A new way to read magazines? Part 2

It’s been more than two months now since I wrote about my search for an alternative way of reading magazines and how it had led me to an intriguing website called Zinio. Since then I’ve been spending some considerable time familiarising myself with their electronic magazine service and looking at it in terms of usability for someone with severe physical disability. The following review is therefore slanted towards quadriplegics like myself, so one of the things I’ll be looking at is how easy it is to interact with when you can’t actually touch the computer! 

Introducing Zinio

Zinio is an online magazine service that tries to faithfully recreate the reading experience of a traditional paper magazine by preserving its whole look and feel. So in other words page layout and design, typography, editorial text, photography and advertisements all look exactly the same as a copy sold at a newsstand. Zinio offers a large selection of magazines on a wide range of subjects across multiple languages, so it isn’t just English-speaking people who can benefit from this service. Many of the big name publications can be found here and new magazines are being added on an almost daily basis.

An example of some of the popular magazines in the Science and Tech category. The menu on the left side enables you to refine your search to include only those publications in the subcategories such as nature or photography.

Keeping with the newsstand metaphor it is possible to ‘browse’ the magazines before purchase. This ability to ‘peak between the covers’ will vary from magazine to magazine. In many cases it is possible to view the entire magazine, albeit at reduced magnification. This will at least give you an idea of the overall content without being able to actually read any of the editorial. In addition however it is possible to ‘unlock’ up to 3 of these double page spreads so they can be viewed at full screen resolution (or above). Some magazines (presumably at the request of their publishers) either forbid browsing their content altogether, leaving you with only a cover to make a purchasing decision on, or restrict browsing to only several pages.

Previewing a magazine before purchase.

Using the system is easy. Anyone familiar with online shopping and downloadable content will find the process here very familiar: register and set up an account, select the items you want, place them in the shopping cart, go to the checkout and pay for them. Magazines that have been purchased will then appear in an area of your account called ‘my library’. From here you either have the option of reading the magazines online, or if you prefer you can also download them to your computer. The emphasis here is on your computer as each file is DRM (digital rights management) protected and therefore cannot be shared with anyone else. However, there is nothing to stop you from downloading the magazines to a second computer provided you use the same account details.

Purchased magazines can be viewed online in 'my library' and can be sorted and filtered in a variety of ways such as displaying only issues of a particular magazine or those that have not yet been read.

The reading experience

Having now played around with both the online and off-line readers I can say that the general reading experience and range of features on offer is almost the same. Indeed both seem to have the same interface and keyboard shortcuts making it easy to swap and change between the two.

Accessing your magazine collection from your online library offers a number of advantages such as allowing you to read your magazines from any computer that has Internet access, saving on hard disk space, and not having to worry about backing them up. However there are also some disadvantages of which the most obvious one of course is that if you lose your Internet connection you cannot access any of your collection. Also, like any web-based service the quality of your experience will be largely dependent on broadband speed and how good the hardware is at the other end. Where I live broadband speed is well below average so I tend to steer clear of streaming services and prefer to download everything. Nevertheless I have played around with the online player and not had too much of a problem reading magazines – provided that they are read in a linear fashion. A magazine read in this way will give the system sufficient time to load the next page into memory before it is required, thus giving an uninterrupted read. However if you like skipping randomly through a magazine then you may spend more time watching the page loading symbol than reading editorial. One thing I have noticed as the pages change is a tendency for the text to ‘shimmer’ slightly before settling down. I don’t find it particularly distracting but it is nevertheless noticeable.

So how easy is it to actually read a magazine without touching the computer? Well, those of you who know me or have been following the blog for some time will know that I’ve been using speech recognition software for over a year now. It isn’t perfect and quite often I come across a piece of software or a web page that is not fully compatible with it. I do wish that the people who create websites and applications would give a little more thought to those of us who are physically disabled. Fortunately Zinio’s reader application works quite well with my Dragon NaturallySpeaking software and navigating around a magazine is easy. For instance to go to the next or previous page I just need to say “move right” or “move left”. To go to the beginning or end of the magazine it’s “press home” or “press end”. If I want to fill the whole screen with the magazine then I just need to say “full screen”. And if I want to see the contents page it’s “press c”.

Reading a magazine in this fashion requires little effort as most of your time will be spent either reading editorial or studying illustrations with the occasional instruction to move to the next page. Unfortunately that will only work if you have a large screen. At the moment I’m having to make do with a 15 inch laptop screen running at 1366 x 768 pixels which isn’t ideal. At this size and resolution text is simply not legible enough even in full screen mode. It’s hardly surprising when you consider that quite often a magazine is published in A4 format so it therefore follows that the whole page design was conceived with this shape and size in mind. Therefore to get the best viewing experience (i.e. no zooming and scrolling) is going to require a large monitor equal in height to a physical page and possessing enough vertical pixels to preserve the fidelity of the printed page. I don’t have one at the moment but I would be very interested to hear from anyone reading this post who possesses a large computer screen (say around 20 to 24 inches) who has either tried the service or is willing to take a look on my behalf at the online samples to see how well they look and whether everything is readable.

Two page view at normal magnification using the online reader.

Single page view at normal magnification using the online reader. Text is unreadable on a laptop sized screen.

Clicking on a page will increase magnification to fill the width of the screen (and considerably improve legibility).

To overcome the limitations of screen size I’ve had to adopt the following system. First I use the verbal command “mouse grid”. This causes a nine cell grid to be overlaid on the screen from which a number can be selected that is closest to the area of interest. The cell that has been selected is then itself divided up into a nine grid cell from which a further selection can be made if greater precision is required, and so on. So the whole sequence of instructions that I would issue might sound like this “mouse grid, press 2, press 4, click”. Using the mouse grid in this fashion only helps in navigating to the area of interest and zooming in one level. So in other words no matter how precise I am with the mouse grid I can still only zoom in one level. Quite often this will be sufficient to enable me to comfortably read the text. If it isn’t then I can say “press shift equals” to zoom in further or I can say “press shift minus” if I want to zoom back. Using these commands it is possible to zoom half a dozen or so times – more than enough.

Magnifying the text to a level that is readable solves one problem and introduces another, i.e. we can now only see a portion of the page. To overcome this problem we can set the page to continuously scroll in any direction by speaking any of the following commands “mouse drag up”, “mouse drag down”, “mouse drag left”, “mouse drag right”. The page will now gradually reveal more text as it moves in the direction instructed. Thus it is possible to read from the top to the bottom of the page without continually issuing instructions. However once the bottom of the page has been reached it will be necessary to stop the scrolling, reposition at the top of the next page (or paragraph) and repeat the process. Written out in this fashion it does seem quite a long winded process, and yes it is not ideal. But now that I have read a number of magazines cover to cover using the techniques described above, I have to be honest and say that is not too intrusive, and in fact I have now got used to it so don’t give it much thought although I will admit that it would be so much easier on a larger monitor.

The speech recognition’s MouseGrid in operation dividing the screen up into areas. Normally this would be used for precision cursor placement when trying to access a stubborn hyperlink or interface control. In this case however the MouseGrid is being used as an aid to zooming in on an area of interest.

Accessing any square in the grid of nine cells reveals a further grid of nine cells. This can be repeated a number of times until the area of interest is centred.

When an area of interest has been identified it can be zoomed into by issuing the command 'click'.

Off-line reading

To read magazines off-line will require downloading and installing the Zinio Reader (and Adobe’s AIR runtime if you don’t already have it installed). Once running the software will periodically check for new issues that you’ve recently purchased or are part of a subscription. If it finds any an image of the front cover will appear in the relevant time slot with an option to download it. You can if you wish alter the preferences so that checking and downloading is an automatic process whenever you launch the reader. There are various organisation and navigation tools available but I have not been able to get these to respond to voice commands directly. However, using Dragon’s MouseGrid command it is possible to access these features albeit in a much slower fashion.

The off-line reader is capable of displaying a magazine collection by date...

... Or by magazine name

The filmstrip viewer cannot be accessed or controlled using direct voice commands. A workable alternative is to use the MouseGrid in Dragon's speech recognition software to zoom in to a thumbnail image.

The same applies to the thumbnail grid. Aligning the cursor directly over the scrollbar and using the 'mouse drag down/up' commands enable scrolling whilst the MouseGrid is used to make a selection.

It is possible to perform simple searches which will identify all the pages in a particular magazine that contain the search text.

Visual quality

Many of the magazines I’ve downloaded will typically weigh in at around 20 megabyte with each page occupying on average between 100 to 200 kilobyte. Now I’ve played around a couple of years ago with scanning magazine pages into my computer so I know from my own experience that to preserve a decent quality file sizes need to be significantly higher than this. The fact that they are so small would indicate to me that a compromise has been made between preserving image quality and maintaining a nonintrusive online reading experience. So how does this translate to visual quality? Fortunately it has no effect on the text which appears sharp at any magnification. However, the rather severe compression is definitely noticeable in photographs that contain areas of near continuous tone such as the sky. Zooming in a few times to take a closer look at something also soon reveals familiar JPEG like compression artefacts. How important all of this is will depend largely on the individual and how tolerant you are. For somebody like myself whose hobby used to be photography where image quality was something to be strived for, this level of compression is both disappointing and distracting, especially as quite often the magazines I’m buying tend to place great emphasis on the photography. However I would stress that not all pictures suffer these problems and quite often images will look fine at full-page magnification. The situation does seem to be changing as recent issues of National Geographic have increased to nearly 100 megabyte each. One can only hope that other publishers follow in their footsteps.

Viewed at full screen width the shortcomings of excessive file compression can be seen in the background of this photo.

Summing up

I had actually intended to write this follow-up article a couple of weeks after the first one. The fact that I didn’t because I was too busy actually reading some of the back issues of magazines I’ve purchased, is I guess a testament to how enjoyable an experience it is. Until recently I’ve felt ‘locked out’ of an area of reading that I particularly enjoyed and I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed that some enterprising company would come along and offer an electronic alternative. It isn’t perfect, but then what is? Image quality is variable at the moment, as is pricing (some magazine subscriptions are quite a bargain whilst others are ludicrously high). Also there currently appears to be no way of knowing how much progress you’ve made through the magazine as there is no progress bar or percentage complete indicator. Another strange omission is that the online reader has no bookmarking feature that I can find so each time you open the magazine it will revert back to page 1. One final gripe (and this isn’t directed solely at Zinio but just about every company that designs programs and web interfaces) is that not enough thought is given to physically disabled people and how they are going to access the features. I can just about make the software work but it would be so much easier if every control responded to a simple voice command. Ultimately however the convenience that electronic magazines give someone like me far outweighs the minor irritations. It is certainly a far superior solution to the big and bulky mechanical page turning devices that I was shown a couple of years ago. Looking at the system from a purely disabled point of view I have no hesitation in recommending the system.


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A new way to read magazines? Part 1

My recent experience of trying to access and read magazines has been churning over in my mind for the past couple of days. Just flicking through that one issue of the BBC Wildlife magazine last week reawakened my interest in the specialist magazines, and to be honest I miss them. Reading online articles just isn’t the same and I miss the rich reading experience of well written and researched articles, specially commissioned photography and artwork, and appealing page layout and design. But reading paper magazines is beyond me now and will tie up too much of my carers’ time if they had to sit beside me flipping pages and then waiting patiently for me to finish reading. I’ve tried it with both magazines and coffee table books and unless the carer has an interest in the subject it must be boring for them and uncomfortable for me as I feel conscious of how long I am spending staring at each page. Is there another solution? Well, we now live in the age of eBooks so what about eMagazines? How far along are we in their development?

I’ve been doing a bit of digging on the Internet just to see what is currently available and what is in the pipeline. To give you an idea of the kind of things that are currently in the development stage, take a look at these videos which try to preserve the rich and immersive reading experience of a well-designed magazine.

eMagazines are the next logical step for electronic publishing now that the public are starting to embrace the concept of reading novels in electronic form. Like eBooks they offer some compelling advantages. Anybody who has ever bought a few magazines a month and hung on to them will soon realise how much space even a year’s worth occupies. eMagazines of course don’t occupy any physical space or indeed weigh anything (a real plus for travellers and commuters), will not fade with age, and are impervious to damage (clear advantages for those who like to archive their magazines). And for those of us who care anything about the planet we live on they are a green alternative that saves on trees, removes manufacturing and warehouse space, as well as eliminating transportation costs and associated pollution. And all of that excludes the costs of returning and recycling unsold magazines!

With eMagazines it would seem we are on the verge of a similar revolution to the one we are currently experiencing within the paperback/hardback novel industry, where the popularity of eBooks has gained sufficient momentum to achieve mass-market appeal. This is thanks in large part I suspect to the popularity of Amazon’s range of Kindle devices. Now it would seem the magazine industry is about to go the same way although this time it’s Apple’s iPad that is getting all the media attention. An early example of the kind of magazine specifically designed for this platform can be seen below.

However, both the Kindle and iPad are of no use to a quadriplegic. Neither are the solutions currently in development which all rely on touch control using finger gestures. So does that mean physically disabled people will be excluded from this coming revolution? Not necessarily. What I’ve been looking for is another solution, something that doesn’t rely on a mobile device or any kind of physical interaction, but instead can be read directly from a computer screen (in a similar fashion to Amazon’s Kindle reader) and can be controlled by my voice.

My search led me to an interesting website called Zinio that specialises in electronic versions of many popular newsstand magazines. The magazines are visually identical to their paper counterparts, the main difference being of course that you view them on a computer display. From my initial exploration of the online samples it would appear that they lack many of the advanced features of the concepts currently under development (as shown in the videos above). Rather than seeing them as the future of electronic magazines, I suspect what we have here is a sort of hybrid halfway solution; a stepping stone to what will be commonplace in a few years time. Nevertheless for people like me who are really only looking for a way of reading the magazines it could be exactly what I’ve been looking for.

I will reserve final judgement until I’ve fully tested the system and then I will report back in part 2 on the whole reading/user experience. In the meantime here are a collection of screenshots and comments on the various features of the online reader.

This is how a magazine will first present itself when viewed through the online reader. As can be seen the user interface is fairly minimal and nonintrusive with simple controls for moving forward or backward through the pages. There is an option to view in full screen mode and thus remove all other screen clutter but it was easier for me to obtain the screenshots for this post in windowed mode.

The contents page(s) can be accessed at any time via the button at the bottom of the screen. You can navigate directly to each article by clicking on their titles which highlight when the mouse cursor is placed on them.

A filmstrip viewer can be invoked from the bottom of the screen which aids in navigation giving a neat preview of a few of the pages before and after the page being currently viewed. You can jump to any of these pages by clicking on their preview images.

The gallery viewing mode is a neat way of seeing a pictorial representation of the entire magazine simply by using the scroll bar on the right. You can jump to any page by clicking on its thumbnail image.

An example of the readability at full-page magnification in a windowed application (this is not the same as full screen mode).

The magnifying glass icon at the bottom of the screen allows the page magnification to be customised. Paragraph text seems to scale well indicating that it is not simply part of a bitmap page scan.

Another indication that text is an independent entity from all the various graphical elements is the fact that it is searchable. The word 'fish' has been identified in several pages as can be seen in the search results box to the left which features preview images of each page found to contain the text.

In this magnified image we can see that all is not as it should be. The text in this artwork appears to be an integral part of the illustration (i.e. it is not a separate layer and is therefore not scalable). This would also indicate that the original scanned image is not of sufficient resolution to clearly resolve the text.


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