RSS is for Nerds
With new predictive abilities and super-slick UIs, a new breed of news reader apps are making regular old news readers feel like antiques. It was just last year that RSS got all slick with barebones apps like Reeder and Pulse. Flipboard kicked things up about a hundred notches and added some curation and design to the equation. Then Zite debuted with a Pandora-like algorithm to predict stories you'll like, and newsreading got borderline precog. Here are the best of class (and their ideal readers).
About the App: NewsMix combines your RSS feeds and your Twitter stream and reformats it to look like a news magazine (think The Week.) This app is Twitter-centric: It's easy to feel the massive undercurrent of tweets close to the surface, since most peoples' Twitter content is both more voluminous and more dynamic than their list of RSS feeds. We like the way NewsMix segregates video and uses hi-res images when they're available, but otherwise it's just a simple, unalloyed content reader.
About You: You are an aesthete who gets most of his or her news from a well-used Twitter account and doesn't need any more curation beyond a good selection of people to follow. If you like NewsMix the best of this bunch, it also means you value the iPad for its ability to take all that damn ugly Internet and make it look clean. You also want to drink straight from the tap: There are no fancy algorithms deciding what you see or don't see. This is the straight dope from sources you pick.
About the App: If you haven't used it, Flipboard is a lot like NewsMix, but it's more interested in presenting beautiful photos. To that end, the startup partnered up with several big magazines (Oprah, Rolling Stone, Wired and Elle, and, ahem, Fast Company are some of the best) so that you get nice big feature-magazine layouts when you read those outlets. The app also beautifies Google Reader much the way NewsMix does. Flipboard also offers you some channels curated by in-house Flipboard editors, but if you're an expert in any of the curated areas, you probably won't gain much from the curated sections.
About You: If you are nuts about Flipboard, it's probably because it's the closest thing to a real glossy magazine to live on the iPad. If you're ready to give up on paper that quickly (ahem again, we'd ask you don't) then you probably feel fairly overwhelmed by your reading list, and you like the idea of cutting down on feed overload with curated channels. To you, the idea of that slim profile of sources being packaged into a glossy magazine is the sexiest thing since Justified.
About the App: Zite's big thing is "personalization," and judging by the gaudy typefaces, it thinks itself pretty classy. Zite's UI is a lot like the first two apps on this list, but slightly more conservative: Images get a standard thumbnail size, and you get a table of contents that hangs out on the right side of the screen. Okay, so the UI isn't minblowing. But under the hood, little algorithmic phantoms are learning your preferences and attempting to curate your news for you. Each article you read, you're asked to "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."
About You: If you love Zite, you're fleeing from an avalanche in your RSS feed and you likely believe Zite to be God's gift to thine overburdened brain. You also probably like the democratic Digg-and-Reddit style voting, because it has the potential to magically surface cool stuff you'd never normally find.
About the App: Like Zite, Taptu is also using algorithms to filter out news you'll like. But this app does it in a more overt way: in Taptu, you type in an area of interest (e.g., Architecture) and its crawlers go out into the Web to search for news about that topic. Unlike Zite, there's no learning period: you get your "personalized" results as quickly as you type them in. This doesn't do as much to solve the discovery problem, although Taptu's staff offers lots of pre-curated channels that are pretty expertly assembled.
About You: If Taptu is your thing, then you probably consider your RSS reader pretty exhaustive, and you like managing your reading sources manually instead of handing over all the power to the app. As journalists, we like this one, because it does a fairly good job of letting you digest large quantities of news at a time by grouping sources into topical "streams." You think the UI is pretty enough.
About the App: Pulse takes your favorite feeds and displays their headlines under an image from the post, giving you a mosaic of news stories to browse. As a method of presentation, the Pulse mosaic can be hit or miss: sometimes, just an image and/or headline makes no sense, and the system has no way of filtering out crappy images that sully your mosaic. On the plus side, it's clean and orderly. A very zen way to absorb the news, if "news" is what you call that "coffee or tea" thing in the screenshot.
About You: You prefer to think of yourself as someone who goes to nightclubs in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, but you also read the news (occasionally while still high). You enjoy magazines like Dwell. Let's be honest: you're basically Samantha from Sex and the City.
About the App: Newsy has gotten a lot of App Store love and has consistently been one of the most popular free news apps for iPad. It's primarily video news, and it's all produced custom for the app by a multi-talented little business in Missouri called Media Convergence Group. The daily videos have anchors offering "news analysis" for the day's headlines, which you can browse through by category. The visual design is reminiscent of mutant offspring of Facebook and the Onion News Network. It's free, which means there are ads.
About You: This is an app for people that care nothing for the tunability of Tatptu or the cleverness of Zite, and instead simply wish there were bunny-ear antennae on their iPad that pulled in actual TV news. Indeed, Newsy is about as close as you'll get to a true television-news experience, and we laud that, because it's novel and comfortable. That said, you really need a WiFi connection to enjoy high-quality videos, so Newsy lovers will need to stay put to get their news fix.
About the App: Trove is a news aggregator built by the Washington Post Company, which is surprising, considering its sheer ugliness. (They made Slate look good; why not this?) Unlike most of the apps here, this Easter-egg colored freakshow is pre-loaded with 10,000 news sources we presume are curated by Post editors, and then sliced and diced by "channels" and "topics," of which there are 3,000. As with a newspaper, you get a predictable taxonomy of news, and you can drill down where you wish. At heart, Trove is basically a 200-pound daily living inside your Flash memory.
About You: If you think all this "personalization" talk is a bunch of Mickey Mouse bullshit, then you'll probably find Trove a more serious news app than the rest. Sure, news-guzzling this way takes more time, and more searching, but that's fine; if you're using this app you're probably retired. You're also a heavy Facebook user. Why? Trove's smartest feature uses the Facebook API to funnel certain channels of news into your news feed, which means you can read news from your Trove app anywhere you have Facebook (e.g., on the computer, or on your iPhone.