Despite the fact that Web apps are viewed by some as the ugly stepchild of the iPhone, my most-used app is Google Reader. It’s like Marvelous Marvin Hagler—the fantastic, undisputed middleweight boxing champion back in the 1980s—because it’s so much better than its rivals. Part of the reason it’s such a great app is that Google has regularly and lovingly tweaked it, adding niceties that make it easier to use and features that bring it ever closer to the capabilities of its desktop counterpart.
Even though Google Reader is a Web app, it consistently feels zippier to work with than native RSS reader apps. Google reader is especially quick with its display of article summaries and full articles provided by RSS feeds, and when navigating between different feed folders.
Google Reader has a number of other stand-out features. For example, it refreshes just the relevant section of a page when you star an item or expand out from an item’s title to its summary view. This helps speed things up. Also, it’s easy to access other Google Web apps (Gmail, Google Docs, Calendar, etc.) from Google Reader via the slender bar at the top of the screen. I also like the placement of the Refresh, Feeds, and Mark All As Read buttons at the top and the Feeds and Mark These Items As Read buttons at the bottom; it makes it easy to access these features. Finally, there is very little that you can do with a full desktop browser that you can’t do on the iPhone. All in all, Google Reader is a superb iPhone application.
Google Reader and other RSS reader apps are my primary (and many days my only) source of news about the world and the topics I find most interesting, including technology, mobile tech, and the iPhone platform. Increasingly, I spend the lion’s share of my time on the iPhone, whether it be catching up with feeds at night during TV commercial breaks, before nodding off to sleep, or as part of a slow wake-up routine first thing in the morning. In doing so, I’ve learned a lot about the many RSS options available for the iPhone.
Other RSS solutions for the iPhone
Despite my love for Google Reader, I’m interested in other RSS options and have tried out many native RSS apps. Since Google Reader is my primary RSS solution, lack of support for Google Reader is a deal-breaker for me. By support I mean full two-way Google Reader sync, not just one-time import. Some users will be satisfied with a standalone RSS app—one that is used only on the iPhone and does not synchronize with an online RSS service. For me, Google Reader support is vital. I need to be able to star items on the iPhone and know they’ll show up as starred when I check things on my desktop browser. (Starring an item places it in your “Starred Items” feed, which marks an item I want to come back and read later on.) I also need to be certain that when I “share” an item, it will appear in all the services that “pull” directly from my Shared Items page (Friendfeed for example).
With all this in mind, here’s a brief rundown of a few native iPhone RSS apps that I’ve looked at. All of these are available in the iTunes App Store.
Byline was the very first native RSS app I tried on the iPhone. It is among the most stable of all iPhone RSS apps—it very rarely crashes or freezes up—and it usually does what it promises it will do. It offers full two-way sync with Google Reader, allowing you to star and share items, e-mail items, and create and share notes. It also has landscape mode, an inline browser to view full posts, and an offline reading capability.
I’ve used Byline off and on over many months, but never frequently. I’ve never considered it a replacement for Google Reader because of its very plain-looking UI and lack of any special features that might make common tasks easier. Finally, it’s a bit slow when opening articles—not terribly so, but enough to notice.
- Milo Bird
- Phantom Fish
BoltReader also has a plain UI with muted colors and a grayscale look in various places. Its sync routine is divided into two parts: feeds and images. The syncing process is fairly slow, but you can view folders that are already updated while syncing is in progress.
BoltReader has a clumsy way of handling the Mark All As Read command when browsing feeds. You have to tap an Options button, tap a button to mark all the items as read, select OK to a confirmation dialog, wait up to 10 seconds for a confirmation message, and tap OK again. Mark All As Read is easily the most-used command on an RSS reader—this is a bit much.
There are a few other irksome things about BoltReader. First, it doesn’t remember your place when you exit and re-launch the app. For example, if you have to answer a call and then go back to the app, you end up at the default folders view. You have to go find the article you were reading and the spot where you left off. It also displays feed folders that have no new or unread items in them. This creates unnecessary clutter in your feeds listing and there is no configuration option to change this. Finally, I found that BoltReader crashed or froze up on me relatively often, and frequently during a sync operation.
- Hua Luo
Doppler is the most solid performer of all the native RSS apps I’ve tried. It has almost never crashed or hung up during operation. It includes a fairly attractive browser that presents individual feed items well. It also has a good range of action buttons for use with feed items, located along the bottom of the screen. These allow you to share or e-mail the item, open it in Safari, share it with a note, star it, or mark it as unread.
Doppler offers a good range of settings and options. For example, you can choose to only show unread posts, not display images, and show feeds in “river of news” mode. This mode presents all feed items in one stream instead of organizing them into separate folders, which requires you to browse each folder separately.
Doppler’s only real weaknesses are common to other native RSS apps; syncing is slower and overall performance is less snappy than on the Google Reader app.
- Erwin van Hunen
Feeds has the most attractive interface of any of the native readers. There are options to change its default theme colors, but I’m quite happy with how it comes. Its inline browser is fast-loading and easy on the eyes. The app is fairly solid, crashing rarely, and offers you standard choices of actions you can take on a feed item (star, share, etc.).
My favorite feature is that it lets you save an item to Instapaper, an excellent offline reading program for the iPhone. I also like the fact that all but one feed action item can be accessed from one of the large buttons at the bottom of the screen. I also appreciate the ability to turn off confirmations when marking all items as read (a huge plus for browsing feeds quickly) and the ability to add tags to feed items.
Even though I like parts of this app, Feeds can still be improved. For example, it only displays “syncing all items” during synchronization—it needs to display a progress bar. Also, like BoltReader, it displays feed folders that contain no new or unread items—it needs to have an option that lets you turn this off. Finally, it is sometimes inaccurate. For example, it often shows a feed as having a handful of unread items when really there are none—in some cases even when the feed’s last update was months ago.
- Mike DeSaro
- (developer Web site does not mention program)
Sticking with Google Reader
Of the native RSS reader apps I tested, Feeds and Doppler show enough promise to keep around for a while. I hope their developers add new features and find ways to improve their performance in future versions of the programs. Until they do, I’m sticking with Google Reader.