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Originally published Friday, February 11, 2011 at 12:00 PM

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Flexible iPad apps compile, deliver timely news to tablet

Several iPad apps let users define what is important to them and then present the results in an appealing magazine or newspaper layout.

Special to The Seattle Times

Rupert Murdoch's The Daily was supposed to be revolutionary: a new national daily newspaper with a digital sensibility funded by deep pockets with no printing presses to support. It launched as iPad-only and free, with an upcoming $1-a-week subscription price, or a yearly rate of $40.

So far, it doesn't offer anything noticeably different from what we ink-stained wretches produce in print and online, and from the best original work created only for websites. It's a work in progress, and Murdoch doesn't give up easily. I expect something compelling will emerge as it settles in.

What's most disappointing about The Daily is that it's all about what its newsroom produces. It doesn't incorporate seemingly any information from the rest of the Internet, nor from the news sources, blogs, photo feeds, social networks and other kinds of details you're already scouring.

But you can get a kind of newspaper that could be dubbed The Now, instead of The Daily, through several iPad apps that let you define what's important to you, and then present the results in an appealing magazine or newspaper layout.

My favorite of these is Flipboard, a free app that creates a magazinelike layout from news sources, Twitter and other Internet streams that you choose and configure. The app received quite a bit of attention when it first appeared in mid-2010 and has matured into something even better in subsequent updates. (The developer expects to make its money from content providers, promoting them as sources you can read.)

Flipboard launches with a full-screen image and a suggestion to "Flip." The image is drawn from sites and other sources you've specified, or the defaults when the program is installed. Swipe to the left, and the home page shows nine squares mostly filled with media and categories. You can customize all of these and add additional pages on which up to 12 squares can show. Each square is a preview of the content behind it.

Tap the Add a Section square, and you can choose to link into your Facebook friends' updates and photos, Twitter, Google Reader (for news aggregation via RSS), and Flickr. You can also tag a particular Twitter user to add as a section. Other sources are available by browsing through categories, started with its featured partners, but including hundreds of other sites and individuals.

When you tap on any section, Flipboard creates a varied layout that looks much like a magazine, sucking in photos from the sources you select, and running large excerpts from longer-form information. Tweets and short bits are shown like pull quotes. Tap any item that's not showing all the text, and you get a larger preview. From there, you can visit the source using an in-app Safari browser, or launch Safari with the page and switch to it.

Flipboard could make it easier to find sources, and allow more arbitrary additions of pages, sites, feeds and people you want. But its presentation and simplicity make it something I consult regularly when I'm carrying around my iPad. The app updates feeds regularly, which means there's always something fresh.

Acrylic's Pulp ($4.99) uses the metaphor of a newspaper to organize your RSS feeds. It comes with sections defined, such as Science, World and Sports, and lets you define more. In each section, you can modify or create layouts, adding or removing feeds from sites you like to track.

For feeds mostly made up of images, you can have the app show just photographs. You can also adjust whether blurbs, headlines or a mix of images and text are shown. Tap an item to read it further. News items can be dragged into a shelf (a sort of visual bookmark area), or opened into the full Safari app.

An alternative to Pulp's newspaper approach is Pulse, a free app available in separate releases for the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch. Pulse also lets you subscribe to RSS feeds and is organized into pages, but it works more like a visual table of contents.

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Each page has a set of rows with squares from left to right representing items in a feed from newest to oldest. A graphic extracted from the linked item (if any is available) is used to identify it along with the item's title. You swipe or drag left and right to move among items, and slide up and down to look through feeds on each page.

These three apps demonstrate how timely and personalized news from a multitude of sources can be delivered to a tablet. The Daily's above-the-fold claim is that it's creating its own content, not just linking. That's fair enough. But to be part of the Internet in 2011, you have to embrace what's being said, not just listen to the sound of your own voice.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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