What Bad Reviews Reveal About the “Best” Digital Magazines

The best digital magazines have their lovers and their haters – and they’ll all tell you exactly what to do to make them happy.

Have you ever spent time poking around on your iPad, just to see how customers feel about the digital magazines they buy and subscribe to? We make this a habit of ours, picking out some of the common themes (typically, bad usability and type size complaints) and also purchasing habits.


The New York Times app is not a digital magazine, but it’s perpetually the top downloaded and highest grossing periodical app on Apple. Upon reviewing their app recently, I was more interested, however, in how savvy their subscribers really are. They’re talking in our language:

Needs better integration with daily emails. As a standalone app, this works well. After using it for about a year I’ve found that user experience could improve a lot with better integration with the daily headlines email that NYT sends at the start of each day. The daily email includes personalized sections like “recommended for you” and has curated categories like “editor’s picks,” and my favorite section, “quotation of the day.” These personal elements in the email, that make me feel like I’m reading my perfect snapshot of the Times, is totally lost when using the app. In the app you just have a list of sections. Further, if you click on a link in the daily email, it opens in Safari instead of the NYT app, which results in a more crowded visual experience and practically nullifies the point of having the app in the first place. If NYT made it possible to see “your” headlines round-up in the app or made the email and smartphone app work together instead of apart, this would have gotten 5 stars. Currently, it just feels redundant. – three stars, by lapetitechou

Currently, the best digital magazines according to Apple (free with in-app purchases) are:

  1. The Economist
  2. People
  3. Better Homes & Gardens
  4. TIME
  5. National Geographic
  6. Us Weekly
  7. Vogue
  8. AllRecipes Magazine
  9. A+ Lifestyle for Men
  10. Cycle World Magazine

However, the top grossing magazines on Apple are:

  1. The Economist
  2. People
  3. Us Weekly
  4. National Geographic
  5. The New Yorker
  6. TIME
  7. Vanity Fair
  8. Barron’s
  9. Harvard Business Review
  10. WIRED

And none are without their flaws. In fact, we still believe that niche magazines have an opportunity right now, to outshine these larger players through experimentation.

The Economist tops both lists, making it the best digital magazine app out there, according to downloads and sales. It’s also fairly robust, offering subscribers exclusive access to issues before they hit the newsstands, audio and media, shareability and bookmarking, and access to a back-issue archive. You can download the app for free, and subscribe annually ($129.99), quarterly ($39.99) or buy a single issue ($6.99). Subscribers also get access to The Economist.com, which they can access through the app as well.

Although bad reviews for The Economist mainly refer to temporary bugs, rather than larger issues of usability or font sizes as we often run across, we did find some interesting feedback that might apply to you, too, publishing friend:

Please integrate dictionary for easier reading and understanding. At least make it work with Apple’s built-in dictionary. (A good thought if you run a magazine like the Economist, or Harvard Business Review with more jargon than subscribers may know what to do with.)

I expect an app to give me the new content on time. But the Economist app updates on its own sweet time. Sometimes Friday, sometimes Saturday, sometimes Sunday, sometimes even Monday. I might as well buy it on the newsstand.


People magazine, another top magazine app, is not without its flaws. What I found most interesting is that even though their one-month, $9.99 magazine subscription is the top in-app purchase, users are also buying single issues. And not new issues, but most of the top purchases are from 2011 and 2012. The jump from $9.99 to $54.99 is most likely the reason why the monthly subscription is most appealing to readers.

  • 1-month subscription – $9.99
  • 6-month subscription – $54.99
  • Single issue – $4.99

In the comments, you’ll find a barrage of customers who are having technical glitches, but what I love is that they start their reviews with, “I have been a print subscriber of People since 1975,” and “I have subscribed for over 10 years and have been using the digital version since it was offered.”

Anyone who thinks people aren’t adapting from print to digital, should read the reviews on Apple. And maybe, so should People magazine because people are mad right now.

National Geographic is another longtime Apple user favorite, and their $19.99 annual subscription is their top in-app purchase, followed by their one-month subscriptions. Again, single back-issues going back five years are top sellers for this publisher. With selling points like these, this is not exactly decoy pricing, but most of their loyal subscribers just go for the full boat at $19.99. A big difference from People, though, who jumps from $1.99 to $54.99.

  • Annual subscription: $19.99 (12 issues)
  • Monthly subscription: $1.99/month (1 issue)
  • Single issues: $4.99/issue

The most common complaints here came down to readability. Everything from text size, to background colors, and how non-responsive the app is depending what size device you use. Here are two reviews:

The photos don’t load properly on an iPhone 6 plus and the content layout should be optimized for the bigger screen. Also, the app should have the capability to change the text color background to black so it’s easier on your eyes at nighttime.

It still looks like the general UI for each magazine issue was designed for a small phone like the 4s or 5 and looks too blown up on the 6 plus.

TIME magazine, well … full disclosure: we have a digital publishing crush on TIME for their beautiful web magazine, which we featured in our article on call to action examples. Their web magazine is responsive to any device and just makes sense. You don’t even need an app. But also as we’ve discussed before, you could lose 20% of your digital magazine revenues by ignoring Apple’s huge marketplace, so don’t do that. We’ve certainly had our criticisms of TIME in the past, too.

But TIME doesn’t mess around with pricing. Their 1-year subscription is $29.99 and a single issue is $5.99.

Again, we find ourselves with some savvy subscribers leaving reviews that mirror the responses we found in our annual Digital Magazine Market Study:

Subscribers should be able to highlight/copy/paste. Makes reference lookups for copy/paste into search, etc, impossible. You can do better.

But the one review that made me screech to a hault, and choke on my morning coffee, was this one:

Pages should support pinch/zoom. 

Wait, what? Huh? After all the work magazines have done to get rid of their crappy digital replicas with pinch and zoom PDFs, we found someone who wants it. We hope this review gets buried quickly before TIME reads it. Especially since they’re still mostly a digital replica, and pages do, in fact, support pinch and zoom (we double checked). We did also find some pages that have scrolling text, so at the very least, they’re bringing it into replica+ territory.

But most of their reviews come from the same loyal readers who the pundits claim won’t read digital magazines. They start their reviews with, “Have been a Time subscriber for more than 40 years,” and “I’ve held on to my TIME magazine since college, some 30+ years now.”

They’ll never adapt, they said. You’ll never get a print reader to subscribe on a tablet, they said.

More feedback, and this is the first time we’ve come across it, but offers solid user insight, is in regards to the free digital audio stories that TIME includes in the digital edition:

Audio is a neat feature but not useful. No way to forward/rewind or mark your place. Exiting the app and returning causes a full audio restart. Really bad since anyone using an iPad for audio is likely to multitask and not stay on an open audio story for a lengthy feature read. 

One common thread among all of the “best” digital magazines, according to downloads, is that usability is a real problem. In the study we ran in 2013, one of our participants remarked that she thought all digital magazines should have the same basic functionality.

But they don’t.

So that means every time someone downloads an app, there’s a learning curve. If it’s too big, and if all the bells and whistles distract from basic functionality, you’ll lose a customer.

After more than 40 years reading Newsweek, the last few electronically only, gave up my subscription due to terrible app and zero customer service. Also feel cost of electronic subscription way over priced.

That’s the equivalent of something like, “I’m breaking up with you, and I never really liked you anyway.”

Speaking of pricing, and also bundling, the biggest complaint on Rolling Stone, is that there isn’t any bundling:

Why do I need to pay for BOTH print and digital version? It’s the SAME EXACT magazine. Not even a discount.

Many other magazines provide both in one price – Wired, Time Magazine, etc. And guess what? I keep RENEWING my subscriptions with them.

Rolling Stone wants you to be either a full Luddite or full 21st century digital humanoid. You can’t be both – unless of course you want to pay twice.

We found similar complaints for Us Weekly, another top magazine:

Would be a great app if US Weekly was not trying to get paid twice. People magazine does not gouge their print subscribers for an additional fee just to view their magazine on the iPad.

But other sentiments about US Weekly echo the Economist, and their inconsistency of updating:

You just never know what’s going to happen every Friday when you go to get your magazine. Some days you can’t access your account so you cannot download the magazines. Then you can download, but not the latest issue. Very frustrating.

Some main take-aways gathered from this stroll down app review boulevard are the following:

  • Don’t make users pay twice. They hate that.
  • Update regularly, so users don’t feel like they could have gotten your issue faster on the physical newsstand.
  • Test your UI, and test, test again.
  • See what features people like, and if there are ones they don’t, they’ll probably tell you why and how you can fix them.

Tell us in the comments what you love / dislike about some of these top digital magazines.


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