Google Reader is dying – let’s replace it!

Google Reader is shutting down, and while I’m sad about it, it’s difficult to be truly angry about a free service being taken away, because hey, it’s free. That said, I’m currently scrambling around trying to piece together a system that sufficiently mirrors my current setup, and luckily there are plenty of options. Unluckily, they’re all in a shouting match to snatch up as many Reader evacuees as possible, and sometimes it’s difficult to sift through all the noise. The most crucial piece of the puzzle for me is integration with IFTTT (If This Then That, a wonderful customized web macro service), which I have been using to generate post ideas (here’s my recipe). Thus far I’ve had posts tagged in Reader with ‘wg’ automatically saved as draft with all the pertinent info so I can flesh them out later. As of this writing, none of the Reader alternatives can do this directly, so my workaround during testing has been to share articles to my Pocket (RIL) account, which which then gets drafted to WordPress as usual. It’s basically transparent, but I don’t like the extra layer of fallibility the system adds and hope to see further IFTTT integration soon.

I’ve spent the last two weeks researching the available options, and here are the contenders:

Jump to web/mobile: Feedly | NewsBlur | Netvibes | Pulse | TheOldReader | Google Currents | Flipboard | Bloglovin’
Jump to desktop: NetNewsWire | Gruml | Newsfire | Shrook | Snackr | Thunderbird | MS Outlook/OS X Mail | Final Thoughts (tl;dr)

Web/Mobile Readers

Jump to Desktop Readers

Feedly (iOS/Android/Kindle | Chrome/Firefox/Safari)

A mobile-centric reader app/plugin that has very quickly taken up the mantle of appeasing the indignant soon-to-be-ex-users of Reader. They’ve got their own clone of the Reader backbone they’ve called Normandy in the works and promise a seamless transition when July 1 rolls around. They also seem to be releasing the Normandy API, which will allow other Reader-integrated apps to continue unabated. How nice of them!

Pros

  1. Easily modified to look similar to the Google Reader layout you’re used to, but also has some great-looking alternatives if you’re looking for something a little different.
  2. The Android/iOS apps run just like the plugins, providing a seamless and beautiful UX. I haven’t tried the Kindle app, but I imagine it’s just as nice.
  3. Feedly wins the beauty pageant, hands down.
  4. It’s the most popular reader, meaning it’s WAY more likely to get IFTTT integration than anything else.

Cons

  1. No web portal. Requires a FF/Chrome/Safari plugin to use, rather than living in a website. This cuts out anyone who uses Opera or other browsers. Their support page indicated that this request has been made many times, and is under consideration.
  2. On mobile devices, WP and Blackberry users are out of luck, since only iOS and Android apps are available. I have found no indication that they intend to provide native app support for any other OSes, but making their Normandy API available will allow existing feed readers to exist past July 1.

NewsBlur (iOS/Android | Webapp)

When I checked on this site for the first time, it was down because of the crazy traffic Google’s announcement drove to it. They were so swamped, in fact, that they launched their redesign 2 weeks early. I watched it all unfold on Twitter, and Storify has a pretty good recap if you’re interested. NB offers both free and paid ($2-3/month, your choice) service, with the most important difference being that the paid version feeds the creator’s dog Shiloh, who is just adorable. It gives you access to create a public ‘blurblog’ (a private one is available for paid users) where you can share and comment on stories with your friends. There are iOS and Android apps as well. Another nice feature is that if you run out of stuff to read from your feeds and friends, you can always look at the global shared items to see what the world is looking at. This is a very strong contender. The new dev site shows a redesign that is much cleaner than the current one, much more nouveau web, all white and spacious and largely un-lined. This is the one I’m going to end up with. I like the idea of being a customer for a service I use as much as my feed reader, and even if it doesn’t get a channel on IFTTT, I can still save to Pocket and create drafts that way.

Pros

  1. (Could also be a con, depending on your outlook) It’s for-pay for power users, but super cheap ($2-3/month, your choice), meaning you’re paying someone who is providing you a service, the very heart of capitalism.
  2. You get your own “blurblog” that has an RSS feed that your friends can follow with their own aggregators, even if they don’t use NB.
  3. A wealth of mobile apps: There are official iOS and Android apps, as well as a user-created Android app (Blar) and user-created Meego (Web Feeds) and Windows Phone apps (Feed Me). The official app isn’t super stable right now, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
  4. Friends: You can connect to Facebook and Twitter to find friends who use NB, and even opt to auto-follow them. Sharing, to your blurblog or by other methods, is easy via buttons on each story, and there’s a “save” option as well, which appears to operate along the same lines as starring in Reader.
  5. View types: “Feed” shows you items as their creators want you to see them. Typically this means one image and the first paragraph or so of the article, after which you have to jump to the site to read the full article. “Text” presents a text-only view of the entire article, which is very snappy and lends itself well to rapid skimming of lots of articles. I might use this if I’ve created a feed for research purposes and just want to glaze over a lot of stuff quickly to see if anything jumps out at me. “Story” view loads the full site inside NB, letting you see the pictures and click the links all you want. One interesting think about it (that I like) is that any links you click load up within the frame inside NB, so you don’t lose your place, and hitting Backspace even takes you back where you were. Still fear not, as Ctrl+click spawns a new tab as usual.
  6. A really cool feature that lets you show any changes that might happen in stories over time. Most blogs will let you know about changes by adding UPDATED to the title, but it’s a nice way to keep them honest, if only in my own mind.

Cons

  1. The “Intelligence Trainer” is a feature that hasn’t been fully explained to me, and presents a bit of a learning curve. In theory, you tell Newsblur which stories you like and don’t like, and it will learn from that and try to show you more of what you like. My concern is that I’ll miss out on some articles on accident. I guess the root of the issue is trust, and more could be done to instil that in me.
  2. Could the text on the menus get any tinier?
  3. Unless you’re the least-demanding RSS user ever (in which case why are you looking at feed readers?), the free version of NewsBlur will feel almost unusably gimped, since the feed syncing happens very rarely, I think every 2 minutes.
  4. While you can mark all your stories as read by age (1-7 days), you cannot do this for individual folders, which was a feature of Google Reader I used pretty often.

Netvibes (Webapp)

The browser-based aggregator is geared heavily toward businesses who want to keep tabs on brand management and social impact. Their premium services offer all sorts of analytics, and they even have an enterprise-level tier, but the free service is all any single user will need. At least I don’t plan on paying $500 a month just to get alerts.

Pros

  1. Multiple dashboards – This aspect lets you keep multiple lists of feeds. Similar to Pulse, but with a looser focus on keeping subjects locked together. For example, I have a Reader dashboard with all my imports that I keep in the “reader” view, and this lets me preserve the look and feel I’m used to. I also have NetVibes’ Video Games preset

Cons

  1. No sorting by oldest first. What’s up with that? This is a dealbreaker.

Pulse (iOS/Android | Webapp)

Slick, card-style aggregator. You place each feed into a category, and each category can contain up to 12 site feeds. This allows you to have targeted news feeds based on your interests.

Pros

  1. Web mode – loads up the full site inside Pulse so you can read the full article, which is OK, but definitely not the best implementation of this I’ve seen, since you have to leave web mode to swipe between articles again.
  2. Good display customization available, including text size, day/night view, and serif/sans-serif font.
  3. Sharing is super easy. Hit the big blue button in the corner and you can ‘Highlight’ the article, comment and share to your Pulse.me account, and you have the option to tap Facebook, Twitter and Google+ buttons (it remembers your choices for next time). You can also forego the Pulse share and share manually via whatever app you want.
  4. Good auto-selection of feeds based on interest. You can add content categories like news, sports, lifestyle or business with predefined feeds attached to them, or you can select them one-by-one.
  5. A bookmarklet and Google Chrome extension allow you to save pages (but not add feeds, apparently, at least with the bookmarklet) from all over the web.

Cons

  1. I used this on my last phone, the Samsung Fascinate (Verizon Galaxy S), and it lagged like crazy, so much that I couldn’t use it. More recently I tried it on my Galaxy Tab 2 7”, and it lagged a fair bit there too. However, on my Epic 4G Touch (Sprint Galaxy SII), it’s very smooth and quite nice to use, so you should only be careful with this one if your phone’s hardware is getting on in years.
  2. Only 12 feeds per page, which is limiting for someone who follows 30+ webcomics.
  3. It’s beautiful and easy to add established websites’ feeds, but say you want to add a Google Alert? You have to find the URL for the alert’s feed, paste that into the search bar of the “Add Content” window, and then it’ll pop up and you can add it to a page. It’s cumbersome, and I use Alerts fairly often.

TheOldReader

TOR brings it all back to the original Google Reader, complete with glorious sharing. If you recall, Google’s shuttering of the sharing features one of the things that prompted the creation of WickedGlitch in the first place. (Thanks, Google!)

Pros

  1. It looks and operates JUST like the old old google reader, minus some features they’re currently working on implementing. You can follow your friends and share to your own feed that your friends can follow.
  2. No learning curve for current and former Reader users, it’s like riding a bike.

Cons

  1. Drastically limited keyboard shortcuts. This is a big one for me, since I don’t like using my mouse if I can’t help it.
  2. No mobile apps – Frankly this is a dealbreaker. You can reach the site from your phone, of course, and the mobile interface is acceptable, but distinctly not great, particularly when compared to readers that cache your data. They have an iPhone app in the works as of October 2012, but I see no updates on it and no hint of an Android/BB/WP app anytime in the near or distant future.

Google Currents (iOS/Android) & Flipboard (iOS/Android)

Magazine-style site followers. Both are mobile-only, and neither really has anything terribly special to offer. Their interfaces are quite nice, so if interface is your main concern, they’re worth a look.

Bloglovin’ (iOS/Android | Webapp)

Stable and cloud based mobile RSS reader. When I exported my Google Reader feeds to it (via XML) it didn’t capture all of them, and at least one (Engadget) was mysteriously converted to Engadget Japan, so be aware of this if you have hundreds of feeds to move, or if you don’t read Japanese. The browser interface works well.

Pros

  1. Has its own cloud syncing service, so no reliance on Google Reader
  2. Can import straight from Google Reader
  3. Can also import XML feeds exported from Reader
  4. No ads either on iPhone app or cloud service

Cons

  1. Doesn’t support the group functionality
  2. No iPad app
  3. The Android app is utterly awful. However, it seems to be focused primarily at design and fashion feeds, so maybe it’s great if that’s what you’re looking for.

Desktop Readers

Installable RSS aggregators are kind of on their way out, but here’s a short, incomplete list of the most popular ones. Keep in mind that I can’t try out any of the iOS/MacOS ones, but thankfully my good friend Battalio is a Mac man, and checked some out on my behalf.

NetNewsWire (iOS | OS X)

The ubiquitous gold-standard among Mac RSS apps even though it hasn’t been updated in a while. Fortunately though, the owners have pledged to revamp the app and add new syncing capability. NetNewsWire is as beautiful as it is functional. It features the same layout as Gruml.

Pros

  1. Very stable and widely used
  2. Smart groups
  3. Multiplatform (Mac, iPad, iPhone)
  4. Developer commitment to updates and syncing service

Cons

  1. Spotty development (last update Oct 2011)

Gruml (OS X)

A more robust RSS reader for the Mac. It was the most tightly integrated to Google Reader. No word yet on what the owner of Gruml will do now. The layout of the app is simple and easy to follow. Feeds are listed on the left. Items are listed to the right, and below the item selected it displayed. Clicking on an item will load the full page in a built-in browser tab.

Pros

  1. Has a built in browser so you don’t have to leave the app to read a full article
  2. Free
  3. Has a ton of sharing options so you can post an article to tumblr, twitter, or blog straight from the app

Cons

  1. Even though it is in version 1.3, there are still some bugs (for example, I occasionally have to clear the cache to force Gruml to mark all items as read.)
  2. Because it was so closely integrated to Google Reader, some of the features are end-of-lifed as a result of Google killing Reader, though the app can stand alone.

Newsfire (Mac OS)

A small, compact RSS client. There aren’t any extras to the appIf you are looking for a program to run, you can find copies of it when it was freeware (v 1.6 was the last stable, free release), but it is now $9.99 in the Mac app store. Frankly, there is nothing added to the app from the last freeware release, so if you want to try it do some searching first.

Pros

  1. simple
  2. does have a smart grouping feature
  3. It’s a pretty “Mac-ish” looking app.

Cons

  1. does not sync to services at present
  2. to read a full article, you must send the link to your browser of choice
  3. no grouping of feeds
  4. No bells and whistles, so for $10, it’s a lot for a little.

Shrook

If you are looking for a full screen RSS reader to take up an entire space, you are looking for Shrook. The app takes up a large chunk of screen real-estate, but you get a lot of information for your trouble. All groups, feeds, items are listed in their own separate lists.

Pros

  1. Free
  2. Built-in browser
  3. Post to twitter directly from the app
  4. Has a “Smart Groups” feature that will collect posts from your feeds based on keywords

Cons

  1. Not updated in two years
  2. Screen hog (by design)

Snackr (Win/Mac/Linux)

Cons

  1. It runs on Adobe Air (avoid like the plague).

Thunderbird (Win/Mac/Linux)

Pros

  1. Articles look fine, pictures are included
  2. Can use standard e-mail filters on feeds and collect them into folders however you like.
  3. One less app to worry about, since you’re checking your e-mail anyway, right?
  4. From the Firefox people (Open Source, yay!)

Cons

  1. The only way to add feeds is to copy link address from browser and paste into Add window within Thunderbird.
  2. Keyboard shortcuts are minimal. Hit N to get the next unread article, up and down arrows to navigate, as long as you’re in that panel.
  3. Videos don’t come through at all.

MS Outlook/OS X Mail

Don’t use OS X Mail for RSS. Just don’t. It’s clumsy and poorly implemented as if it was an afterthought by one of the Apple engineers: “Oh hey, we could throw this in with the kitchen sink.” Thankfully, if you are using OS X 10.8, the RSS “feature” is gone from both Mail and Safari.

No one involved in this article currently has access to Microsoft Outlook’s RSS features, but if you’d like to submit a brief review I’d be happy to include it.

Final Thoughts

Battalio’s opinion on desktop Mac readers: If you want something now go with Gruml, but if you can wait a while, I’d hold out until the folks running NetNewsWire work their magic.

I’m still torn. I really love NewsBlur’s layout and all its neat little features. However, it’s under heavy development, which could interfere with my daily reading in the short term. Feedly, on the other hand, just works, and as I mentioned earlier, is by far the most likely to be integrated with IFTTT very soon. I will probably end up paying for a premium NewsBlur account. If you’re feeling good about one reader or another at this point, check out ReplaceReader.com and see how the Twitterverse feels about the matter. As of this writing, Feedly is at the top, followed closely by NewsBlur.For me, those are really the only two worth considering. Feedly is crazy good-looking and very stable. Reader importing is quick and easy, and mobile integration is spotless. NewsBlur is still enduring the Reader-induced growing pains, but it’s very power-user-friendly and its developer is incredibly responsive to user feedback. Regardless of what choice you make, I think in the end, the demise of Google Reader will become a boon for all RSS users. More competition, heavier development support, and renewed social interest are all great things!

Here’s a gallery of screencaps from some of the readers I mentioned, as well as a comparison of what keyboard shortcuts are available on some of the post popular readers.
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