Month: June 2013

Farewell Google Reader

So tomorrow Google will shut down Google Reader. I’m sure for many this is a non event but for me it’s been an essential tool for years that I will really miss. However this isn’t the end for RSS feeds as has been reported. Instead there’s been a surge in new services and app’s taking advantage of Google leaving the market.

Farewell Google Reader

Farewell Google Reader

Before looking at alternatives the first thing to do is back up your subscriptions via Google Takeout. With that step complete you can then try out the many alternatives that have sprung up oner the last few months. Here’s my thoughts on the few I’ve tried over the last few weeks.

Feed Wrangler
Feed Wrangler takes a different approach than the many other Google Reader clones. Feed Wrangler is a website where you can import and view your feeds and the developer has also released app’s for iOS and also an API so that app’s like ReadKit and Mr Reader can be used to sync your feeds. Once your feeds have imported you will notice that there are is no folder or tag support. Your reach your articles by visiting Unread, All Feeds or Starred. I found this quite disorientating as I’m used to browsing the many feeds I subscribe to via folders/tags.

Feed Wrangler Smart Streams

Feed Wrangler Smart Streams

Feed Wrangler’s most powerful feature is Smart Streams and that did allow me to create a folder structure that I’m used to. Create a new Smart Stream and once it is named you can select from all feeds or a select few to display in a Stream. The trick with Streams is that a search term can also be applied, so you could have a stream based on all your feeds that pulls out posts on Glastonbury or E3. While only search terms are supported right now, it would be great to see date ranges or authors supported so you can pull out articles easily from the past – Olympics from August 2012 for example. It’s also easy to add a Stream that pulls out your essential reads – those feeds that you don’t want to miss but when you’ve had a busy few days and faced with 2000 articles to read you want to quickly read those important ones only. Smart Streams is great for that.

News article within Feed Wrangler

News article within Feed Wrangler

Feed Wranglers presentation of articles is nice and clean. The UI doesn’t get in the way and the articles are presented well. Speed on the web app is good enough and there is similar keyboard shortcuts for Google Reader refugee’s. The iOS app’s are fairly basic right now but do enough although I’ve been mainly using other clients with Feed Wrangler so I don’t think this is reason alone to move to Feed Wrangler. Pocket, Pinboard and Instapaper are also supported as Read Later services.

Feed Wrangler costs $19 a year bought from the website or as an in-app iOS purchase.

Feedbin
Feedbin provides an almost straightforward clone of Google Reader. It’s a paid service ($2 a month or $19 a year) and once your feeds have imported you will be immediately familiar with the web app and it’s layout.

Feedbin Layout

Feedbin Layout

It supports keyboard shortcuts so you can easily navigate through folders and feeds. You can view articles in a couple of different ways but out of all the new services I tried I found Feedbin’s rendering of articles the worst by quite a margin.

Feedbin Sharing

Sharing is very flexible as you can set up sharing to the service of your choice via URL’s. While this allows for great flexibility (and there’s a good list of URL’s on Github) in many cases it is no better than bookmarklets so it feels less integrated.

With Feedbin’s API in place app’s like Mr Reader and Readkit give you a far better reading experience than the web app but I found the overall performance of Feedbin slow compared to other services.

Feedly
Feedly has been around for a while and was always an alternative to Google Reader but only if you wanted to use Feedly’s website or mobile applications. It also chased the magazine market in presenting feeds in a far more visual manner like Flipboard than what users in Google Reader are used to. However with the demise of Google reader they stepped up their offerings, focussing on features that Google Reader users will really appreciate and also providing a sync service for other applications to rely on.

Article view in Feedly

Article view in Feedly

Getting your feeds into Feedly is really easy. Sign in with your Google credentials and feeds are sucked into Feedly as well as your Reader Favourites. Folders are respected so you will instantly feel at home in the web application. Keyboard shortcuts are mostly the same as in Reader but a few are different and annoyingly so.

In the web app there are a variety of views for your feeds and nicely they can be set differently for each folder. The views are Magazine, Cards (like Pinboard), Full and finally ‘Title Only View (Google Reader)’. Yes, thats what it’s called just in case you are in any doubt on the inspiration for that view. Presentation of articles is nice and clean and there is some minor customisation options allowing you to change link colours and overall theme colour.

Feedly does show adverts on it’s home page called Today but I’ve found the display of content on that page hit and miss however you can change your default page so you never need to see Today.

Feedly’s maturity as a service is best seen when it comes to adding and managing feeds as it’s all done via drag and drop and works really well – far better than any of the other new services.

Feedly iOS

The Feedly app’s on iOS are OK. They work well enough but I just don’t like the styling of the app’s. They’ve went their own route when it comes to displaying of feeds within a folder and it just feels wrong. The overall app isn’t smooth either. However with the addition of Feedly API there are now many alternatives for viewing Feedly on iOS or Android including Press, Reeder and Mr Reader.

The advantage Feedly has is size and hence scope. It supports almost all of the large sharing services, has great flexibility via IFTTT support and has developed tremendously over the last three or four months. It’s a free service and for many has become the easy alternative to Google reader.

Newsblur
Newsblur like Feed Wrangler is trying to offer more than a traditional RSS reader normally would. It’s been around for over two years now and while initial versions were slow and the design wasn’t the best, the developer of the service has really stepped on the accelerator over the last few months to support the influx of users from Google Reader.

Newsblur Web App

Newsblur Web App

Importing from Google was easy and it supports folders so already familiar to Google Reader users. Keyboard shortcuts feel familiar and the web app has lots of shortcuts to mark content as read and also easily see how many articles are unread etc. Newsblur really offers a lot more than other RSS readers. On importing from Google Reader feeds that are no longer available or cannot be reached currently are marked with a yellow exclamation mark, with Newsblur offering options for dealing with the problem.

Newsblur presents options to fix unreachable feeds

Newsblur presents options to fix unreachable feeds

I found articles were presented really well in Newsblur and also it works really quickly. Content is prefetched so I found articles were displayed quickly and accurately when moving through my feed list.

Article edits can be displayed in Newsblur

Article edits can be displayed in Newsblur

One feature not seen elsewhere is that article edits can be displayed to allow you to see how a site edits articles over time. Techcrunch has an amazing amount of edits for example – getting content out first still seems to count the most for some of these sites. Against each feed Newsblur can show a number of stats – tag counts, post frequency, subscribers etc. Not entirely necessary but nice to see.

Feed stats

Feed stats

You can also configure how each feed should be presented, so you could view a site in it’s original view if it’s been nicely designed and for those that are less visually appealing you can view just the story only in a simple text view. You can tweak fonts and font sizes and also configure Newsblur to open sites in new tabs. There’s also great support for sharing services with all the favourites nicely integrated and Newsblur also has it’s own social sharing service – Blurblogs.

Signing up to Newsblur will give you a site on the web that you can share stories to. People can comment on your shared stories and share on from that site. You can also follow other Newsblur users and follow their shares and you can see all your own activity in an activity list in Newsblur.

Train feeds to focus on only certain content

Train feeds to focus on only certain content

Newsblur differentiates from other services again by offering Intelligence Training. This feature allows you to select an author, tag or word from an article or feed and give it a thumbs up or down. Once this is done any article that matches a thumbs down will be hidden from view. You can still toggle the feed to view the hidden content but it’s another great way of weeding out good content from bad, especially for noisy sites like Techcrunch, Engadget or The Verge.

Newsblur subscribers can make use of iPhone and iPad apps which support all the features of the web app. There’s also an Android app too. The only feature I missed was offline syncing but that is coming in a future release. About the only other feature I can see that is missing is search but it took Google Reader a while to add that so that’s something I can pass on.

One final point is that Readkit on the Mac now supports syncing with Newsblur. Currently it doesn’t support training or much of the focus mode features but that is promised in future updates.

Newsblur is free for up to 64 feeds and is $24 for a year for unlimited feeds. I think it’s a great service and well worth consideration.

Digg Reader
Digg Reader is probably the newest RSS service and in many ways it shows. Launched just a few days ago you pull in your Google Reader feeds by logging in with your Google credentials. It took a while to import and display properly but I’m putting that down to the service being hammered as Digg is still a big name and there’s not long now until Google shutter Reader.

Digg

Digg supports folders and so the presentation is very similar to Google Reader. Although articles are displayed cleanly I found it difficult to see what was new, what was unread etc. The site though was fast and considering it’s only been three months since the Google announcement it’s impressive to see what has been built.

Sharing options are limited though which is not a great surprise as Digg will want to build out their Reader around Digg and Instapaper which they now own.

Digg’s iOS app’s are fast and present articles cleanly. However there are no Android options at the moment and no third party support. If you like the Digg app’s you are in luck but if not there are really no options at the moment.

Digg Reader is free and although it’s early days I can’t really recommend it.

Wither Reeder

Readkit on the Mac

Readkit on the Mac

One surprise of the impending closure of Google Reader is how it’s affected the applications I use day to day. I never used the Google Reader website instead doing all my feed reading through Reeder for iOS and Mac and Press on Android. Press has been updated with Feedly support but surprisingly Reeder is falling behind the competition. iPad and Mac versions will be withdrawn from sale tomorrow while the iPhone version has went free with added sync support for Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, Feedly and Fever. The developer has decided to focus on new versions rather than update old app’s. While understandably the Google Reader change and subsequent lack of one standard replacement causes extra work it’s left a rather large gap in my feed reading process. Step in Readkit. This Mac only app was previously good for catching up on Instapaper and Pocket articles but version 2 brought in RSS support for Newsblur and Feedly with an update just a few days ago to include Feed Wrangler and Feedbin.

This has replace Reeder on the Mac and while it doesn’t have all of Reeder’s features and isn’t as fast as Reeder when syncing, it’s a far better experience than using the web apps of most of the services mentioned above. It’s only £2.99 from the App Store which really is a bargain.

On iOS I’m now using Mr Reader and Newsblur’s own app.

Conclusion
So which service replaces Google Reader? For most Feedly is the strongest option and it’s free so it’s a no brainer to move to that service. For me I much prefer Newsblur so that will be my RSS service of choice although I will keep an eye on Feed Wrangler as improvements to Smart Streams could be really big.

While it’s disappointing to see a service I use daily being shutdown it’s great to see some true innovation now that firms are competing on a more level playing field. Farewell Google Reader.

WWDC

24 hours from now the keynote will be done. Unlike other years there’s not been many leaks. Last year everyone expected Maps with Flyover, Passbook and Facebook Integration. This year we are expecting:

  • New laptops
  • Maybe a new Mac Pro
  • iTunes Radio – a Spotify competitor?
  • iOS7
  • OX X 10.9

It’s the software that’s most intriguing. We know we are in line for a new look in iOS7. How far will Apple go – they are usually pretty conservative with each iteration of their software. What I hope we see is lots of new features rather than a new skin or rehashed icons. That’s the difference this year – almost nothing has been mentioned when it comes to new features or changes to how iOS will work.

As for OS X, all I can remember is rumours of Siri on the desktop so for the first time in a while I’m looking forward to a keynote full of surprises. Can Apple deliver?

So I bought an Apple TV

Hardly a new device and probably the wrong time to buy an Apple product just two days before WWDC, but I purchased an Apple TV and really only for one reason. Plex, or more specifically PlexConnect. The most notable feature of the latest Apple TV is that it cannot be jailbroken which has lead to the unusual situation that older models are worth 2-3 times more on eBay as they can be jailbroken and you can then install app’s like Plex on it.

So I was surprised last week when catching up on my feeds that PlexConnect had been developed and announced on the Plex blog. It was a hack, and undoubtedly a hack that Apple will stop with a future firmware update but it was enough for me to stump up the cash and give it a whirl. Setup is pretty easy. Set your Apple TV to a fixed IP address, set your Plex computer to a fixed IP address, change your Apple TV DNS to point to your Plex computer and then launch PlexConnect. Boom. (photo’s are pretty poor – hastily snapped from my iPhone as I couldn’t be bothered getting DSLR, tripod etc – blame my cold!)

Plex

Grid view for movies

Grid view for movies

Browse by genre

Browse by genre

Plex

The reason it’s a hack is that you access Plex via the trailers app on your Apple TV. PlexConnect works as follows:

  • re-use an already available app (like YouTube, Vimeo, Apple Trailers, …)
  • re-route the request to your local Plex Media Server
  • re-work the reply to fit into AppleTV’s XML communication scheme
  • let iOS do the rest

So far I’ve been impressed. All movies and TV shows have worked without issue. It’s not got the full Plex experience but it’s so close that it’s not really noticeable and all from a £99 tiny box with a dead simple remote. I sold my Mac Mini late last year and the one thing I really missed was having Plex – the bluray player I picked up is great for blurays and for playing content accessed via USB, but streaming is awful.

Some quick thoughts on the Apple TV itself. It’s tiny and quiet and the remote feels nice in the hand, is simple and probably does just enough considering what the Apple TV offers. It’s very much tied to the Apple ecosystem and I guess that what frustrates so many people. It’s a platform waiting to be exploited and the hardware is fairly capable – it’s playing 1080p without much trouble. I do think it’s a next gen device though before we see an App Store. It’s weak link is the remote. It allows you to browse around apps easily enough but thats about it. It wouldn’t act as a good interface for games, browsers etc. You can use the remote application on iOS to control the Apple TV, but I don’t think thats a route Apple would go down – buy a device for £99 and spend upwards of £200 to get a touch controller.

Icon order changed on the Apple TV

Icon order changed on the Apple TV

The front end feels old compared to Plex, XBMC etc and allows for very little customisation. You can move the app’s around and thats pretty much it. One way to remove apps is to enable Parental Controls and hide the applications. Makes for a slightly cleaner interface but with so little on the front end it makes only a minor difference.

Parental controls enabled - you can hide unused icons!

Parental controls enabled – you can hide unused icons!

Music playback from a local library or iCloud is fine although again the interface feels simple and lacking some options and customisation. It is nice to be easily able to play podcasts on the TV again. Airplay also works really well – it’s great to throw a video onscreen rather than view on the iPad.

Overall I’m pleased with PlexConnect. It’s early days for it but it already works well for me. Your mileage will depend on where you host your Plex library. Some NAS devices aren’t supported or will struggle if they need to transcode the file to display on the Apple TV. If it wasn’t for Plex though I’d get a limited amount of usage out of the Apple TV. It still feels like a cut down product – Apple could and some day will do so much more with the television market, undoubtedly not with this generation of Apple TV. I really look forward to the day that there is an App Store on an Apple TV where we can buys apps like Plex and have access to a wide variety of apps and games. Until then, PlexConnect will do nicely.

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