Nikhil SubramaniamApr 13, 2013 12:54:08 IST
When I was growing up, staying updated with all the news in the world meant reading a bunch of different newspapers – sometimes a day after their publication abroad. Of course, now that is possible with just a few apps on your smartphone and reading anything the next day is considered too late.
The best part about these apps is that you can control what you see and what you don’t. Don’t fancy reading the business section? Too bad, your newspaper isn’t going to edit it out. But with Flipboard or Currents or Pulse, you can do that and more. There are a dime-a-dozen news apps in the app stores for various platforms and picking the best out of them is no easy task. To make life easier for you, we have listed here five apps that we think should cover all bases if you are a news junkie. Best part is all our picks are free in their app stores.
Before Flipboard, there was Pulse. The news aggregation app was one of the first to catch the eye of early smartphone adopters. And today, after LinkedIn announced that it would be buying the app for $90 million, the profile has been raised even more. Pulse begins by letting users customise the content they want to see. So you pick from among 10-15 topics of interest and the app automatically populates sections of those topics with feeds from the top news sources in the world. Users can go deeper into the setting to get news from the source they like and remove the ones they don’t.
Thanks to the sideways-scrollable list of stories in each section, Pulse makes best use of limited screen real estate on smartphones. And there is no shortage of news sources either. At least 20-25 sources are listed under each section and in some cases, even more. If you feel a particular news source is better suited for Art instead of Technology, you can even shift it around. Multimedia content is displayed inline and videos from YouTube play flawlessly on modern devices.
In terms of the UI, the Android app is fairly easy to navigate once you get your bearings. However, for someone who has not used any version of Pulse, it can be a pain to set up. A drawer is hidden on the left edge, which is the central navigation bar and has all your chosen topics and settings. Further, the app requires you to enter many screens before picking your sources and the only way to navigate between different topics is by opening the drawer on the left. It’s a cumbersome way to navigate, especially when Google has been encouraging developers to use swipe gestures for navigation. For those who use Google Reader heavily, Pulse has the option to add your feeds from the nearly-departed service so you don’t have to miss out on any source.
Material beta – Android
Developed by INQ, Material is unique in that it only integrates your social media account to present a long stream of news from various topics. The setup couldn’t be simpler; users have to allow the app access to Facebook and Twitter and from there on, Material pulls up relevant news and features from various sources. What makes this a great way to aggregate news is that the content-maker is not decided by the user, but instead they get a wider range of sources, from the most mainstream to the most obscure.
In terms of UI, Material borrows elements from Currents and Windows Phone 8’s Live Tiles interface. In fact, the HTC BlinkFeed homescreen has more than a passing resemblance to the Material UI thanks to the stacking of stories on top of each other. After setting up the app with your social media IDs, the first section is always the topic that you follow the most on Facebook and Twitter. In my case, the first section was of football news, based, no doubt, on my proclivity to follow anyone remotely related to the game on Twitter. This means different users will get a different homepage at launch, which is quite a unique feature. This interest-based aggregation permeates through to other sections as well, so much so that the top news under Technology was about the recent goal-line technology debate in England.
Every few hours, Material presents a new edition for the reader, populated with the most recent news, which replaces the older edition. However, one thing missing from the app is the ability to update news stories in real time. Another bigger issue is the way stories are displayed. When a story is loaded, Material shows us a mobile-optimised version of the original website, which feels rather lazy to us.
Of course, we cannot slag off Material too much yet, as the app is still in beta. If the developer does add the feature to refresh our stream, then the app could very well compete with the likes of Pulse, Flipboard and Currents.
Developed by Google, Currents comes pre-installed in most modern Android smartphones, especially the Nexus series. Google’s answer to Flipboard, Currents, is a more traditional magazine style layout, with sideways flicks getting you to the next page. In terms of functionality, it differs very little from, say, Pulse, which also allows you to pick the sources and the topics of interest for your customisable magazine. Currents has the added advantage of saving things for offline perusal and a “Pick Of The Week” source, which Google chooses randomly and which users can subscribe to and add to their customised list.
In terms of UI, Currents needs users to flick through pages, but there is a lot of polish in the transition animations, the story layout and picture arrangement. Each section is given its own front page that pulls images from the inside stories and cycles through them randomly. This does make for a more visually immersive experience. All multimedia content from an article, including videos, can be viewed separately or inline. When inside a news source, all articles published by them are listed for easy access and users can jump stories with the fast-forward button.
The app has the added ability to sync across different devices so your saved stories can be read on any other phone or tablet with Currents on it. For those who want a wider range of news sources, Currents pulls in content in foreign languages as well and then translates it on the fly to your pre-selected language.
If there is one big downside to the app, it’s the difference in the navigation method in the overall stream and within an article, which could leave users confused at first. The overall news stream is a vertically scrollable list, while inside a story, scrolling is horizontal. Another less than impressive aspect is the way Currents deals with links within a story. Opening them takes you to the phone’s default browser. A better implementation would be rendering pages on the fly to present them within Current itself. However, our guess is that Google wants you to head to the browser from Currents to track the number of hits websites get from the app. If it weren’t for these two annoying inconsistencies, Currents could easily have been the top news app in the market right now.
The big daddy when it comes to news apps, Flipboard first launched on iOS, before an exclusive tie-up with the Samsung Galaxy S3 last year announced its arrival on the world’s most popular mobile OS. On both platforms, the app has a legion of followers and for a good reason. Flipboard takes the concept of news and makes it so casual and fun that you can’t help but do it. No doubt most of you reading this are familiar with the app, so here’s a primer for the newbies in the house.
As the name suggests, navigation in the app is done by flipping the pages from the bottom. Like a flip clock, the page splits in half like a piece of folded paper before a new screen takes up its place. If you have a modern flagship, the transition looks especially impressive when deliberately slowed down. And the good things continue inside. Users can pick from thousands of news sources and each can be organised under various sections. Articles populate randomly but are only pulled from the sources you pick. There are a recommended few that everyone starts with, but the rest is left to the end user. Articles follow the same flipping up route as the main screen and links within the article open inside Flipboard. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have gone on a reading spree just inside Flipboard.
Social sharing is a cinch thanks to the built-in Twitter and Facebook buttons, but links can be sent through other apps too.
Our only gripe with the app has to do with the fact that long usage of Flipboard is a tiresome exercise thanks to the constant flicking motion. Still, it’s the most beautifully-designed news app on this list.
Google Reader fans, this one’s for you. Soon, Reader will go the way of other Google services that were axed somewhat inexplicably. But Feedly is here to save the day with an app on Android as well as iOS. Amongst its colleagues above, Feedly is the most minimalistic and one that lends an air of class to reading everyday news.
Right now, Feedly offers a two-way sync with Google Reader so articles your read in Feedly are automatically marked as "read" in Reader and articles saved in Feedly are automatically starred in Reader. Similarly, any RSS feeds you add to either service is reflected in the other.
Navigation is simple as it could be with each section getting a cover page, which hides the list of stories. When you click on an article in the list, Feedly shows you a short summary along with the headline and the link to read the whole story. You can jump to the next article in the list with a sideways swipe. The article itself is displayed with the website’s name prominently displayed and text is laid out in a very clean manner. It makes reading longer articles comfortable.
One thing is for certain; this layout makes browsing through a large number of unread items faster. The UI of the app is custom-tailored for phones, and tablets, both 7 and 10-inches in size. On the tablet version of the app, the articles look impressively big and there is a definite magazine feel to it.
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