Yahoo Livestand: All dressed up and no place to go

On Wednesday, Yahoo (s yhoo) released its Livestand app, a personalized news service available for the iPad that was first announced in February. It combines aspects of apps like Flipboard and Zite with the digital newsstand concept of Apple’s (s aapl) own Newsstand feature, introduced in iOS 5. I took the app through its paces to see how the hybrid approach holds up in the face of the competition.

Awkward beauty

Yahoo’s interface for Livestand is fairly good-looking, but it isn’t necessarily the kind of visual appeal we’re used to seeing on the iPad. The interface is spare but not really simple, with some depth and animation effects that feel a little out-of-place on a device where grid views often prevail. Flipboard’s greeting screen, for example, works on a grid and offers less visual confusion in my opinion, whereas Livestand’s 3D effect can obscure tiles and just adds a step between you and access to content.

There’s also the problem of usability. The home page looks good and has the hallmarks of simplicity, but it’s actually quite tricky to figure out how to add content from the featured carousel to your library. That’s actually because you can’t do so without navigating first to the “explore all content” extended catalog. I assumed that there would be an option when I opened an individual app or magazine, or that I could drag and drop the square icons, but neither works.

Slick content formatting

The actual content of each applet, or “magazine,” you can subscribe to within Yahoo Livestand (all of which are free, by the way) is very nicely formatted. Yahoo has clearly paid a lot of attention to fonts and layout, and the ultimate effect is worthy of being used as a demo in college design courses. This is especially true for magazine content like Surfer‘s.

But the content formatting seems to come with a cost in terms of responsiveness. Delays while you wait for articles and subsections to load are common throughout the app, and though the spinning, glowing circle Yahoo has used to indicate a wait is visually impressive, you get really tired of seeing it after a while.

Multiuser design

Yahoo was smart to include the ability to register multiple user profiles in Livestand right from the beginning. You can add up to four users on a single device and sign in using either your Facebook or Yahoo credentials, or you can start using Livestand without any outside account. As Zite pointed out in a recent update, iPads are often multiuser devices, and the ability for up to four people to keep their content separate and jump in without an arduous sign-up process is nice.

Pretty but not deep

Livestand, unlike Flipboard, is not really a social news tool; it’s more about repackaging traditional sources of content in a way that feels more like newer delivery vehicles that draw from Facebook, Twitter and RSS. And that’s its biggest problem.

Yahoo’s concept of a self-contained virtual newsstand in the end doesn’t feel up to the challenge of delivering the future of news in the way that more-connected, more-personalized tools like Flipboard and Zite do. It looks good, but the superficial appeal is undermined by performance and usability issues, like the fact that it doesn’t work in portrait mode, for example. Some of the formatting and design decisions actually make me wish I could overlook its shortcomings and use it as my default news reading app on the iPad, but it just doesn’t have the brains to seal the deal.