SiliconFilter

Hands-On: Why Spool Could be the First Real Instapaper, Read It Later Challenger

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Just a few minutes after I posted a story about Instapaper’s latest updates earlier this week, I received my private beta invite for Spool, a free Instapaper-like tool for the browser, iOS and Android. While Instapaper and Read It Later mostly focus on making articles and other written content available for offline reading on mobile devices, Spool also adds audio and video to the mix. For iOS users, this also means that they can watch Flash-based videos on their devices with Spool that would otherwise be unavailable, as Spool’s backend handles the conversion automatically.

This focus on video means, for example, that you can watch videos embedded in a New York Times article, for example, that wouldn’t be available for viewing otherwise. It’s worth noting, though, that these audio and video clips are also available for offline viewing.spool_online

Pros:

Besides the video and audio aspects of the app, Spool does a number of other smart things, too. Because it actually uses a crawler to discover the text and other content on the pages you bookmark, it can also detect multi-page articles (the kind neither readers nor Google really like, but that drive up pageviews for publishers). It then hops from page to page in those articles, saves them all and assembles them back into one long article for you. In my tests, this worked very well, though some of the crud on the pages (page numbers etc.) sometimes found its way into the saved articles.

Using the service also couldn’t be any easier. You just install the Chrome or Firefox extension and you’re good to go. On your phone, you can also use Spool’s built-in browser to discover content and then save it from there (though this isn’t as easy as having a bookmarklet available for mobile Safari).

The service also has built-in support for augmenting links in Google Reader, Google+, Google News, Twitter, Facebook, Quora and Techmeme with an inline Spool button, making adding content very easy.

Cons:

Now, there are obviously some features and tools that are still missing. There are no bookmarklets for mobile browsers, for example (Spool only makes browser plugins available right now). You also can’t organize your bookmarked articles in folders besides Spool’s default Favorites and Archived directories. There is also generally a short delay between bookmarking an article and being able to read it online or on your phone.

There are also still some cosmetic issues here and there. While the overall design of the app is pretty much what you would expect, some of the text formatting is a bit off. Depending on the source of your bookmarks, Spool seems to have a dislike for paragraph breaks, for example.

Verdict:

Having spent quite some time with Spool now, I’m not ready to give up Instapaper yet, but given that this is just a private beta so far, I can’t wait to see where the Spool team takes this app.

All of these services, of course, have to face the fact that Apple itself could be working on a similar product right now. Safari’s Reading Lists so far aren’t quite up to par yet, but Apple will surely continue to develop this feature and may just put all of these firms out of business in the long run (especially those that just focus on iOS).

If you want to give the service a try, head over here to request an invite.

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4:41 pm


Google News Gets a Fresh New Look

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Over the last few weeks, Google has been slowly rolling out new designs for virtually all of its web-based products, including Google Search, Gmail, Good Docs and Maps. Today, Google News joined these products and the company’s news aggregation service now sports a new design as well. Besides the cleaner look with more whitespace and less clutter, Google also decided to stress the personalization feature by highlighting it more clearly at the top of the page.

In terms of features, nothing has changed with this new design. Google user experience designer Jasson Schrock did note in today’s announcement, though, that we will see more changes to the layout and design of the site in the coming months.

For the time being, this new design is only available for users in the U.S., but Google plans to bring this new look to international users in the coming months.



11:16 pm


Google News: Now with Stronger Focus on Personalization, Video and Variety

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Google just announced an interesting update to its news aggregator Google News. The service now defaults to displaying stories in a one-column layout and puts a stronger emphasis on personalization (with an expanded personalized top stories section at the top of the page). Other new features on the site include more multimedia elements when you expand a story box, as well as the ability to see if additional links are opinion pieces or more in-depth articles.

The new version of Google News should roll out in the U.S. today. Google did not announce when it plans to bring this new version to other countries.

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Overall, these updates fit in well with the general developments we have seen from news aggregators in the last few months. Given the recent focus on personalized news experiences through services like Flipboard and Zite, it only makes sense for Google to also expand this section in Google News. By displaying six personalized articles by default (up from three), Google says that it will present its users with “more topic diversity.”

It also makes sense for Google to expand the multimedia elements on the news page, especially given that most news sites now try to add videos to many of their stories.



10:17 am


News Near You: Google News for Mobile Becomes Location-Aware

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Google just launched a new feature for Google News for smartphones that can display local news happening around you based on your current location. For a while now, Google has offered local sections on its news aggregator for the desktop, but this is the first time it is adding this section to the mobile version of this product as well.

To make this feature possible, Google News obviously needs to know where you are, so if you open up Google news on your Android smartphone or iPhone today, you will also see a prompt asking you if you want to share your location with Google. If you opt-in to sharing your location, a new “News near me” section will appear at the bottom of the homepage. This feature will only work in the U.S. English edition of Google News for now.

This is obviously not a huge new feature, but it does complete the feature set of Google News for mobile and brings it on par with the desktop version.



10:34 am