Travel tested: SMH and The Age apps for iPad

By danwarne, June 9 2011
Travel tested: SMH and The Age apps for iPad

It took three attempts to get it right, but Fairfax, the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has produced a fantastic app to read the newspapers on the iPad.

The SMH for iPad and The Age for iPad -- now available on the iTunes app store for free until December (after which it will cost $8.99 per month) -- is good news for frequent travellers who often find themselves killing time at lounges and airport gates.

It'll also be great for travellers wanting to keep in touch with what's going on overseas but don't particularly enjoy reading the newspaper in a web browser.

We've been running the SMH iPad app since its launch at the beginning of this month. We've used it at home, in cafes and while cooling our heels between meetings, and of course in airport lounges and inflight.

Our take for the business traveller? We're knocked out by the app's zippy performance, easy navigation and the exceptionally clean made-for-iPad layout, which makes best use of large images and appealing typography.

The app works equally well in portrait and landscape modes...

Fairfax's previous attempts at bringing the newspaper to the small screen had been lukewarm, at best.

The rudimentary first attempt (which, oddly enough, is still available on the app store) was essentially a PDF of the broadsheet newspaper displayed on the small iPad screen. It took so long to load each edition that you could have your toast and tea and be out the door before it displayed the front page, and even then, it only showed yesterday's news, not the breaking news available free of charge on the newspapers' websites.

The second attempt was the iPhone app for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which delivered little more than a spruced-up version of the newspapers' websites, but was slower to load, taking 30 seconds or so to update the app to display the latest stories.

The new iPad app solves all of the above problems, beginning with nearly instant loading of the newspaper homepage.

After an SMH logo splash screen that appears for about four seconds, the app loads straight to the 'front page' of the newspaper. The large photos and typography look great.

You can swipe left and right to flick through the newspaper pages, just like a regular newspaper, but you can also touch on story photos and headlines to go straight to the full-text story.

There's also a section selector menu (shown below) that lets you skip straight to any of the newspaper's supplement sections --which Fairfax points out are available all week round, not just with the relevant day's newspaper edition, so you can enjoy reading longer articles in supplements throughout the week.

If you just want the very latest news headlines in a list, website style, you can click the 'news headlines' button at the bottom of the page. These are actually the news appearing on the SMH/Age website, solving the problem of the app feeling like it was only offering yesterday's news.

Reading individual stories provides a terrific blend of newspaper design and typography with the features found on the website, like videos.

Fairfax has even built in Apple AirPlay technology to allow videos to be displayed on a TV using Wi-Fi and the Apple TV.

Although this might not be something readers will do much with newspaper article videos, it will be useful for the "SMH TV" feature-length content (such as hour-long documentaries) that Fairfax has started presenting on its website recently. Currently they're not shown in the app, though.

There is a dedicated video section of the app where you can see all the videos included in the edition. They are streamed live from the internet, so they won't be watchable while you're on a plane or in a country where you don't have a SIM card with affordable data rates, but in our opinion, this is a better option than requiring people to download a full edition with videos embedded each day, which could take 30 minutes or more.

Supplements look terrific, with ample opportunity for the newspaper's photography to be presented in a format that websites typically can't (or don't) achieve.

Even ads are done cleverly. They're inserted in-between pages as you swipe through the newspaper -- just as in a print edition -- but you can scroll down the ad to a second page for more details if you're interested in the advertiser's offer.

The ads also include animations, which make them a bit more engaging.

Once you've swiped past the ad, and you go back a page, the ad is no longer there -- the app recognises that you've viewed that ad now and doesn't bother you with it again.

However, in fairness to advertisers (who, after all, pay for all this content to be produced and sold to you at a very low price), the app will sometimes put an ad in front of you if you solely use the direct article links in the app rather than swiping through the pages sequentially.

Fairfax has done a spectacular job with this app. It's by far the best media-consumption experience we've seen on a tablet, and kudos to Fairfax management for continuing to work on making a better product after several initial lacklustre attempts.

Of course, the iPad app has one big disadvantage over a printed newspaper -- you can't read it during the 40 minutes of each flight that a plane is ascending or descending, and all electronic devices must be off. The first airline that can solve that problem will earn our undying gratitude!

You can grab the new apps here:

The SMH for iPad - iTunes AU | iTunes US

The Age for iPad - iTunes AU | iTunes US

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