I love Instapaper. I’ve used the bookmarklet web app before I had an iOS device to read from, even when the web interface was — admittedly — rather ugly. But it still made reading longform articles much nicer than reading on most websites, especially back in 2009.
I tried the original Read it Later, and then gave Readability a shot. Pocket came along, and I dismissively tried it and left it behind, returning each time to the familiarity of Instapaper. I liked the service, Marco’s stand on how he ran his businesses, and — most of all — I loved discovering new articles in Instapaper from The Feature and Instapaper’s deceptively simple built-in social network.
All the while, Pocket kept adding features and improving its service, while Instapaper stayed the same — good, but not moving forward. The more I heard about it, the more I knew I had to give it a more serious try. With Instapaper being sold to Betaworks, it seemed like the perfect time to give its chief competitor a shot.
So I jumped over the fence to see if the grass was truly greener on the other side.
A First Class Reading App in the Browser
Pocket was originally christened Read it Later, launched in 2007 as a web service that later added iOS and Android apps for reading on the go. Instapaper, Pocket’s most visible competitor, launched in early 2008, again as a web service that then strongly centered itself around its iPhone app once the iOS App Store launched. The premise of both was similar: you save articles you want to read via a bookmarklet, then read them later from your browser or phone.
Instapaper stayed focused on longform reading primarily on iOS devices, with only 3rd party apps for other platforms and a basic web interface that’s only received minor changes over the years. Read it Later, on the other hand, was reimagined in its relaunch as Pocket as the service to save anything for later — articles, videos, full sites, whatever. With its own apps for iOS, Android, and OS X, as well as free integration with other apps, it seemed Pocket was quickly outpacing its competitor.
And in many ways, it has. First off, Pocket’s web interface is beautiful and works great. Even if you never install a Pocket app, you’ll have a best-in-class reading experience in your browser. It’s clean and fluid, and while it doesn’t have many controls, it does practically everything you could want without much fuss. It’ll even remember where you left off reading and syncs it between all of the Pocket apps and your browser, so you can continue reading at that spot when you open the article again, something that seems incredible if you’ve ever tried to find your place in an Instapaper article after reading half of it in your browser.
Pocket’s fast, too, taking only maybe 2-3 seconds at most to save articles once you’ve clicked the bookmarklet, even if the article has multiple pages. Then, you can even add tags (Pocket doesn’t have folders, but tags are better for most cases anyhow) to the articles right from the bookmarklet. With Instapaper, long articles can easily take 15+ seconds to clip, and saving multiple pages can be an exercise in patience.
There’s then the great collection of apps, especially their Mac app (which, oddly enough, was named Read Later and worked with Instapaper and Read it Later, but they then bought it out and turned it into Pocket for Mac). You might be able to fuss that all of Pocket’s apps are slightly light on features compared to Instapaper, since they only have 2 font options and not the dozen or so that are in the official Instapaper app. Still, all of the apps are consistent, look sharp, sync fast, and work the same everywhere: browser, iOS, Android, and Mac. That’s a very nice extra.
One of the very best things in the Pocket apps is that it’ll download full sites for offline reading when it can’t extract the article text. It’s a bit surprising sometimes to open an article just to find that it looks just like the original site, but that’s a huge bonus over Instapaper simply telling you it couldn’t cache the article when you go to read it. I was very disappointed, though, to find that Pocket doesn’t download videos to watch offline, something I almost assumed it would do seeing how much it promotes its ability to save anything.
There’s one other thing you won’t find: full text article search. Pocket’s search will only search through article titles, while Instapaper lets you search through the full text of your articles if you have a paid subscription.
Rich Integrations … via 3rd Party Tools
One thing I kept hearing about Pocket was how great it worked with other apps. Pocket is already integrated with over 300 apps, from Twitter apps to news readers and more, but then, Instapaper support is also built into many similar apps. What’s more interesting is integrating it with your own services so you can do more with the articles you save. Turns out, Pocket has precious few integrations itself; there’s no built-in option, say, to tweet when you favorite an article, or save your archived articles to Instapaper. What it does have is deep integration with IFTTT so you can do almost anything you can think of with the other web apps that IFTTT supports. You could save articles to Dropbox, say, or even change your Philips Hue light’s color when you favorite an article.
In Instapaper, on the other hand, you’ve got built-in integration with Facebook, Twitter, App.net, Tumblr, Pinboard, and Evernote, which gives you a number of ways to automatically archive or share articles you’ve liked or archived. Instapaper is supported by IFTTT as well, but only for letting other services add articles to your reading list. Instapaper also has deep Kindle integration, so you can read articles on the go from a traditional eInk Kindle device, or even download your reading list as an eBook to read on any device. Pocket doesn’t have any way to download an eBook or integrate with traditional Kindles.
So, while for the most part the two services end up similar in this way, Instapaper is simpler to setup while Pocket gives you much more power with your reading queue via IFTTT. If you like tweaking, you’ll likely find tons of new ways to put your reading list to use with Pocket, but if you want things simple without needing another 3rd party service, you’ll find Instapaper better. And if you used Instapaper with your Kindle, you’d better not switch.
There’s one other integration that’s important: working with sites that are behind a paywall and require a subscription. Pocket already boasts integration with Matter and other publishers, but in my experience, it was still hit-and-miss with saving articles behind a paywall to your reading list, just as with Instapaper.
Instapaper Still Has a Future, Too…
Of course, it’d be remiss to not note that Instapaper itself is far from dead. It’s already a great app today, especially on iOS, and it’s already integrated with a number of apps and services. It’s got the built-in social network that lets you follow people you follow on Twitter and see what articles they’ve favorited in Instapaper; that’s something no other reading app has. And while the web app may be dated compared to Pocket, it has an option to download your articles as an eBook or send them to Kindle, something no other reading service today has without jumping through hoops.
Instapaper also has a promising future. It was bought out by Betaworks, so they obviously see a future in it. They’re adding developer resources to the project, and asking for community input on what to target first. That’s not such a bad start, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here with it.
I Tried Going Back
After sticking with Pocket for several weeks, I went back to my first reading later app: Instapaper. It felt familiar, though older perhaps. Where Pocket feels fast and modern, Instapaper feels like a trusty old book. Neither are bad, just different.
I missed having my reading location synced with the Mac and web, but loved having the reading network back, and loved having more reading fonts in the iOS app. I missed the saved web view for articles that didn’t parse well; on Pocket, I could still read those in their original site offline, but not so much in Instapaper. And I definitely missed Pocket’s speedy bookmarklet saving once I was using Instapaper in the browser again.
So which will I stick with? I’m not sure. Really, either work great for reading later. Pocket is faster, and overall has less quirks. It’s likely the best choice for new users. But, if you’ve been using Instapaper for forever, you’ll likely be disappointed if you switch. It’s not that Pocket’s bad, it’s just that it doesn’t have that much extra to make the switch feel worthwhile. Then, there’s Pocket’s current lack of a public business model, so we all risk losing the service if they can’t find a way to monetize it, something Instapaper has avoided by charging for their app and for 3rd party integrations.
Here’s to hoping that Pocket and the new Instapaper will keep competition so keen that we’ll still have a tough time deciding which is best going forward.