Zite comes off as Flipboard's alternate-universe twin. Both iPad apps attempt to impose a magazine-like experience over the web news format. But while Flipboard started from the idea that your social network friends are the best curators of what you need to read, the people behind Zite believe your personal preferences are better suited for that job. Is it better? Read on.
Zite comes the closest of the apps in our roundup to looking like Flipboard, but the interface doesn't feel derivative, and it's equally attractive. The front page has a handful of Top Stories, and to the right are several customizable categories (Film & TV, Gadgets, Politics, etc). Pages are populated by chunks of text and images arranged in blocks. The aesthetic is very reminiscent of The New York Times while managing to look modern. Still, the effect is more newspaper-esque than magazine-like.
Individual posts have a minimalist design with some nice touches. We like that the logo of the site appears along the top along with text size and style control and a link to the web version.
The Personalization and Sharing bar along the right gives users the option to give a thumbs-up or -down to an article, which helps Zite learn your reading preferences. You can also specifically tell the app to give you more stories from a particular source, author, or topic. We like that users have more sharing options here than most news reader apps offer: Delicious, E-mail, Facebook, Instapaper, and Twitter.
Unlike most traditional news apps, Zite doesn't give users the option to pull in feeds from specific sources, but instead offers theme-based groups to choose from: Film & TV, Gadgets, Politics, World News, and more. Users can enter their own keywords to create a topic group, but they still can't pick their favorite websites.
Instead, Zite determines which sources it should highlight and which should disappear based on what you choose to read and share. Though we were able to add our Twitter and Google Reader accounts to Zite, the app uses this to feed the algorithm of what you might like instead of just pulling from those sources.
This approach works well if you're looking for new sources and to expand your reading beyond normal haunts. However, in our time with Zite we noted that the app is heavy on mainstream news and light on niche and smaller sources. Also, creating a topic group based on keywords gave us mixed results: "New York" brought in articles relating to the state and city, but "New Jersey" was populated with stories about athletic jersey sales.
Zite isn't designed to work offline at all, which is frustrating for travelers and commuters. When there's no connection, the app may load overview pages with excerpt text, but there's no cache of the full content behind the blurbs. There's no way to effectively use the app without an Internet connection.
Zite sets itself apart from other news readers in that it's topic- rather than source-driven. Coupled with features that help it learn what kind of news you like to read, this philosophy is potentially very powerful. However, we wish that we had more control over what sources this app uses, which is why we prefer Flipboard and Pulse. Still, Zite's attractive interface and multiplicity of sharing options make it a fun newsreader to try out.