Over the last couple of years that I’ve had a smartphone, I’ve steadily moved my news reading routine from the desktop over to the phone. It wasn’t the best of experiences on the tiny screen of my old LG Optimus One, but the HD screen on the Galaxy Nexus does make it extremely good at scanning through a news article so I can decide whether to mark it to read later on a bigger screen.
The other big change in news consumption over the last couple of years has been the shift from traditional RSS readers to dedicated apps that do a much better job of collating and presenting updates. While Flipboard took its own sweet time to arrive on Android, a host of competing services – including one from Google – attempted to grab and lock in those users looking for a simple, elegant yet gorgeous way to consume their daily dose of content updates.
Having played around with a bunch of these apps, I’ll share my take on how they work out for me. I’ll avoid the usual RSS readers and Google Reader front-ends here, and go with the top three — in my opinion — dedicated news reading apps on Android at this moment: Flipboard, Google Currents & Pulse. Rather than talk about each app individually, I’ll discuss how they all fare on some of the most important features.
Although all three apps look pretty good, Flipboard takes the cake in the UI department with a brilliantly simple yet gorgeous UI. The grid layout makes the most use of available screen space and the focus on images ensures you have a decent idea of what to expect when tapping a story. For tweets and posts without images, the text-only representation makes as perfect use of typography as any I’ve seen on a mobile device. Stories are sometimes displayed as pages that you flip through or as long documents that you scroll through, which tends to be confusing. I’m assuming this is based on what format the sources release their content in, but as a user I should not feel the need to care.
Google has done a pretty good job with Currents, their supposed answer to Flipboard. The overall look and feel is extremely polished and Currents has by far the best layout and font for reading stories. I like the ability to view all my sources as thumbnails right on the home page of the app, letting me decide which one I want to dig deep into. The horizontal pagination when reading an article feels a bit weird in the beginning, but is not necessarily a bad thing. Once you reach the end of an article, swiping left simply loads up the next article.
Pulse takes quite the opposite approach to the bright and clean UI of its competitors by trying to crunch as much content on the screen as it can. Each story is still represented by a thumbnail image, but they are smaller and bunched together into rows — one for each source. On the brighter side though, the interface feels extremely snappy on my phone and is probably a good choice for those who like to scan through a lot of stuff quickly, newspaper style.
The one thing that can make or break an app focused around content is the content itself, of course. All three apps let you choose curated sources categorized by topic, or bring in your own content sources. While Flipboard and Pulse let you integrate your Google Reader list, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more, Currents is limited to Google Reader integration. Flipboard, on the other hand, gets some extra points for Google+ integration. Why Google’s own app, Currents, does not come with support for their own service beats me.
Apart from the regular news and topical websites, Flipboard also has some of its own curated sources which bring you the best of each topic — or the best of everything on Flipboard through the “Flipboard Picks” channel. It even does a pretty decent job of figuring out what are the best stories from your social channels and puts them all together as “Cover Stories”. I’ve found this collection to be pretty accurate over time.
Currents on the other hand, gives you a list of popular personalities from various fields under the “Curators” tab, which lets you access the stories they are looking at and sharing, directly from the horse’s mouth, as some would say.
Overall, I found Pulse’s library of sources the most comprehensive of the three, but your mileage may vary based on what you’re looking for. It’s a choice between few but very good sources where you may not find exactly what you want, and tons of them that can be a pain to go through just to find those three or four you need.
As far as functionality goes, all three apps are pretty bare-bones. You add sources to your library, the app brings the latest stories from these sources for you to scan through or read. You can change the font size to suit your reading preferences and — in Pulse’s case — also switch between a light and dark UI for the content. Personally, I prefer light text on a dark background — something both Flipboard and Currents don’t have at the moment.
You can of course share stories on social networks or through e-mail. Flipboard makes sharing a 3-step process by having you choose whether to use its built-in sharing mechnism or Android’s common share system, but gets extra points for integrating “read later” services like Pocket, Instapaper and Readability. Currents on the other hand makes sharing to your favorite service a single-tap affair by adding an icon to the last used service right next to the share icon. Pulse, not to be left behind, has a web app with your entire library synced and available on the desktop.
The one thing that keeps me hooked to Currents though, is the fact that it is the only app that provides offline access to content. There are major portions of the day sometimes when I’m not online and Currents’ ability to download the latest content and make it seamlessly available offline is a huge win for me. Yes, it means the app uses a lot of data when on WiFi, especially if you set it to download images as well, but I personally don’t mind the trade-off.
As you can probably already tell, there’s no real winner here for me. Flipboard and Currents get a lot of things right in terms of the UI, but there are still certain things I need that only either one does. Pulse in the meantime offers a lot of functionality but in a package that cannot compete very well with the elegance of the other two. Whether either one improves on its shortcomings enough to emerge as a clear winner in the future remains to be seen. But I think the more likely outcome would be for a new app that takes the best from each of these and actually nails the experience enough to pull everyone towards it. We’ll see how that goes.