Tested: Replacing My Magazine Subscriptions with Next Issue

By Norman Chan

It's like Spotify, but for words and pictures. And word pictures.

I like reading magazines. I like reading magazines a lot. It's my baby bear's porridge of content consumption--a perfect distribution of content formats that's not too shallow or requires too much time investment to digest. The mix of short form "front of book" stories, long form features, illustration, and photography is just right. Plus, coming from a magazine background, I really appreciate the craft that goes into designing and committing to print a publication that people hold in their hands to read every month. Anyone who's worked on a magazine staff can attest to the nuance that goes into laying out words and images on a page, especially when it come to the cover. In many ways, I think of Tested and similar websites as a magazine--a digest of stories about topics we care about presented in a (hopefully) beautiful way.

That's why even though I'm on a computer for 10+ hours a day reading an endless river to blogs and online posts, I still subscribe to several magazines: Wired, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, and Smithsonian just to name a few. Magazine content is less overwhelming to consume than the web--you can read at your own pace for from month to month and not feel like you're missing out on 99% of what else is out there. The tangibility of a magazine is paramount as well; folding the pages (essential to the venerable Mad fold-in), placing physical bookmarks for future reference (eg. for recipes), and tearing pages out (Pinterest IRL) are quintessential print magazine experiences.

Of course, you can also read them in the bathroom. Magazines have a disposability that make them great as travel companions--their natural state is rumpled in the back pocket of an airplane seat or in the basket next to the bathroom sink. But despite their disposability, I--and many other people--archive my magazine collection in plastic bins and shelves. Actually, let's call it what it is: hoarding. And despite having hundreds of pounds of magazines stored up, I can count on two hands the number of times I've pulled an old issue out to read a favorite story. The reason I do it is because magazines, moreso than books and other types of print media, are ephemeral pieces of work. And with new forms of digital periodicals that aim to replace the physical magazine (see: The Magazine), magazine publishers have been trying to find a way to transition print to digital while retaining the things that magazine readers love about the format.

Next Issue, a digital magazine subscription service that launched last year, is less a digital simulation of a single magazine than it is an entire magazine stand like the one you'd find in your local supermarket. I've been testing it for the past month and a half, using it in place of my existing magazine subscriptions to see if it can replicate the things I like about reading physical issues. Long answer short: it can't, really. But it's a service that I quite like.

Next Issue is a lot like Spotify, both in how you use it and how it can possibly exist. Whereas Spotify has worked out deals with individual music labels to get direct access to music libraries (instead of using DMCA streaming provisions), Next Issue is backed by a consortium of print publishers including Conde Nast, Hearst, News Corp., and Time. That means while popular magazines from those publishers (think Wired, GQ, Time, and Sports Illustrated) are part of the service, magazines from smaller niche and enthusiast publishers like IDG and Future aren't here (sorry, no Maximum PC).

This is an all-you-can-eat type of service. For $10 a month, subscribers get access to over 70 magazines from the aforementioned publishers, which covers a wide range of interests including technology, business, fashion, sports, and food. For $15 a month, eight more magazines are added to the catalog, which are the more widely read weekly magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Time, and prestige publications like New Yorker and New York Magazine. $15/month may seem like a lot when compared to the $10-$20/year subscriptions you can find for your favorite magazines on Amazon and in promotional deals, but that's how much I pay right now per month for music streaming and mobile music playback/caching. And also like paid music streaming services, your subscription fees are divided up based on what content you actually consume. So if you only read Esquire and Sports Illustrated with Next Issue, only those publishers get a cut of the monthly fee.

The service can only be accessed through tablet apps, which Next Issue has made available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 (Modern style). I tested the apps across all three platforms, and the apps are all very similar but by no means equal. The Windows 8 version is one of the best modern-style apps I've used, but it's still not as responsive as its iPad counterpart, even on a Surface Pro.

Here's how the app works. From the full service catalog, you can pin as many as you want to the app's main page--think of this as "subscriptions." This grid of subscribed magazines will refresh every time a new issue is released, and you can set the app to automatically download new issues. I subscribed to every magazine that I could ever imagine myself reading, even if I didn't already read them regularly. That front page then became a digital newsstand, but not in the Apple sense where I could pick issues I wanted to read and pay for them a la carte, but more in the physical bookstore sense where I could pick a magazine cover that caught my eye and flip through its pages. It's like being at a dentist's office where the waiting room is stocked with (actually good) magazines and you can stay there as long as you want reading a profile in Vanity Fair without having a root canal at the end of your visit.

Selected issues that haven't been cached can be streamed while reading. The app downloads a low-res thumbnail preview of all the pages, and then downloads the issue as you're reading along. The thumbnail download never took longer than two minutes on Wi-Fi, which isn't immediate access but good enough. The actual page streaming was not as good, though, since I don't always read magazines linearly. Jumping around sections while the issue was still downloading felt slow is doable but not recommended. It was much easier to have the issue completely downloaded before jumping in.

And once you're in an issue, the experience even between different magazines varies. That's because each publisher presents the digital version of their magazines a little differently. Conde's magazines are better suited for portrait reading on the iPad, while Entertainment Weekly read really well in Windows 8's landscape mode while using the 220pixel multi-tasking window on the side of the screen (eg. for Twitter or email). Overall, I preferred the iOS experience most, Windows 8 second, and Android last.

Some of these publishers also have dedicated apps for their own publications, which in many cases, come complimentary with a physical subscription. Next Issue's digital mags are very comparable to those--the digital edition of Wired was functionally the same in both the Wired app and Next Issue. But in the case of Next Issue, the magazines are all "SD" and not high-resolution for the Retina iPad. I'm not sure if this was a conscious decision on the publisher's part to differentiate the two digital formats, but not being able to pinch to zoom on text or an photo in any Next Issue magazine was a serious bummer.

The magazines in Next Issue also retain every page of advertisements, even the back cover. In that sense the service is like Hulu--you're paying not only for access to the magazines and mobile caching, but also to see the ads. And don't get me wrong--I appreciate a well-designed or photographed ad in magazines. But in their digital form, I ended up swiping past every single one. For some of the lifestyle magazines that start with tens of pages of ads before even the table of contents, the navigation menu that let me jump directly to individual stories was a very welcome feature.

For a recent four-hour plane ride, I loaded Next Issue on my iPad with half a dozen issues of magazines I don't normally read, caching them over free airport Wi-Fi. For that trip, the service more than paid for its monthly price--$10 a month is cheaper than spending the $8 cover price for a magazine at the last minute in an airport bookstore. The backlit magazine reading experience was great on an airplane too, but I did find myself glancing at my battery levels after reading every article. On the iPad, this wasn't much of a problem, but on the Surface Pro, reading a 22-page feature drained my battery by 10%.

The most notable takeaway from my time as a subscriber of Next Issue is how it's changed my reading habits. It's broadened my horizons--I have a lot more options for reading material without the pressure to read every page. It's like having 15 tabs open for great websites in my web browser, but those websites get updated only once a week or once a month so I'm not in a rush to read them all. And in terms of archives, a subscription to Next Issue includes access to back issues through January 2012, though I only saw these appear in the catalog on iOS and not in the Windows 8 version.

$10 a month is more than a fair price to pay for Next Issue if you appreciate magazine content more than you like the physical experience of reading the printed page. It's not going to eliminate my physical magazine subscriptions the way streaming music services ended my need for CDs. But it's added an element to reading on a tablet that I miss from reading blogs and subscribing to RSS: the serendipity of discovering a fascinating story from looking at a wall of magazine covers.