This is a quick rundown of some of the personalised news apps on Android and my thoughts on each. In general, I add categories or feeds for Top Stories, Art and general culture stuff, Film, Photography, Technology and/or Gadgets, UK or anything more local (yeah, like any of these sites offer a working Wales feed yet) and then possibly Web Design, Programming, Linux/UNIX/Sysadmin and Politics. In general, I like my news and sources mainly UK-focused and ideally with a regional or local flavour. I’m not looking for breaking news or a broad picture; I’m after interesting links, reviews and think-pieces on matters of interest to me (including topical issues) that I wouldn’t otherwise see. In the Photography category, I’m not too interested in gear reviews, unless they’re particularly entertaining, HDR and hyper-saturated images trying way too hard to be “punchy”, or basic “how to” articles. And while I don’t want a totally enclosed filter bubble, anything that combines antithetical views to my own with a strongly partisan approach (e.g. Apple fanboyism, rabid neoliberalism, Marxist fantasy) isn’t going to get much attention beyond an exasperated ‘tsk’. And I particularly want to block anything from Mail Online getting through.
Zite isn’t the slickest or prettiest app I’ve seen, but it offers the simplest organisation of a wide variety of sources and most often turns up items of personal interest I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Their iPad app presents the most appealing interface, most closely resembling a personalised newspaper, but the phone app is certainly usable although it doesn’t offer the same level of control over displayed web sources. It also has a United Kingdom section and is most likely to feature UK sources in Top Stories. Each item can be given a thumbs up or down to help Zite learn your preferences. However, it isn’t clear what granularity this operates at; for example, if I give the thumbs down to a piece on Hockey at the London 2012 Olympics in the Guardian, will that mark down future articles on hockey, on the Olympics, on sport in general or from the Guardian - or all of these? Zite’s FAQ also implies that the app learns from the articles you choose to open, although personally I don’t believe this holds much relevance unless it also times how long you spend on it relative to its length. Blocking Mail Online was a cinch, but only from the iPad version (where you can block stories from a particular site); fortunately, once this is done the changes sync to other devices via your account.
One gripe: it’s never clear whether Zite is going to display a story in its reading mode or web mode (call out to a browser). Only the former allows you to thumb up/down articles on Android. Other gripe: there doesn’t appear to be a way to control the refresh interval, so it will sometimes refresh the feeds while you’re still part way through reading them, dumping you back at the first category.
Flipboard looks gorgeous with its sexy page-flipping UI metaphor, particularly in tablet form, and offers a good selection of sources that can be selected down to individual site level. Its compiled Politics section appears to be entirely American, but you can find Prospect, Intelligent Life and other UK sources in its listings. The app vendor also appears to curate some content in-house, which are available as “Flipboard picks”. There’s a nice Photos section, which pulls in a good mix of current journalism and online galleries, although I doubt you’ll see much ‘serious’ photographic art here compared to the usual high-impact amateur stuff. (Bonus: you can also find “UK on 500px” in the sources.)
Flipboard also tries to pull in significant links and images from your social feeds, although I’m not sure what its criteria is for judging this. Usefully, you can also respond to these posts within the app (e.g. ‘like’ing FB posts, +1’ing Google+ posts, Favourite-ing Flickr photos, etc.). On tablet, it forms a pretty good interface to Google Reader as you can select individual feeds from the drop-down.
That said, if you use other news or social apps, you are more likely to see the same material reformatted prettily in Flipboard than discover anything new. Also, old articles seem to linger further back in each feed for quite some time. In fact, its best use might be catching up with a high level overview of your feeds after a period offline.
Meh, couldn’t get on with this even on iPad. Too Americanised, too much separation of individual sources, unappealing design and takes too long to review.
- Google Currents
Currents, like Flipboard, looks gorgeous. Unfortunately, it doesn’t easily facilitate summarising and quick review of news items. While there are personalisation elements in it, it appears to be partly trying to act more like a Newsstand rival, with individual publications selected and then displayed in discrete parcels across the display. I use news apps because I haven’t got time to review a dozen sources individually and want some measure of curation; Currents doesn’t support this, except via its ‘Trending’ (how? where?) items, which are divided across only a limited number of categories.
[Not sure what the deal is with my6sense. There’s a v1.7.0 app available via Google Play that shows a scrolling list of news items. However, the website shows a magazine-style app that is available via Samsung Apps, but claims to be v1.1.0. The remarks below are based on the former; the latter, so far as I can tell, looks more appealing but is harder to use - and is conspicuously missing ‘Art’ as one of its sections.]
I installed my6sense some time ago while waiting for apps like Zite and Flipboard to appear on Android. It integrates your social feeds with Google Reader and then presents an infinitely scrolling stream of items sorted by what it claims is “digital intuition”. The level of this intuition is displayed as a coloured bar on the home screen; after remarkably few uses, it now claims to be “excelling”. In practice, it’s just a list of links culled (entirely) from your feeds, each of which can be selected individually if you prefer. At the time, it was of passing interest, but now it looks rather limited and clunky compared to rivals.
For looks and ease of use, Flipboard wins, but for actually finding relevant items that you’re unlikely to come across elsewhere, it’s Zite every time - and if you use a tablet version, it almost achieves parity with Flipboard in terms of style. These are the two I look at regularly (Flipboard daily and Zite several times a day if there’s time.) Both perform some measure of curation, so you won’t just see what’s currently bubbling up in your usual feeds but the additional items will be - more or less - relevant.
Google Currents doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and thus falls awkwardly between two stools (magazine stand vs. trending news). Pulse has its adherents and is worth trying in case it appeals, but I couldn’t get on with it. my6sense just looks like an also-ran now.