Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Definitive Guide to iPad News Reader Apps

The 'D' key on my laptop is pretty messed up, I'd say it's working at maybe 50%...So if you notice a paucity of D's throughout this and future blog posts, that's why.

Of course, I hadn't thought of that when I thought up the title for this post, one that has a very prominent D and forced me to go back and fix it after the first try...Anyway...

It would be a huge exaggeration to say that my iPad changed my life. Before I got it as a birthday gift, it was hard for me to see the point in owning one. I had an iPhone, which I loved...why did I need a bigger iPhone that couldn't make calls?

Perhaps that was a bit naive of me, but it quickly became apparent that the iPad was a complete substitute for my personal computer. It couldn't replace my work laptop, because, well, I still needed to do actual work...but for everything else on a computer, it proved far superior (especially since I don't play hardcore PC games).

One of the major things I use my iPad for is reading news/magazine articles. And much to my wife's chagrin, there are seemingly infinite sources of input to draw on. All kinds of articles at all hours of the day and night.

And with all those items to read, naturally App makers have competed to offer the most effective and/or elegant solution. And since I'm addicted to both finding new apps and reading news, I've been evaluating just about all of them.

Some of them are good, and some of them are bad, and what's struck me when I compare them is that they're good and bad for wildly different reasons. It's not just about one critical dimension (e.g., content, interface). Each one is it's own unique app snowflake trying to get me relevant information in the slickest way possible. (And note, there's no reason why you can't have all these apps for different types of news consumption...I certainly do, and I think the ideal solution is a set of a couple that complement each other well)

I debated creating a scoring metric and grading each one out on a number of critical dimensions. But that seemed to scientific and frankly, far too time consuming...so I'll just offer a synopsis of each one and my thoughts for the people that either care or navigated their way here by accident and are looking to avoid doing work today.


Most ambitious idea that doesn't get there: Hitpad


Hitpad wants to give you a ton of stuff, and it does, but its curation leaves a ton to be desired. The app's goal is to define the major topics of the day (i.e., keywords to look up news and articles), and then it floods the bottom half of your screen with recent article results, recent video results, photos, and twitter updates on a given topic.

In theory, it's not a bad idea, but I don't think the technology allows them to provide a very compelling user experience. The problems start with their version of 'Top Stories', which are the terms they choose to put on their header. Examples for right now are, True Blood, Autism, Katie Couric, Mitt Romney, and Burger King.

Ok...I acknowledge those are things that I've heard of. But there's no indication of what's important about them or why I should care. This is should be where the news and video and twitter results should work, but they really don't. For example, the top Twitter result they provide reads 'Mitt Romney is just a worthless human being'. Which would be a story if Obama said it, but when it comes from LizzyUWHusky...who cares???

I don't fault the developers for trying to make something all-encompassing, but it seems like it needs a lot of work in figuring out what content is actually relevant.

Most disappointing display from a tech incumbent: Google Currents


I was very excited when Google launched Currents, their offering in this space, some time ago. I assumed they'd have it all figured out (in hindsight, Google+ should've been a good indicator).

Thus far, I've been extremely underwhelmed. In this app, you select a set of specific feeds you want to keep tabs on (e.g., TechCrunch, Deadline.com, Fast Company), and Google's app will give you access to each of them in a centralized location.

Of course, there are a couple problems with this approach. The first is consistent with most apps in this space, and that's the fact that I have to tell the thing what feeds I'm looking for. Sure, I have a good idea of what news sources I want to read, but honestly, why should I have to do the work? Plus, by selecting my own set of discrete feeds, I'm ruling out anything that's NOT included, which hurts my ability to find new interesting things. Sure I love reading TechCrunch, but why can't the app use my habits to give me other stuff I might like from new sources?

That's not even the biggest problem with Currents (and it's not a Currents-specific problem either, so it would be unfair to single them out here). Currents biggest problem is it takes FOREVER to load the new content. The app refreshes each individual source, one at a time, in excruciatingly slow fashion. It's noticeably slower than all my other apps in this regard, and its what's kept me from using it at all. Picture a screen like the one above, with each source getting its own progress bar one at a time and slowly filling in sequence.

It gets me aggravated just thinking about it.

They probably just fired all the people responsible for this: Livestand from Yahoo!


Yahoo! has an entry in this space too, although I'm not sure I like it any more than I like Google's.

The interface is actually pretty nice to look at, but that's kind of where the positives end for me.

I found it pretty hard to use, and difficult to access the content I wanted or even add content I was looking for.

I could spend more time detailing my gripes specifically, but Yahoo! just canned a ton of people, so what are the odds anyone is left to fix it anyway?

Industry behemoth with its own slant: Huffington Post


If you're talking about news aggregation it's pretty hard to get this far into a discussion and not mention the Huffington Post. The 500-pound gorilla of online news, which sucks up content from all over the web and spits it out in a centralized location.

I like Huffington Post, and I definitely read it often, but I do take a couple issues with it.

I think the interface is fine, and smooth to navigate. Plus, unlike many other apps, this one does all the aggregation for you. No picking sources, no customizing what news feeds you want to see. There's a simplicity in that model that has some good value, though we could also argue that it doesn't belong in this comparison set and shouldn't be judged as a news aggregation app. That may be true, but I've already written one paragraph, so we're past that.

My biggest issue with them is that you get all the news, but it's the news they want you to see, and its portrayed as they want to portray it.

While I'm a liberal, and enjoy reading stuff I personally agree with, what keeps me from being more dedicated to Huffington Post is the fact that it's so over the top left in everything it reports. Every article, whether through headline, photos, or very strategic word choice, is really just feeding me propaganda. It clearly has an agenda, and while there's a place for that in my reading appetite, I really like spending more time with views that are more objective.

Still, I like the app, and it's not going anywhere.

So far, we've covered a four apps that I'm not particularly in love with. If you've read this far, you might be wondering if there are any apps I'd tell anyone to go out and get for news aggregation. You're in luck, because there are in fact a few that I highly recommend.

Media darling: Flipboard


If you've even thought about getting a news aggregation app for your iPad, chances are its Flipboard. This company has gotten more publicity than any other app I can think of for reading news. (It's also collected a boatload of financing money)

And it's hard to argue, because it's a pretty sweet application. Like Google Currents and others, Flipboard lets you create your own account and attach a set of specific news feeds to your application. It also lets you hook up your facebook and twitter accounts, which it will then also source article links from.

The interface is really what makes it unique, as it formats everything like a newspaper, allowing you to flip page by page and click into stories you're particularly interested in.

It's a very smooth process (although I hate some content publishers like ProFootballTalk.com which force you to click through to their website rather than read the entire story in the app) and in my experience the loading times take a lot less than Google Currents with a better interface than Livestand, Huffington Post, or others.

And it's free, so why not have it?

Why isn't this one more popular: Pulse



Pulse, like Flipboard, is also pretty slick and definitely worth having. While it doesn't have the page flipping interface of Flipboard, what Pulse does is allow you to create separate pages, each with their own set of feeds. Those feeds then become one large page that lets you slide around looking for interesting articles (as an example, I have a politics page with a bunch of blog feeds, a business page with lots of technology news, and a sports page with things like Deadspin, ESPN, and others)

Whereas Flipboard makes you select each individual source to flip through, Pulse allows you to combine multiple sources into a single page or set of pages. It makes it easier to looking through multiple sources at once. For that alone, it has a special place in my news aggregation toolbox (which is becoming increasingly large!)

But one problem remains consistent through nearly all of these apps, and that's the problem of content discovery.

I like finding things to read, but these apps largely force me to pick a set of sources. They make me define my content universe and then they're happy to serve up anything from within that space.

But that's a problem for me. I don't know what else is out there. And maybe that stuff's worth reading too!

Hitwise tries to solve that problem, but it's ability to find the right stuff isn't there yet. Huffington Post does try to aggregate interesting stuff, but honestly so much of it is click-spam like slide shows that I really don't expect them to have the answer. Flipboard's solution is the most elegant, leveraging your social connections on Facebook and Twitter to source links shared by others, which is definitely a good attempt at a solution.

However, one app does try to bring stuff to you, rather than limiting itself to the feeds you've selected.

My favorite...for now: Zite


I'm an unabashed Zite lover. In my view, the app (which was acquired by CNN of all people), does the best job of bringing me stuff that I don't already know about in a clear and easy to use format.

With Zite, you basically set up a series of sections (e.g., sports, business), and Zite does the rest, filling it with news/magazine stories from a variety of sources that it thinks you will like.

But as you use the application, Zite continually asks for your feedback on individual stories. Like your old Tivo, it uses a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to help calibrate the types of stories you're most interested in to cater its offerings to your tastes.

So there's no stupid setup process to pick individual sources of news, you just start with a general topic area and it gets customized from there. I've also found their sources to be pretty diverse, including reports from places I hadn't even heard of. I also like the fact that if you really don't like material from a specific place, you can turn it off (Which I did very quickly for Bleacher Report, but interestingly not at all for Breitbart.com)

The app meets my needs pretty much exactly. It gives me a smooth interface to navigate, it offers content from a ton of sources that I haven't pre-selected, and it works to improve the news it brings to me.

Of course, they've gotten in some trouble for this as publishers haven't exactly enjoyed their inclusion (some sent them a cease and desist letter). And now they've made news for including a specific set of publishers who you can single out for inclusion in your feed (smells like trouble to me).

But for now, I'm going to continue using them and hope the team doesn't monkey with it too much and screw up a great thing.

5 comments:

Unknown said...

Ha, I found your post by browsing my flipboard.

Jeanie Kenkel said...

Hello. A friend told me about your Jeopardy! book. Any chance there will be a print version? I'd buy it then! Also, do you know about the unofficial Jeopardy! reunion a couple weeks ago? You could've promoted the book there! ;-)

Jeanie Kenkel said...

By the way, is there any way to follow your blog on Blogger? I'd like to get updates on my dashboard.

JC said...

I honestly don't know. There's a subscribe button on the right that I've never actually used and no one's ever asked.

But if you follow me on Twitter, that auto-posts blog entries

Jeanie Kenkel said...

I figured it out! I went to my dashboard, and I can just add a URL.