Google Reader has been the core of my on-line news reading life for a couple of years now. It’s a great tool for keeping up with a whole range of news sources that use RSS: I organize my feeds into categories (News, Literature, Bicycling, etc.), skim the lists of news articles from any computer since it’s all stored in “the cloud,” and use the “star” feature to keep a list of things that deserve more than a cursory read.
For all its back end power, though, Google Reader’s interface is a tad utilitarian. (It’s the sort of interface I would probably have designed myself–as my project manager says of my current work (the UI has, thankfully, been handed over to a more competent designer), “it takes a mother to love it.”) The design owes much to the e-mail model, with folders for each topic and a bold unread count. You can see at a glance what new articles are available in each category, and expand the folder to see what’s available for each feed in that category. Articles are listed in the right pane in chronological order, though you can choose to sort by “magic,” which uses an algorithm that takes personal habits in sharing/starring and article popularity into account.
The problem with this interface, at least for me, is that it invokes a sort of anxiety when I see large numbers in the unread count. It’s very much like an e-mail interface, and I dread a full e-mail inbox. I’ve occasionally sat up far later than I should browsing Google Reader articles in an attempt to get the count down to zero.
I recently discovered Feedly, a web site and browser plug-in alternative to Google Reader, via Adria Richards (whose “But You’re a Girl” site has been in my Minneapolis-area feeds category since she broke the story of the Norm Coleman campaign’s shoddy computer security practices, though she should really be in my technology category). For a couple weeks now I’ve been using Feedly as my primary RSS reader, and I’ve been very pleased with it.
Feedly is built on the Google Reader backbone; it uses your Google Reader subscriptions in generating its pages. It also adds some content of its own–Twitter feeds, YouTube links, Amazon
shilling associate links–and organizes content into attractive and easy-to-read layouts. You can choose different layouts–a “magazine” layout with featured articles at the top, picture and video grids, or more utilitarian summaries–for each category or feed, allowing you to customize your reading to fit your content.
Reading content through Feedly is easy and enjoyable. The headlines are rendered as links; clicking on a link opens a modal window within the page that displays the item’s summary content (including embedded media, which can be played within the page if the embedding technology supports it); the window is dismissed with a “minimize” link. Feedly offers “Cover”, “Digest”, and “Latest” views that show the most recent content (using an algorithm that utilzes Google Reader’s “magic” to surface personalized features), and presents a view of each of your categories; customization options let you modify the layout, colors, and optional components (Twitter, Amazon, Flickr, and others). There’s even a “Feedly mini” option, which provides a floating toolbar on other browser pages that surfaces related content from Feedly, and provides tools for sharing pages on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader.
Best of all, the Feedly layout reduces that anxiety of a giant list of unread articles. It still provides you with a count of unread articles, overall and by category or feed, but it’s not as prominent as in Google Reader. Instead, the layout is geared toward bringing the most recent articles to the top, along with articles that are ranked high in the “magic” algorithm, so the most interesting and useful pieces are the most visible. I currently have some 3,000 unread articles in my collection of RSS feeds, but I’m not bothered at all by it because the information that I see on the page is so much more compelling.
The only drawback to that I can see to the Feedly service is that it’s delivered as a browser plugin. It’s available for Firefox, and in a limited fashion for Safari and Chrome, but not for Internet Explorer or Opera. Because it’s a plugin, it’s less “cloud-friendly” than Google Reader alone: I can’t access my Feedly page at a public terminal, for example, though I am able to use it seamlessly across the three computers (Ubuntu Notebook, Windows 7 laptop, and Windows XP laptop) that I use most often. In those rare cases where I do have to use a non-Firefox browser on a system I don’t control, Google Reader continues to be my choice for reading the news.