When I heard Google was planning to kill Google Reader 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?
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 may be that it’s the only RSS application that also has excellent and free companion mobile apps. In a world without the ubiquitous Google Reader API, building your own mobile apps is the only way to make sure you can pick up where you left off — in this way, Feedly is the only real Google Reader alternative.
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 read status with Feedly on the web.
Feedly is the complete package. 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.
Also check out: another great web-based and lightweight alternative is The Old Reader, except it has no mobile apps to sync with, and has an epic wait list to import your OPML feed into the service. There’s also BlogLovin, which turns your RSS feed into a Tumbler-esque photo stream.
In some ways Feedly exceeds Reader's capabilities
The best 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). Newsblur is great for hardcore RSS users, but isn’t a sure bet for anyone else — in large part because it costs $2 / month to subscribe to more than 64 feeds. And for now, that's your only option. Newsblur has temporarily halted all free account sign-ups.
Still The best app for Mac
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 also not as slick as Reeder, another Mac fan favorite, but it also doesn’t require a Google Reader account to get up and running.
NetNewsWire is easy to use, but visually outdated. It was acquired by developer Black Pixel almost two years ago and is "still in development", yet it still doesn’t tie in to common services like Pocket, Facebook, and Evernote. NetNewsWire’s iPhone and iPad apps also seem to have disappeared from the App Store. Fortunately, Black Pixel has just posted an update outlining its plans for the future, which include new apps for Mac and iOS, and a "modern" new design. For the time being, however, 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.
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.
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 (Mac), 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.
While it looks certain that some solutions are already in sight, the transition may not be easy. Fortunately, apps like Feedly have emerged as a viable option, both because it works well on multiple platforms, and because its creating a back end of its own. We’re hoping that some of our favorite apps will tie into whatever new services launch in the next few months to replace Google Reader as a service, and not just as a client.
And now that Google’s free option is gone, a market is bound to spring up to address the need for RSS clients, no matter how niche the market. That’s the good news. So far, Press is Android’s RSS front-runner, a design-centric news reader that’s fast and tastefully designed. The app lets you organize feeds by category, star items for later, and even long press an article to “Mark All Below As Read” — a handy trick. Press developer TwentyFive Squares recently announced that it will migrate to a new backend syncing solution before Google Reader shuts down.
Now that Google’s free option is gone, a market is bound to spring up to address the need for RSS clients
Mac, iPhone, and iPad favorite Reeder will also adopt a new backend of some kind. While Reeder’s update schedule is a bit erratic, its innovative swipe-to-read to read user interface has inspired a generation of apps, and still makes it one of the best in its category. Reeder also has support for more than a dozen ways to share stuff you’re reading, including old favorites like Pinboard. “Don’t worry, Reeder won’t die with Google Reader,” tweeted creator Silvio Rizzi.
Even if a third party can't come up with a decent RSS API, it's good to know that some options like Feedly and Newsblur are available to satiate the desires of those hungry for headlines instead of the casual "digital magazines" like Flipboard or Pulse. And now that Google doesn't have the market cornered, a lively new ecosystem of both apps and APIs should arise.