Remember when the iPad was supposed to save publishing? For all the hype of the tablet revolution and its impact on the industry, most digital magazines are still growing into the form factor. Far too often, tablet mags are simply regurgitated copies of the print edition served up as clunky, glorified PDFs that ignore the world of potential that tablets afford. Thankfully, that's changing. As publishers native to print, web, and even tablets begin to experiment with the possibilities of what the form factor allows them to do, readers are getting better and better publisher-specific experiences for the iPad, Kindle Fire, and the various flavors of other Android-powered devices.
So what makes a great tablet publication? The field is still being defined, but the best ones out there today merge the design sensibilities of print with the openness and interactivity of the web. The further that print-first publishers can think outside their legacy paradigms, the better served their tablet-bound readers will be. At the same time, the online-first publishers dabbling in magazines for the first time all borrow heavily from their paper-based predecessors. Tablet publishing still has some growing to do, but whoever wants to win at this game in the future would be well advised to steal an idea or two from these six examples.
One of the first print magazines to jump on the tablet bandwagon has evolved into one of the most impressive. Unlike smaller publications, the Condé Nast-owned mag is fortunate enough to have the resources to throw at producing a tablet edition that stretches the print paradigm. On the iPad, Wired's layouts are smartly reimagined for the form factor, sporting just enough interactive bells and whistles without overdoing it. Although it still has a somewhat print-centric feel to it, the Wired app does step outside the traditional format by doing things like cross-linking related content from other issues.
Downsides: Some layouts inexplicably forbid page zooming, and like most tablet mags, the text can't be selected, let alone copied and pasted. Its social sharing options are a good start, but they're limited. Weaving more web-only content into the tablet edition would make things feel less static and more web-like.
At first blush, TRVL doesn't feel that different from a print publication, but its simplicity is actually perfect for its editorial mission. The iPad-only travel mag delivers a fluid, gridded layout of issues about different places around the world. Its straightforward blend of text and large, vivid photography has a way of making you feel like you're actually in Lebanon, Zimbabwe, or Lisbon. The articles aren't easily sharable, but what the app lacks in webby-ness it makes up for in a focused, immersive reading experience. When appropriate, the series of location-specific essays in each issue link out to more information, sometimes bringing Wikipedia summaries directly into the app via smartly integrated layovers.
Downsides: Its static text can't be selected or copied. Social sharing—an instinctual behavior for many tablet-bound readers—simply isn't an option.
Download TRVL for iPad.
When Instapaper creator Marco Arment first launched The Magazine, it was widely heralded for its palpably outside-the-box, forward-thinking approach. And for good reason. The Magazine is the preeminent example of Craig Mod's "subcompact publishing" model: digital publications that step away from legacy paradigms in favor of lighter-weight content, reasonable pricing ($1.99 per month), intuitive navigation, and an HTML-infused, web-friendly text. The Magazine sports all of these characteristics in a minimalist, no-frills UI that doesn't need a special explanatory diagram to use. Unlike most tablet magazines, this one gives a great deal of control to the user. You can adjust text size and even select your default web browser and email client for external links and sharing. The project also has the unusual distinction of being not only innovative, but profitable for its owner Glenn Fleishman, who bought The Magazine from Arment in May. It's no content farm either. Each biweekly issue contains five reasonably lengthy, well-written articles, plus an editor's letter from Fleishman. We hear he pays those writers pretty well, too.
Downsides: In terms of format, The Magazine is as good as tablet publishing gets. It could stand to be more interactive, but too many bells and whistles would weigh it down.
Download The Magazine for iOS.
Each edition of Spin magazine on the iPad is more than just an issue: It's also a playlist. Across the top of the app sits a persistent audio player UI that lets you hear much of the music being written about in Spin's pages. It feels like an obvious format for a music magazine, but seldom are legacy publishers quite this adventurous. Spin's print-first articles are frustratingly static and closed off from the web, but that disappointment is offset by the app's all-too-rare merging of print and online articles. Beneath a series of logo-adorned covers is a feed of news and reviews from Spin's website, so even if the print folks are three weeks away from deadline, the app never feels stale.
Downsides: Print content could be webbier. The built-in audio player is buggy at times.
Download SPIN Play for iPad.
For a magazine founded in 1857, The Atlantic is decidedly not old-fashioned. Not only does it feature some of the best tech writing out there, but the magazine's digital publishing efforts are pretty solid. Case-in-point: The Atlantic's tablet edition gives print subscribers everything they love about the traditional format while supplementing it with headlines from the web. Both the print and online content are easily sharable from simple and persistent controls. As a print-first publisher, The Atlantic unsurprisingly sticks closely to the "issue" paradigm, but content can also be browsed by topical sections (politics, entertainment, tech, etc.) and users can save individual articles for later. The "In Focus" tab curates stunning photo essays from around the world, a content format that feels right at home on a tablet.
Downsides: Like most print-first publishers, The Atlantic could do much more to give its print content feel less like an isolated island closed off from the open web.
Whether or not you're a fan of the Huffington Post's editorial strategy, it'd be hard not to give their tablet efforts a nod. This app combines the design ethos of print with the interactivity and sharability of HuffPo's native medium. The result is a liberal-leaning modern-day Newsweek that hooks into the web at every conceivable opportunity. This app is no island. Instead, it's fueled by content from the web and every article can easily be shared or viewed as plain, resizable HTML text. Unlike the vast majority of tablet mags, it also incorporates reader comments, some of which are highlighted in the magazine itself, like the letters to the editor of yesteryear.
Downsides: Some of the best tablet mags make limited, appropriate use of embedded video. This, along with more interactive elements and expanded social sharing, could make Huffington an even better digital magazine.
Download Huffington for iPad.