Google announced a major design and feature update to their News app for web, iOS and Android at Google I/O 2018. Google News now sports a brand-new Material Design, a newsstand for news and magazine subscriptions, AI based news recommendations with features like Newscasts and Full Coverage and more. This new Google News app replaces the old Google Play Newstand and News & Weather apps. Apple had launched their own News app with iOS 10, so I was intrigued to see how these both apps stack up against each other. I have been using Apple’s offering since iOS 10 was released and it has been over two weeks since I have been using Google News too, so here are my observations.
Just a little bit of background before we jump into the details. I am an avid news junkie. I make it a point to stay up-to-date with the news I care about, on a daily basis. Whether it is through my Twitter feed, my RSS feed via Reeder and Feedly or through Apple News, it matters to me that I get the news I care about and not what my friends or their friends are reading and liking. Yes, I’m referring to Facebook which I believe was a much better social network before news took over the Timeline.
Apple News vs Google News’ Design and Layout
While Apple’s first steps into news (iOS Newsstand) were not very good, I really love where they are now. And it seems obvious that Google’s new efforts in the same space are highly inspired by Apple’s app. When you open up both apps, you can instantly notice similarities.
Like Apple News, Google News’ home screen is also called ‘For You’ now, which contains a briefing of the most important stories based on what you read. The briefing is similar to the trending stories section in Apple News app. If you scroll down in both apps, you see recommendations based on the topics you read and the news sources that you follow. If there are YouTube videos related to a story in Google’s app, they will silently auto-play (there is a Setting to allow videos to auto-play on WiFi only). While Apple does not show videos like this, they let you restrict stories in the ‘For You’ tab to just sources that you follow. This option can be changed from iOS Settings > News.
Thanks to a new Material Design, Google’s News app also shows tabs at the bottom now. Comparing both navigations, Headlines and Following, Favorites and Saves, Newsstand and Following, provide similar functionality to each other.
Google also has a widget for iOS, although I prefer their Android widget over this one. The Android widget lets you swipe through your briefing while the iOS widget just randomly shows the latest stories. An option to switch between either latest stories or briefing in the widget would have been great.
The Reading Experience
To see how channels or content from a single source looks like in both apps, I opened up Vox. You can tell that Apple’s design looks nicer here. Apple has strict guidelines on logo sizes for publishers which is why they look nice. In Google News, you never know what to expect. You could easily stumble across a channel with a blurry non-Retina logo. Whether you care about design or not, such logos ruin the overall experience. In terms of information shown on a channel, both apps have a similar experience. The navigation between channel categories is where you again notice that Google has taken inspiration from Apple.
Once you tap on an article or story, you realize that the comparison quickly turns into native presentation versus web views. Google uses websites or AMP pages to show content while Apple allows publishers to present their content in native layouts. This means that Google will show you ads, social sharing buttons, comments and other elements which you would rather not see in a News app. The browser like experience gets in the way of letting content look good. In Apple News, you can come across pieces with videos as backgrounds, parallax effects, nice animations and other layouts that make the content pop-out. Google has a Producer tool which lets publishers optimize their content for different platforms so perhaps, with time, content presentation will improve. Even Apple News still has stories that will open a publication’s website because they have not configured their content for Apple’s platform.
Newscasts, Videos and Full Coverage
Google has added a few new cool features that have been made possible because of artificial intelligence. Newscasts combines news articles, tweets, videos, opinions and analysis into one view, with moving images. You can slide across different content in a Newscast and tap through to open any one of them. The video view works just like the one in Facebook – you always enter a playlist of never ending videos. Meanwhile, Apple has two interfaces for videos. It’s ‘top videos’ always open in portrait mode, and you can tap through or swipe to the next video. But for ‘must-see videos’, you have to tap and go to the news story first and then click on the video play button. Unintuitive.
Google’s Full Coverage is yet another new feature added thanks to AI integration. It lists similar new stories, tweets, opinions, analysis and all other related content in a single page. Think of it as an expanded version of a Newscast. Full Coverage also shows a timeline, which arranges stories by time. It’s a very helpful way of catching up with the backstory of a news item. There’s also a Fact Check heading on this page but I’m not sure how Google decides the source for this. So far, I’ve only seen Washington Post stories under Fact Check.
In Apple News, you can swipe left or right to uncover options to love or hate a story. This way, you can train the app to not show particular stories or sources. In Google News, tapping on the 3-dot button brings up a menu with a share link, source link, hide source option as well as thumbs up/thumbs down options to see more or less stories like the one you tapped on.
It is difficult to say which app is best in this comparison. There are many features in both apps that I like, and other features that they can both adopt from each other. In Apple’s app, I would love to see videos get their own tab in the navigation, and for all of them to follow the same UI. In Google’s app, I would love to see improvements to how Stories are shown. If Google can have a native presentation layer for stories, rather than the current approach where it’s an AMP page shoehorned into a native app, it will considerably improve the experience. However, I’m not too optimistic that this would happen.
Another issue with Apple’s News app is that the app is only available to users in Australia, UK and USA. You would think that content that is available worldwide in a browser would also be available worldwide in an app. Google clearly knows this is ridiculous and launched their app in 127 countries, with local personalization for each one of them.
Lastly, if Apple is really serious about News, they should make it available for macOS. Google’s biggest benefit is that you can use their product in your browser, with the same features as on mobile.
For the foreseeable future, I will continue using both apps. Hopefully, Apple will improve their app and its availability with iOS 12.