RBdigital is the gateway to free digital magazines in your library.

RBdigital / Screenshot by Rick Broida / CNET

Public libraries are so great. (Thank you, Ben Franklin!) They allow you to borrow not only physical books, but also digital content like eBooks, audiobooks and – surprise, surprise! – digital magazines.

That’s right: Many libraries have partnered with RBdigital (formerly Zinio for Libraries) to offer electronic zines that you can browse and read on a variety of devices. I was already a huge fan of doing this on my iPad, so I’m delighted that my local library here in the Detroit subway has this awesome option.

It’s also a surprisingly generous offer: for most titles, you have access not only to the latest issue, but back issues as well. There is usually no limit to the number of magazines you can “check out” and they do not expire after a certain period, as e-books in the library do. In other words, you can keep them as long as your account is active.

It’s especially exciting in light of Apple’s recent announcement News Plus subscription service, which for $ 10 per month gives you access to over 300 magazines. Not only is RBdigital free, it is also compatible with Android and Amazon Fire devices. ($ 39 on eBay) tablets.

Here’s how to get started with RBdigital, starting with what you’ll need to read.

Dust off your library card

First, visit your local library’s website (through your desktop browser) to see if there is any mention of RBdigital. If so, you will need your library card number and password to go through the registration process, which should be accessible through this site. The process usually involves setting up an account with RBdigital, the service that handles magazine loans for libraries.

With that done, check your inbox for an RBdigital activation email and click on the link to verify your account.

Finally, you should look at the catalog of magazines available, the size of which may vary from library to library. Mine, for example, has around 300 titles, like Apple News Plus, which is interesting. There aren’t all the magazines I want, but it’s a good mix overall.

If you see something you want to read just click on the cover and then click on the blue Check button. Pro tip: after clicking this button, check the box marked Automatically order the next issue. Presto! You now have a “subscription” to this magazine.

Consider the material


Reading magazines on a phone – like Reader’s Digest, shown here – isn’t that great thanks to RBdigital’s text mode. Fortunately, it is not all text.

RBdigital / Screenshot by Rick Broida / CNET

Next, determine where and how you want to use your digital magazines. In my opinion, the best bet is a full-size tablet, that is, a tablet with a screen of at least 8 inches. I used an iPad Mini ($ 389 on eBay), which is pretty good, as long as it has a Retina display, but a full-size iPad or Amazon Fire HD 10 ($ 68 at Amazon) is better. A 12.9-inch iPad Pro ($ 939 at Amazon)? Best option by far.

Ultimately, you want something with the highest resolution and the biggest screen you can get – at least if you plan to consume magazines in their native format (i.e. PDF files of the actual magazine pages). Fortunately, the RBdigital app offers a text view for many, if not most, titles, and it’s a pretty good implementation.

Indeed, reading a scanned magazine on a smartphone (or a smaller tablet) involves a lot of scrolling and zooming, which is far from ideal. But with a single tap, the RBdigital app will switch you to text mode, giving you a larger print, in your choice of sizes, nicely formatted for smaller screens. And it’s not just plain text either; photos are also mixed.

This mode works best for longer stories, however. On pages with a lot of small blurb, the app doesn’t always delineate them well. I have also noticed that the magazines are slow to download. On a Fire HD 10 and iPad, I usually wait a minute or two for an issue to load. It is also an extremely slow application in other respects, such as when you switch between PDF view and text view.

Get the apps

RBdigital applications are available for Fire, Android and ios. Once installed, launch it and then log into the RBdigital account you just created. All the magazines you have ever read should be waiting for you. Alternatively, you can press the Menu button then Magazines to explore the collection and choose the titles to consult.

RBdigital might not be perfect, but if you love magazines and want to read them for free, well, it’s time to renew that library card.

Read more: I did the math, and News Plus is actually a pretty good deal.

Originally published November 15, 2016.
Update, April 4, 2019: Add new information.

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