Katherine Boehret

Is Browsing a Catalog More Fun on a Tablet?

Unsolicited catalogs take up a frustratingly large amount of space in my snail mail, and I can’t remember the last time I ordered from one. Yet there’s something relaxing about sitting down and flipping through colorful, glossy pages to admire an ensemble from Anthropologie, read a recipe from Williams-Sonoma or catch up on trends at Nordstrom.

Catalogs are ideally suited to a device that encourages people to sit back and relax while using it: the tablet. And in the past year, digital versions of catalogs—and more specifically, apps that pull together many free catalogs in one place—have found a home on iPads, Android tablets and Kindle Fires.

This week, I tested three free catalog-aggregating apps to see how well they replaced paper: Catalog Spree by Padopolis for iPad, which includes fast navigation tools; Google Catalogs for iPad and Android tablets, which offers the most content; and TheFind’s Catalogue app for iPad and Kindle Fire, which has the cleverest way of opening a Web page when you’re ready to buy something. In these digitized catalogs, there are direct links from items to the websites that sell them.

DSOLUTION

New tablet apps like Google Catalogs let users browse many catalogs in one place.

Each digital-catalog app excels at something different. Catalog Spree lets you clearly mark favorite items and their descriptions with yellow circles—as you might do in a physical catalog. Google Catalogs lets people create collages of various items that can be shared with friends via email or publicly with others who use the app.

The Catalogue app displays weekly email offers along with a brand’s catalog and offers a Visualizer tool that virtually places an item in the viewfinder of your iPad camera, showing how a room might look with, say, a new mirror on its wall.

Visualizer worked well when I used it to see how a mirror looked on a blank wall in my living room. But a shelf that I tried in my bedroom looked a little fake.

Google Catalogs currently has the most content, with over 200 brands, compared with 113 in Catalog Spree and 70 in Catalogue. But Catalog Spree and Catalogue have two upfront advantages: Both were recently updated to look better when used with the new iPad’s screen, and both enable sharing with Facebook.

A Google spokeswoman said that a Google Catalogs update for the new iPad is coming soon and that social elements are a priority and on the road map.

All the catalog apps have smart ways of opening brand websites right within their apps, making it easier to buy things. I particularly liked the way TheFind’s Catalogue app did this: Users slide a window shade-like “pull” tab up to reveal the Web page where they can buy the item.

One of my favorite hidden design features in the Catalog Spree app was a quick way to see all catalog pages as thumbnail images when I pinched my thumb and pointer finger together. This helped me quickly see the contents of the entire catalog so I could go directly to the page I wanted, saving me time when I was looking for something specific.

DSOLUTION

The Visualizer tool on TheFind’s Catalogue can virtually place an item from a catalog in the viewfinder of an iPad camera so users can see it in a room.

Though these apps are free, the catalog brands can learn how people use them—though this data is aggregated and not tied to specific users. For example, an app knows if you linger on the Frontgate catalog page with the glass-inlay chaise table or open the SkyMall catalog five times in a month. If you’re nervous about this, you can use the apps without signing in, though extras like saving favorites or bookmarking pages won’t work.

The fact that a catalog is digital doesn’t solve the same old supply problems you might encounter with paper versions. I used Google Catalogs to find the Spring 2012 Look Book for a jewelry company called Stella & Dot, but when I tapped on a stylish pair of stone earrings, a message said they were no longer available. The same was true for the next two items I tried.

These apps keep digital catalogs available for viewing regardless of whether the items in them are sold out. Google has a policy of keeping catalogs in the app forever, allowing people to look back at past issues. Catalog Spree and Catalogue keep catalogs in the app for as long as a brand requests, though a spokesman for TheFind, which runs Catalogue, said it may pull a catalog based on content and season if a merchant doesn’t specify an expiration date.

I preferred browsing catalogs on full-size tablets with 10-inch displays, like the iPad or some Android tablets. That’s when it felt the most like paging through paper catalogs, and the items appeared larger. When I used the seven-inch Kindle Fire running Catalogue or the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note running Google Catalogs, the experience wasn’t as rich.

To de-clutter the coffee table and ease online shopping, tablet catalogs are the way to go.

Write to Katie at Katie.boehret@wsj.com


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