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The State of Google Reader Replacements

With the imminent death of Google Reader, it’s time to fish for a new RSS syncing service or cut bait, so to speak. After 1 July 2013, without a last-minute call from Governor Larry Page, Google is flipping the switch and sending Reader to the land of abandoned Google initiatives.

When Google first announced the death of Reader, we took a look at the field of candidates available at the time, but frankly, it was a field that was dry and barren (see “Explore Alternatives to Google Reader,” 18 March 2013). Fever, a self-hosted solution, isn’t a top priority for its developer, Shaun Inman. Another one of our picks, Netvibes, is in sore need of an update.

The good news is that the developer community has come through, and there are now several compelling alternatives to Google Reader for those who want syncing of RSS subscriptions between devices, though all are far from complete. And our previous favorite, Feedly, even has some new flair to share. I’ve sorted through the competition to find the best choices that work for multiple platforms, have third-party support, and, if possible, follow sustainable business models.

If you haven’t done so already, be sure to export your existing Google Reader subscriptions to OPML. All the services we mention here will import Google Reader’s subscriptions.xml file for you, so be sure to hold on to your export until you’re good and settled.

Feedly — When we last checked in on Feedly, it was by far the best alternative to Google Reader: it’s free, multi-platform, and imports directly from your Google Reader account. We also mentioned back then that Feedly was building its own service, dubbed Normandy, to replace Google Reader for syncing. Feedly made good on its word, and as of 19 June, has moved away from Google to its own infrastructure. Congrats to the Feedly team on its prescience and quick action.

Feedly offers clients for the Web and iOS, but if you already have an RSS reader you’ve grown attached to, good news! Feedly has opened up its cloud API to third-party developers. On board are developers of Reeder, Mr. Reader, and Newsify. All apps are scheduled to be updated with Feedly support before the 1 July Google Reader cutoff. (In fact, Mr. Reader was updated on 26 June to support Feedly and other services.) To make Feedly even more attractive, it’s now supported by automation service IFTTT, enabling easy, automatic sharing of content to other services, such as
Twitter, Pocket, and Facebook.

If you don’t care to use a third-party app, then Feedly’s Web and iOS apps offer a number of themes and viewing options to tailor the experience. All three platforms let you view articles as a magazine, as a set of cards, or, for Google Reader refugees, as a list of headlines.

My previous caveat with Feedly was that it didn’t support exporting your feeds. Just in time for the shutdown, they’ve added that capability, so you’re free to move to other services as you like.

While Feedly has added the capability to view your feeds in a browser without a plug-in, there are other gaps to fill. There still isn’t a way to search in feeds and group sharing is still lacking. Those features are on the map for Feedly’s future.

For now, it’s certainly worth creating a Feedly account if you haven’t already done so. It’s free; has third-party syncing support; sports clients for desktop, iPhone, and iPad; and the developers are invested in the product. But I’m going to hold on to my Google Reader export until Feedly develops a concrete business plan.

Feedbin — A paid newcomer to the RSS market, Feedbin offers a simple interface and an API for developers for $3 a month. What I particularly like about Feedbin is that my RSS client of choice, Reeder, already supports it. However, Feedbin support is currently enabled only in the iPhone version of Reeder, with no support yet for the iPad and Mac clients. Luckily, the latest version of Mr. Reader for iPad also now supports Feedbin. Also, ReadKit for Mac has been updated to include Feedbin, among other services.

You can import your Google Reader feeds as OPML, though no direct import of Google Reader is supported. Just choose Settings, then Import/Export.

The Web experience should be familiar to users of Google Reader or Reeder. Feeds are organized as tags (folders) and also listed individually. Buttons in the left-most sidebar let you view all items or only unread items, and let you mark all items as read. New feeds can be added in a box at the top of the page, but there isn’t yet a directory of sites to follow.

Google Reader refugees will be pleased that Feedbin has mimicked all of Google Reader’s keyboard shortcuts, including navigation with J and K. In fact, other than some rendering issues, Feedbin is more attractive than Google Reader’s default interface. And after a recent server upgrade, it’s just as fast.

Viewing the Web interface on the iPad is another matter. It’s essentially a squeezed-down version of the desktop Web app. Touch works well enough, but the content itself gets squished when the iPad is in portrait mode. I recommend spending the extra $3.99 for Mr. Reader over using Feedbin’s Web interface.

Overall, I like Feedbin. The Web app is decent, and it’s already shaping up to have solid third-party support.

Feed Wrangler — Like Feedbin, Feed Wrangler is another paid alternative to Google Reader, with subscriptions costing $19 a year. Unlike with Feedbin, there’s a Feed Wrangler app for iPhone and iPad. Feed Wrangler was created by David Smith, author of Check the Weather, one of my favorite iOS weather apps.

Feed Wrangler takes a unique approach to feed management. There are no folders or tags to categorize feeds. Instead, Feed Wrangler uses what it calls Smart Streams to mash feeds together. Smart Streams are similar to smart playlists in iTunes, a group of feeds defined by search terms and/or by manually including feeds. While it’s powerful, I found clicking small checkboxes to add feeds to be unnecessarily fiddly — it’s easier to drag feeds into a folder. Feed Wrangler didn’t initially import your folders as Smart Streams,
but it now does, making setup much smoother.

Both the Web app and iOS apps are handsomely designed, with simple layouts and a nice selection of fonts. One nice touch is that the iOS apps have built-in support for the 1Password password management app. Even better, in addition to the expected sharing options like Instapaper and Pocket, Feed Wrangler supports sending items to Drafts, where you can manipulate and share content any way you like. However, as the good Dr. Drang points out, the Feed Wrangler app inexplicably supports only one
sharing service at once: Instapaper, Pocket, or Pinboard. If you’re not happy with the provided apps, the good news is that Feed Wrangler has a third-party API, and the developer of Reeder has already said that he will be adding support. The latest version of Mr. Reader for iPad now supports Feed Wrangler, as does ReadKit for Mac.

While I wasn’t crazy about Feed Wrangler at first, it may become my favorite of these services over time. The included apps are basic, but with third-party client support, and a Web app that’s easy on the eyes, Feed Wrangler shows a lot of promise.

NewsBlur — Samuel Clay’s NewsBlur is ostensibly a free service, but if you want to actually use it, you’ll need to shell out $24 a year. The free accounts have a long waiting list, and are limited to only 64 feeds.

Despite that, there’s a lot to like about NewsBlur. First, it includes a free app for iPhone and iPad, and although there’s no official desktop client, ReadKit for Mac supports the service.

Right away, you’ll notice that NewsBlur features a Web interface quite different from the competition. Feeds are grouped into folders, but you can also create subfolders, so you could have a folder labeled Tech, with a subfolder labeled Apple. There are also a number of viewing modes that let you view articles as a list of headlines, browse the text itself, or view the content on the original site.

One of the best features of NewsBlur is that it will report bad RSS feeds and offer methods to fix them. If an exclamation mark shows up next to a feed, that means the feed is broken. Click it, and you’ll be given options to search for a new feed or delete the feed entirely.

NewsBlur also features a filtering option called Intelligence Trainer, where you can tell NewsBlur what you like or dislike about any item in an RSS feed. While I haven’t used it enough to tell if it’s effective, Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter loves it. Alongside that are some interesting social features, such as built-in comments for articles from the NewsBlur community.

While NewsBlur has been well-received by the blog community, I’m just not crazy about it. I find its bevy of options more confusing than empowering. Feed Wrangler, while a pain to set up, offers a lot of power while being simple to use on a daily basis. NewsBlur makes me feel anxious at all the different switches and options, and its filtering options make me paranoid that I’m missing content. If I don’t want to read a feed, I just unsubscribe.

The Rest — Even as I write this, new RSS readers are being developed and released from seemingly every corner of the Internet. Even AOL and Facebook are getting into the game. Here are some of the more interesting highlights.

The Digg team has been working on its own reader, which is now available to everyone on the Web and iOS. The Web and iOS apps are slick, but there are a few problems. Digg Reader can import feeds from your Google Reader account, but there doesn’t appear to be an OPML import yet, nor is there an export. Also, I signed into both the Web and iOS apps from my Google account, but they don’t appear to be syncing with each other.

Despite those problems, the Digg app has become the one I reflexively open when I want to see the latest news. The combination of RSS feeds and Digg’s own curated content is a compelling duo, and I’ll be fascinated to see how Betaworks combines those with Instapaper (Digg owner Betaworks purchased Instapaper in April 2013; see “Betaworks Takes over Instapaper,” 25 April 2013). One feature that has me even more fascinated is that the Digg iOS app can adjust its theme based on room
lighting, a feature that Instapaper creator Marco Arment previously said was impossible with Apple’s restrictions.

Will iOS 7 and OS X 10.9 Mavericks eliminate the need for RSS entirely? A new feature coming to Safari’s reading list is Shared Links, which extracts every tweet from your Twitter timeline that features a link. If you’re a power user who wants to go down this route, there’s a Launch Center Pro action to create custom Tweetbot searches to include just the news
sources you choose.

The team at Black Pixel has released the beta for NetNewsWire 4 for Mac, which has been rebuilt to no longer use Google Reader for syncing. The bad news is that there’s no longer any syncing at all, and the iOS apps have been pulled from the App Store while Black Pixel rewrites them for iOS 7. However, the beta is free, imports from Google Reader, and is super fast. The app will cost $20 on release, but you can currently pre-order it for $10. While not a good solution for now, it has a lot of promise, so I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

Our Advice — Average users will be happy with Feedly, as it’s free, has good cross-platform support, and should have support from a slew of third-party readers in the future. While Feedly is set to become the 800-pound gorilla of feed readers, I would suggest keeping an export of your Google Reader subscriptions just in case.

I’m leery of Feedly due to its lack of a coherent business model. If that’s important to you, Feedbin, NewsBlur, and Feed Wrangler are worth the price of admission. Which you choose is a matter of taste. Feedbin comes closest to the Google Reader experience and is supported by Reeder on iPhone, Mr. Reader on iPad, and ReadKit for Mac. NewsBlur features native apps for all three platforms and powerful filtering features, but no third-party iOS support yet. Like Feedbin, Feed Wrangler has native apps on all three platforms, and I really like its iOS apps.

Personally, I think I’ll be switching to Feedbin full time. It has easy setup, a familiar interface, native apps for all three Apple platforms, and a sustainable business model. Plus, the developer, Ben Ubois, is friendly and responsive. (And a big fan of TidBITS — I love to support our developer-readers!) However, with its recent price increase from $2 to $3 a month and the fact that Feed Wrangler now imports your folders, it’s a less-attractive option now.

I’d like to take a moment to congratulate the developer of Mr. Reader for iPad, who rushed to add support for Feedly, Feedbin, Fever, and Feed Wrangler. That level of support alone should be worth the $3.99 price. Along the same lines, I’d like to also cheer the developer of ReadKit for Mac. With support for NewsBlur, Feedbin, Feed Wrangler, Fever, and even Pocket and Instapaper, it’s shaping up to become a must-have reading app for the Mac.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed in Reeder. The iPhone version has been updated to support Feedbin and Fever, with other services coming very soon, but the iPad and Mac apps will not be updated prior to the 1 July shutdown, and will be pulled from the App Store. Also, all three versions are now free, making me wonder whether the developer, Silvio Rizzi, is sufficiently interested in continued development.

Of course, there are many, many more alternatives out there. I focused on those with the best multi-platform support for now. If you’d like to see the rest of the field, check out ReplaceReader, which lists all of the alternatives, and ranks them by number of Twitter mentions.

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