Tuesday, 19 November 2013

RSS readers re-evaluated

Six months passed since I compared the Google Reader successors. I didn't plan to look at them again this soon but many people asked me recently what I would recommend. My answer was Newsblur every time but I realised that this advice might be outdated. The reason is that at the time of my last review the competition was in its very early stage and much can change in six months. Since I use my RSS reader extensively and I had some time to do a re-evaluation, here is the update.

TL;DR

The final choice is between Newsblur and Feedly. First of all consider the pricing and limitations and see if they both are an option for you. If they are, then I would recommend Newsblur if you are a control freak, if you want to keep your finger on the heartbeat of your feeds and if you are an iOS user. If you can let it go and you are fine with no stats from your feeds then nothing beats Feedly.

Overview

I am going to look at Hive Reader, Digg Reader, Netvibes, The Old Reader, Pulse, Newsblur and Feedly. My usage pattern is: I am subscribed to 240 feeds, some are picture-heavy (no, it is not lolcats!), some have hundreds of items per day, others have one item per month. I consider only online applications, if for some reason you want a thick client, this review is not for you. I also need mobile and tablet clients: reading feeds is a very typical content consumption activity and I expect strong support for second and third screens. Offline reading is also expected: main reasons are that it makes reading more fluid, there are no mobile reception situations (London tube in my case), but it is also very handy when I can "charge" my reader with content before a flight and consume on the plane or update in the hotel when abroad and read it during the day. These are my priorities, yours may be different. I try to cover other aspects as well in this review.

Hive Reader

It's a no-no. No mobile app, UI is confusing, unacceptably slow feed refresh, "Import from Google Reader online" is "coming soon". Feels like an under-powered and abandoned project.

Digg Reader

Long awaited and arrived a bit late (after the shutdown of Google Reader). In my opinion it failed to meet the high expectations many had for it: it does the job but nothing more. Very limited feature set and no mobile app.

Netvibes

It is the same: does the job but that's it. It is ugly on mobile and the mobile offline mode doesn't work properly: it probably uses HTML5 local storage with its limitations. The full version also has tasteless UI that looks like a desktop app.

The Old Reader

Good 3rd party mobile app support. Not bad, maybe a bit hipstery. Some UI glitches, and limited feature set. The 3rd party reader for iOS is Feeddler: offline reading works, but it doesn't sync "mark as read" status and misses the "like" feature.

Pulse

It is still not an RSS reader. It is however a nice RSS "picture browser" especially on mobile or tablet. But it misses all the RSS reader features: no export/import, doesn't remember read-status between sessions...

The finalists: Newsblur and Feedly

Feedly changed a lot since my last review: it is not a browser extension anymore, probably it works in IE, and OPML export/import are added. It also survived the transition to their own back end servers with some minor hiccups only. Thanks to the Google Reader compatible API there are several mobile applications that support Feedly. It still requires Google login. And the UI has always been beautiful albeit a bit unusual on mobile. Newsblur is mostly the same as it was six months ago when I picked it as the best reader. There are some nice improvements; the most important is that the iOS app now supports offline mode. So let's compare these two in more details.

Pricing

First of all: they both are on freemium model. If you don't want to pay for your reader and you have more than 64 feeds then Newsblur is not an option for you. There are other limitations, not all listed on the front page. On the other hand I didn't find it necessary to pay for Feedly; the free version is feature-complete for me. Would you need (or want) to pay for either then Feedly is 45$ a year, Newsblur is 24$. I paid 24$ happily for Newsblur but I am also happy that the free Feedly works fine for me: 45$ is a bit above the acceptable price.

Licensing

Newsblur is opensource (including the mobile apps), Feedly is not. Not that it makes any difference in functionality, but it might matter for you.

Mobile

Newsblur is not supported by 3rd party mobile clients so you have to accept the two applications provided by Samuel. The iOS client is good, the Android client however lags one step behind: version 3 has been just released but it still lacks the offline mode. With Feedly however you get several 3rd party clients besides the official one: on iOS I use Reeder and sometimes Byline. Byline feels like an abandoned project with a bit dated design, but it works perfectly. I am satisfied with the official iOS client of Newsblur but it's nice to have choices. Also if I used an Android device I wouldn't be completely satisfied with Newsblur and I would be stuck with the official client with no alternatives.

Analytics

Newsblur is very strong in analytics features. It tells you how frequently it updates a feed, how many subscribers a feed has, shows you stats about the post frequency, indicates the feeds that are problematic and provides you with the log of the problem (timeouts for example). Feedly not only lacks all of those features but it even doesn't tell you the URL of the feeds. In exchange it is slightly more fool-proof with broken or problematic feeds: there are 3 feeds out of 240 I have problems with in Newsblur and they work fine in Feedly.

Feed update

Update frequency of paid(!) Newsblur is better than Feedly on not popular feeds. Feedly promises 30 minutes faster updates on paid plan but that would be still slower than what Newsblur does. Newsblur also has an "insta-fetch" feature (per feed) in case you can't wait for your auto update. Feedly however performs slightly better even on the free plan with the popular feeds.

Intelligence

Newsblur lets you teach it your preferences. After some training you will find the articles most relevant to your interest in the "Focus" view. You can teach it to prioritise by the source, author, keywords in the title or by tags. Feedly on the other hand shows you how many people recommended an item but it knows no personal preferences.

UI

Feedly is way nicer. I used to Newsblur UI in six months but after some time on Feedly I see Newsblur as cluttered and ugly. Feedly does scroll-for-paging on mobile instead of regular scrolling. In the beginning it was annoying but after some time I fell in love with it: all mobile apps that have long-lists should offer this gesture. The reason is that it doesn't require precision movements with your fingers when you scroll through a long list. Feedly's "cards view" is very nice for picture-heavy feeds and although I don't use the "magazine" view I can imagine that for some feeds I will change to that.

Sharing integration

Newsblur is slightly better here: it can share to Twitter, Facebook, Readability, Instapaper, Pinboard, Pinterest, Buffer, Diigo, Kippt, Evernote, G+, Pocket, Tumblr, Delicious. Feedly can share to Evernote, Instapaper, Pocket, G+, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Buffer, Pinterest and in the pro plan "Custom sharing" is available.

Authentication

Feedly requires Google authentication and your permission to read your basic Google personal data. That means you need a Google account and you have to feel ok sharing your name, gender, profile picture, profile URL, country, language, timezone and email address. Or you create a fake Google account if this is the only thing that stops you using Feedly. Newsblur uses custom authentication.

My choice

I moved to Feedly. My reasons are: better mobile support with 3rd party applications, much nicer UI and better UX. What I will miss is the analytics of Newsblur: I have a slight ADHD so I loved to see all those stats and I don't like the fact that Feedly doesn't tell me if a feed is misbehaving so I might miss some items out of my hundreds per day. I also miss the sharing to Readability. Readability is way nicer than Instapaper so I won't change, instead I will create a Chrome extension to fix this. I also decided that it is more valuable to see what others like than to train my RSS reader to my preferences. The former can widen my horizon, the later would shrink it.

Self hosted

A review wouldn't be complete without this category. In case you are a real geek you can run the services on your server. Tiny Tiny RSS and Selfoss are the popular options here. You can also run Newsblur, but that feels a bit overkill: it uses Django, MongoDB, RabbitMQ, PostgreSQL and some other tools that make it scalable way beyond the one-user-case. Both Tiny Tiny RSS and Selfoss are simple PHP applications, probably much easier to setup than Newsblur. I know about mobile clients that support tt-rss, but I didn't see any for Selfoss. I stop here: if you are into this then probably I can't make as much research as you will do for yourself.