Google Currents: First Impressions Of Google’s Flipboard Competitor

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Google has just launched its much-rumored Flipboard competitor, Google Currents. The service is available for both iOS and Android — including support for phones and tablets — and you can download it right here. But only if you’re in the US (sorry international readers).

The gist of Currents is simple: it’s a clean, touch-friendly way to consume your favorite blogs and news sites on your phone and/or tablet. And it looks good — much better, in fact, than most of Google’s other applications.

After installing the app, you’ll see icons for a handful of pre-selected publications like 500px and The Daily Beast. Currents will immediately begin downloading the most recent articles from these sources, and you’ll also be prompted to add additional publications to your Library (including TechCrunch, should that suit your fancy — we’re an initial launch partner).

If you’re using a large enough display (in other words, a tablet), Currents will display large photo banners that help lend a magazine vibe to the app. Aside from these, the app is broken into two main sections of content: Library and Trending. The former is where content from the publications you’ve opted to follow will show up , and the app will proactively download that content so you can read it offline.

The Trending tab displays the hottest stories across the web, broken down by category and drawn from a variety of sources. The default section is called simply ‘Top Stories’, and you can add additional topic-specific lists including Technology, Business, and World News.

But while Currents has been discussed as a Flipboard competitor — and it is, in the sense that it gives you an attractive way to browse your favorite sites — this initial release has relatively little integration with social networks like Twitter and Facebook, which are Flipboard’s bread and butter. At this point Currents will let you share with any social apps you have installed (as you can with most Android apps). But you can’t connect with Twitter or Facebook to view posts shared by your friends within Currents itself. Another way to put it: at this point, it doesn’t feel terribly social.

That said, Google says it plans to roll out more social features down the line, so this may come eventually. Of course, the fact that Google omitted them from this release may indicate that it’s more interested in driving people to Google+.

Here are some of my other early impressions (I’ll be adding more as I spend more time with Currents):

  • I’ve toyed with the app on three devices so far: A Nexus One, Galaxy Nexus, and a Galaxy Tab 10.1. The app looks great on the tablet, and works well on the Galaxy Nexus, too. It’s pretty clunky on the Nexus One, particularly when I try to browse content while the app is downloading other articles in the background.
  • Reading content housed in the Library section is a pleasant experience. You can flick left and right to progress through a story (or, if you’re reading the last bit of a story, to jump to the next one), and you can hit a Menu icon to see headlines and brief excerpts of recent stories from the same publication. I could definitely see myself using this on a regular basis, particularly on Android devices where Flipboard isn’t yet available. The fact that there are no ads helps.
  • Reading content in the Trending section isn’t nearly as nice. After tapping on one of the trending topics, you’ll be presented with several relevant articles from different publications. Tap one of these, and you’ll see the story’s excerpt — but not the full article.  You see, many of these publishers aren’t content partners on Currents yet, and Google can’t simply scrape all of their content. So, instead of being able to read these articles within the app’s native UI, you need to tap a button that says ‘See Original Article’. This will open the article in a browser pane, which includes the full text (and ads) from the article, as if you’d browsed to it from the web. Google doesn’t really have any other choice here, but it’s a buzzkill, especially because, unlike the content in your Library section, Currents doesn’t pre-fetch these articles so it needs to pause for a moment to download them.
  • Google will be allowing publishers to sell premium content through the app, though I can’t find any yet.
  • Currents doesn’t have as many visual flourishes (like page-turn animations) as Flipboard does. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. I’m actually finding Currents easier to get the hang of, particularly comparing phone-sized version of Currents with the new iPhone Flipboard app that just came out.
  • Update: After playing with the app more on the Galaxy Nexus, I’ve found that Currents definitely has some performance issues. It seems to hesitate a bit at times when I flick to the next page of an article, and twice now I’ve had it get slow as I left the app (the Android homescreen took a few seconds to pop in). That said, the issues aren’t deal-breakers, they’re just a little annoying.