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Lifehacker Faceoff: iPad Digital Digests

Thumbing through the newspaper over your morning coffee and a few minutes of chitchat at the water cooler used to be all it took to stay up-to-date on your world. Now we’re faced with a constant flow of information from the internet that often feels overwhelming. The crop of iOS apps dedicated to bringing you a curated, customisable, and attractive stream of content is one way to combat the information overload. Much more than simple RSS readers, these digital digest apps cull stories from across the web and your social networks and wrap them into an iPad friendly and design-forward package. Here’s a look at the two leading options.

Picture by Hajime Nakano

Flipboard: The First On The Scene

Flipboard (iTunes) is the most well-known of the digital digests, and it was considered one of the iPad’s first killer apps. Flipboard pioneered the mixing of social networks and news outlets using a slick visual design; it was even named on of the The 50 Best Inventions of 2010 by Time Magazine.

The Good: Your Social Networks Have Never Looked So Good

Flipboard has a great user-interface and visual design. It turns your iPad into a gorgeous glossy magazine filled with pictures of your friend’s babies and professional photojournalists’ best work. Images fill the iPad’s screen and the type is crisp and clean. This eye-candy appeal makes the app a real virtual-page turner that will have you saying “just one more flip” until way past your bedtime.

If the strength of the Flipboard’s visuals are its biggest draw, it’s the way the app merges your social feeds into the stream of traditional content that keeps you coming back. Flipboard’s presentation of tweets as pull-quotes scattered among the headlines and images of the stories linked to by your contacts is a welcome improvement on Twitter’s linear stream.

The Bad: Lots of Style, Could Use More Substance

Flipboard focuses on your social networks when building your digital digest, but it also allows you to add in sections of traditional web content feeds. These feeds are generated through Twitter streams, and as a result you are generally presented with only the first paragraph of a story and have to click-through to the source site to complete the reading. The sudden change from Flipbord’s clean design to the uneven quality of the outgoing link is often jarring.

Besides causing the uneven presentation, the source of a story also limits the way you are able to share that story; if you want to share a story from Twitter you can only tweet about it. Likewise with Facebook stories; there is no simple way of tweeting a link that originated in Facebook.

The Verdict: A Showcase App For The iPad

Flipboard was the first digital digest on the scene and it is one of the most visually appealing UIs on the iPad. The app engages you with your social networks in a new and very enjoyable way, and it deserves a spot on everyone’s iPad. However, the limits to sharing the content feel awkward and dated and the limited sources for outside content focus Flipboard more on your social networks and less on news stories.

Zite: It Knows What You Want

Like Flipboard, Zite (iTunes) merges your Twitter feed with curated web content, and it allows you to add in your Google Reader feeds for more material. The app’s hook is that it learns your reading habits using algorithms developed by the University of British Columbia’s Laboratory for Computational Intelligence and suggests articles that you will like . Zite monitors which articles you read and how long you spend on each type of article so the learning process is more transparent than using manual thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons (though those are available).

The Good: Good Looks and Great Content

Zite’s presentation is a midpoint between Flipboard’s design-nerd look and Google Reader’s utilitarian layout, and the app is intuitive and beautiful. There is rarely the confusion of UI elements that the other digital digest apps can exhibit. Once you’ve added content categories flipping through the stories feels natural.

Zite’s user interface is second only to the AI-driven recommendations as the app’s best feature. Whatever voodoo is going on behind the scenes is impressive, and after just a day or two of using the app you will be presented with compelling articles that you didn’t know you wanted to read. A simple customisation panel slides out from the right side and allows you to further tune the app’s selections.

Once Zite has shown you some great blog-post or news story there are numerous ways to share the story. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are represented, as well as popular web services like Instapaper, Read It Later, Evernote, and Delicious.

The Bad: Needs More Social Content

One glaring omission from Zite’s stable of sources is Facebook, and it doesn’t showcase the tweets of your Twitter connections the way that Flipboard does. This makes the app more of a news-aggregater and less of a way to interact with your social networks. Zite was acquired by CNN earlier this year, and while the news network hasn’t made any changes to the app, some think this loss of independence will hurt Zite down the road.

The Verdict: A Great Way To Get Your News

If you want to see all your friends tweets and Facebook updates in your digital digest, Zite is not be the best choice. The great recommendation algorithm makes it the best at providing you with always-interesting content, and there are numerous ways to share this content. Zite is my most used app on the iPad, and it is the first thing I open when I have a little time to kill on the couch.

Which One Is The Winner?

Predictably, the choice boils down to your personal preference, and what you are looking to get out of this style of app. Flipboard is the best alternative way to stay up to date on your Twitter and Facebook feeds, but it’s limited sharing options and smaller pool of content sources mean it isn’t the best choice if you want to read more articles than tweets.

The app I choose to give precious iPad dock space too is Zite. It is currently the best bet if you want a practically endless stream of articles delivered to you plus the best tools to share content with your friends. Add in the ability to specify RSS feeds to add to your digest and Zite’s uncanny learning abilities and the app is easy to recommend to any iPad user.