Phones and tablets are turning into the smart way to read for free.
Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, Nook
Your smartphone or tablet is very probably your constant companion, which makes it an obvious way to get some reading done when you have a spare moment. And even if it is not designed as an e-reader, like a Kindle or Nook, say, there are plenty of apps around to help it do the job very handily.
One of the better news-reading applications available, Pulse takes content from multiple sources. You can also add your social networks, in which case you will see the latest links and photos posted by your friends, and your Readability list. That means a single app can potentially replace several publication-specific apps. It incorporates panning story bars with colour pictures with a bar for each news source - if you have seen the BBC News app for Android and iOS, you will recognise this type of thing. You can then scroll through the stories on offer from that source by swiping that bar sideways.
There are limitations, of course. First, Pulse only offers a single list of a couple of dozen top stories per source, where the apps dedicated to a specific source will typically offer several channels or themes with at least a dozen stories in each channel. And it appears that some publishers only give Pulse access to a precis or abbreviated version of the story, because in order to read the full version you must click through to the publication's website - the app has its own built-in browser for this.
The other caveat is that while Pulse offers a long list of news sources, grouped into categories such as Lifestyle, Business and Entertainment, most of the sources are US-based. The list does include BBC News, Guardian Money and Sky News, but there are few or no UK sources on the Pulse Technology and Science lists. You can add your own sources indirectly, for example if you follow a blogger on Twitter and connect Pulse to your Twitter account, Pulse will add that blog to the 'recommended' list that it gives you, but there is no obvious way to add sources directly.
That said, if you need an app that will ensure you always have something interesting to read - as long as you have an Internet connection, of course - the range of sources means that this is an excellent choice.
Android, iOS, Kindle
Modern smartphones and tablets make very nice e-readers, but if you want to read material from the Web they are not ideal: websites are often formatted for larger screens, plus they tend to assume you are online, which may not be true. Hence the need for apps such as Readability, designed to save Web-pages as clean and more easily readable e-documents that you can read offline.
So you save a page on your PC and Readability syncs it to your phone or tablet, having formatted it into a single column and added high-quality typography. It also adds links for sharing pages via Facebook, Twitter or email.
A neat touch is it works via gadgets that it adds to the desktop's navigation bar. Click the read-later gadget and the current page is converted and saved. A second gadget lets you apply Readability in the browser, which is useful when you come across illegible pages with black text on dark brown,for example. Articles can also be added by emailing the links to the personal address issued to every Readability user, and once you have read them they can either be deleted or archived.
There are caveats, of course. The browser plug-in can be intrusive, popping up invitations to save the current page rather too often, but that element is relatively easy to switch off. It also saves pages, so if the article you want is published as multiple pages, you will need to save each one in turn or hope the publisher makes a 'view all' link available. And we did find a few issues with non-text characters not being rendered correctly.
Alternatives include Pocket (formerly Read It Later) and Instapaper. Both work similarly to Readability, saving pages via a link in your browser's bookmark bar. Pocket has free apps available for Apple, Android and Kindle Fire, while Instapaper is Apple ($4.99) and Kindle-only.
Android, iOS, BlackBerry Playbook, Windows Phone
Available for most tablets and phones, on the Web and via plug-ins for specific browsers, News360 aims to provide depth rather than width. Or if not depth, then at least it links to multiple views of the same story. It claims to aggregate more than 20,000 news sources, and lists current news topics by theme - Business, Sports, Politics: US or World, for example.
Each story is semantically analysed, so News360 can work out connections and tag story elements with hyperlinks - the latter can be useful, although when it gets personal names wrong it can be rather amusing. Someone accused in the News International phone-hacking scandal was linked to the biography of a deceased Austrian philosopher of the same name, for instance.
Interesting things come through from reading multiple takes on the same story. One is how often stories are simply copied from elsewhere, especially in areas such as science. Another is to see just how far-reaching the major news services such as Reuters and AFP are, although even then you also see notable differences in how the same story is treated and headlined.
News360 can also personalise the news it brings you, learning from your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Evernote and Google Reader accounts, if you permit it to do so. It can apply a "local" filter, pulling out stories most relevant to your location, save stories for later reading via Pocket, Instapaper and other apps, and connect to traveller's apps such as TripIt to find news from upcoming destinations.
The News360 apps for phones and tablets are different, and the tablet ones are more capable. On both Android and iPhone, the smartphone app shows just one story at a time with no indication what is next on the list, for example, whereas the tablet app shows you a list of several stories. Both versions can also list all the published stories on a topic, as well as giving a timeline of who published what and when.
Recently updated with a new tablet-optimised user interface and the ability to import and read ebooks directly from the browser, from another app such as Dropbox, or from email, Aldiko is a handy ebook reader funded by a built-in bookstore. It can read both ePub and PDF, which are now the main formats for ebooks. The former is usually preferable, especially for phones, because readers such as Aldiko will reformat an ePub book to fit the screen, whereas PDFs are usually pre-formatted to a larger page, so you will either have to pan around or try to read very small text. As well as Android, there are ePub readers available for pretty much any other device; ePub books downloaded from elsewhere can also be added to an iTunes library, or converted to the Mobi format used by Kindles.
Useful features of Aldiko include remembering where you were in your book, the ability to create bookmarks and jump to other sections, and the ability to search for text in the book. You can adjust colour, brightness, text size and margins, and switch to white-on-black for nighttime reading. Alternative ePub readers for Android include Moon+ Reader, which is advert-funded or can be bought ad-free for '2.99.
There are plenty of free ebooks available via Project Gutenberg and the assorted online stores, as well as paid-for ones. We used Aldiko to read "How NOT to use your Smartphone", for example. Aimed at the newcomer to smartphones this explains the most common frauds and risks, as well as how to recognise that something has already gone wrong, such as having your identity or your credit card details stolen. Experienced mobile users may know some of it already, but probably not all of it - and if your partner or your child has a smartphone but doesn't use it particularly smartly, they will probably know even less of it. *