Instapaper v Pocket

Time for far too many words of tech nerdery, as I put the two premiere ‘read-it-later’ services head-to-head in order to determine which I should be using at present.

Icon

In the first instance, I place quite a lot of stock—perhaps too much—in how my iPhone’s home screen looks. The Pocket icon is pleasingly colourful and for whatever reason the hint at depth that plays along the lower edge doesn’t look out of place amidst the otherwise flat sensibility of iOS 7.

The Instapaper icon has two weaknesses as far as my taste is concerned: firstly it’s black and white, so lets the side down a bit in terms of my home screen’s otherwise pretty colourful array, and secondly it features a prominent capital ‘I’ that (through some quirk of how my brain is wired) I cannot help but pronounce to myself, inwardly, every time I see it. (See also why I can’t have the Tumblr, Vine, or Medium apps on the front page.)

I also quite dig that little Pocket icon, and enjoy seeing it on an extension in Safari, and appearing on tweets that feature links. Far more distinctive, in both cases, than a lone capital letter.

So, so very subjective but this round goes to: Pocket

Web UI

The article list in Pocket doesn’t quite get things right for me in either of its available formats. The tile view looks good, in the majority of cases, for items that feature an image—though sometimes the auto-cropping makes things messy—but pure text items kind of drown and the snippet of text that’s applied as a descriptor is often nonsensical. The list view is similarly short of ideas as to what to do about items without an image, and settles for putting an ugly placeholder next to them. At least the applied tags are visible in the list view however, whereas they’re inexplicably hidden in the tile layout.

The menus and iconography within the Pocket interface all err on the side of chunkiness. It’s all pretty clean, and the rounded human-sans type makes it seem friendly where Instapaper is more functional, but at times it feels a bit cumbersome - it allows itself too much space and feels inelegant for it. My biggest pet peeve is the occasional appearance of a big yellow button, clearly a hold over from the service’s previous incarnation as Read It Later, it just feels entirely out of place. I do, however, like the choice of a central menu that drops down from the logotype - it looks great and gives quick access to all of the service’s elements.

Where Pocket is blocky and colourful, Instapaper is stark in black & white and (particularly in the ‘Compact’ iteration I prefer) makes great, functional use of every centimetre of screen space. No clumsily auto-generated snippet text, no mis-cropped images, just a crisp and functional UI with a familiar sidebar element. Though I have come to prefer tagging to folders as an organising principle, the folder implementation of Instapaper works well enough with the one exception that I wish filed items still remained in ‘Archive’, keeping that as a universal list of read items.

The iconography isn’t quite as good as Pocket’s, but it works, and the split between a sans serif face for UI items and a serif for content works exceptionally well. Perhaps Instapaper’s biggest advantage of all in this area though is the simple inclusion of an edit function. Allowing me to tweak an article title to my liking allows me to keep things nice and neat, especially important when archiving for future consultation.

Hands down this goes to Instapaper

App UI

Pocket’s formatting of its item list is more forgivable within the apps, where the pictures are smaller and items that don’t have them do not look as out of place. The tags are visible too! The slide-out main menu looks great and works well and the iconography is strong enough to make the ‘swipe left and choose an icon’ school of actions work flawlessly. Perhaps it’s my feeble brain, but still when I attempt this move within the Instapaper app I occasionally mistake the ‘Folder’ icon for ‘Archive’, and the ‘Archive’ icon proper for a non-existent ‘Print’ function.

In fact, Instapaper’s app UI is a backwards step, not allowing the ‘Compact’ view I prefer on the web, the mandatory couple of lines snipped from the body of the icon make things look busy and untidy. On iPad things are even worse: tile view is mandatory and personally I find it ugly as all heck.

In terms of pure looks, Pocket has the upper hand on iOS.

Reading experience

There’s really not much in this. On the web both services do a good job of delivering on their raison d’etre: they get out of the way and leave the screen to cleanly presented text. Pocket only features a binary choice with respect to typography: serif or sans-serif, but the sans that’s provided is pleasant enough on the eye, particularly on iOS. Instapaper has a slight upper hand by providing more options, including Lyon - perhaps my favourite face for longform, screen-based reading.

It’s a slight shame that the header bar is always present when viewing Pocket content on the web, but equally irritating is the habit of Instapaper’s header to fade eye-catchingly back into view as soon as one scrolls up a few pixels. It’s a tie on that score.

In fact overall it’s just about even, but I’ll give it to Instapaper by a nose just because Lyon is an option.

Feeds

This is a tricky one for me because I’m unusually sensitive to the underlying relationships between these read-later apps and other parts of my workflow.

Taking Instapaper first: the service is owned by Betaworks, who also operate the RSS reader service Digg Reader. To use one without the other seems counterintuitive to me, and yet Betaworks don’t make things easy. Perhaps hedging their bets they have retained a ‘save for later’ function within Digg Reader, as well as an Instapaper option. To further complicate things the option exists to automatically send to Instapaper any item that is marked to save for later. Not a huge deal perhaps, but it bugs me every time I encounter it and have to make a false choice.

Feedly has been my RSS service of choice since the demise of Google Reader, and its pro version professes close ties to both Pocket and Evernote. That sounds like the sort of airtight setup that holds a lot of appeal to me, but the reality is a little underwhelming… (see below)

In truth both Pocket & Instapaper are fairly universal export options within most feed reading clients at this point, so it’s hard not to make this one a tie.

Note-taking / clipping

Currently at least, Feedly & Pocket’s vaunted close ties to Evernote extend exactly as far as the option to simply send the entire text of an article to a notebook of your choice. Ironically it’s Instapaper (not, to my knowledge, an Evernote ‘partner’) that has the more granular integration. With the recent addition of its ‘highlighting’ function, and the option to automatically send highlighted passages to Evernote, Instapaper makes for a very neat clipping tool. There’s still some tidying up to do on the Evernote end as each highlight comes through as a separate note regardless of whether several originate form the same item within Instapaper, but it’s a step in a very interesting direction and cuts out a bit of the work of having a separate app open into which to paste clipped passages.

Pocket doesn’t have anything like this… so it’s really down to the user to provide their own solution. Which is why, Instapaper takes this round.

Bookmarking

With folders or tagging, both services offer a decent device for maintaining an archive of read material. Still, I use a bookmarking service (Pinboard) for interesting sites and content of various stripes, and it’s nice to be able to have select content that has passed through my read-later service also be stored there. Instapaper has a setting whereby any item that gets ‘Liked’ gets sent on to Pinboard. For the most part this works exceptionally well, with the slight exception that the entry in Pinboard is marked as private without any option to change this. The vast majority of my Pinboard content is public, which means a little bit of curation is still needed on my part once ‘Liked’ Instapaper items make their way over there. There’s also the choice to send any given item to Pinboard manually without the need to ‘Like’ it.

Pocket doesn’t offer a solution to manually send items to Pinboard, or to automatically export ‘Favourite’ items. With a little IFTTT magic the latter can be replicated; there’s even the slight advantage of the item importing as public.

Related to this is the question of storing a full-text archive copy of items. Pocket recently introduced this for all items for users with a Premium subscription at $5 per month. An alternative is Pinboard’s archiving service at $25 per year, which does the same thing, but obviously only on items sent to it by one of the routes outlined above.

Again, there’s not much in this one but Instapaper edges it for the presence of an automatic and a manual solution.

Conclusion

Instapaper 4.5 Pocket 2.5

That scoreline looks more one-sided than this feels to me. The things that bug me about Instapaper (the icon, the item list on iOS) really bug me and the things I like about Pocket (the iconography, the ties with Feedly) I really like. However, in a few key areas Instapaper has the upper hand: the web UI is flawless; the typography is stronger across all platforms.

Perhaps the main barrier to me fully embracing Instapaper as my read-later client of choice, is the extent to which I get hung up on the ideal of the holistic setup. If I’m using Instapaper it feels wrong to me not to be using Digg Reader as my RSS client, and that’s not a step I’m prepared to take. Likewise, if I’m to continue using Feedly for RSS, it feels like I should be utilising the other service it is most closely tied: Pocket (particularly as I’m a heavy user of the third piece of that touted puzzle: Evernote). I may consider switching my RSS to something like Feedbin to alleviate this, or I could try and get past it and embrace the decision to use the best tool for each particular job, regardless of who owns them.