On the hunt for a Google Reader replacement

When I first heard about Google’s decision to close down Reader , I was disappointed, but also quietly confident that I would find a new reader and that it might even open my eyes a little, enhancing my newsfeed consumption. It also meant that I would probably have to spring clean my news feeds too and get rid of some of the dead feeds clogging up the screen (although to be fair I only had 60 feeds).

A slew of articles popped up all over the internet, and the same handful of alternatives kept cropping up, so I attempted to try and find one that suited me and my needs. I didn’t really know what my needs where until I started to use these other tools, but it helped to drive out the requirements, i.e. I found stuff I couldn’t do, that Google Reader did!

Moving the data is in principle quite simple – Google offer a service where you can take all your data away with you called Takeout – you just specify which service(s) to export and off it goes and produces an export file – in the case of Reader an OPML xml file.

Feedly

The first candidate was Feedly. They offered a seamless migration, as they use the Google Reader backend, so there was no export/import to go through. The downside of this is of course when Google Reader is switched off, then this will no longer work, but Feedly have repeatedly announced that they are working on their own version. The other benefit is that current status of everything in Reader was immediately available in Feedly – what was read/unread, starred items, any new subscription/unsubscriptions in Reader automatically applied.
The big selling point of Feedly is it’s magazine style layout – but that’s not what I wanted so I quickly switched all the views to ‘Title’ view from the default. It almost felt too slick.

The stuff I liked:

  • seamless integration
  • ability to set the visuals to turn off the ‘gloss’
  • read/unread good differentiation with bold
  • nice addition of an index page
  • all my old starred posts that I’ve never yet got round to properly reading/acting on

It didn’t tick all the boxes though:

  • email integration first of all didn’t work smoothly, it constantly asked you to re-login to Gmail
  • then the email icon was removed, so now there’s no email functionality at all
  • can’t edit the Feed name that appears in the first column of a multi-feed view – this seems to pick up the name that is set by the feed. This is a problem when the first words of a feed title are common, so you can’t see which feed is which
  • there were some anomalies with the layout and grouping of today’s/yesterdays/previous days posts, but these seem to have gone away now
  • can’t quite handle some feeds such as twitter searches, like the one described here : http://sqlblog.com/blogs/jamie_thomson/archive/2013/03/04/bootstrapping-sql-server-bloggers-and-blog-readers-with-twitter.aspx

The Old Reader

Second up was The Old Reader, and everything pointed to the fact that this was a news reader, nothing more nothing less – sounded perfect for what I wanted. I downloaded my OPML file from Google and submitted it to The Old Reader import tool, to be told I was about 49000th in the queue. Wow. Not to be unexpected though as it seemed everyone in the world was on the same hunt I was. About an hour later I was 48999th in the queue. Oh. This is going to take some time, but it will be worth it I told myself. It took about a week for my feeds to be imported, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, but patience is a virtue.
It looked good, in the sense that it looked liked Reader, just text and none of this fancy, whizzy stuff.
The speed of the site was up and down, but again the sheer volume of new users was probably a mitigating factor here.

What I liked about The Old Reader:

  • looked simple and presented enough on screen to keep your eye busy without constantly having to scroll down
  • ‘Home’ page detailed some dead feeds – was useful to know that some subscriptions hadn’t had new posts in over 6 months

Trouble is there was stuff that didn’t help:

  • the dead feeds list was ‘odd’ – it listed 2 feeds, one 2 months old, another one month old – and yet I found (whilst tidying up) a feed that hadn’t posted in over 20 months
  •  the visual difference between a read post and an unread post was not very obvious – a slight (2mm thick on my 17″ monitor) green strip down the left hand side of the title. Google Reader uses bold to distinguish and it is simple and effective
  • no email functionality at all
  • still not sure why it took so long to import

After trying both for a couple of weeks, it seemed that neither was winning over the other. A couple of tweets about the frustration led to a few more ideas being bounced back at me.

IFTTT & Pocket

This was a different approach. Using IFTTT (if this then that), I could scrape all my RSS feeds into Pocket  and read from there. Never used IFTTT before, and it took quite a bit of getting used to (especially the HUGE font – guess it was designed for mobile/devices), but I liked it and could see ideas forming in my head of other uses that I could move onto later. I wasn’t blown away by the UI of Pocket – too much white space and not enough ‘rss reader’ functionality – and the latter is what stopped this one in its tracks.
I want a reader that I can quickly add feeds to, and quickly delete them too. Having to cobble together a sort of RSS aggregator and reader app isn’t what I want or need. Like I say, it was good to discover IFTTT, but for this scenario it just didn’t quite work (for me).

Netvibes

Finally I tried Netvibes. This again pitches itself as a social media aggregator, much more than a RSS reader, but it has a reader view/mode. I looked at Netvibes many years ago when iGoogle was deprecated, as I was used to having a personal home page, but at the time it just didn’t do it for me (have since dropped the need for a personalised home page altogether). Importing my OPML was measured in seconds rather than days, so again I’m confused as to exactly what was going on with The Old Reader.

Unfortunately for all the competition, Reader hasn’t gone away yet, so this means I can run it and any potential replacements in parallel and compare them very closely. I often found Netvibes a good 10-20 minutes behind, even with a manual refresh, and I don’t know why.

Thumbs up:

  • Layout was good, with enough squeezed onto the screen but not too much
  • The feed names are editable and reflect in both the navigation pane and the feed window (as per Google Reader)
  • email integration

Thumbs down:

  • unexplainably behind
  • annoyingly some posts have a date set in the future – not sure how Google Reader handled these, but it did – which always appear at the top of my feeds, under the heading of ‘Doc are you telling me you built a time machine’ (a nod to Back to the Future) – I don’t want to see these

Conclusion

I don’t think I have one yet. At least not definitively.

I think Feedly is winning currently for me, but that could all change when Reader goes and they have to implement their own backend. OK the email is broke, and the layout is in a state of flux, but the link to Reader backend is not just their Achilles heel, but also their unique selling point – I can continue to use Reader during this process and Feedly keeps up!

Next, and very close, would be Netvibes – it does the best at just doing what I need it to do – if only I could get those future posts off my screen

I had high hopes for The Old Reader, even persevering through their arduous import process, and I could even get used to it if it was the only option, but the visuals are just not right

IFTTT & Pocket was a nice idea, but a bit Heath Robinson for me. Was good to see (and you could see it from across the street) IFTTT, but I need an RSS reader, with reader functionality, not an over engineered bookmarking app.

–Kev

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