App.news Makes Keeping Up With Water Cooler Talk Easier

I’m on a lot of social networks, partially because I do a lot of work in the tech industry, and partially because I use my work in the tech industry as an excuse to be on a lot of social networks. When it comes down to it, though, I’m on the networks for two reasons. The first is so I can keep up with my friends and be jealous of their lives — especially thanks to Instagram, where I can see my one friend had a pulled pork sandwich for lunch at one of my favourite restaurants while I had peanut butter on toast and a banana. The other real reason I’m on social networks, at this point, is to keep up with the news.

Twitter and App.net are good at both, but both can be difficult to keep up with. That’s why I was really interested to see App.news, an aggregator of the links being shared on App.net. It skips all the chatter and just puts together a feed of articles — think of it as a sort-of RSS Reader for App.net. Is it worth your time? Read on to find out.

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Social News

You don’t need an App.net account to use App.news, which surprised me. If you’ve never tried App.net, think of the app as a sort of taster for what you might get. App.news has a global feed that it updates with news from all over the world. Unfortunately, some of that is more than a little localized. In my stream, I read a news update for the weather. I have no idea where this report was coming from, but it sounded like rain for somebody…somewhere.

Headlines are given priority.

Headlines are given priority.

The only reason App.news works, though, is because it treats the news with priority. Headlines get large fonts, while the user’s post is treated as merely a comment —  exactly how it should be. You can reply to or repost the news just by tapping on the user, which isn’t entirely intuitive, but it works well.

You can also choose to log into your App.net account and check out what your friends are sharing in a separate tab. Only one account is supported, but that was enough for me. The account tab lets me see exclusively what my friends are sharing on the service, which is a great way to catch up if I’ve been away for a couple of days.

The app does include a web browser for reading articles.

The app does include a web browser for reading articles.

The bottom line is that App.news works, which is good. It fetches the news articles and it doesn’t skip anything. The real question, though, is whether or not it’s worth using.

The Design

I’ll just come out and say it, because I’m sure many of you are already thinking it from the screenshots. App.news is ugly. Not even a little ugly, but like the ugly stepsister of the ugly duckling kind of ugly. I don’t normally just come out and criticize an app for its aesthetic value, but I’ll make an exception and acknowledge that this definitely an app that values function over form. It’s hard to get into, simply because it doesn’t look the least inviting.

Thankfully, the app includes an Instapaper mobilizer. It makes everything better.

Thankfully, the app includes an Instapaper mobilizer. It makes everything better.

Once you figure out the interface, which admittedly might take a couple minutes, you’ll probably be right on to the races. It’s worth mentioning that there is a square button that acts as an Instapaper mobilizer for any article you’re reading. I don’t think the Instapaper mobilizer is necessarily the fastest or most accurate mobilizer available, but it’s the most beautiful and paper-like, which really helps the app a lot aesthetically. If that button weren’t available, the app would be nearly worthless as a reading tool.

The Instapaper mobilizer works best when the iPad is held in portrait.

The Instapaper mobilizer works best when the iPad is held in portrait.

Beyond that, the app offers a basic web view for most articles and a standard Share button (that somewhat ironically allows you to share not just to App.net, but also to Facebook and Twitter). And despite the fact that the app is ugly, most of the interface is at least obvious. Most of the buttons, despite their gaudy nature, are clear in nature. I know that, even though the X button is hideous, it’s the button I use to stop reading an article. So at least there’s that.

Settings and Ads

The app offers a few settings, but nothing extravagant. There’s no way to use a Pocket mobilizer instead of Instapaper, for instance. And as I noted earlier, you can only log in to one App.net account at a time. Theoretically speaking, that’s fine, but some users might be frustrated.

Sometimes the ads get a more than a little garish.

Sometimes the ads get a more than a little garish.

The ads are also worth discussing. They can be a little cumbersome, on occasion taking up the entire screen. When the app was first released, this was cause for alarm for some folks, because App.net promises to be an ad-free service. That being said, while App.net is an ad-free service, it doesn’t force apps to be ad-free.

You can pay $2.99 to get rid of the ads, which is a little on the pricey side. Although they’re occasionally invasive, they’re not entirely intolerable. And I don’t think they’re selling any of my data; the ads look like stock ads for things I have absolutely zero interest in (unlike Google, where I find at least some of the ads enticing). For now, I’m keeping the ads because I want to see if the service is something I’ll use regularly enough to warrant my $3. If the app was beautiful, there’d be no question — I’d be $3 out of pocket right now. But as it is, I’m not sure I can justify the expense when I’m not going to be compelled to open the app to have a beautiful reading experience.

Final Thoughts

There are two things I can undoubtedly say about App.news: It works really well and capitalizes on a great idea, and it’s astonishingly hideous. This isn’t the kind of app you’d use to brag about the App.net experience, but I’m not sure it matters. It’s a utilitarian app designed to get you straight to the shared stories on a social networking service, which holds value in itself.

As well, the app is free. If this were a paid app, its design would be unacceptable. Right now, it’s an idea. I want to see where it goes from here, because with a little more thought put into the app’s design and colour scheme, it could be a beautiful and immersive way to read the news. As a utilitarian tool with a handy Instapaper mobilizer, I can recommend App.news for the story-hungry socialite.


Summary

App.news isn't at all pretty, but it does make browsing and reading shared links easier than digging them up on your own and comes with a handy Instapaper mobilizer that makes everything much more tolerable.

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