article, it is not as systematically “dried out” as some other SA ones. I wanted to hop in on this about the times for mac app, which you all probably know. I have got it, I love it, but I barely use it. The only reason – absolutely the only one – is the fact that it’s a resource hog. It runs on some kind of safari-ness, which opened for a couple of days makes your system slow down. It displays beautifully, and works with my feeds in a very comfortable manner, but the slowness of the app in full screen (192×1200 imac resolution) and over time with more feeds in it make it unusable. Shame, because it really allows you to keep up with things of your choosing in your way without all the stress that can accompany the usual rss feed checking, something we probably all know.

For this app, all I wanted to know is its speed and never slowing down abilities. Are they up for it? I love reading my feeds in a non-tabular fashion (I hate the dry data presentation the usual stuff gets me) and pulse seemed to provide it to some extend, but it is still quite linear. This looks like it is what I wanted in my desktop app but didn’t get by just a hair, but is it as reliable – even when expanded with multiple pages and feeds – as it implies to be?

   

Milind Alvares

How many feeds are we talking here? I did manage to add 50 or so (painful as it was) and it didn’t slow down even once. It did crash twice, but that was only on the first day. I can also say it performs better than the Mac version. I’ll add a few more feeds and see how it performs.

Also, what do you mean by “dried out” posts? We’d appreciate your feedback, so do send us a few words to our pr@sa email address; it’ll be very useful.

   

Eelco de Vries

That sounds great. This means it’s an app for me I think, and makes me want to check out version 2 for os x. I am taking 50+ feeds easily, up to a hundred I think. So yeah, if the performance doesn’t really suffer, that is awesome.

The reasons quoted in the article are spot on, which is why I prefer a reader like this. It allows you to casually check the category of your choosing instead of checking lists of data without much of a human flow, but tabular or listed structures. Thanks for the response, loving smokingapples more and more :)

   

Arne

Hi there, nice article like it as all others here on the page. Short question the nice wallpaper I can see on the screenshot of the times-mac screenshot, what is it? Looks awesome. Thanks, Arne

   

Shawn

Do you know of any applications that take your twitter feed and use the links to form a newspaper like experience. I know that flipboard does this but I was kind of looking for one for the iPhone.
ps I love the site, new favourite source for solid mac news and reviews

   

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