Most Mac Gems are programs you run on your Mac, but some web-based services are so useful that they warrant similar recognition. Today’s Gem, Instapaper, definitely falls into that category.
If you haven’t heard of Instapaper, developer Marco Ament calls it “a simple tool to save web pages for reading later.” But that’s a serious underselling of the service. Yes, Instapaper can save a web article for later reading, which is especially useful when you come across an interesting article that you don’t have time to read immediately, or that’s too long to read comfortably on your iPhone, or that you just want to keep around for reference. But the way Instapaper performs this task, and the options it provides for reading, managing, and sharing saved articles, make it indispensable for heavy web surfers.
When you want to read your saved articles, point your browser at the Instapaper site; they’re all waiting patiently. You can click an article title to read the article on its original site, but where Instapaper really shines is in its own presentation of articles: Click the Text button next to an article and you can read the article reformatted for easier reading—sans ads, annoying Flash, and other distracting clutter. This sparse view is especially useful on devices with smaller screens—a laptop, a netbook, or a mobile device. Via your Instapaper settings, you can choose either of two text parsers; one strips all images but leaves more text; the other cuts extraneous text more aggressively, but includes some images.
When you’re done reading an article, you can delete it, move it to a general Archive folder for later access, or file it into other folders you’ve created. You can also “star” your favorite articles: Other people can browse your starred items by adding them as a folder in their own account or subscribing to your starred-items RSS feed; you can similarly add or subscribe to other users’ starred items. This feature is a great way for you and your friends to share “I really liked this” articles with each other. (The main Instapaper web page also lists Editor’s Picks and a few of the articles most-read by users.)
Extra features include a bookmarklet (similar to Readability) that immediately converts the current web page to Instapaper’s text view for easier reading; a “Mobiliser,” designed for mobile phone browsers, that lets you browse any website in Instapaper’s text view; and an account-specific email address that lets you add any email message—for example, a lengthy email newsletter—to Instapaper by simply forwarding the message. You can also download your Instapaper archive in ePub format or convert it to a web page optimised for printing, and you can even configure Instapaper to automatically send recently saved articles to your Kindle.
If you’ve got an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, the developer also provides outstanding apps—Instapaper Free and Instapaper Pro—that let you download and read your Instapaper-saved articles using an interface optimised specifically for each device’s screen. Instapaper Pro is one of the most-used apps on my iPhone and iPad.
Finally, the developer has created an API that lets other software developers include Instapaper support in their own software. For example, NetNewsWire for Mac, as well as many iPhone and iPad Twitter clients and RSS readers, include an option to send a link or web page to Instapaper.
Because Instapaper gets the text of articles directly from their original web pages, the service does have some limitations. Some web pages that require a user account for access can’t be saved to Instapaper, and sites that block web crawlers can interfere with Instapaper. Also, Instapaper grabs the specific page you’re viewing; for multi-page articles, that means only the current page is saved. If you want to save a multi-page web article to Instapaper, look for a Print or Single Page button that displays the entire article on one page, then use your Read Later bookmarklet on that page.