When Flipboard hit the App Store last year, the personalised news app for the iPad turned out to be a revelation. There were already plenty of Twitter clients, Facebook apps and RSS readers available for download—there were even apps that combined those streams of information into one. But none did it quite so elegantly, creating the sensation of effortlessly flipping through the magazine. Overnight, Flipboard reinvented the category.
A year later, Flipboard is still the class of ‘personalized news’ apps—those offerings that take links from the user’s selected social networks and news sources to provide a one-stop-shop of news aggregation. (These apps are different from news discovery apps like Zite, which use your preferences to seek out information from new and unexpected sources.) Because you can view the information sources anywhere, presentation is what really matters when it comes to these personalised news apps.
Flipboard has maintained its lead by never standing still—continually adding new features, including social networks like LinkedIn and Instagram, and working with publishers to craft optimised pages for their content. Other apps in this category can often do a fine job, but maybe miss an element or two that make Flipboard so appealing.
Take Pulp for example. This $5 app from Acrylic Software doesn’t try to compete with Flipboard’s magazine style, instead turning its users into newspaper designers. You select the news feeds you want to read, then choose the layout. One, two, or three columns per page? Do you want a simple list of headlines from a news source, or a summary of each story? Pulp is so endlessly customisable, that it might actually be your fault if you don’t like it, with one possible exception: There’s no way to import your Facebook and Twitter feeds. If you’re looking to combine all your information sources into one app, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
You might try Taptu. In many ways, this free offering is indistinguishable from Alphonso Labs’ Pulse News, which which recently won an Apple Design Award at June’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Taptu is unlikely to win a design award—its homepage is too crammed with information, too claustrophobic: I counted 56 separate visual elements on the page when I used the app.
Luckily, Taptu’s homepage is not your landing spot, it’s your entry point. Click on any line—your Facebook or Twitter feed, or any one of a range of news and blog sources that you choose and organise—and you’re given a single story to view. You can flip through the stories by swiping the page. It’s not quite as leisurely as Flipboard—you can power through your feeds fairly quickly in this fashion—but it’s not quite the explosion of information you first encounter, either.
Taptu offers some degree of customisation. Once you import feeds, you can organise them into categories by dragging feeds on top of one another to create what Taptu calls a mixed stream. You can then rename the stream—’Sports Sources,’ say—and add a splash of colour to make it easier to spot at a glance. Still, I think that if you want to follow a lot of information sources, Taptu can be unwieldy.
Whatever their drawbacks, though, the preceding apps beat the pants off two new offerings from ‘old media’ companies—Trove, from the Washington Post, and News.Me, from the New York Times (via Bit.ly). These newspapers take social networking and news aggregation and make those concepts boring and clunky.
News.Me takes the links posted by the friends in your Twitter feed—no other social networking service has input—and displays it in a more attractive summary form. The user interface is attractive and easy to use: You can use your thumb and forefinger to stretch a story in the list, seeing more of it, or you can tap to see the entire story in a clean, readable, ad-free format.
But News.Me doesn’t give you access to your Twitter lists. And unlike Flipboard, it doesn’t let you add additional feeds within the app. If you like @BreakingNews but don’t want it cluttering your main Twitter feed, you’re out of luck: there’s no way to access it from News.Me. The limitations become irritating, though, because you have to pay for them: $1 a week or $35 a year. It’s not worth it.
Trove is a little better. Instead of Twitter, Facebook is the foundation, taking your ‘likes’ and creating news feeds about those topics. The problem is design: Click on a story in Trove, and you’re automatically whisked to an in-app browser to read. That’s not awful, but services like Readability and apps like Flipboard, Zite and even News.Me have trained me to expect a more visually consistent reading experience. The bigger problem on iPad is Trove’s unending grid of equally weighted stories—it’s easy for the eyes to get lost.
That’s not a problem with Editions by AOL, a recent entrant into the category of news-gathering apps. It features an elegant, Flipboard-style layout that’s easy to view. The app offers a bit of a twist, asking for access to your AOL/AIM account—in addition to Facebook and Twitter—to shape the news it offers you. Once you’ve done that, you can further customise what kind of news you’d like to see, and what sources are included in the roundup.
One thing that Editions does differently from its competitors: It only ‘publishes’ the news once a day—offering itself not as a 24-7 aggregator, but instead as more customisable version of News Corp.’s The Daily. (The difference being, of course, that The Daily features only its own originally-produced content.) If you’re a news junkie who requires a constant stream of headlines, you’ll want to skip this app.
Except for Flipboard, Editions by AOL, and Pulp, each of the preceding apps works on the iPhone and iPod touch, either as a universal offering or a separate app. One of the chief charms of Smartr —a free offering from Factyle—is its focus on the old-fashioned iPhone. Smartr takes the links your friends post to Twitter and Facebook, and converts them into an attractive summary list of news stories and blog posts optimised for the iPhone. One minor complaint: The Twitter and Facebook streams must be viewed separately. Apps like SocialPhone show that those feeds can be combined; it would be nice to have the option here.
But if you’re sticking with the iPad, Flipboard probably remains your best bet. It has the best design, the most intuitive interface, the unmatched integration with the most social networks. Flipboard’s competitors are catching up—but they still have a ways to go.