When I heard Google was planning to kill Google Reader on July 1st as part of a “spring cleaning exercise,” I was appalled. Google had decided to disband the team of paperboys that delivered me the news every morning. While RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is years past its heyday, it had become a wonderful and efficient way to read news untarnished by the social networking age. It was my firehose of headlines, straight from the source.
And Google Reader is a lot more than an RSS client. It syncs news feeds between different apps, and makes sure you can always pick up right where you left off. It’s also simple and free, which means it drove most competitors out of the market long ago. Once Reader dies July 1st, we’ll be left with apps that don’t rely on its backend to sync your feeds — which isn't very many apps. Various denizens of the internet and companies like Digg have volunteered to create new backends of their own, but for now, picking an RSS client you can trust means you’ll need one that doesn’t rely on Google Reader.
“Hearing that Google Reader is shutting down is like hearing that your favorite old bookstore is closing,” writes The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman. So what are all the “absurdly ambitious readers” to do?
This post was updated on June 28th, 2013 with new information and products.
A quick primer on moving to a new service
Switching from Google Reader to another service isn't much of a pain, assuming you pick one of the newer options like Feedly or Digg. Upon signing into these services you can grant access to your Google Reader account, which then automatically populates your new account with your Reader feeds and categories.
Otherwise, you'll have to export your Google Reader account, then import it (as an OPML or XML file) into your service of choice. To export your Google Reader data, head to Google Takeout, select Google Reader, and then click Create Archive. Once the service has finished compiling your data (it can take a while), click Download. Now, all of your Google Reader activity, like lists, starred items, subscriptions, and notes will be downloaded as separate files to your computer. You'll want the Subscriptions.xml file, which contains all the URLs of the feeds you're subscribed to. In your service or app of choice, you'll then want to select the import option, and pick the XML or OPML file you just downloaded to import all your feeds.
Google will allow you to export your feeds using Takeout until July 15th, so make a move.
The best overall reader
Feedly appears to be the heir apparent to Google Reader’s throne, a modern take on RSS that blends some of the niceties of Flipboard (like a "magazine view") with useful Reader features like keyboard shortcuts and tags. But its biggest advantage is that it’s the only RSS application that also has excellent mobile apps, as well as Feedly Cloud, a backend that syncs with other apps you might want to use, like NextGen Reader on Windows 8. In this way, Feedly is the only real Google Reader alternative that provides both a front end and backend that's accessible from a variety of platforms for free.
Feedly lets you divide up your feeds into folders, and even pick a preferred view for each folder — "headlines," "mosaic," "timeline," and more — which helps separate your news feeds from your photography feeds. Feedly is also generally the best-looking reader I tested, but if you aren’t happy with its white / gray / green color scheme, you can change the app’s theme to a variety of other colors. Feedly provides sharing options outside the usual gambit of social networks, like the ability to send articles to Evernote, Instapaper, and Pocket, plus an internal "Saved" folder. Feedly’s well ahead of the game in the mobile department, boasting very respectable apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android — which sync their read status with Feedly on the web.
Feedly would be the complete package, if only it let you search through your feeds instantly like Google Reader did. It’s not the minimalistic, omnipresent glory that is Google Reader, but it’s close, and in some ways exceeds Reader’s capabilities. Feedly pulls in your Reader subscriptions remarkably fast, and if the company’s upcoming Normandy API (a Google Reader API clone) can come through, we might even be in for cool new ways to interact with RSS. While it’s worrisome that Feedly is free — since we’ve all been screwed by a free app before — a Pro version is apparently on the way.
Feedly in some ways exceeds Reader’s capabilities
The best web service for power users
NewsBlur is far from the best-looking RSS client, but it’s lightning fast at pulling in updates, which makes it the obvious choice for news hounds. The service refreshes your feeds every minute, which feels a lot faster than the delay we've come to expect from Google Reader. NewsBlur is also one of the only services that lets you nest folders inside folders, giving you freedom to organize your feeds any way you’d like. (Quite the accomplishment for a "one man shop.")There are also some nice UX tricks in NewsBlur, like how the ‘o’ key automatically opens articles in a background tab.
Newsblur revives some of Reader's adored social components
NewsBlur features a few other bells and whistles, like the ability to view the original "web view" of whichever article you’re reading, "intelligence classifiers" that let you train the app to prioritize certain kinds of stories for you, and familiar Google Reader keyboard shortcuts like ‘j’ and ‘k.’ It even aims to revive some of Reader's original social elements, letting you follow friends and see what stories they've marked as interesting. It's a nice addition, but something that's clearly not entirely fleshed out quite yet.
NewsBlur has iOS and Android apps that sync "Saved Stories," but while they’ve shown signs of improvement recently, they still suffer from performance issues (especially on Android). On Mac, you can use Readkit to browse your NewsBlur feeds.
NewsBlur is great for hardcore RSS users, but isn’t a sure bet for anyone else — in large part because it costs $2 a month to subscribe to more than 64 feeds.
The best app for Mac, with more to come
NetNewsWire is the grandfather of Mac RSS readers, having launched all the way back in 2002. It’s powered by your computer instead of an army of servers in the cloud, which means it’s a bit slower than a web client. It’s not as slick as Reeder, another Mac fan favorite, but it also doesn’t require any cloud backend (like Feedly Cloud) to get up and running.
Timed perfectly with the demise of Google Reader, developer BlackPixel has just launched a public beta for a brand new version of NetNewsWire for Mac, called NetNewsWire 4. It's a speedier, lighter version of NetNewsWire with excellent article rendering, the ability to have multiple article tabs open, and the option to import feeds directly from Google Reader. BlackPixel has plans for an iOS version, too, which will sync read status to the Mac version using a custom syncing engine. Until then, there's no real way to sync read status to a mobile device if you're using NetNewsWire.
There's no real way to sync read status to a mobile device if you're using NetNewsWire
If you want to skip the beta for now, NetNewsWire 3 is still a decent app. It's missing many features we've come to take for granted, like tie-ins with common services like Pocket, Facebook, and Evernote, but it works well for reading news. The app's reliable at refreshing feeds, and includes a search bar to mine your feeds for keywords. It's the most well-rounded local RSS client for Mac, and will surely be even better once NetNewsWire 4 officially launches.
Also check out: another couple of Mac-only RSS clients called Vienna and Leaf. Vienna is open source, fast, and even ties into new sharing options like Buffer. Leaf, on the other hand, makes reading an RSS feed just like reading a stream of tweets. Also, ReadKit is an interesting Mac client for web RSS reader NewsBlur.
Digg Reader was built from scratch to replace Google Reader while adding some of Digg's social intuition about what's trending online. It doesn't have as many features as Feedly, but offers a super fast way to read your feeds, complete with built-in indicators for items trending on Digg, Google Reader keyboard shortcuts, and a sharp iOS app. Digg Reader comes from Betaworks, the same agile startup that revived the Digg website and birthed Dots. Expect lots more to look forward to in the comings weeks and months.
Digg Reader combines feed reading with Digg's social intuition
AOL Reader is another recent entry, having just launched on June 24th. AOL's RSS app is surprisingly slick, combining a minimalist visual style with lightning-fast feed reloads. AOL has also created a fairly decent web app to use on the go, but we hear native mobile versions are in the pipeline for iOS and Android. AOL Reader won't auto-import your Google Reader like Feedly or Digg Reader, and won't sync to any mobile apps, but it's still worth a shot. On the web, at least, it might be as close as you can get to the Google Reader interface you know and love.
The road ahead
For RSS app developers, there has been no real reason to create your own backend since Google did it all for you. But today, in the face of certain extinction, many apps like Reeder (iPhone), Press (Android), and NextGen Reader (Windows 8) are being forced to come up with their own solutions, or to wait for someone else to create a public solution for them.
Fortunately, apps like Feedly have emerged as a viable option, both because it works well on multiple platforms, and because its Feedly Cloud provides an easy backend syncing solution to replace the Google Reader backend. We’re hoping that some of our favorite apps will tie into services like these to replace Google Reader as a service, and not just as a client.
Press for Android has recently rolled out support for a few syncing solutions: Feedly Cloud, Feedbin, and Feed Wrangler. This means that if you commit to a service like Feedly, you can take all your feeds and read statuses with you. NextGen Reader on Windows 8 and Reeder for iOS, two fan favorites, have also added syncing, but only using select services. Reeder for iPhone supports Feedbin, which costs $2 a month, but plans to add support for more syncing services in the future. Unfortunately, no syncing support have been added for Reeder on Mac or iPad for the time being. NextGen Reader, on the other hand, can sync using Feedly Cloud, which is quickly emerging as the de facto backend replacement for Google Reader.
Google Reader was wonderful because it left the decisions about which apps to use completely up to the consumer. You were free to use Reader on the web, Press on your Android tablet, and Reeder on your iPhone. Read status synced across all your devices effortlessly, and for free. In a world without Google Reader, we're left with various substitutes, none of which wholly replace Google Reader, but at least for now, Feedly seems to come the closest. It lacks the ability to search through your feeds, an invaluable feature for Google Reader users, but so do its competitors. Yet, it provides a cloud backend to sync your feeds across multiple apps, feels the most well-rounded overall, and — perhaps most importantly for many — it's free.