For my first app review, I’d like to start with one of my favorites – The Economist. While the content is great, I find the app itself to be severely lacking on many fronts. I really hope that my favorite magazine will see this and consider making some changes.
Recently an update to the app has made it part of the Newsstand “folder” which makes it a bit less convenient, and for those of us with older devices, it makes launching the app much slower, though that is due to the slowness of folders in general). Previously the app was its own icon, and while the “NEW” banner wasn’t exactly necessary, I consider the icon to be very good- it stands out, and follows The Economist’s logo scheme. Now I might see about 6 pixels worth of their logo when the Newsstand is closed.
When you first open the app, you are greeted with the logo and asked to log in, or continue for free. The free edition allows you to read the editor’s highlights. After this you are then taken to the Library browser which tries to imitate coverflow. The implementation of it is very poor, it is not smooth like the one in many other apps, most notably the built-in music app. Swipes to either side awkwardly advance your position to the next or previous edition of the magazine. The movement is not fluid, the covers clip through themselves very visibly. I try to convince myself that this is an attempt at making it easier for novices to use, but in practice it seems to be counterproductive. Also of note is the inability to switch to a landscape orientation while in the library mode, which is very irritating.
At the top of the Library screen is a bar with an account settings button, it allows you to purchase or activate a subscription, log in, and restore all purchases.
Once you select an edition of The Economist that you would like to read, the cover zooms in partially and fades rather awkwardly to the contents. Other apps’ executions of similar transitions are much more polished and make sense. In my opinion a good solution would be to have the cover flip away to reveal the contents list.
We now see a new portion of the interface. At the bottom bar there are four tabs: Library, Contents, Audio and Settings. On the top bar we can find duplicates of the Library and Audio buttons. The settings button immediately begs the question: why are account settings separate from general settings? Will there be other configurable options that are not in the general settings? If I had my way, I’d combine the two- as you will see later on, there is no lack of space in the settings menu.
The contents list itself is perfectly fine and I take no issue with it. When you select a section, it opens a list of corresponding articles. From there you select an article and you may begin reading. I appreciate that the app automatically goes into full-screen mode, though I wish that there was an option to enable the status bar at the top in case I would like to see the time or the remaining battery life. A helpful pop-up also appears which indicates that you can swipe to the left or right to switch articles without having to go back into the contents menu. At the bottom of each article there is a reminder of this feature.
Everything is perfect until you get to KAL’s cartoon. No matter which orientation you hold the phone, the image remains small and unreadable. The solution is to tap the picture (which is only explained by a small transparent magnifying glass in the corner), which disables the full screen mode, and maximizes the image. From here, you can zoom in, and most inexplicably, zoom out as well. Tapping on the image again will not go back to the previous screen, despite the precedent set just moments before. Instead there is a bar at the top that allows to go “Back to the article.”
I cannot think of a single reason why this is not implemented in the exact same fashion as the built-in photo viewing app. In that application, when you zoom out too far on an image, it snaps back to fit the screen. To advance to the next image, you swipe to either side. When zoomed in, you can also advance to the next image simply by panning to the left or right edge of the image, and swiping further. I would love to see this implemented in The Economist, but I fear that little has changed since the first release of the app.
Well, now that we have been forced out of the full screen view, I may as well show the non-full-screen view. At the top is a button to go back, and a button for audio; at the bottom are four tabs: Contrast (which only switches the background and text color), Decrease (which decreases the font size), Increase (which increases font size), and Orientation (which locks the orientation of the app). My only complaint about this is that contrast does not allow to configure background color, font, font color, or brightness, and that the orientation lock is cancelled (if it was meant for the landscape orientation) as soon as you go back into the library view, even though the icon still shows that the orientation is locked. Also, when you go back to the content list, if you have advanced to a different article, it will take you back to the section that you started in which is rather inconsistent.
Now, audio. One of the best features of the app is the ability to download the podcast in its entirety – this means that you can listen to the entire Economist on your car ride home, while jogging, while in the shower (my personal favorite), and elsewhere. When you press the audio tab from the contents list, you will be brought to a screen that lets you download the podcast if you haven’t done so already, but only if you have downloaded the text of the magazine first (which I think is a silly limitation). Once it finishes downloading, you will be able to create a playlist of articles that you would like to listen to.
There are a few annoying absences unfortunately. The first one is the inability to add whole sections to the playlist. The second is the inability to create multiple playlists (that would keep track of your progress in each). The third is the inability to create preset playlists that add particular sections to a playlist every time a new edition of the economist is released. The fourth is that it is impossible to listen to articles from two different editions sequentially within the same playlist (without resorting to downloading the podcast externally from the economist onto your computer). Lastly, the audio functionality does not integrate with the iPhone – audio controls in the multitasking tray and in the lock screen do not display information about the track being played, and there is no artwork although that in particular is less of an issue. Despite these deficiencies, and the awful look of the interface in this portion of the app, I consider the audio functionality to be superb and I love it.
Once you start listening, the app will (usually) open the article that you are listening to, while displaying new controls that pertain to audio. Now, because I like to sometimes read along with the narrator, I find it very annoying that I cannot fully minimize the audio controls, and that when they are opened, they take up a very significant portion of the screen. The text adjustment buttons are also impossible to get to from here, unless you turn off the audio, which is also fairly annoying. Regardless, the controls are similar to the ones in the default music app, which is good. Some people though like to listen to podcasts at a different pace, which the default music app allows for, while the Economist does not. To stop listening (or start) you can also press the audio button in the top right of the screen.
Finally, I’d like to look at the settings portion of the application. At the very top is a non-toggle for issue notifications, that is, this can only be changed in the notifications settings of the settings app. I appreciate that The Economist lets me know what is going on, but I think that a false toggle that prompts the user to open the settings application would be better and less space consuming. After the notifications toggle are the downloading settings. This allows you to disable auto-downloading over various wireless protocols to save battery life and prevent unnecessary data usage. Next are options for storing previous editions, both the text, and the podcast. It is possible to keep up to one year of text only editions, and up to four issues of audio. From these it is possible to delete all stored issues if you are in need of space on your device. At the very bottom the version is shown (2.1.3 at the time of writing).
Speaking of the version, the Economist has mostly continued to improve stability, but on older devices crashes aren’t exactly rare. Loading times aren’t exactly the best either
Other than the issues with the cartoon, I think that reading and listening to content in the magazine is a joy. When it comes to articles, videos, podcasts, and comments that are only found on the website I regret to inform you that none of those are present in this (or any other, as far as I am aware,) iPhone application. There is no way to participate in the caption contests even! I understand that it would be very difficult to show magazine content alongside (somewhat) live updating posts, but for subscribers I’m sure there must be a way. If this task is too difficult, maybe a separate app would be the solution.
Overall I think that this app is the best way to read The Economist on a mobile device; all the little annoyances don’t really get in the way of content. I do hope however that the app’s creators will fix the little things as well as add some web-only content.