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I did the math, and Apple News Plus is actually a pretty good deal

Commentary: Like magazines? Apple's subscription service can be a solid value -- but don't overlook the free alternatives.

news-plus-side-by-side

Some News Plus magazines -- like Wired, shown here on the left -- are beautifully formatted for phone screens. Others, like Consumer Reports, are just scans, which require a lot of zooming and scrolling -- not a great reading experience.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

I love magazines. Always have. I even started one years ago, a 'zine dedicated to PalmPilot users. There's just something about a curated collection of topic-oriented content, carefully written and nicely formatted, that makes my brain light up.

Unsurprisingly, I was a fan of the Texture "Netflix for magazines" subscription service. When Apple acquired Texture last year, I was cautiously optimistic. More content? A better reading experience on my phone?

The answer arrived earlier this week in the form of News Plus, which effectively blends Texture into Apple's News app. The price: $9.99 per month for unlimited access to over 300 magazines. That's just shy of $120 per year.

That's a lot of content -- but is News Plus really a good value? Like CNET's Scott Stein, I find myself suffering from subscription fatigue. On top of Hulu, Netflix, Spotify and everything else, can I really justify another monthly fee? Can you?

Apple News Plus: Crunching the numbers

As noted, I love magazines, and I read a fair number of them. In fact, I read them mostly on my iPad, in part because it's convenient, and in part because most digital mags aren't well formatted for phone viewing. It's either all text or a lot of zooming and scrolling around a PDF scan.

So I'm definitely the target audience for News Plus. But I'm also the Cheapskate, so this needs to be a better deal than I can get on my own.

I started by making a list of all the magazines I read regularly. Turns out there are eight of them, including Consumer Reports, Entertainment Weekly, Money, Time and Wired.

Then I went to Magazines.com, noted the current annual subscription price for each and added up the numbers. Total: $180. I'll admit, that kind of took me by surprise. Of course, subscriptions go on sale all the time, and you can usually score pretty hefty cash-back savings. My real-world number might be lower, but I needed to start somewhere.

magazines-com-veep-subscription

A one-year subscription to Entertainment Weekly costs $35 all by itself. That's nearly a third of the annual price of News Plus -- for just one magazine.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

And right there, News Plus would already be a solid deal. Even if I'm actually spending more like $100 per year on magazines, I'd choose the slightly higher cost of News Plus. Because now we factor in the magazines I would read if they were free. Which they effectively would be here.

That list includes titles like Bon Appetit, Make, The New Yorker and a handful of others. I'll just pause here to note that a one-year New Yorker subscription alone costs $100. So if that one's anywhere on your must-read list, News Plus will nearly pay for itself.

Of course, all these numbers are mine and mine alone. You probably have a different list of magazines you like, and I suspect few folks subscribe to as many as I do. So $10 per month might not be worth it at all.

In fact, there's a News Plus alternative you should absolutely consider: Your public library.

Apple News Plus alternatives: Free digital magazines from the library and Amazon

Before you pull the trigger on a News Plus subscription, see how many of your favorite magazines are available for free. Yep, free: Many public libraries have partnered with RBDigital, which lets you "check out" digital editions of hundreds of periodicals.

Read more: How to get free digital magazines from your library

Then there's Amazon: If you're a Prime subscriber, you can access a small, rotating selection of magazines and read them for free via your Fire tablet or Kindle app. Obviously the Prime subscription itself isn't free, but the magazines are one of the various subscription benefits.

amazon-prime-reading-magazine-selection

Amazon Prime subscribers get access to handful of digital mags at no extra charge.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

As you might expect, these options have their limitations. Amazon's freebie library is small -- there are currently just 15 titles, which frequently change -- and the reading experience isn't great, at least in the Kindle app on my iPad. The page scans seem a little low-resolution, and the text view is often a weird mish-mash of text and images.

As for RBDigital, the app suffers from a mediocre user interface, slow downloads and frequent glitches.

But, hey, it's free. And the library has at least one magazine News Plus doesn't: Cooks Illustrated, which I read religiously. 

The News Plus value proposition

So is News Plus worth it? Taken at face value, $10 per month for 300 magazines is a terrific deal, especially considering how nicely formatted many of them are for smaller screens.

But in its current state, it's buggy (some magazines I've downloaded don't appear in "My Magazines") and limited (there's not even a search function, for heaven's sake), and it's quite jarring (and annoying) when you come across a magazine that isn't formatted for mobile. (A lot of them are just straight-up PDFs, at least for now.)

If you really love magazines, I suspect you'll like News Plus. At the very least, try out the month-long free trial period. And there's no contract, so you can always opt to cancel if you find yourself not using it a few months in.

If you read only a few here and there, however, I definitely recommend pursuing the library and Amazon options.

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