Public libraries are so awesome. (Thanks, Ben Franklin!) They let you borrow not only physical books, but also digital content like e-books, audiobooks and -- surprise, surprise! -- digital magazines.
It's true: Many libraries have partnered with RBdigital (formerly Zinio for Libraries) to offer electronic 'zines you can check out and read on a variety of devices. I was already a big fan of doing that on my iPad, so I'm overjoyed that my local library here in metro Detroit offers this awesome option.
It's a surprisingly generous offer, too: For most titles you get access to not just the latest issue, but also back issues. There's usually no limit on the number of magazines you can "check out," and they don't expire after a certain time period the way library e-books do. In other words, you get to keep them for as long as your account is active.
Here's how to get started with RBdigital, starting with what you'll need in order to read.
Dust off your library card
First, visit your local library's website (via your desktop browser) to see if there's any mention of RBdigital. If so, you'll need your library card number and password to get through the registration process, which should be accessible via that site. The process typically involves creating an account with RBdigital, the service that manages magazine loans for libraries.
With that done, check your inbox for an activation email from RBdigital and click the link to verify your account.
Eventually you should be looking at the available catalog of magazines, the size of which can vary from one library to another. Mine, for example, offers around 300 titles -- same as Apple News Plus, interestingly. It doesn't have every magazine I want, but it's a good mix overall.
If you see something you know you want to read, just click the cover and then the blue Checkout button. Pro tip: After clicking that button, check the box marked Automatically checkout the next issue. Presto! Now you've got a "subscription" to that magazine.
Consider the hardware
Next, figure out where and how you want to consume your digital mags. To my thinking, the best bet is a full-size tablet, meaning one with a screen that's at least 8 inches. I've used an iPad Mini ($389 at eBay), which is pretty good, so long as it has a Retina display, but a full-size iPad or Amazon Fire HD 10 ($68 at Amazon) is better. A 12.9-inch iPad Pro ($800 at Target)? Best option by far.
Ultimately, you want something with the highest resolution and largest screen you can get -- at least if you plan to consume magazines in their native format (meaning PDFs of the actual magazine pages). Thankfully, the RBdigital app offers a text view for many, if not most, titles, and it's a pretty good implementation.
Indeed, reading a scanned magazine on a smartphone (or smaller tablet) means a lot of scrolling and zooming, which is far from ideal. But with one tap, the RBdigital app will switch you over to text mode, giving you larger print, in your choice of sizes, that's nicely formatted for smaller screens. And it's not just raw text, either; photos get mixed in as well.
This mode definitely works better for longer stories though. On pages with lots of little blurbs, the app doesn't always delineate between them well. I also noticed that magazines are slow to download. On both a Fire HD 10 and an iPad, I typically wait a minute or two for an issue to load. It's a maddeningly slow app in other ways as well, like when you're switching between PDF and text view.
Get the apps
The RBdigital apps are available for Fire, Android and iOS. Once it's installed, run it and then sign into the RBdigital account you just created. Any magazines you've already checked out should be waiting for you. Alternately, you can tap the Menu button and then Magazines to explore the collection and choose titles to check out.
RBdigital may not be perfect, but if you like magazines and want to read them for free, well, it's time to renew that library card.
Originally published on Nov. 15, 2016.
Update, April 4, 2019: Adds new information.
CNET's Cheapskate scours the web for great deals on tech products and much more. For the latest deals and updates, follow the Cheapskate on Facebook and Twitter. Find more great buys on the CNET Deals page and check out our CNET Coupons page for the latest promo codes from Best Buy, Walmart, Amazon and more. Questions about the Cheapskate blog? Find the answers on our FAQ page.