APP OF THE DAY: Google Currents review (Android/iPhone)
There was a time when accessing the Internet was about marching into a library, finding a computer and opening Netscape. It was a slow and disparate assemblage of websites, but the common theme was always good: information.
Jump forward to the present day and internet services are piped into every pocket. We're looking at new, faster, easier ways to access some of that very same information with mobile devices, as the message that content is king gets rammed home time and again.
We're not always using those original sources to get to what we want to read: we're repackaging and reformatting content to fit to the devices we're now using. That's where we land with today's App of the Day, which wants to make a digital magazine out of your favourite sites.
- Android Market
Digital magazines are nothing new and many print publications have flirted with things like restrictive PDFs before a more dynamic route became available. Now we have dedicated apps for print publications, as well more enhanced apps that create, or present online content in a format more like a lifestyle magazine and less like a boring RSS feed.
Of course, boring feeds have everything to do with Google Currents, as that's essentially what supplies much of the information. The neat thing about Google Currents, however, is that Google have given publishers the tools they need to quickly and easily create a Google Currents edition of their own content.
So that means that unlike some RSS reader apps, you won't get a selection of content that's essentially the same in its presentation, but publishers will be able to add variation to make their content more engaging. You also don't have to spend your time zooming in and out of a page just to read the words.
At the time of launch there are a range of titles you can choose from and glancing down the "Featured" list you'll find the likes of Forbes, Popular Science, The Guardian and The Daily Beast. Some of these populate your "subscriptions" when you install the app to get you started.
Beyond that you can browse for titles organised by category (News, Business, Design, etc.), although down at the bottom of the list you get some more interesting options. You have Google Reader in there, so it will pick-up the content of your existing feeds and offer to add those, and Curators where you can add shared content from particular character's feeds (and it appears to be Google+ behind it).
If it is a straight RSS feed that you want to view in Currents, then adding it to Google Reader first is the way to do it, as there is no direct option to add a source, but it's nice that anyone with a feed can get in on the action.
There are also trending stories where you can see what it getting a lot of attention. You can also subscribe to these trending lists, so if you are interested in trending topics in technology, you'll get that as a section in your "trending" tab.
So, head into title and you'll find the basic format is similar: a large left-hand image and then stories to the right for you to click through and read. Some titles have sections, so if you head into The Guardian, for example, you'll find Business, Sports and Videos sections to separate content, with News, World and UK getting teaser stories.
The basic format of each story is essentially the same, which is where Google Currents starts to look more like a feed regurgitator again and less like a designed magazine app. In-line images will come through and videos are also picked up, playing via the YouTube app on your device.
Content works in both landscape and portrait and this makes it fit better on both tablets and mobile phones. We like the fact that on tablets the text runs into columns for easy reading and swiping through the story is slick. You can also open up an image gallery if you only want to look at the pictures. There is a pop-up Contents for faster browsing, so save you flicking through all the content if you prefer.
In these early days it's difficult to see just how far publishers will be able to go with designing for Google Currents to really give it a magazine look and feel. There certainly is some scope for differentiation having looked at the publisher end of things, but we'd like to be able to add in some more funky stuff, which hopefully will become an option.
Google Currents relies on syncing and you get options to set the syncing for Wi-Fi only if you want to save your mobile data allowance. You can also tweak the image syncing or set it to only sync when charging.
Syncing frequency only offers 6, 12 or 24 hours and we'd really like to be able to set syncing to start at a particular time, so you know you have content when heading out of the door for the daily commute, for example. The downside is that Google Currents will compile data and at the time of writing we have over 100MB in data for the app - that's not huge, but worth keeping an eye on.
Overall, Google Currents is a little closer to Flipboard than it is Pulse, although they're all working along the same lines. The feature that's likely to see Currents grow in popularity is the support that Google is offering for publishers.
Like many of Google's new ventures, Google Currents is only available to those in the US. We suspect this is partly to do with lining up the right content to make the app really shine, but the APK is widely available should you want to take a sneak peek right now. The iOS version is more difficult to come by, so you'll have to wait if you're not in the US.
The app itself is simple, and thanks to good use of white space and sensible layouts, it's easy to read too. We much prefer it on the tablet to the phone, we tested it on the Motorola Xoom, but like all such services it will take you time to set-up the content you really want.