Clickwheel: Cross my palm with webcomics

If you take a look around the web, you’ll see that many comics sites dutifully passed along the news a few weeks ago that Clickwheel has unveiled a comics app for the iPhone and iTouch. It looks like people mostly just posted the press release, though, without actually trying the thing out.

Well, I have, and so far, I’m pretty underwhelmed.

A couple of weeks ago we got my daughter a new Mac laptop, and the Apple folks were kind enough to throw in a free 8G iTouch to sweeten the deal. I was delighted: Something shiny!

The gleam started wearing off as soon as I got home and realized I had to upgrade to iTunes 2.0 (at a cost of $9.95) in order to do anything interesting. I hate paying for the privilege of spending money. So I grumbled for two weeks and then handed the damn thing over to my husband (a high-energy physicist) and told him “do what you have to.”

Half an hour later he handed me the phone with Clickwheel and the New York Times installed. So I can’t comment on how that part of the procedure went. I will say, though, that the Clickwheel interface is very frustrating.

First of all, it’s quite tricky to navigate at first. The idea is that you swipe your finger across the screen to scroll through the panels. What I found was that the interface was really finicky, and it took me quite a while of swiping and then nothing happening before I hit on just the right combination of speed and direction to make the panels scroll by. (You have to do it pretty fast.)

There is also no indication of how many panels are in each comic. When you can’t scroll any more, that episode is done. For why this is a bad idea, see the paragraph above: Is it over, or do I need to swipe faster?

Once you decide you are done, there is also no obvious way to get back to the comics menu. There is a way—swipe down—but you have to have read the help screen first to know that. Putting the phrase “swipe down to return to menu” in the margin somewhere, or maybe even some arrows, would be helpful.

And that help screen? Good luck finding it. I was greatly frustrated by the Clickwheel website, which seems to be entirely designed for webcomics creators, with lots of tips on how to create and upload content but absolutely no clue how to read the comics. When I tried to find the Clickwheel help in the iTouch browser, I got a blank screen, but weirdly, the next screen did have the instructions. Otherwise, I would still be swiping and swearing.

As a longtime Mac user, I’m accustomed to minimalist interfaces. The one wheel on my standard iPod is all I need to do many things. But that’s pretty obvious. Short of mental telepathy, or that hard-to-find help screen, I’m not sure how your’re supposed to figure out Clickwheel.

Finally, being an iPod user from way back, I assumed Clickwheel would allow me to download the comics and keep them to read later. Not so. I can only read the comics if I’m in a hotspot (obviously if I had an actual iPhone this wouldn’t be a problem), and they take a while to download. I would much rather handle them the way I do podcasts: Download them to my computer and then put them on the iTouch from there, so I could take them with me and read them quickly.

The comics themselves are pretty decent. The artwork was OK in the ones I looked at, although one was weirdly stretched out. The lettering in some is a bit too small for comfort if you are holding the iTouch in the vertical position, but if you rotate it, the panel rotates and expands enough to make it readable. And once you get into the rhythm of swiping, the comics go pretty quickly. Still, you’re reading panel by panel, and you have to stop go back to the menu, and download more every few panels, so it’s a slow reading experience.

The Clickwheel folks are actually doing a lot of things right, but a little bit more help with navigation would make a big difference for the first-time user, and the ability to download and store comics on the device would really make this a must-have app.

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