Flipboard was the first of a score of magazine-style tablet news apps, with Pulse, Zite, and Yahoo's Livestand offering similar functionality with variations on the layout. But now a brand-name competitor is entering the game, as Google has unveiled its own news-reading app called Google Currents.
Available for smartphones and tablets running Android or iOS, Google Currents lets users subscribe to various publications as well as "trends" (the five most popular stories for topics such as business, entertainments, health, and more). The app launches with 150 partners, including CNET, Forbes, and the Huffington Post.
Once you've downloaded the free app and signed in with your Google account (required), you'll land on the app's home screen. Half of the home screen is taken up by a photo feed highlighting stories from your subscriptions. The other half of the screen shows your library—by default it lists Fast Company, Forbes, and a few others as subscriptions—and a tab for trending topics.
We like Google Currents' simple, scroll-down interface. The more subscriptions and trends you add, the more you'll have to swipe down. Once you drill down into individual subscriptions, available stories are presented in a table of contents-style layout. Compared to Flipboard and Zite, it reads more like a magazine, if simply because the swiping motion to get to the next page most closely mimics the experience of turning print pages.
Perhaps the coolest feature of Currents is Trending. You can choose to follow the top stories for a variety of categories, and for each story the app shows coverage from a variety of sources. For example, when we clicked on a headline for the recent shooting at Virginia Tech, we were taken to a page with stories from AP, Financial Times, Washington Post, and more. This area feels more dynamic than the library section of the app, which is obviously heavily curated by Google.
Another awesome feature under the Trending section is user-generated content. When we clicked through to coverage of Virginia Tech, the tab next to Stories displayed YouTube videos tagged with the keyword "Virginia Tech." (These were clips of football games and not related to the shooting, understandably.) A third tab, called About, is an encyclopedia-style list of resources about the topic in question. For Virginia Tech, the app delivered links to the university's home page, its Wikipedia entry, its topic page on the New York Times website, and more. Pretty cool.
Where Google Currents falls short of its news app competition is social networking integration; users can only link the app with their Google account, while other apps allow sharing via Facebook and Twitter. Still, there's integration with Google+, so that's you're best bet for discovering content beyond Google's preselected news sources.
Is Currents a viable Flipboard alternative? Yes—if the app supports your favorite news sources and if you like to drill down deep into a particular topic or story. Will it win over the iOS-only crowd of Flipboard users? Probably not, as that app offers a wider variety of sources and social media tie-ins. Still, Google Currents is brand-spanking new, and its selection of publications is sure to evolve with time.