Read it Later:
Pocket vs. Instapaper
While adding a “Read it Later” button to my blog, I took the opportunity to consider my own habits for saving things, and in the process I switched services and discovered the key difference between my old system and my new one.
The Landscape of Content Saving
Everyone has their own routine for keeping track of articles they want to come back to, and these days there are numerous options, most of them focused on specific tasks — Instapaper for reading, Pinboard for bookmarks, and Pocket for just about anything.
In my case, after being an early adopter of Instapaper, I jumped ship to Pocket two years ago and didn’t really look back. Pocket has a broad scope and is ideal for helping users collect, sort, and share interesting content.
Being happy with Pocket, I realized that I hadn’t taken a good look at Instapaper in a long time — since before it changed hands and started to really grow. This seemed unfair, so over the past week I’ve been using both services and comparing them head to head to see how they stack up.
As it turns out, I may have been using the wrong service all along.
Some people have a system that involves many moving parts: they save things to Pocket, use IFTTT to clone articles from Pocket to Instapaper, then view multimedia in Pocket and written articles in Instapaper, saving the best to Evernote for safekeeping.
Others use just one service, relying on Pocket to not only collect their internet travel stops but also preserve them. I believe in using the best tool for the job, which is why I’ve used a combination of Pocket and Evernote for the past two years.
For me, Pocket serves as a powerful inbox for content that I don’t have time to consume immediately. I can toss almost anything at it and have it waiting for me on all my devices when I have some time to catch up. If something resonates with me, I will save it from Pocket to Evernote — not because Pocket doesn’t have an archive, but because Evernote is designed for this and I already use it extensively.
In migrating my Pocket items to Instapaper this week and taking a critical look at what I save and how I deal with the items, I realized a few important things:
- I don’t organize my saves
- I don’t capture bookmarks
- I mostly save written articles and videos
The first point is important because a core part of Pocket’s appeal is the robust tagging system that helps you organize things. If I were using Pocket as my one and only repository for things, subscribing to their Premium plan to unlock permanent archiving, then I could see this being more useful.
Tags can be created, searched, and even auto-suggested when you add content if you’re a Premium subscriber.
But as someone for whom Pocket is only an inbox that doesn’t get used for long-term storage, the tagging and organizing is not only moot — it’s extra busywork.
If I have time to be tagging and organizing my saves, I have time to be reading them — and I prefer to do the latter.
At the end of the day, 90% of what I save is written articles, and the rest is videos. Both of those things are part of the core functionality of both Pocket and Instapaper, and as soon as I realized this I began to question my allegiances and dig deeper into the features.
Comparing the Functionality
Beyond the aesthetic differences, I’ve come to believe that Instapaper and Pocket differ fundamentally in their goals.
To understand why I make that claim, consider some of the key features of each:
- A Mac App: for easy access to your saved content and faster organizing
- Direct User-to-User Sharing: so that content can be easily added to your friends’ Pocket lists
- A Powerful Tagging System: which gives you a flexible way to arrange and search for your content
- Web & Mobile Apps Only: because if you’re at your computer, why not read the articles at their source?
- User Profiles: which can be made public, allowing others to “follow” you and see your saves
- Send-to-Kindle Functionality: so that reading long articles can be done on a device that’s made for it
- Highlighting: giving you a Kindle-like way to delineate and keep the best passages from an article
Taken together, these features point to clear philosophical differences.
Pocket wants you to keep your articles, to organize them, and to be able to send them to your contacts personally. Instapaper’s goal isn’t to help you hoard, it’s to help you enjoy the content you’ve saved and hold onto only the important parts.
Looking at it this way, it became clear that while Pocket is a terrific product, it isn’t actually the best tool for my needs, because my goals are firmly in the Instapaper camp.
Making the Switch
The actual process of migrating from Pocket to Instapaper is surprisingly easy. Pocket has a basic HTML export functionality, and Instapaper has a one-click import system for Pocket users. I don’t think it took more than two minutes.
Pocket, it’s worth noting, has no such native system in place for the opposite migration.
With the migration complete, I want to mention a few of the things that stand out to me as a Pocket refugee. For starters, the article list on the web is gorgeous — uncluttered, fast to load, and it displays more headlines by omitting images.
The sidebar is likewise compact and omits any way of filtering content by type, which Pocket has. I never really used the feature, but I can see why it would be missed. Both of these points become moot when using the mobile apps though, since they have both image thumbnails for videos and a dedicated Videos button in the sidebar for filtering.
One terrific feature of Instapaper’s mobile apps is a reading progress indicator. Displayed as a series of small dots, these indicate how much of the article you’ve read as well as its comparative length — more dots means a longer article, as you’d expect. This indicator doesn’t exist on the web, but instead you get a reading time estimate.
Pocket lacks this functionality, but it does sync your reading position in an article.
Overall, Instapaper makes a great first impression these days: it’s clean, quick, focused, and essentially invisible once you get into the article view.
All else aside, a read-it-later service’s most important task is making the experience of reading saved articles as good as possible. In this arena, Pocket and Instapaper are much more evenly matched, though not for very encouraging reasons.
Pocket nails this aspect overall; the interface simply vanishes around you as you read. Text size can be adjusted, as can the background (dark or light). You’re able to choose between serif and sans-serif for the body text, but nothing more specific than that.
Most importantly, articles are parsed flawlessly in almost all cases, images display as they should, and if anything seems wonky you can flip to the original page view to see the article without any scrubbing. This alone ensures that you can always see the article correctly, and is a feature that’s lacking in Instapaper.
Technically, a browser view is available in the Instapaper mobile apps, but it requires tapping into the Share menu and finding the right icon. In Pocket it’s a simple toggle right on the main interface.
Even so, Instapaper’s reading experience is better — when it works.
You can customize typeface with several excellent choices, you can adjust the background to one of four settings, and you can adjust not only the font size but also column width. This makes it easy to craft a comfortable reading environment on any device.
This is all well and good, and would give Instapaper an easy lead if it weren’t for the fact that its article parsing simply isn’t as reliable. In most cases, an article will be perfect, but more often than with Pocket I’ve ended up with captions parsed as part of the body text, images appearing in the wrong spot or missing entirely, and in one case only the images displaying while the article text was omitted!
To be fair, these are still rare occurrences, but they’re less rare with Instapaper than with Pocket, and that’s a serious issue for a service that prides itself on creating the best reading experience available.
Both services now have Premium tiers, and they offer similar features. Pocket is the more expensive of the two, at $45/year versus Instapaper’s $30, but the difference is small enough that it’s unlikely to be the determining factor in anyone’s choice.
As with the standard features, let’s break down the Premium offerings.
- Robust Searching: use tags, full text, author, or even a vague topic to find something in your archive
- Permanent Backup: to ensure that the things you save are available forever, even if the source disappears
- Suggested Tags: to help you more quickly sort articles using the tagging system
- Unlimited Highlights: so you can keep your favourite passages without any stingy monthly limits
- Full Text Search: for retrieving articles based on their content instead of just their title
- Kindle Functionality: allowing you to send individual articles as well as automatic digests at will
- Text-to-Speech Playlists: which can allow you to pick a series of articles and have your mobile device read them to you while you drive, cook, or shower
Looking at their premium features only reinforces my conviction that these services have different goals. Instapaper’s are focused on getting you through your list in a variety of reading contexts, whereas Pocket’s facilitate the safekeeping and arranging of your saved content.
Perhaps the most surprising element of my Instapaper experience has been how happy I am to have the Kindle features. It wasn’t impossible to get Pocket to send things to my Paperwhite, but having the functionality be a native part of Instapaper has been amazing.
It’s one of those things that I didn’t realize I was missing, I suppose. I love my Kindle for long-form reading, and the fact that I can get Instapaper to send me automatic digests means that I always have good things waiting for me on my Kindle for when I don’t feel like digging into a novel.
Of course, this is where Pocket has an interesting offer to make: native integration with your e-reader…as long as that e-reader is a Kobo.
This is a very important feature because it represents a partnership that might not be possible for Instapaper to match, even if they wanted to. Pocket and Kobo have worked together to make everything seamless, and the result is spectacular.
Unlike the push-only Kindle feature of Instapaper, which essentially uses the Kindle email service to send articles, Pocket has actual two-way sync with your Kobo. This means you don’t need to send articles to your Kobo to read them — just pick up your e-reader, navigate to the Pocket section, and all your saved items are there waiting for you.
This is exactly how the feature should work. It feels intuitive, obvious, effortless.
The only problem is that you have to be invested in the Kobo world for it to work. In the US, that accounts for less than 5% of the market. Globally, Kobo commands about 20% of the digital reading pie, which is better but not exactly competitive.
The saddest part of this story is that, in many ways, Kobo makes better e-readers than Amazon does. Unfortunately, they simply lack the clout to match Amazon’s catalogue or prices.
As a Kindle user, this is all entirely unhelpful — Pocket has no special integration with Kindle. Nothing’s stopping you from manually sending things to your Kindle email, but to get the full experience you have to be in the small Goldilocks zone of using Pocket and being a Kobo user.
I would love to see Instapaper try to build a similar integration for Kindle.
Pocket is for Keeping, Instapaper is for Reading
It’s been an illuminating week for me, and it’s resulted in me not only ditching Pocket but also adopting Instapaper and its Premium service.
Before migrating, I thoroughly cleaned my Pocket list and ended up bringing over only the things I still wanted to read/watch. The favourites I wanted to keep were sent to Evernote, and the rest were purged. It feels refreshing.
For my uses, it turned out that Instapaper was the right choice of read-it-later service all along. But everyone has unique needs, so if I had to encapsulate their strengths I would say this:
If you’re looking for an all-in-one solution for retrieving, organizing, sharing, and permanently saving content from anywhere, then Pocket is your best bet.
If you need a simple, beautiful inbox for holding things until you can enjoy them, keeping only the most important parts, and being able to explore a curated list of articles from friends, then Instapaper is the better choice.
Note: I revisited this comparison a year later, after each service made some important changes.