Why subscribe to just one magazine when you can subscribe to all of them? Or at least lots of them. That's the idea behind "Netflix for magazines" services Next Issue and Magzter. The latter has now followed the former in offering unlimited issues for a flat monthly rate.
So, let's say you're an iPad or Kindle Fire or Google Nexus 9 owner who loves you some periodicals. Which of these two services is better in terms of book selection, reading experience and overall value?
I tested them both on a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and Apple iPad Air. Although both services have apps for smartphones, I think the experience of reading a magazine mandates a big screen -- if only to minimize the amount of zooming and scrolling you need to do. Plus, it just feels more like the "real thing."
Price: $9.99/month for full access, $4.99 for five titles
Selection: Over 2,000 titles, including back issues
Platforms: Android, iOS, Web
At face value, Magzter would seem to offer the most for your money -- by a huge margin. The service claims more than 5,000 publications -- not just total issues, mind you, but unique titles. That's in contrast to Next Issue's comparatively paltry 140-plus.
But your all-you-can-read Gold subscription pares that down to around 2,000 mags -- still quite a lot, but not many of the mainstream US publications you might want. Indeed, the reason Magzter's catalog runs so deep is that it includes a preponderance of smaller periodicals and international titles.
So, for example, when I went looking for the some of the magazines I enjoy -- "Runner's World," "Men's Fitness," "Popular Science" -- I found them in Magzter's library, but not included in my Gold subscription. Other favorites, including "Entertainment Weekly," "Time" and "Wired," were missing altogether.
A bigger issue: The Kindle version of the app seemed very outdated, at least relative to its iOS counterpart. It didn't indicate which magazines were included under the Gold umbrella. In the iOS version, you see a little gold icon in the corner if a magazine qualifies.
The actual reading experience isn't great, either. While perusing an issue of "New York," for example, I discovered that you can't merely hop from the table of contents to a particular story by tapping its headline. Instead, tapping brings up a scrolling thumbnail bar you can use for quick navigation. And in this particular issue, the page numbers in the TOC didn't line up with the page numbers in the thumbnail bar.
Magzter does support sharing and bookmarks, both handy extras, but there's no text-only view if you find the scanned page a bit too small for comfort.
I'm not saying Magzter doesn't deliver a lot of content for your $10, simply that it may not be the content you want -- or in the way you want it. Fortunately, there's a seven-day Gold trial you can access from your mobile device. Unfortunately, that pales in comparison with Next Issue's 30-day trial.
Price: $9.99/month, $14.99 for Premium (including weeklies)
Selection: Over 140 titles, including back issues
Platforms: Android, iOS, Windows 8
Next Issue was among the first companies out of the gate with a "Netflix for magazines" model, and in the two-plus years since it launched, it has grown from around 40 titles to over 140. That catalog includes a lot of what you'd find on your local newsstand, everything from "Consumer Reports" and "Cooking Light" to "Men's Health" and "Runner's World."
However, while your $9.99 subscription includes all monthlies, weekly titles like "Bloomberg Businessweek," "Entertainment Weekly" and "Sports Illustrated" require a bump to the Premium level, which costs $14.99 per month.
If you crunch the numbers on just those three titles, though, you'll find that annual subscriptions to each (based on current pricing at Magazines.com) would run you exactly $118.99. Next Issue costs $179.88 per year but obviously gives you much more than just three magazines.
Indeed, even without the Premium bump, you feel like you're getting a lot more from Next Issue, as every magazine shown is available to you -- not just those with a Gold icon.
The app also delivers a better overall reading experience, starting with navigation tools that include indexes, scrolling page and section selectors, and hot-linked cover and TOC entries for quickly jumping to any story. I particularly like the new, curated Top Stories section atop the magazine-catalog page, which culls some popular stories across a range of titles.
Alas, there's no text-view option, nor even a search tool for quickly locating a particular magazine. And unless you mark a particular magazine as a favorite, there's no easy way to get back to an individual issue you've downloaded.
Another bummer: no support for Kindle Fire. There's an Android app I wasn't able to test, but it sure would be nice to have access to all this great content under my HDX 8.9 roof.
Is 'Netflix for magazines' a smart move?
So, for the total magazine junkie, which service makes more sense?
Right now, it's tough to recommend Magzter, mostly because its selection leaves much to be desired. There just aren't enough mainstream mags included with a Gold subscription, at least for this reader.
Next Issue's selection may be smaller, but I consider it vastly superior. Just one problem: $15 per month is a hard pill to swallow, and there's no discount for prepaying annually. In my ideal universe, the $9.99 subscription fee would include the weeklies, as a 50 percent price increase just for that handful of extra titles feels steep.