I’m teaching my Social Media course (AKA From Blogs to Wikis) at Washington University in St. Louis this semester, & one of our topics is RSS. I wrote the following about RSS services & apps for my students, but I wanted to share it here as well, since I thought others might find it useful.
This used to be an easy one: if you wanted to follow RSS feeds, use Google Reader. During the summer of 2013, however, Google shut down Reader, which actually turned into a good thing, as it broke the strangehold Google had on RSS & allowed a thousand RSS flowers to bloom, so to speak.
Let’s be clear about what Google Reader was, exactly. Google Reader actually performed two related services:
- It was a website that made it easy to follow & read RSS feeds.
- It was a syncing service that other websites & apps could use.
That second one requires a bit more explanation. Google Reader made it relatively easy for other apps to use it as a backend syncing service, which allowed users to pick & choose among RSS apps. In my case, I used Google Reader via its website when I was at my laptop. When I was on my iPhone, however, I used a program called Reeder that synced with Google Reader, & when I was on my iPad, I used a program called Mr. Reader that also synced with Google Reader.
If I marked a post or feed as read in Mr. Reader, that program notified Google Reader that it as read, & then, when I opened one of the other apps or looked at the Google Reader website, that post or feed was gone. Likewise, if I starred a post on the Google Reader website, when I opened up Reeder or Mr. Reader, the post would be starred there as well.
Pretty much every RSS app & website used Google Reader as a syncing service. When Google Reader shut down, it wasn’t just that a website for reader RSS feeds was going away—more importantly (& worse!), the backend syncing service used everywhere was going away too!
When Google Reader shut down, the following happened in short order:
A few RSS reader apps just decided to call it quits & shut down.
Some RSS reader apps announced that they would start offering syncing services to replace those provided by Google Reader, & that those syncing services would be open to any other RSS reader app that wanted to use them (in most cases for a fee; see further down in this list for more info). This meant, of course, that other apps who wanted to use those new syncing services would have to be reprogrammed, in some cases drastically.
Most RSS reader apps said that in addition to supporting some new syncing services, they would also support simply subscribing to RSS feeds within the apps, without using a syncing service on the back end. Since there would be no syncing of those feeds, the info about the status of the feeds & their posts would reside solely in the apps. If you only used one app on one device to read your RSS feeds, this might work just fine, but for most people, who want the ability to read synced feeds on different devices, this wasn’t very handy at all.
Many syncing services announced that they would be charging a small fee for their use. One of the reasons that Google killed Reader was that the company never charged for the service, & never made any attempt to monetize it, so there was little financial incentive to keep it going. By charging users, the new RSS services hoped to reassure customers that they would not disappear & would also be able to ramp up the infrastructure necessary to handle a large number of RSS subscribers, requests, & apps.
With that in mind—that a syncing service is just as important as an app that uses that syncing service—let me go through some of the various services & apps that have sprung up in the wake of Google Reader’s demise.
I can’t go through each & every RSS syncing service, so I’ll just cover the important or interesting ones here.
Each of the following syncing services also offers a web-based RSS reader. In addition, several offer apps that you can install on your mobile devices. If a fee is associated with the service, I’ll mention that too.
Feedbin is the service I’ve chosen to use for syncing my feeds. It’s $3/month, which I’m happy to pay because I think the service is great & the developer has done a good job. The website is fast & efficient & supports many of the keyboard commands that Google Reader did. Most RSS reader apps have added support for Feedbin as a syncing backend, including the ones I use. Another nice benefit is that the developer recently open sourced his software, which has already led to improvements through contributions from others.
Feedly is very popular & has probably become the biggest RSS syncing service since Google’s Reader’s shutdown. It’s free to use, but subscribers who pay $5/month or $45/year get extra features, including secure HTTPS connections, article search, premium support, & integration with Evernote. The website offers many different ways of viewing your feeds, including a Google Reader-style list & a more Flipboard-style magazine layout. However, I couldn’t really get into the way the website worked, & I didn’t like the official Feedly mobile apps, although many people do. In addition, most RSS reader apps have added support for Feedly, so you don’t need to use Feedly apps if you don’t want to. Definitely one you should try out, but if you do, make sure you poke around in the Settings so you configure it the way that makes sense for you.
Feed Wrangler is $19/year & offers an interesting feature that others do not: Smart Streams. Basically, Smart Streams allow you to group feeds together by title, search words, or topics. As long as you use the website or the official iPhone or iPad apps, you’ll be able to take advantage of your Smart Streams. Remember, however, that Feed Wrangler is also a syncing service, & while other RSS reader apps have included support for backend syncing using Feed Wrangler, far fewer of them have included support for Smart Streams.
Digg Reader at this time is pretty basic, but it shows a lot of promise, & the company behind it—BetaWorks—has done some really impressive work with other services & software that it has built. There are also official iOS & Android apps. Definitely one to watch.
NewsBlur is an interesting outlier, in that the developer provides an API, but has also worked hard to write mobile apps that work with the website in very specific ways. The result is that very few other apps support NewsBlur as a syncing service, so you’d better like using the official NewsBlur apps. For many people, that’s just fine. NewsBlur definitely does things its own way, with its own aesthetic, design, & behaviors that are different from all other RSS readers. It was interesting to me, but it was also so different that I didn’t think I’d like it. But the biggest reason I couldn’t use NewsBlur was that my iPad RSS reader of choice—the phenomenal Mr. Reader (see below)—didn’t support NewsBlur, which meant there was no way I could use the service. NewsBlur is free, but you can only follow 64 feeds; for $24/year, you can follow unlimited feeds & get more features.
If you use a Mac, I highly recommend ReadKit, which is what I currently use on my Mac. It works with a variety of RSS websites & services, including Feedbin, Feedly, Feed Wrangler, NewsBlur, & straight RSS feeds that don’t come through a service (of course, this means no syncing). However, it’s not just for RSS, as it also supports three “read-it-later services”—Instapaper (which I use), Pocket, & Readability—& two social bookmarking services: Pinboard (the one I use) & Delicious. It’s really good, & the developer is constantly improving it, which is nice. It costs a paltry $2 on the Mac App Store.
I’ve also used these on my Mac:
- Reeder is $9.99 on the Mac App Store. It was OK, but it didn’t grab me, & it was sometimes crashy. That said, it’s my favorite iPhone app for reading RSS feeds.
- Caffeinated is $6 on the Mac App Store, & while I liked it much better than Reeder, it liked to crash a lot, so I dumped it.
- NetNewsWire is $20 (although it’s currently $10 while in beta). Some people love it, but it didn’t do much for me.
If you use Windows, you really should consider using a Web-based solution. There just aren’t a lot of good RSS reader apps for Windows, especially ones that use syncing services besides Google Reader. If you absolutely insist on looking at Windows software, here are the best of a bad bunch:
- When Google Reader died, the developer of FeedDemon announced that he was throwing in the towel. Too bad—a lot of people really liked it. You can use it without any syncing services, & hope that it keeps working with new versions of Windows, but I wouldn’t.
- RSSOwl seems to have a lot of nice features, & I know it removed Google Reader syncing, but I can’t tell from the website if the developers added in support for any other syncing services!
- NextGen Reader is built for Windows 8. Have at it!
A couple that I would avoid on Windows if I were you:
- Outlook will work, but I wouldn’t rely on it. It’s very much an add-on, me-too feature, & there are lots of better choices out there. But if you follow only a tiny number of RSS feeds, & you live in Outlook, then I guess you could give in a try. But really, you should look at something else!
- RSS Bandit hasn’t been updated in a long time, & while the lead developer says he’s interested in updating the app, it’s still not there.
On the iPad, there is only one, as far as I’m concerned: Mr. Reader. For $4 on the App Store, you get the best RSS reader on any platform. It’s wonderfully designed to make reading feeds easy, & it supports syncing with a large & growing number of services, allows you to select from a wide variety of themes, & makes it easy to read posts in a variety of ways, including virtually every Web browser you can find on an iPad. All of those features are fantastic, but it’s the sharing features that really make Mr. Reader stand out. You can share feed posts or selected text with a dizzying number of services, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinboard, Instapaper, Evernote, Tumbler, Messages, & email, to name but a few. In fact, if you’re slightly technically inclined, you can even create your own sharing service, which is amazing. Get Mr. Reader—you’ll be glad you did.
If you have an iPhone, then you also have an easy time of it: just get Reeder, as it is the best RSS reader for that device. There is no reason to get any other. It’s just $3 on the App Store. For that, you get a beautifully designed iPhone app that supports many different syncing services & also makes it very easy to share posts & their content using a wide variety of sharing services. It’s great stuff.
Note: while I strongly endorse the Reeder app for iPhone, I’m not a big fan of the Reeder app for iPad or Mac OS X.
If you use Android, Press gets probably the best reviews, & it’s only $3. It supports many different syncing services, & obviously has a nice UI.
If you don’t like Press, there’s always the Feedly app, which gets a lot of kudos.
Got a Windows Phone device? NextGen Reader seems to be one to look at.