Google’s removal of their popular Google Reader ‘product’, with a deadline that runs out in a couple of days time, has meant that a huge number of early adopters, tech enthusiasts and bloggers have had to re-evaluate how they keep track of news. And that’s ‘news’ in the most general sense, meaning product launches, editorials, features and, yes, actual general news as well.
When the Web was young (so over 15 years ago), keeping track of new content on your favourite sites was easy enough because there weren’t many of them – you simply visited each site every day and looked! But the explosion in site numbers meant that a better solution had to be found in terms of keeping track of ‘what’s new’ – and RSS proved to be it.
Google Reader was something of an all-purpose RSS wizard, but with its demise, I present the three best alternatives here, tested by me to work well on Android smartphones.
RSS is well known, of course, Really Simple Syndication is a purely textual (and thus fast) was to mark up headlines and selected opening paragraphs from new content for easy retrieval by a user’s application or a web service – or indeed any Internet connected entity which happens to be interested.
The genius of Google Reader (and Bloglines before it) was in realising that web sites would get somewhat overwhelmed by traffic if tens of millions of users retrieved RSS feed refreshes from them several times a day, every day. Plus, each user would have to wait for (potentially) minutes while feeds and then their content were retrieved. So why not refresh the feeds often but into a central clearing house for ‘news’ instead, in which case all the user has got to do is check in with Google Reader and just the new bits from just the RSS feeds they’re interested in are served up, instantly and efficiently.
Of course, Google won too in that it gained lots of information on what each user was interested in, plus it was able to grow its own ecosystem in terms of signed in users. It’s not clear why Google Reader was canned, but you have to suspect that the codebase was getting ‘crufty’ and that the willpower wasn’t in place to rewrite it all from scratch. Plus RSS was (erroneously, in my view) seen as ‘old school’ and not needed in these days of Google+ and other social networks. Oops.
I researched a number of options for RSS addicts (like myself) before settling on the three solutions presented here. Factors involved whether the solution could cope with a heavyweight set of feeds (I ‘follow’ hundreds of sites and blogs, and some phone-based RSS ‘readers’ simply couldn’t handle the mass of information and crashed), a fast and usable interface, and flexibility beyond consumption on Android.
As mentioned above, the aggregator approach is ultimately more efficient for everyone, and it’s no surprise that I’ve picked two of these, though I’ve also chosen the best of the direct RSS clients, should you want absolute control of your news gathering.
This purely web-based aggregator is incredibly close in look and feel to that of Google Reader, as the name perhaps suggests. Logging into The Old Reader for the first time is perhaps best done on the desktop, plus you do have to wait a few minutes for all your feeds to be imported from Google Reader and processed in its user database, but thereafter you can access the aggregator on any web-connected device in the world.
Including your Android smartphone, with The Old Reader having an extremely pleasant phone-optimised interface – all new feed items that are unread simply appear in a single ‘All items’ pane that you can read through (other views are available, plus you can drill down into individual site feeds if needed). Cleverly, items are marked as ‘read’ automatically, so that you won’t be shown it the next time you come to The Old Reader on this, or any other, device. Items can be unchecked, if needed, to be left as ‘unread’.
The purity of a wholly web-based system appeals to me, and tapping on headlines merely opens up the appropriate (full) story in the same app (i.e. Chrome, usually for most Android Beat readers). The downside is that quite a bit of RAM is needed, as you’d expect for anything heavily web-based, so lower spec Android phones do mean a little lag while waiting for the full aggregated news page to be rendered, complete with images. Galaxy S4-class phones should have no trouble, though.
Positioned during Google Reader’s reign as its main competitor as an RSS aggregator, Feedly was effectively the ‘heir apparent’ and has taken over as the highest profile service of this type. Happily, it’s also both free and very slick, and has excellent and seamless import of your RSS feeds from Google Reader.
Unlike The Old Reader, Feedly has a dedicated Android application too, meaning that you can access your feeds and their content within a glossy interface that’s reminiscent of Flipboard at times – pages of headlines and thumbnails slide up smoothly, a page at a time, and some items are presented full page in the manner of a magazine cover story.
Tapping through to the fuller content in the RSS story give displays as shown below and, as you might expect from an application as slick as this, you can simply swipe from left to right (or vice versa) to move between adjacent stories:
Following stories through from their RSS content to the full web page is handled within Feedly for Android, with its own browser window, a system which works very well indeed, RAM permitting.
Stories can also be bookmarked for getting back to later, and there’s one tap sharing of story URLs to the usual Android social networks, one of the benefits from Feedly running as an application rather than just as a web page. Other benefits include better customisation of the user experience – I quickly switched to the AMOLED-friendly ‘dark’ theme on my Galaxy Nexus, plus you can choose the font size and face.
So far, I’ve picked one wholly web-based aggregator and one hybrid (a web service which also has its own Android application) – time for the third option, a dedicated Android-based RSS client. In other words, this app on your phone will go off to the (potentially hundreds of) web servers that you’re interested in, collect copies of their RSS text files and parse them directly. There’s no aggregator in the middle, no web service to get in the way.
The upside of all this is mainly psychological, it has to be admitted – the likes of Feedly refresh their master list of feeds so often that they’ll be very up to date (minutes, usually, rather than hours). Yes, you can theoretically get stories ever faster by grabbing RSS information directly, RssDemon can be set to update every five minutes at its fastest, but it’s a lot of work for your phone to do, it’s (potentially) a lot of data for your connection to sustain, and if everyone decided to run a direct RSS client at this update frequency then web servers would be overwhelmed. But there’s still something to be said for a simple and direct solution and, after all, isn’t it good to have the choice?
Given the increased data use (when compared to an aggregator solution), it’s good to see that the settings allow you to specify that updates only occur when connected on Wi-fi. In fact, RssDemon’s settings are terrifically comprehensive, letting you change every last detail of layout and textual presentation. The application also coped well with importing my RSS feeds from a Google Reader-exported OPML file, despite their quantity, and presenting them without speed or RAM issues.
Feeds are presented by default in themed categories (e.g. ‘Tech’, ‘Health’), but there’s also ‘All Unreads’ and (most useful of all, considering the typical daily use) ‘Last 24 Hours’. Opening a story headline brings up the detailed view and the item is marked as ‘read’, which seems sensible. Also, from this view, you can swipe left or right to move between stories in the current view – it’s pleasant and intuitive.
The eagle eyed will have spotted that the link above for RssDemon actually goes to a group of applications under the same name in the Play Store. This is because there are both ad-funded and commercial (licensed) versions, plus a next-gen version that’s currently under development. Anyone interested can pick the right version for them, no doubt, and also get involved in helping shape version 3.0 etc.
Picking a winner
Feedly is the standout for most users, in terms of being relatively efficient in terms of time and data and in terms of presentation, but I’d emphasise the lower resource requirements of the Chrome-based web interface of The Old Reader as something that you might like to consider if bandwidth is a struggle. RssDemon is for the true geeks reading this. You have bandwidth to spare, you want content directly and you want it as fast as possible.
I tried and discarded around ten other solutions/clients in the process of researching this article, but I’d welcome comment if you have a different solution that you can happily recommend to others.
PS. One note of urgency. You only have a few days in which Google Reader is guaranteed to work, so get a move on, in terms of exporting your feeds as OPML and logging into it from the likes of Feedly and RssDemon – after mid week, all bets are off!