Weekend Tech Blog: All the news (apps), all the time

A look at some of the top apps covering news for iPad, iPhone, and Android news junkies

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A look at some of the top apps covering news for iPad, iPhone, and Android news junkies

Since this has been a relatively tepid tech news week — the U.S. debut of the Spotify music service, Netflix’ controversial new pricing plans, and a cheaper ad-supported Kindle with AT&T cellular support notwithstanding — I thought this would be a good time to talk about news in the App Age, and to share with you some of the apps I enjoy using.

While I would argue that news content hasn’t changed significantly — it’s always been responsive to the dynamics of every age (ours no less than for other generations) — news presentation has become radically different. This app collection is a good showcase for how today's wide range of presentation models affects our involvement with that content.

Most of these apps are available cross-platform.  iOS apps (for iPhones and iPads) are available only from the Apple App Store; Android apps can be found in the Android Market, the Amazon App Store and, occasionally, direct from developers.

I tend to categorize my own apps into news brands (New York Times, BBC) and news aggregators (Google News, Yahoo News). Let’s start with the aggregators, where I believe the most innovations in presentations are taking place. 

Google Reader is the source for a variety of apps. A browser-based service, it initially presents a variety of popular websites, then gives you the opportunity to customize the choices to your own tastes and “subscribe” to the various sites for their headlines.  (Google Reader is one of many news aggregators, or RSS feeds, but is certainly among the most popular.)

I subscribe to well over 100 feeds. In Google Reader, I’ve set up 16 folders to cover my interests: Android, Apple, Microsoft, Movies, etc.  Each folder contains multiple sites: I follow 12 for Android news and 10 for Apple.

On my iPad and iPhone, I use 3 Google Reader variants because of the unique ways they display feeds (these are iOS apps only):

Feeddler (free; $4.99 for ad-free version) is extremely efficient in bringing up my Google Reader subscriptions quickly.  It’s a bare-bones app, meaning it gives me the name of one of my subscriptions, shows me the headlines, then lets me tap on a story to read the first few paragraphs.  I can hit the “more” link and I’m taken directly to the original page where the story was first posted.

Reeder ($4.99) is slower, but it arranges my news by dates.  Each entry has a headline and a partial first sentence.  I use my finger to scroll down the list of headlines until I discover something worth reading.  Example:  Here’s a headline from Autoblog: “Video: Woman’s truck rammed because attacker thought she looked like Casey Anthony.”  Yup: all the news . . .

Early Edition  ($4.99) is the slowest of the Google Reader apps.  It takes several minutes to pull up all my stories, but it presents my news in a newspaper-like format: major headlines in boldface, often with a picture; a variety of smaller headlines are clustered below.  But no human editor is selecting the stories, so while the newspaper format is comforting to the eye, don’t expect that the app is curating stories in any meaningful order.

All these apps let you share your interests with others through email, social media, etc.

On the Android side, I use FeedR (free) for my Google Reader.  It updates my subscriptions relatively quickly, and displays a green light when a subscription has been updated.  Sharing stories is simple; links to email is displayed on each page.  (Note: Google also has its own Google Reader app but I found it clumsier to use than FeedR.

My other favorite news aggregators include:

Skygrid offers highly personalized news, and is one of my most frequently used news apps.  It’s specifically set for people with specific interests who can ask the app to “follow” a given topic.  Once the topic is listed, Skygrid’s search engines canvas a wide variety of sources to fulfill those requests.  I have some of the usual suspects — Apple, iPad, etc. — but then I’ve asked to follow news of Xbox as a set-top box; e.g., no gaming news.  It does the job well.  One minor quibble: While I have the app on both iOS and Android, topics have to be set up in each app separately.

News360 (free for iOS and Android).  This is a well-conceived app offering many points of view on a given story in a well-designed format.  In the left-hand column, I have a choice of multiple topics: top stories, world, U.S., business, etc.  In each category, stories are listed with an initial source (“Apple Scores Early Patent Victory” from TheStreet.com), but then lists many more sites to see the story from different points of view.  For the Apple story, 47 additional sources are listed.  I can also set up my own favorite topics: either pre-selected or I can design my own.

Flipboard  (free, iOS only) is truly a unique fancy news reader, heavily canted to social media fans. As soon as I open it on my iPad, the app's front page is full of full-screen photos from multiple sources, from The Guardian to photos posted by my friends on my Facebook page.  They crawl slowly across my page even before I swipe the “flip” button and open the app. Inside, I can open various sites I’ve chosen, or go to the “More” ribbon at the top of the page and see multiple topics containing multiple sites.  Stories are presented in magazine-layout format: 2-3 stories per page. 

While Flipboard in my book is for more casual reading — I usually prefer access to Google Reader-like headlines — it’s definitely a signpost for how other news media may present their wares in the future.  It makes The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s vaunted new-generation iPad magazine, look old-fashioned and stodgy.  They also appear quite serious about striving for Internet supremacy: they just hired Time Magazine stalwart Josh Quittner as their editorial director.

Pulse (free, iOS and Android) is yet another visual variant. When I open Pulse, a number of websites are available on the left side of the screen, and their stories horizontally stream ribbon-like to the right.  A full page is given over to each story.

What about traditional single source news sites?

ABC News (free, iOS and Android) is a good resource for a variety of the network’s news.  The iPad version features a revolving ball that allows you to pick the stories from a different interface.  It’s a fun feature but not all that necessary.  ABC will run live video on its site when appropriate; today I watched construction underway from my iPad on the Mulholland Bridge spanning Los Angeles’ San Diego/405 Freeway (“Carmageddon”).

Al Jazeera (free, iOS and Android).  What an extraordinary news revelation Al Jazeera has turned out to be.  If “serious” journalism is alive and kicking anywhere in the world, Al Jazeera is definitely among the major league players in this field.  People who haven’t watched it may think it’s all-Arab news all the time, but I watched it religiously during the Japanese tsunami/nuclear meltdown tragedy.  It provides excellent live video plus a healthy roundup of news in depth on a variety of subjects in text, photo galleries and video.  

•Associated Press (free, iOS and Android). All your AP stories.  I like the news but am less fond of the interface which comes up initially with a default “all news” mishmash of stories when I would prefer “top news” or “breaking news.”  It’s the AP after all . . .

BBC News (free, iOS and Android). A class act, as you would expect from the Beeb.  Lots of stories from worldwide sources, but there are no video clips.  It does have a live radio update, however.

CBC News (free, iOS and Android).  A Canada-centric news site that includes both text stories and video.  There’s a “My Region” feature that defaults on my iPad to British Columbia (as one would think being from this area).

CNN (free, iOS and Android).  There’s a slightly different form factor between the iPad, iPhone and Android apps, but the site offers sizeable chunks of print and video news for the asking.  I’m not fond of the site adding ads for their on-air shows in the same format as their news stories but, hey, it’s free . . . what’s there to complain about.

NPR (free, iOS and Android).  The iPad version of this app is definitely superior to its Android cousin, with hard news and features joined by hefty sections on “arts and life” and “music.  Available as well are listings for NPR programs and the ability to hear multiple episodes from each show (“Fresh Air” alone has nearly 30 segments for listening).

New York Times (subscription: iOS and Android).  Because The Times has gone subscription-based, I have choices for how I want to view the paper.  The iPad app is slick and well-designed, but since I can get the same news but without the app’s padding, I’ve chosen to read The Times either with a browser or with the iPhone app.  I save about $60 a year doing it this way.  But do I read it every day? But of course.

USA Today (free, iOS and Android). This was a paper born for to be an app in the Internet age.  McPaper is a great read on any mobile device.  I slide my finger along the top and I get access to the paper's various sections.  It's mostly text and an occasional video, but it's USA Today in a format that has made the leap to an app seemingly effortlessly.


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