Is Apple News+ Worth It?

Apple News Plus on iPad Credit: Hadrian / Shutterstock
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It’s been over two weeks since Apple debuted its new premium news and magazine service, offering unlimited access to hundreds of magazines, and a handful of premium digital news subscriptions, all for a single flat monthly fee.

While the service may not have entirely lived up to the expectations that many had when it first launched — many big-name news agencies have refused to participate and the publishing industry as a whole still remains strongly divided on whether it’s even a good idea — the one promise that Apple News+ has delivered on is unlimited access to a wide array of magazine content in digital form.

For $10 per month, what you’re getting with a subscription to Apple News+ is access to over 300 magazine titles. What you’re not getting, however, is access to a lot of actual news.

The News

Let’s start with the biggest downside of the service itself: the lack of hard news. If you’re expecting Apple News+ to replace traditional digital newspaper subscriptions, you’re mostly going to be disappointed.

Firstly, there’s a lack of actual big-name newspapers on board. Of the largest U.S. news agencies, only The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times have signed on, while The New York Times and The Washington Post have decided to sit this one out, at least for now. While it doesn’t sound like The New York Times is ever likely to join up, several reports suggest that The Washington Post is simply being more circumspect about the whole thing.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean you won’t see content from the Times or the Post in Apple News; the same content will still be there that was there before News+ launched, but it’s still paywalled and you won’t get anything more by paying for Apple’s News+ subscription.

However, even among the papers that have signed on, you’re still not going to get quite as much as you will with a direct digital subscription. The Wall Street Journal technically offers all of its current content, but you’ll need to jump through a few hoops to access it; only general interest stories are highlighted in Apple News, so if you want to find anything else — like business news or editorials — you’ll need to specifically search for it or use a workaround. Plus, the Journal isn’t offering up its back-catalog to Apple News+, so only the past three days of content are available.

It’s less clear at this point what the LA Times offers, but for readers in Canada (the only other country that News+ has launched in at this point), The Toronto Star also lacks some content compared to a full digital subscription.

That said, unless you’re an avid reader of these publications, you probably aren’t going to care that much about what’s not available. After all, it’s hard to miss something if you never knew it was there in the first place. We don’t think too many existing subscribers to these papers will be wooed away by Apple News+, however, and that’s probably by design.

The Magazines

If the lack of news publications is a problem, Apple News+ more than makes up for it with a staggering list of magazine titles. On that side of the fence, your $10 monthly subscription gives you “all-you-can-read” access to such big name titles as Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Wired, Sports Illustrated, People, and hundreds more.

In fact, measured purely in the number of titles, Apple News+ is the market leader among magazine subscription services by a fairly big margin. Of course, this should come as no surprise as Apple basically built the service by buying what would have been its only real competitor, Texture, which was already backed by major magazine publishers like Condé Nast, and kept almost all of the existing deals in place.

Of course, it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these magazines already publish at least some of their stories on the free Apple News tier, so if you’re content with the occasional highlighted story, there’s no need to subscribe to Apple News+, but ponying up the $10/month will get you everything that you’ll find in the actual print issue from your local newsstand — in many cases including all of the ads as well. In fact, many of the magazines in Apple News+ directly replicate their print layout, especially those that are distributed in PDF form.

The Content

So we’ve covered what you’re getting with an Apple News+ subscription, but the other important question that still needs to be considered is how well it actually works, and on this front, we have to admit that we’re a bit disappointed that the Apple News+ app doesn’t seem to have yet achieved Apple’s usual level of polish and attention to detail.

To be fair, some of this is on the part of the publishers. While Apple is almost certainly working with many of them to get their content formatted for Apple News+, it may be an uphill struggle in certain cases. Depending on the title, magazines can be distributed in either Apple News Format or PDF, and at this point most estimates suggest it’s split about evenly between the available content, although you’ll find that back-issues of almost every publication are solely available in PDF format, for understandable reasons.

As one might expect, Apple’s own format provides a much better experience, especially for iPhone users. More advanced layout options allow text to be dynamically reflowed for different screen sizes, whether it’s iPhone, iPad, or Mac, and allows for much richer content, including embedded video and social media, photo galleries, and even interactive maps. PDFs, on the other hand, are… well, PDFs. If you primarily read Apple News+ on an iPad, the experience is pretty good, but on the iPhone, not so much.

Looking across multiple publications, however, it’s also clear that many are still trying to figure out the Apple News Format; you’ll find a lot of inconsistencies between different magazines, and in fact even some inconsistencies in different articles in the same publication. We expect this will improve as publishers get a better handle on the format and Apple hopefully also improves its tools to make things easier for them.

The App

Beyond the content itself, there’s also Apple’s News+ section — the new centre tab in the Apple News app — which seems a bit poorly thought out. There’s some basic navigation that allows you to browse magazines by category, and a list of your recently read magazines near the top. Scrolling down from there, however, takes you through a rather inscrutable listing of “recommended” content that feels more confusing than useful. Apple doesn’t seem to have done much here to help with content discovery, and it feels like the design is stuck somewhere between just letting you pick your favourite magazines and ignore the rest and actually trying (but not succeeding) in being helpful at pointing out other titles of interest. So far, we’ve stuck with the former approach, sticking with the magazines that we know and are comfortable with.

However, even the “My Magazines” carousel at the top doesn’t quite work the way we’d expect. We talked about this before, but it appears that downloading a magazine title actually doesn’t put it into “My Magazines” except when you don’t have a data connection. There’s also no distinction between magazines that have been automatically downloaded simply because you’ve opened them, and those that you’ve specifically chosen to download manually for offline reading. There’s also no way to mark a magazine as a favourite, remove a magazine from “My Magazines” if you don’t want it to appear there anymore, or delete a download magazine from your device.

Numerous other features within the app are also hidden in non-intuitive ways. For example, we’re willing to bet that you didn’t know that you could access back issues of a magazine by tapping on the magazine title in the heading bar, and how would you? It’s a non-obvious UI element, and it’s almost shockingly opaque coming from a company with Apple’s design experience.

While Apple will hopefully make some improvements to the user interface going forward, all of these further contribute to the idea that the News+ service is designed more for users to simply read their staple set of current favourite titles than encouraging them to explore too much beyond that.

The Bottom Line

If you’re an avid reader of magazines, chances are that you’ll like Apple News+, provided you’re willing to live with a fairly large set of “version 1.0” limitations in both content format and UI quirks. However, getting pretty much every major magazine, in digital form, for $10/month is hard to beat, so dealing with these issues may be worth the tradeoff.

Even for serious magazine fans, however, at this point Apple News+ is better suited for the iPad or the Mac, especially with so many titles still distributed in PDF format. Of course, this will depend on what your favourite magazines are, and the format they come in, so if you’re an iPhone user you should definitely take advantage of Apple’s trial period to make sure you go through everything you’ll want to read and see if it’s actually readable on your device.

At the end of the day, however, it seems that Apple News+ has created a new, paid tier for those who consume news and magazines in a very different way. If you’re the sort of person who prefers to manually select what you read, and take deeper dives into areas of special interest, then Apple News+ is probably for you, while the free Apple News service remains better suited for those who prefer to just browse through a general stream of algorithmically and human-curated topics across a variety of publications.

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