Thursday, April 4, 2013

Life After Google Reader: Evaluating Replacement RSS Clients

While this article is not strictly security related, it does concern a tool many InfoSec professionals use on a daily basis to stay up to date on industry news.

As I’m sure everyone has heard. Google Reader will sunset on July 1, 2013. This has spawned a flurry of articles detailing dozens of different RSS reader alternatives. In most cases the articles have been little more than a summary of features. My goal was to narrow down the options to a handful of contenders based on my personal needs and test them over a week.

Before getting started, I reviewed eight different articles from a variety of sources. Each offered up opinions on where users should migrate their RSS feeds. In total, the articles provided 21 suggestions.


My Requirements 

I regularly access RSS feeds from multiple machines and prefer to keep my progress in sync to avoid re-reading the same article. The easiest way to do this is with a web based service. I started my evaluation by discarding those options that required a desktop client or were only available as a mobile app. I further trimmed the options by eliminating online services that only offer "tiled" views that UI designers seem so fond of today (think Windows 8, ex: Pulse, Taptu). In the end, this left me with three option. I tested each of these services in tandem:


The Old Reader

Visually "The Old Reader" is probably the most like Google Reader however it took the longest to get up and running. To be fair, all of the options I evaluated were slow to begin with and periodicity displayed error messages while they struggled to handle the massive influx of new users.

When I first attempted to log into "The Old Reader" and import my feeds directly from Google Reader I was met with a message that the site had reach import capacity. It was however, still possible to add RSS feeds manually by clicking the "Add a Subscription" button. I tried to import my feeds several times throughout the day but continued to receive the same error message. I attempted again the following morning and found that the direct import option had been removed. In its place is now an option to upload an OPML file that was easily exported from Google Reader. The upload was successful and I was presented with the following message:
Thank you for uploading your OPML file. We will soon start importing your subscriptions, which might take up to several hours depending on the amount of feeds you have. 
There are 17657 users in the import queue ahead of you.
"Several hours" turned out to be 147 (6 days, 3 hours). While waiting for the import to complete, I added several feeds manually so I could get a feel for the interface. The site is intuitive and responsive just as we are accustomed in Google Reader. Where "The Old Reader" takes it one step further is with the "Friends" feature. If you log in with Google and/or Facebook you can see all of the people you are connected to that use "The Old Reader". In my case this is only one person. Once you have added friends, a new section will appear in the left column (just above subscriptions) called "Following". Any articles shared by these people will appear in this feed.

Recommendation: "The Old Reader" is best for people who want a simple, no frills RSS reader that looks and behaves like Google Reader.


NewsBlur

The most versatile of the readers I evaluated is "NewsBlur". Like the other options, this site struggled to handle the load of so many new users. To their credit, all three services were proactive in easing the growing pains and communicating to their new and existing customers. NewsBlur in particular can be commended for their comprehensive updates and transparency. You can read about their future plans here: Three Months to Scale NewsBlur.

Unlike the other two options, NewsBlur requires you to create a site specific account (as opposed to authenticating with Google) however you still have the option to import your feeds directly from Google Reader. The layout of this RSS reader is closer to a mail client than many of the other products I've tested and offers different page layouts. Stories can be displayed at the top, left or bottom of the window and the articles themselves have different format options available as well. You can view the article as it appeared on the original home page ("original"), as it appears in the RSS feed ("feed"), in plain text ("text") or on the article specific web page ("story").

There are also three different options for running NewsBlur. You can create a Free Account on newsblur.com that is limited to 12 RSS feeds. Premium Accounts are available for $12 per year and offers: no feed limitations, site updates "10x as often" and his dog Shiloh "does not go hungry". The third option is to host it yourself. NewBlur is open source and is available on github making it an attractive option for DIYers.

If you like to read on the go there are iOS and Android apps available as well.

Recommendation: NewsBlur is best for people who want added features and a high level of customization. It is also the go to option for advocates of open source technology and those willing to run their own server to avoid reliance on services providers.


Feedly

Feedly is easily the most polished of the three options. It is snappy, easy to use and one of the more attractive clients. Feedly's responsiveness is likely due to the fact that it currently uses Google Reader on the back end. You may be thinking that this is distinct disadvantage but Feedly has anticipated Google Reader's retirement and has been working on a solution called Project Normandy. They state, "When Google Reader shuts down, Feedly will seamlessly transition to the Normandy back end. So if you are a Google Reader user and using Feedly, you are covered: the transition will be seamless."

Feedly's interface is highly customizable. There is a plethora of formatting options allowing the selection of pre-built themes or you can customize individual properties such as font, read/unread color, start page view, etc. To make the transition easier for those leaving Google Reader, the Feedly blog has posted Tips for Google Reader users migrating to Feedly.

In addition to the Google Reader-esque view (called "Title Only View") there is the increasingly popular tiled view (here called "Cards View"), a "Full Article" view similar to Google Reader's "Expanded View" and a unique "Magazine View". This last option lists the articles along with the first couple sentences and a thumbnail image from the page. The magazine view also takes the top three articles and places them at the top of the feed. Article popularity is determined by Facebook and Google+ likes and is indicated on all articles by a small, unobtrusive, green number.

Another seemingly minor yet significant feature is that only feeds with unread articles are displayed. I follow over a hundred feeds, many of which only post once a month. I appreciate that these are hidden so I do not have to scroll past them to get to new articles. Should I want to reference an old blog post I can visit the "History" of articles read or I can click "More Sources" to unhide the other feeds.

Feedly is slightly unusual in that it requires a browser plug-in to work. This is in part to reduce the number of remote calls to Google Reader. If you are not a fan of plug-ins, the Feedly page on uservoice.com indicates that a plug-in free option is currently being looked into. (UPDATE: A plug-in free version of Feedly was released on 6/19/2013)

The plug-in also provides a tool called "Feedly Mini" which puts a small watermark in the lower right corner of the screen. Clicking it provides options to share the page, save it in Feedly to read later or subscribe to the RSS feed. This last option can be particularly useful for sites with difficult to find RSS feeds. The watermark is small an unobtrusive however it can be disabled entirely or just for specific sites. There is also the option to specify the spacing from the bottom of the screen (default: 10 pixels). Lastly the button can be customized to include as many or as few sharing options as you prefer (options: gmail, twitter, facebook, evernote, linkedin, delicious, tumblr, pinboard)

The Feedly plug-in is available for Chrome, Firefox and Safari and apps are available for Android, iOS and even the Kindle Fire.

Recommendation: Feedly proves a rich experience with a wide range of features and granular customization. It will appeal to both technical and non-technical users; those who like to tweak their interface as well as to those who appreciate an attractive and easy to use web app.


Agree? Disagree? Please leave your comments below.