Popular Mechanics iPad App: The Future of Magazines, All Over AgainS

The Great iPad Magazine isn't here yet—but it's getting closer all the time. Popular Mechanics' app, set to launch next month, already looks like the new best magazine on the iPad.

If you've used Wired's Adobe-developed app, you'll notice Popular Mechanics' app looks and feels more like it than any other magazine app so far, even though it was developed in-house at Hearst. Which is interesting, because it means we've already established a set of conventions for magazines on the iPad, if you take them, and other apps, like PopSci+, and Time, in aggregate. (A sidenote: PopMech was coded entirely in Objective-C by Hearst's programmers, and weighs in at just around 60MB. Wired's app, done with Adobe, is over 500MB—score one for Steve Jobs' native programming tirade.)

Namely, they mostly reject pinch-to-zoom—what you see is what you get, true to form. (GQ and Vanity Fair are the exception, but given that Wired is effectively prototyping for Conde Nast, I don't expect it to be that way forever.) Which is interesting, in that Apple has taught everybody pinch-to-zoom as the predominant multitouch gesture, so it's what most people automatically do to anything. The idea, clearly, is fidelity to this idea of the magazine as curated object, unlike something purely digital and flighty, like a web page.

Second, there is a common navigational scheme emerging across magazines, although Pop Mech breaks it slightly. Articles are read vertically—that is, you scroll up and down—and you move to the next article or section by swiping left or right. Popular Mechanics, on the other hand, goes for page-for-page fidelity, in that you swipe to left to turn every single page. (Except for the handful of pages you don't, which is kind of confusing.) Swiping for every page, I suspect, will grow tedious, quickly.

They have a nice implementation of a sidebar, though it might also be slightly confusing if you've never used it before—essentially the top half of a page will be its own scrolling section that can go ad infinitum, showing all the steps of a DIY process, or other sequential steps magazines love to shove in sidebars. Galleries work like Wired—when you're presented with one, you tap various areas on the page to progress to the next shot in the sequence. Fine, but somewhat pointless.

Pop Mech does do a few things better than anybody else, though, besides coming in a more economical package. For one, fully embedded, seamless video—videos play on the page, so they feel like they're part of the magazine, and you're not interrupted by the iPad's movie player springing to life on top of the app. This is great. And it feels more future-y. (Apologies for the video looking a little wavy—I was hand-holding a DSLR, and the shaking was pretty bad, so iMovie's motion stabilization seemed preferable.)

Second, and key to keeping the app feeling alive and relevant, it pulls in new info, so the app doesn't become a fossil once you're done with the issue. The mini-app-within-an-app—a living infographic, if you will—that they demoed for me charted seismological data in the US, not only historically, but also using the most recent 7 days of earthquake data from the USGS. Which is really savvy—the mag retains value after you're done reading the issue. Oh, there's a built in reader that pulls in the latest articles from the Popular Mechanics website, but I figure you'll just go to the website anyway. Oh, and you can actually share articles, which you can't yet with the Wired app.

The upshot of Popular Mechanics releasing what could be the best magazine app yet on the iPad a month after the app we just deemed to be the best is that while the Great iPad Magazine hasn't arrived yet—to be clear, I don't think Popular Mechanics is quite it, either, for many of the same reasons John critiqued Wired—it may very well be on the way sooner than we think. Everybody's still just figuring this thing out, so people are mostly sticking to incrementally reformatting the magazine, instead of reinventing it, which is what we're waiting for. I suspect the HTML5 Sports Illustrated demoed at Google IO might be a peek in a different way, in that it's truly cross platform and could live on the web.

I love magazines, and this idea they could be something more than they are, given a totally blank slate to recreate themselves with. But just give it some time. [Popular Mechanics]