Imagine being able to read a section of the morning paper or blowing through a chapter of a book while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store — all on your smartphone. Seems impossible, right? With the help of speed-reading apps, it just might be possible.
Though they’ve been around for a while, there has been a renewed interest in speed-reading apps ever since Samsung announced that its upcoming Galaxy S5 and Gear 2 smartwatch would come preloaded with one called Spritz.
The two apps I tested this week — Speed Reading Trainer by Ivy Standard, and Velocity by Lickability — use a method called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation that displays one word at a time on a central point of your screen. The idea behind RSVP is that without having to move your eyes across lines of text, you can read more at a faster pace. It also makes reading text on a smaller screen easier.
As the name suggests, Speed Reading Trainer is a training app to help you get used to RSVP and increase your reading rate, while Velocity allows you to import articles from around the Web and read them using RSVP. They were interesting to try, and even helped me increase my reading speed. But I found that this often comes at the price of comprehension, so I’m not yet ready to adopt any of these apps as my main method of reading.
I started with Speed Reading Trainer. The app is available for Android and iOS (where it’s called Speed Reading Tutor), and offers exercises to help you read faster and tools to monitor your progress. There’s a free version and a $1.99 paid version that gets rid of advertisements and includes more reading material.
Overall, the user interface is intuitive, but doesn’t always perform smoothly. More often than not, I had to tap on the screen several times before the app opened a reading selection, which got to be frustrating.
To start out, I took a diagnostic test to see how many words I read per minute. According to the makers of the app, the average adult reads about 250 words per minute with a comprehension rate of 70 percent. My initial score was a humble 244 WPM.
Now that I had a starting point, I was ready to train myself to become a speed reader. I selected Flash training, which uses the RSVP method; the app also complements that with scroll training, which displays a few lines of text at a fixed speed and then slowly increases the speed as time passes.
You can select reading material based on three difficulty levels — beginner, intermediate and advanced. By default, the flash trainer starts displaying text at around 361 WPM, which was way too fast for me. There are options to decrease or increase the flash rate, but whatever your starting rate may be, know that the app automatically increases the WPM as you go through the exercise.
Since I hadn’t used the RSVP method before, the experience was initially very jarring — stressful almost. I was so concerned about not missing a word that I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was reading.
It gets easier with practice, though. My eyes became adjusted to the flashing words, and I was missing fewer words. I even got into a couple of the passages I was reading, and was disappointed when I couldn’t read the rest of the novel.
After completing a couple of training exercises, I took another diagnostic test and found that I had gone from 244 WPM to 309 WPM. The Ivy Standard says that people who have used the app have seen an increase as high as 500 WPM in as little as two weeks. I’ve only been using Speed Training Reader for about a week, but I’m creeping up to 400 WPM.
That said, I found that the app didn’t really address the issue of comprehension. While this wasn’t so much an issue when I was reading easier material, I started having problems when moving on to more intermediate and advanced works with complex subject matters.
For example, when reading “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, I had to go back and slow down the WPM rate. Even so, I wasn’t always able to remember details or fully understand a concept in the book. I often wished I had the full body of text in front of me, so I could go back and reference an earlier section. Unfortunately, you can’t choose your own reading material with Speed Training Reader.
The company said it will roll out new features in the coming days and weeks to address those issues, including the ability to read documents and PDFs, and will add comprehension questions to check basic understanding.
Velocity costs $2.99, and is currently iOS only. The company’s next goal is to bring it to Android and Windows Phone. The app doesn’t provide any set training exercises like Speed Reading Trainer. Instead, you gain training as you read stories you choose from around the Web.
Velocity works with services like Instapaper, Pocket and Readability, which let you save Web articles to read later. Alternatively, you can copy a URL from your phone’s mobile browser or an email message, and the next time you launch Velocity, it will offer to open up the page, or you can save it for later.
The app’s interface is minimalistic and easy to use. I use Pocket, and after entering my login and password, I found all my saved articles in Velocity. Copying and opening URLs in the app also works as advertised.
After selecting a story, the app began to stream the story word by word in the center of my iPhone 5’s screen. But the way the app breaks up parentheticals or quotes can sometimes be confusing.
To adjust the WPM rate, just tap the screen and use the sliding bar to increase or decrease the speed. However, without that extra push to keep increasing the speed, as with Speed Reading Trainer, I was more inclined to stay at a fixed WPM rate than to increase it.
Again, the bigger problem here was comprehension. Reading a New York Times article about an African vacation was fine, but when trying to learn about a new dwarf planet in the Oort cloud, I was lost. There is an option in Velocity to reference back to the whole story in normal format.
Speed-reading apps can help you train yourself to read faster, but their value may vary, depending on the individual and what they’re reading. I would recommend giving one of the free apps like Speed Reading Trainer a try before committing to something like Velocity.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.