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Newsbeat creates a custom newscast for your commute

I've looked at a few news apps over the years that are designed to read the news to you while you commute or travel. Most fall pretty short of ideal, failing in voice quality or news selection.

Newsbeat from Tribune Digital Ventures comes the closest to being both useful and practical. The app is free, and happily does not require a signup or account. When you first start the app, it asks for your name so it can greet you as the news begins, and requests your home and work zip codes for traffic and weather information.

Customization can be done from a settings menu. You can tell the app to emphasize or de-emphasize certain types of news. If you want a lot of of US news but little world news, that adjustment can be easily made. Specialty areas like science or technology can be added, and the app automatically selects your local newspaper to provide the news you need to hear. You can add other publications as you desire.

When you launch Newsbeat, it greets you by name, gives you the weather forecast, and then delivers a brief traffic report before heading into the news. Weather and traffic are repeated every ten minutes.

The voices in Newsbeat are quite good and natural, and I would compare them favorably to Siri. Like all text to speech software, names are sometimes mangled (especially non-English names), but overall pronunciation is quite good. The readers for news stories alternate between a male and female voice. There is a musical transition between stories, and you can change the type of music in the setup menu. There are no ads in the stories, although that might not last forever.

Sources are varied, including but not limited to Tribune-owned newspapers, NBC, Fox, CNN, the Associated Press and whatever other sources you add.

I found one undocumented bonus by accident. After I paired my phone to my car Bluetooth system, I noticed that the headline for each story appeared on the car LCD screen. Even more surprising, when I hit my next track button on the steering wheel, the app stopped the current story and moved to the next one. You can do the same thing on your iPhone screen, but doing it without picking up the phone is a pretty terrific idea and really well implemented. This feature may not work with all Bluetooth systems, but my car is 3 years old and it worked flawlessly.

As good as this system is, there are a few improvements I would like to see. I'd like a little more control, such as determining the order of stories presented in the newscast. It goes relentlessly through a set order of stories. I might like to start with tech, rather than U.S. or international news, or start with my local news. Within any category, I'd like to be able to seed the app with some keywords, like 'Apple' or 'iPhone'. The little music interludes get irritating after a while and I'd like to be able to turn them off. More control over traffic and weather would be welcome as well. I might want just traffic, but not a repeating weather forecast, for example.

Newsbeat is clever and useful, and it is the best-of-breed for hands-off newsreaders. It provides a very useful newscast with local news, weather and traffic. In my tests the app read 30 to 35 stories, each one about 3 paragraphs long. There is also a button for sharing stories with others, but be sure not to mess with that while you are driving.

Newsbeat is not universal; it's designed for the iPhone, optimized for the iPhone 5, and requires iOS 6.1 or later. I really like the idea behind this app, and with a few tweaks it will be a must-have app for commuters who want to keep up with the latest news. Even as it is, Newsbeat is an app I will use often.

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