When I started writing about mobile devices, I found the best way to track the latest events was to follow a number of my favorite websites. Unfortunately, the number of websites I followed grew, and eventually, my entire morning commute was spent jumping from one site to the next gathering information. There simply had to be a better way… and as I soon learned, there was. It was not long before I finally discovered the little orange button which hovers on the side of virtually every website I read. Of course, I am referring to the RSS feed button.
As most readers know by now, RSS (or Really Simple Syndication) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works. They allow readers to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place and read them using "RSS reader" software. Discovering the RSS button was like the cavemen discovering fire. All of a sudden, I was able to read all of the news from my favorite sites quickly and easily in one convenient location.
The iPad, with its unique interface capabilities, offers a myriad of opportunities for developers to both expand upon traditionally formatted RSS readers, and expand the genre in all new directions, which would never have been possible with a desktop computer. (Note: Unless otherwise indicated, the RSS readers mentioned in this article are "universal" apps, available for both the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch.)
Before we get started, just a quick note about syncing feeds. For a long time now, I have been using Google's GReader (google.com/reader) as my home base for RSS feed subscriptions. As such, one of my first criteria for an RSS reader app is that it be able to tap into and sync with GReader. This is the best way to ensure that all of my readers across multiple platforms agree on which articles I have read, not read, or saved. It also saves me from spending hours inputting the feed information into each device individually. As such, all of the readers included in this article allow you (but do not necessarily require you) to sync with GReader.
Anyone who has used a desktop RSS reader is probably familiar with the traditional style RSS readers, which consists of a list of feeds (generally on the left) and list of headlines or blurbs filling the rest of the screen. The readers in this section all tend to follow this traditional layout and design.
Byline (Universal) (free, app2.me/2910) and GoReader for iPhone/iPad ($4.99, app2.me/3923) both start with a list of feed folders on the left. Included with this list are your Google functions (starred items, notes, etc.). Although both of these apps followed a similar approach, I found Byline had a slightly cleaner approach. GoReader was organized using tabs for the folder headers. While I liked that idea, the execution could have been better. The tabs were too skinny to be easily tapped with a finger, meaning I frequently missed and tapped the wrong item on the screen. Byline, on the other hand, utilizes collapsible menus that can be expanded to show all of the feeds in the folder.
Feeddler RSS Reader Pro ($4.99, app2.me/3924; free version also available) and NewsRack ($4.99, app2.me/279) took a similar, but slightly different approach. In these apps, only the folders show on the left-hand column on the main screen. From here, instead of expanding the list, tapping on a folder will switch the sidebar to a list of feeds contained in that folder
All four of these traditional-style RSS apps allow you to open the article in Safari, copy the link for use elsewhere, or e-mail the article to a friend. Feeddler added another option, allowing you to share via Facebook. Building on these options further, NewsRack adds Instapaper, Read It Later, Twitter, and Delicious connectivity to the mix. GoReader offers the best collection of sharing tools, adding Tumblr and more. This was absolutely fantastic. Still, I was surprised by a few notable omissions from these apps, like Evernote, Sugarsync, Dropbox, or even LinkedIn. As robust as some of these sharing options were, there is a great deal more which can (and should) be added.
Interface: Alternate Formats
In addition to the familiar traditional-style RSS feed reader, the iPad's unique and powerful environment allow developers to move far beyond what we have seen before, offering a myriad of creative approaches to RSS feed reading.
When I started using the iPad, my immediate first thought was that it would be great if an app could display my RSS feeds in a newspaper-like format. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way, as it was not long before Glasshouse Apps came out with their exquisite Early Edition ($4.99, iPad only: app2.me/2908). The app even allows you to view your feeds in sections, just like a real newspaper. Of course, this app improves upon a standard newspaper, allowing you to share any article straight from the app, via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, and more.
I absolutely loved the idea behind Blogshelf ($0.99, iPad only: app2.me/3925), an app that puts all of your feeds into a bookshelf-style format. Unfortunately, the app's execution did not quite live up to the promise of this idea. Blogshelf turns each feed into its own "book" on display on a "shelf," allowing you to navigate through your feeds and select the one you wish to read. Everything here worked fine, but I was a little disappointed by the presentation, which shows random pictures for the covers of most feeds. Additionally, while it does sync with GReader, adding feeds from your GReader account can be a bit more complicated than necessary.
Sliders are the most popular non-traditional format for RSS readers. I absolutely loved this approach; when done properly, it really utilizes every aspect of the iPad's screen and resources. It presents a logical and intuitive approach to RSS feed readers.
The best variations of this slider approach to RSS readers are displayed in FLUD (free, iPhone/iPod touch: app2.me/3926; iPad: app2.me/3927) and Pulse News (free, iPhone/iPod touch: app2.me/2912; iPad: app2.me/2913).
In both apps, each feed appears as a separate slider. Scroll vertically to find the feeds you wish to read, and then scroll horizontally through each feed until you find an article that catches your interest. The two apps part ways slightly in their organization. While FLUD gives you an endless list of feeds, Pulse gives you five pages, each of which can hold 12 feeds. It would be nice if Pulse allowed you to add additional pages for a longer list of feeds. Both apps do a fantastic job of sharing, allowing you to share apps via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. Pulse also provides users with an online storage space, allowing you to preserve your favorite articles for later reading.
A slightly different approach to the slider format is used in Cross Reader (free, iPhone/iPod touch: app2.me/3929; iPad: app2.me/3928). In this app, you get a single horizontal scroll across the middle of the screen, with an entry for each of your feeds. Tap any feed to bring up a vertical scroll with all of the latest news from that feed source. Tap any article to begin reading. While this offered a clean and creative approach, it really had quite a lot of wasted space on the main screen.
Slide Reader ($4.99, iPad: app2.me/3931; free, iPhone/iPod touch: app2.me/3930) takes a slightly different, but no less effective approach. The left half of the screen displays individual sliders for each of your feeds. Like the other apps in this category, just slide the row to scroll through your feeds. The biggest difference between Slide Reader and other apps like FLUD or Pulse is that the content/articles are all contained in the right hand side of the screen. This means you can scroll through other feeds without jumping away from the article you are currently reading. This is a real marriage of the old world traditional readers and the new world slider-style readers. Meanwhile, you can select any feed display entry on the unread feed side of the screen, thus displaying a traditional style list of the articles in that feed alone. Slide Reader also allows you to share any feed via a myriad of service, most notably e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook.
Reeder ($4.99, iPad: app2.me/2909; $2.99, iPhone/iPod touch: app2.me/276) offers a wholly unique approach, based upon the common pinch gesture. The main screen here features folders that represent the feed categories in your GReader account. Use the pinch gesture to open any folder to display tiles representing the feeds within that folder. Pinch any feed to display a floating window listing all of the articles contained therein. These pinch controls worked great, though I have to admit that I was somewhat confused by all of the buttons along the side. They were too small to be finger-friendly, and were not well labeled. Nonetheless, once I got the hang of the interface and controls, I really appreciated the fairly extensive array of sharing options. This may not be the most intuitive or user-friendly app for reading. However, I really appreciated the creative approach this one utilized, as well as their unique utilization of the iPad's full screen and resources.
Variety of approaches impressive!
What really impressed me was the wild variety of approaches various developers took with these apps. In the desktop world, every RSS feed reader pretty much follows the same traditional formula. Not so with the iPad apps. Developers have found creative and original ways to fully utilize the iPad's massive screen resolution and powerful resources. RSS feed readers have come a long way in the short time the iPad interface has been available. It should be interesting to keep watching and see how the developers in this genre will continue to innovate the reading and sharing experience.