When it comes to news aggregators, iPad apps suffer from an embarrassment of riches. There are several truly excellent aggregators, each with its own take on algorithmically generated news for you. In this post I will take a look at the leaders and you can decide for yourself which, if any, you might wish to install. I will not be covering stand-alone publishing enterprises, like the New York Times or Time Magazine apps, but rather meta-tools that aggregate articles from these and many other news sources. I have stretched my definition to include Reuters and AP, which technically are news sources, but have both produced excellent news consumption apps.
Standing atop the heap of aggregators is Flipboard, both for the elegance and richness of its interface and the inclusiveness of its news sources. Flipboard, as its name implies, takes the magazine metaphor to its logical digital conclusion. You flip pages within the sections of an overall aggregation of categories in which you express interest. Here’s how it works.
After installing the app, create an account. As with most of these apps, creating an account makes it easy to integrate your already existing news feeds from Google Reader, your twitter feed, facebook feed, and to create favorites and custom news stores—in this case custom “magazines” that you populate with your favorite articles. Personal magazines can be topical and can, if desired, be shared.
Nerx, tap the red bookmark icon to add your pre-existing accounts, control notifications, and tell Flipboard the pre-set categories in which you are interested. Within each category are able to select among many individual news sources.
You can connect Flipboard to your personal accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader, YouTube, The New York Times, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr, 500px, Sina Weibo, Renren and Soundcloud, in order for Flipboard to access the already personally curated materials you may have already accumulated at one of those sites.
As you can see from the illustration above you can also select from a collection of standard categories, each of which includes an extensive array of news sources. Flipboard provides its own pre-configured collections, or you can select directly from news publishers. Within the Tech & Science category Flipboard offers a pre-configured Technology collection, and collections titled “Android Authority,” “Science,” and “Gear & Gadgets.” Then TechCrunch provides a pre-populated section titled “TechCrunch Weekly,” The Verge provides a gaming summary collection, and GigaOM provides one called “Thought Pieces.” Those are just the major pre-configured offerings. Then I count 53 dedicated news sources, like CNet, GeekWire, Gizmodo, PCMag, Space.com, The Tech Block, and so on. Finally, there are Flipboard custom collections dedicated to Gaming, Green, Mobile, Science TV and Space. And that’s just one category.
The user interface of Flipboard is what is most attractive. From the title screen to the last detailed article each screen is presented as a flippable page in an overall collection. Swipe across the screen to turn pages. The navigation is intuitive, with a Flipboard link at the top of each page to get back to your main index pages, joined by a search button, and a menu icon to quickly jump to any section in your custom news magazine. At the bottom of each page is a refresh button, a page indicator, showing how far into a section you have flipped, an action button which allows for sharing the entire “magazine” section you are reading via Twitter or Facebook, and a post button. Within each article a toolbar appears on the bottom of each page that allows for replies to the article (if allowed), a Like heart, an action button, with sharing options, including a share-to read later service (Instapaper, Pocket or Readability), and, uniquely, a Plus button to add it to a custom magazine that you can build from any resource appearing in Flipboard. Where areticles are linked to the web you never lose the context, and can easily return to Flipboard by means of a navigation button at the top left of the screen.
Five stars go to this app for inspired design elegance, breadth of content, useful customizations, and pleasing concept consistency.
“We all want to be in touch with the “Zeitgeist” — the spirit of our times. We want to know the current events, important ideas and smart opinions that are circulating in our world-what’s happening and what’s interesting. And we want to be challenged with experiences that are new and unexpected” runs the description on the About Zite page. This aggregator takes a more general, less publisher-centric organization of its categories, and with that approach the “unexpected” index goes up. The good news is that it gives you the simplest method I have seen yet in expressing likes or dislikes for articles (drag article summaries/headlines up or down to approve or disapprove) and learns over time the kinds of articles you want to see. My own experience is that there is too much that is unexpected and annoyingly distracting in any category, never mind all of them, but that, of course, will be a matter of taste.
You can login to Zite using your Google account, and then add your Google Reader feeds. Your first chore is to select areas of interest. As I say, these are not the traditional Technology & Science, Politics, Sports, type categories used by Flipboard—though there are some traditional categorie pre-populated by Zite—but more narrowly topical, like Management, Zoology, Bicycling, Yoga, North Korea, or just about anything you want to search on. Once you heart a topic (tap the little heart button after it to light it up) you have the option of adding it to your Quicklist, the list of topics for which you want to see news. The Quicklist then acts as your sectional index to Zite.
As with Flipboard, you can connect Zite to your Twitter feed, Facebook, Google Reader (as mentioned) and to your Pocket account, if you have one.
The Zite user interface owes a lot to Flipboard (or vice versa), but the resemblance is only superficial. It is much more tightly web-based than Flipboard, and at the article level the elegance often breaks down. Depending on the publisher, of course, this will vary. Most articles I have read on Zite reformat nicely, but are scrollable, not separated into pages. The Nav bar at the bottom of the screen has a little globe icon, which takes you directly to the web site from which the article is extracted, with an easy X close button overlaid on the site to return to Zite. It all works well, but feels less tightly self-contained than Flipboard. Other tools on the article Nav bar include a gear/settings icon to control text size or to Block the source (an important filtering mechanism as you are weeding out the oceans of junk from the nuggets of useful content); Like/Not Like buttons to teach Zite what it is you want to see; a Share button with an impressive list of options, including SMS and Evernote; and a Next button to move to the next article.
At the headline/article summary level it is simple to drag a headline down to show that you do NOT like it, or up to show you do, and ask for more of the same (or not). Once you do this the article gets a little red down-thumb icon in its summary’s upper right corner, and it is dimmed out; or it gets a green up-thumb icon, showing it can be used to predict future likes. The little icons can be deleted by simply tapping them, restoring the article to its neutral status.
Because this app is more web-integrated, it feels less self-contained than Flipboard, so I have to mark it down for consistency in design and execution. All too often obnoxious web stuff (trash ads and poor layout) are encountered because they are on the web and do not conform to Zite’s high HTML 5/CSS 3 standards. This can happen on Flipboard too, but far less often. I like the more granular system of categories, and the greater ease with which the app can be taught what I like, but it lags behind Flipboard in connecting to the personal accounts I have (New York Times, Flickr and YouTube, for example), in integrating my personal Twitter and Facebook feeds, among others, and in depth of publisher news sources. It has a system of favorites for consolidating articles, but does not have the much slicker system of Flipboards personal magazines. I would have to give it four stars out of five. An excellent app, with small design features that are brilliant, but overall not quite as good or personally satisfying as Flipboard.
News360 has a couple of really unique features to give your news searches more depth. It looks a lot like Pulse, or News Republic, two other news aggregators that should be given honorable mentions here but not featured because they are just not very unique, personally configurable, or, frankly, well designed—at least not in a class with one of the three listed here and above. News360 goes beyond many rival apps in its clever interface and ability to predict what you want to view or read.
The News360 splash screen illustrated above emphasizes the rounded take on news—an approach to meet the needs of everyone—that it features.
After signing in with your Google account (which permits syncing across multiple devices) the first activity to accomplish is to tell News360 what type of news you want to see. Click the Add/Edit button to select from among multiple categories, as with the other news apps mentioned above. As you select from the provided presets, or search to find your own, a tile for that category is added to the sliding index at the top of the screen, that is always available at the section overview level, regardless of the category. News360’s ability to drill down to specific topics is impressive. I added major category tiles to my index for Nuclear Threats, William Shakelspeare, and FDR, along with many traditional categorizations, like Google, Science, Movies, etc. News360 even has a Local News aggregator for my area code, something most of the other news apps I have looked at lack.
Stories within each category are summarized on a tile (which can also be laid out in list fashion). The advantage of the tile layout become apparent immediately as soon as you flip on of them (push up or down on the tile with your finger). It flips over, as if it were suspended on an axis, to reveal not only several shareing options, like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Email and so on, but also the coverage of the same story from multiple news sources. Thus the name, News360: news from every angle.
Tapping on a headline tile brings up a summary of the story, with a set of tabs to view it in detail from any of numerous sources.
From any detailed source summary, you can flip the screen up and the web page on which it is extracted is revealed. Tap the web page to see the article in context, then click the back button to return to News360. To my mind this is a better web integration than that of Zite, but this may simply be taste. Note the ad at the bottom of the article above. Flipboard integrates ads into the articles from time to time. they are full screen ads that can be quickly skipped and are not at all annoying. Zite does not directly integrate ads into its content. News360 takes the more traditional free-app approach of highlighting the web site from which the story is extracted at the bottom of the article. They are unobtrusive, but certainly take away from the elegance of the app. Click through to the publisher’s site is the intention, but whether this translates into income for News360 is unclear.
The share options in News360 are not as extensive as with Zite or Flipboard, but they are certainly adequate. When you first start using the program it has a rather childish Star system, where you earn stars as you train it about what you like to read, but other than this minor annoyance it does a really good job of presenting multiple takes on each news story within an interface that is well integrated with the web content on which it is based. Four stars for this one too.
Other News Apps
This post is already too long, and I have only mentioned three of the best news aggregators. After looking at many of these apps one is left with two overwhelming impressions: 1) In spite of even responsible peoples’ best intentions, there is an ocean of crap on the Internet, and try as they might, you cannot be completely insulated from it, though apps like this are an essential filter; 2) The days of Google Reader, not to mention the lesser news reader apps, are over and Google is discontinuing it probably not least because of these new aggregating apps. In fact, Google publishes their own News app called Currents, which is good, but not stellar like the three mentioned above. Perhaps a third observation is that there are a lot of brilliant designers and programmers out there creating new and exciting data channels. Let’s hope they succeed financially.
In addition to the major news aggregating apps: Flipboard, Zite, News360, News Republic, Pulse, and Currents (to mention only half a dozen—there are many more), I would like to call attention to a really remarkable app from Reuters that aggregates Reuters contents in a very slick interface. While not as “wide bored” as a multi-source aggregator, it does a great job of organizing and presenting standard news, and, as I say, the interface is great. AP also has a very good app for their own content. Steering a little wider afield I would like also to mention The Wider Image, from Reuters, for a truly unique and beautiful take on the news. Finally, for those of you who just can’t get over the demise of the newspaper, there’s Early Edition 2, the only app among this collection that is not free ($4.99). You can configure it with your news content and it will lay it out newspaper style. If you think that is a good idea, however, news aggregators are probably not for you.