Google Currents (for Android) review

Pros

  • Enjoyable reading experience
  • Generally slick design
  • Some Google Reader integration
  • Google News' breaking headlines

Cons

  • Interface takes some getting used to
  • Can't add social media feeds

Google can't stand to have users doing anything on other platforms, which is perhaps why it launched a free Flipboard competitor called Google Currents for Android. After a fairly major update, the Currents app still isn't as social as Flipboard, but it's getting better and delivers a stylish, magazine-like reading experience on Android phones and tablets.

Flipping through Currents

Users on Google Play have praised a recent update to Currents that changed the app's user interface. A hidden left tray, revealed by swiping to the right from the far left, shows several content categories such as business, news, lifestyle, and so on. Each of these includes subscriptions from major publications, including the likes of ABC News, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Popular Science, Forbes, and many others.

After selecting a publication you can scroll up and down through its stories. You can also select a category, and swipe left and right through the various publications for more of an overview. Each category ends with a "breaking news" section, drawn from Google News.

Most stories are visually appealing on Currents, with lots of space, pictures, and comfortably sized text. While browsing, categories are demarcated with a large, beautiful picture, while stories carry a headline, an image, and a blurb. Individual stories are paginated with a large image on top, and you swipe or tap the left side of the screen to move through the story.

However, you should be careful not to swipe too hard in a story, or you'll jump into the next article. This quirk can be irritating, but Currents remembers your spot in each story so you can simply jump back into the one you left. On the plus side, it lets you quickly escape a dull article and jump into another.

Navigating around Currents feels a bit problematic at first. The eBook-style format for stories works for articles, and the combination of horizontal and vertical scrolling works well for the higher-level view, but together they can be confusing. When I started with the app, I frequently lost my place, and kept panic-mashing the Back button on the Galaxy S III. After some acclimatisation, though, the app feels quite natural.

A Flipboard foe

While Google breaks subscriptions into categories, you add new subscriptions one at a time. This is a critical difference between Currents and Flipboard, which focuses more on adding broad, curated channels rather than media from publications, and could be a smart move on Google's part as it may give individual publications more exposure.

Some publishers do a better job of adapting their content to the Currents platform than others. ABC News, one of the default publications, has beautiful, high resolution images for each story. PRI, on the other hand, seems to favour low-res images, all of which look awkward and pixelated in Currents.

Flipboard and Currents also diverge sharply in terms of social media. Both allow you to share stories to Twitter, Facebook, and even online storage services like Google Drive. Google, however, has no place for Twitter or Facebook within Currents. Flipboard treats the services like just another feed, so you can see Facebook updates and Twitter replies in your curated Flipboard magazine-esque content, for example. If you want familiar voices in your feed, Currents will leave you wanting.

You can also save stories for offline viewing in Google Currents, but that almost isn’t necessary. When the app starts up, Currents appears to immediately download the text for all subscriptions. I found that despite not being connected to a data network, the full text for stories still appeared, sans images. Flipboard, on the other hand, won't allow you to view anything but headlines without a data connection.

The benefits of Google

One of the major benefits of Currents is that it's already part of Google. New users simply need to log in with their Google accounts and start reading.

Google also tried to leverage the success of its online RSS aggregator Google Reader in Currents, but with mixed results. You can add RSS feeds from Reader by clicking the plus button at the top of the hidden left side navigation tray. Scroll all the way down, and you'll see a list of your RSS feeds from Google Reader.

Unfortunately, that's where the synergy between the two services ends. Read stories don't sync between Reader and Currents, meaning that you're effectively choosing one over the other. What's more, RSS feeds aren't like the purpose-created publications for Currents, and don't look nearly as nice. Some of them are just a paragraph with a link to the story online, and they may not even have images.

Google leverages another of its technologies by adding a translate option. In the settings menu, users can designate a secondary language from a preset list of over two dozen options. Users can switch language modes from the options menu, translating everything on the page (where available). Of course, if I am correct in assuming this is powered by Google Translate, who knows how accurate it is.

Verdict

Despite a number of strong features, Google Currents for Android doesn't feel as focused or polished as Flipboard. Currents has its own unique design, and is enjoyable to read, with nicely formatted articles from top-tier sources to draw you in.

And it fits seamlessly into your existing Google footprint (though perhaps not seamlessly enough in the case of Google Reader). If you're a Flipboard user, and the service works for you, stick with it. However, if you're looking for a fresh way to read the news on Android, flip through Currents – it’s definitely worth a whirl.