Google detailed an overhaul of the Google News app at its I/O developer conference last week, and on Wednesday that redesign officially became available to download on iOS devices. It replaces the previous Google Play Newsstand app.
The new app arrived on Android devices shortly after Google’s initial announcement. Google says the app is available in 127 countries.
The app is split into four core sections, each found in a bottom-mounted navbar. A “For You” tab has a curated selection of articles Google deigns most likely to pique your interest, including a list of the “top 5 stories right now” up top and a handful of local news stories below it. A “Headlines” tab essentially shrinks Google News’ desktop site down to a mobile format, with a non-personalized list of top stories that can be quartered off by topics like “US,” “Entertainment,” or “Technology.” A “Favorites” section holds any news outlets, topics, searches, stories, specific locations, and magazines you’ve starred in one place. Finally, a “Newsstand” tab lets you peruse specific outlets that are grouped by coverage area (the gaming sites are in one row, the sports sites in another, etc.).
Each site in the “Newsstand” section uses Google’s AMP spec, which is proprietary but tends to result in faster load times. Google plans to eventually add an option to subscribe to certain outlets with paid subscription plans directly from the app as well. Google says this will use the payment info its users already have on file with the company and that it will unlock paid content both within the app and on a publisher’s own website.
It’s also possible to view certain YouTube videos from within the app, though in my early experience those do not seem to surface as newsworthy items very often.
Notably, many stories within Google News now contain a prompt to “view full coverage” through a small multi-colored icon attached to each story. Tapping this will aggregate articles about a given topic from multiple outlets, much like what Google does with its desktop News site. For some stories, this will also compile older articles and create a timeline of key events, show related opinion pieces in an “Opinion” section, highlight relevant tweets, and the like.
All of this would appear to help Google avoid accusations of unwittingly pushing “fake news”—or at least give users a better chance of taking in a story’s proper context. Google, as it often does, says the app relies heavily on machine learning to perform this sort of curation and packaging.
That said, as the “For You” section makes clear, Google News isn’t trying to eradicate filter bubbles. I took a quick spin through the app this morning on a 9.7-inch iPad (2017) and was quickly greeted by a mix of stories that included national news on President Trump and the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii but also more personalized stories about the Boston Celtics and pro wrestling, a listicle regarding , a story on Modest Mouse’s latest tour, a mechanical keyboard review, and so on.
Google presumably surfaced all of this with the treasure trove of data it has from my Chrome, Gmail, Search, and Android usage, but it was generally attuned to my interests right from the get-go. This is the trade-off you normally have to consider with Google.
For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed consistently sluggish load times for the main news feeds as well as some aesthetic inconsistencies when swiping from story to story. That second bit isn’t all Google’s fault, but it quickly becomes clear which outlets are working with its preferred tech and which aren’t. The latter make the app come off like a basic Web wrapper and tend to suffer more formatting quirks, which in turn makes me more likely to visit sites that are more actively playing ball with Google.
Well-worn concerns over the state of the open Web aside, it’s too soon for me to say whether Google has made a truly superior alternative to Apple News. Apple’s app has more of a digital magazine feel, while Google goes to greater lengths to present multiple angles of a story. But both are mostly covering the same territory, and how well Google’s machine-driven suggestions will work compared to Apple’s more human touch remains to be seen. This is all presuming Google will work out any performance hiccups the app may be having at launch on iOS.
Either way, we’re still a long ways away from Google Reader.