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News aggregators: aggravating

Thursday, 4 October 2012

I'm told that tablet users read more news and in more depth. That certainly matches my experience. I can spend an hour or more checking out RSS feeds and news collection apps each day. I'm also doing it for this review.

Most of the time I use what are known as aggregators, which usually take the RSS feeds offered by many news sources and repackage them to make them easier to browse.

Some of these aggregators just take your subscriptions from Google Reader, while others offer their own repackaging of sources or allow you to specify the feeds you want to read.

They are all great time wasters, akin to reading every story in the newspaper. Even if you don't read every article, you still frequently need to scan the headline and its explanation (often a click away) to know whether you want to go further.

Here is my quick summary of what each of these sources has to offer.


Rating: ++++
Cost: Free with iPad2

This is the App that sold me on the iPad2 – after I'd bought it, of course. This, I thought, is how we want our news: an introductory para, with the ability to get the full version if we want it. I loved the high-res photos with vibrant colors I couldn't get on my laptop, since I rarely allowed them to take over my whole screen. A while later, after a month perhaps, I didn't tap on the Flip button quickly enough and thus got the treat of those moving panoramic photo covers.

What I don't like

At first I was disturbed by the way introductory paras would break off arbitrarily, it seemed. And not all expansion pages worked in the sme way. I'd have also preferred more choice than ReadItLater to save pages. Now, after a year, I am even more bothered by the limited choice of sources, and I'd rather like the option to see stories as a simple list à la Google Reader. I couldn't care less about sending my favorites to Twitter (though some people might, and mark down Safari for this). I just don't believe the material is unusual enough to be worth passing on publicly. But I am intrigued by the Content Curators section, an aggregation of aggregators. Inside Flipboard is also worth browing for updates on the constantly changing offerings.

I also have to admit that I rarely use it these days. I have moved on to more specific aggregators (such as Zite and FeeddlerPro), so that the flash and bling of Flipboard no longer has the same appeal. If only I had access to it in every doctor's office. National Geographic and the gossip mags would be out of business.


Rating: ++++
Cost: $4.99/Free (Ads)

FeeddlerPro, a product of a wouldbe entrepreneur from San Francisco Bay (Che-Bin Liu), looks a lot like Google Reader, but it has a number of really great additions.

First, there is a Lite version (with unobtrusive ads) that you can use to try out the news reader without having to pay for the Pro version immediately, which is what I did.

Second, and really important, Feeddler (don't ask me what that second d is doing in there: feedler is not a rival website. Perhaps the d stands for the really dumb things Feeddler does with all the benefits I am about to list from this news reader):

Anyway, great addition no 2: Feeddler has Evernote and Delicious as well as ReadItLater and Instapaper, email, Facebook, Twitter and email options for saving and tagging items as well as opening them in Safari.

But you can't specify another browser if you don't like Safari, and Feedler doesn't bunch stories on the same topic together.

It saves to Evernote but gives you no choice of notebook or tags. So you have to open Evernote afterwards to reorganize your files from your default Evernote notebook.

But it also synchs with Dropbox.

It has a good text viewer with the facility to switch over to a Full Text enhanced view, which for most purposes is all you need. It is an easy way to send clean text to Evernote, for example.

Once you switch over to page view you can arrow forward or back through this full view.

So it is down there in my Favorites bar, despite my preference for the next newsreader.


Rating: ++++
Cost: Free

Currently my favorite aggregator, or would be if I didn't rely so much on Feeddler. It announces itself as allowing you to make your own newspaper, but one of its best tricks is to format your Twitter subscriptions and Facebook wall into straightforward, readable columns. Made in Montreal, Canada. It removes all adds from web pages.


Rating: ++++
Cost: Free

In close competition with Smartr and Feeddler is Feedly.

This doesn't depend on Google Reader for its links. It has a My Feedly section and a Saved for Later folder.

The choice of non-Google feeds is also smart, including an IKEA-Hacker feed of how to use the furniture to meet your needs for cat protectors, a closet for the landing or advent calendar.

When you switch to your feeds, Feedly offers suggestions of others you might like. It has a history button to recall items you've read.The pages are neat and orderly. You can toggle between black and white backgrounds.

So why doesn't it go to the top of the list? Well, you have to guess that you find the IKEA Hackers under Essentials / Deco rubrics. A few more buttons would help.

But its website announces a version for firefox free, too.

Since we are getting into lesser products, you might want to check out Twit TV's special show on RSS readers.

Google Reader, Google Search, G-Whizz

Rating: +++
Cost: Free /G-Whizz $2.99

Google Reader is the one reviewers love to hate. So many readers depend on it. It is as ugly as most Google products (i.e. all the ones I have seen). It does what it is supposed to. It is tucked away in the Google Bar.

As an App it sort of gives you what you need but awkwardly and frustratingly (one line cut-off summaries of stories, for example, unless you realize that an “Expanded View” icon allows you to switch away from List View). How on earth do you mark items as Read (rhymes with Dead)?

What the Twit TV people recommend for iPad is the Google Search App. This cleans up the look of the reader but requires you to tap on Applications to get to the reader icon.

For me it has the drawback that you cannot store items except by opening up Safari and using ReadItLater from there.

G-Whizz offers one-click access to Reader and to News, with the familiar Webkit-powered view of the items (as in Google Reader). You can save items immediately to ReadItLater, but the app seems to close immediately as well.

Perfect RSS

Rating: +++
Cost: $1.99 /FREE

Apparently an early front runner among aggregators, it boasts a “unique gallery mode for photo browsing”, offline browsing, sharing with even more sites than Feeddler, and extended “gesture support” including triple taps (part of what you pay for).

I'm not sure how many of these you'd use but Connect Technology is smart enough to offer a free version as well, and Chinese, Japanese and Polish (!) in addition to English. I think it offers a better website translator than Feeddler (the text comes in a more readable size). It has an easy reading button (an armchair) that produces a neat version of the page.

For those who like sharing links, you can add a note to the item you are flagging. You can also set the reader to give you a summary of up to six lines after the headline. When you send an item to Evernote, it opens up the application. Better than simply posting it to the default notebook, but it is not what I wanted.

So many good features.

But despite its elegance, Perfect RSS doesn't really offer much more than a spruced up Google Reader (still worth the $2 in my view). I haven't used the photo browsing and can't see how to get to it. Or how to mark items individually as read. A single help page would improve this App so much.


Rating: 0
Cost: was $4.99 or free

This looked like a good idea, offering a FlipBoard redesign of feeds, with articles preprocessed on the serverside (faster), insted of processing only the articles you add to your reading list. But the developer in Spain pulled the plug on 2 November. “I can't justify the time I'm investing in it any more. Having a service like Printful requires very expensive servers … almost impossible,” he wrote on his website.

He also had a lot of difficulties getting the App to work properly. My list had 1562 items in its cache and no way to get rid of them, it seemed. Others complained of the same problem. Alberto said this was an unusual problem. When I tried to add my voice to the complainers, it proved impossible to do so.

Apple didn't offer my 30% back. Another way in which iTunes is not like a real store.



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