Circa: Brilliant Bite-Sized News

Breaking news is, perhaps, the foremost staple of connected computing, mobile or otherwise. If our interconnectedness isn’t for receiving the latest, then what is it for? Pretty much every smartphone owner has some method or other of staying up to date, whether by app, by browser, or by Twitter.

Given how much time we spend away from our desktops, however, it seems strange that news is produced in a format that is specifically designed for the large screen. At best, mobile users get a simplified design, but that doesn’t change the underlying content, which is often far too in-depth to provide an on-the-go summary of events.

The creators of Circa realized this. They realized it at least 12 months ago, in fact, and their app has been serving the folks on iOS with human-edited news, broken down into bite-sized chunks, ever since. Now, Circa’s flavour of précis-based reporting has arrived on Android – but can such simplified reporting really quench our thirst for news?

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Story Browsing

As you might expect from an app that is all about mobile-friendliness, Circa’s layout is very well suited to a handset-sized screen. It also happens to be extremely good looking.

Circa's design is beautiful and provides good clarity.

Circa’s design is beautiful and provides good clarity.

On opening the app, half of the screen is filled with a high quality header image, which journalistically illustrates the main story. Below, the news items line up in a nicely spaced list, and they are not cluttered by sub-titles. Instead, each story comes with its own square preview image.

The feeling of quality is further enhanced by the book-type script that is used, replicating the slightly gnarled look of text from a printing press. The relatively large font aids legibility, too.

Helpfully, when you’ve read a story, the bold text of its headline turns an unobtrusive shade of grey, although if that story is later updated by Circa’s editorial team, it lights up again. It is a system which makes “the latest” easy to find.

Categories

Browsing can be made a lot more efficient by opening Circa’s main menu. Here, you’ll find a list of categories, each containing topic-relevant stories, as well as your list of followed news items (more on that later).

You can narrow down the selection of stories via the side menu.

You can narrow down the selection of stories via the side menu.

The Latest News

Due to Circa’s commitment to human editing, the quantity and variety of the stories on offer cannot compete with aggregators that run with crowdsourcing, or computing power. Equally, this is most definitely a USA-facing publication.

There is, however, enough to keep most casual news consumers happy, and it must also be recognized that Circa’s shtick is not the stories it covers, but the way it covers them.

Stories are equally nicely presented.

Stories are equally nicely presented.

Individual stories are topped by a large illustrative image, and the initial layout includes the headline, along with an introductory sentence. Circa stories are broken down into pages, so any old indiscriminate swipe down will simply advance you to the first part of the story’s main body.

The way stories are split into "cards" of information will be familiar to Google Now users.

The way stories are split into “cards” of information will be familiar to Google Now users.

Many stories only last a few sentences, and Android users will be familiar with Cards-like separation between snippets of information. These few sentences are well-written, though, packing in most of the key facts, without any opinion or conjecture.

The story citations list is useful for the committed reader.

The story citations list is useful for the committed reader.

This sounds like a terribly dry read, I realize, and some folks will find it so. However, the use of quotes, images and links in these reports not only provides extra interest, but it also allows for further, more in-depth reading if you are particularly interested. In addition, tapping the i icon at the top of a report opens a list of all the source material Circa’s editors have used, and this doubles as a ready-made index of online material for further reading.

It must also be said that some users will find Circa’s stories to be a little too simplistic — it is a difficult balance to strike — but in terms of providing a basic briefing during a commute, or in a lunch break, I think Circa does a pretty good job.

Keeping Track

The innovation I like the most in Circa is its system for following news stories.

You can keep up with a story by tapping on the bookmark icon.

You can keep up with a story by tapping on the bookmark icon.

As you read a story, the far top right-hand corner of the screen holds a bookmark-shaped icon. Tapping on this tells Circa to keep you updated — by default, Circa will notify you of updates to your followed stories, along with other breaking news — and it also adds the story to the Followed category within the main menu.

Put simply, this means that you’ll never again miss a new revelation in a Circa-covered event.

Settings

Circa’s settings list isn’t huge, but it does contain some useful features. Graphic content is not presented by default, but here you have the opportunity to turn it on, if you’re so minded. You can also set a category (including your Followed list) as the start page, and you can switch to story-scrolling of a more traditional, smooth variety. The frequency of background downloading can be adjusted too, as can the notification settings.

In Total

At birth, Circa was such a revolutionary idea in news publishing that it could almost have been classed as an ongoing experiment. A year and a new OS later, little has changed, apart from Circa upping its game.

Some people, particularly the insatiable type of news reader, will never like the simplistic nature of Circa’s stories, which is a shame, because Circa’s system for breaking news on mobile would otherwise suit them.

Aside from this judgement on content, which is largely governed by personal taste, is certainly a beautifully constructed app, and it is a news outlet that is virtually unparalleled when it comes to keeping you up to date with events while you live your life.


Summary

Beautifully presented news briefing. It won't impress everyone, but undoubtedly a high quality product.

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