How to aggregate information from the Web (Part 2): reading RSS

Previously in Part 1* we looked at how RSS and Google Reader might help us put all the new information in a place for quick access. Today, let’s look at how we might be able to access the information on the go.

RSS reader apps and Reeder

I used to just use Google Reader in my browser, but I don’t have my laptop all the time; in fact, I read usually on the go when I only have my phone and iPad with me. Enter the need for a RSS reader app. Basically it’s an app that allows you to log in your Google Reader credentials so all the feeds that you have amassed will be found in the app. A good app should do the following:

  • Syncs with Google Reader (meaning it mirrors the feeds from Google Reader, and if I mark a feed as read in my app, it should be marked in Google Reader as well)
  • Allows for Read It Later/Instapaper integration – more on that later
  • Allows for sharing on FaceBook, Twitter and others
  • Allows me to mark a whole category as read (trust me, it’s useful when you are dealing with over a 100 feeds)
  • Allows me to read from oldest feed, or newest feed.

Previously I used NewsRack and it has worked fine for me. There’s also Pulse and Flipboard, but they work best for a small amount of feeds and leisure browsing (I’d admit they really look good); they are not built for fast skimming of 200+ feeds a day.

Then there’s Feedly, which I have been using for a while, and really loved. Except that there were several things I didn’t like about it, and switched.

I didn’t want to go back to Newsrack because it felt really dated. To be fair to it, it works really well and it actually allows you to manage feeds without logging onto Google Reader, meaning it is not a prerequisite to have a Google Reader account before using it.

Personally, I like to have my feeds managed on a Google Reader account and synced to the app, because when I change a reader app, all my changes stay; this will not be the case if I don’t use Google Reader. Nevertheless, it’s great for those who want an alternative.

So, what am I using now?

Say hello to Reeder.

The thing about Reeder is that beside being one of the prettiest RSS reader app out there, it’s very intuitive in the way it handles feeds: sort feeds by favorites, unread and feed sources; pinch in and out of categories; swipe to mark as read and to perform a special function (which I use to send to Instapaper). It also fulfills all I ask for in a good app.

There’s only one catch, and that is the inability to manage feeds subscriptions within the iOS app itself. Actually there’s two catches, with the second one being more expensive than NewsRack, because the iPad and iPhone apps are different, while the NewsRack app is universal. To overcome this, I bought the iPad app and read on my iPad solely (anyway I have my iPad with me almost all the time). Incidentally, I own the Mac app as well, and it’s equally gorgeous, and it can manage feed subscriptions.

Here’s some shots of how it looks like on the iPad.

IMG 0259

Reeder on the iPad

IMG 0260

List of feeds in Reeder on the iPad

Instapaper and Read It Later

Often we’d come across a great article that we want to keep for future reference, or simply further reading as we are kinda occupied at the moment. This is especially true when I skim through my feeds in the morning on the commute to sieve out things that interest me.

Here’s where Instapaper and Read It Later (RIL) come in. By the way, I was an RIL user but found instapaper to be much better with text, and switched.

As a care in point, here’s an example of how it all works out for me in a day.

As mentioned, I’d scan through my feeds in Reeder in the morning, and send those interesting-looking ones to Instapaper. When I get a reprieve in the day, I’d make a cup of coffee and sit down with Instapaper, reading through the articles that I have saved previously. This pretty much sums up my news reading for the day.

Here’s a primer on some nice touches in Instapaper; note that this is not a full review.

First, saved sites are formatted for reading (though sometimes it screws up because the page renders wrongly, but in that case I can just view the original site in a built-in browser). This is something RIL does as well.

IMG 0265

The original site in the in-built browser in Instapaper

IMG 0264

The same text as above formatted for reading in Instapaper

Second, Instapaper has quite a fair bit of options for customizing the reading experience, including a auto dark-mode (white text on black background) in accordance to your time-zone (it auto-switches at 7)

IMG 0266

Reading options in Instapaper

Also, In the main screen, there’s little dots at the bottom-right of each article to signify the length of the post: more dots, longer post. If I read the post halfway, the dots will be colored accordingly.

IMG 0267

Subtle dots to signify the length of a post in Instapaper

There’s also folders to organize your readings, and a “like” button which you can customize to send to services like Evernote or Twitter (note that if you send to Evernote, the URL will not be the original one but an Instapaper one. If you need the URL, save the article from Reeder or any RSS reader app and not from Instapaper).

Incidentally, Apple’s Reading List in the Safari 5 works pretty much the same (and coming soon to iOS 5), except that it cannot save out to external services yet. Also, unlike Instapaper or RIL which supports offline reading after loading, Reading List requires you to be connected as it’s just a list of sites.

A note about RSS

Recently, Jacqui Cheng wrote an article on Ars Technica about the problem with RSS**, and Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper chipped in***.  Ben Brooks then responded to both posts****.

All posts are worth a read, but in summary, Cheng’s argument is that RSS creates too much clutter for us, and having to (note the words) keep up is driving us insane. Arment takes a more balanced view, saying that

RSS is a great tool that’s very easy to misuse. And if you’re subscribing to any feeds that post more than about 10 items per day, you’re probably misusing it. I don’t mean that you’re using it in a way it wasn’t intended — rather, you’re using it in a way that’s not good for you.

Then Brooks made what I felt was the most important statement:

If you don’t like RSS don’t use it. If you want to use it but don’t want to have thousands of items, then use it like Marco does. Or use it like I do and check the feeds more often…

But don’t blame RSS.

My personal journey with RSS is somewhat like Cheng’s. Initially, I subscribed to news sites like Channel News Asia, The Straits Times, Reuters, CNN etc, but was quickly overwhelmed with the number of feeds a day (almost a thousand). Then I realized I don’t even read the papers; what makes me think I’d appreciate a boatload of feeds?

Then I killed the news feeds totally (apologies to my teachers who always told me to read the paper), relying on friends and the occasional news on TV to stay updated. One good thing about this is that if it’s a big enough news, sooner or later I’d know it. As a case in point, I knew about Michael Jackson’s death not from the news but from a friend’s Facebook feed.

I then subscribed to major tech news sources like CNET and PCWorld etc as I was well, a geek. Soon, I noticed that there’s a wealth of independent tech writers out there like John Gruber (Daring Fireball) and Ben Brooks (The Brooks Review), and added them to my RSS subscriptions.

Over time, I realized that the major tech news sources were duplicating each others’ news and similarly, when it was a big enough story, all independent writers would be writing about it, so I killed most of my major news feeds, and relied on independent writers more.

To make my skimming better, I created a few folders (you could create a ‘when I am free’ folder to the same effect) where I’d file RSS feeds which I could just mark all as read if I didn’t have the time, and hence focused on those I needed to read to get the best updates.

That’s the state of things for me now. In short, I’m mostly following independent writers with more original writings and regular, but not oppressive post schedules.

What it means for you, our reader

Try out RSS if you haven’t to follow even things like Manga updates. Start with Google Reader that is free, and move to dedicated apps when you are totally sold on RSS and need a more seamless and intuitive platform.

For tech news, follow us on Twitter where we repost curated news items from many major tech news sources (yes I still follow them, but only on Twitter). If you would like to stay updated on our posts, you can either subscribe to our RSS, or like us on Facebook (Tech bOOZE) to get our articles in your news feed.

That’s all for Part 2. In the last part to come soon, I’d post a list of (most of) my RSS subscriptions to get you started on RSS.

———-

*Part 1 can be found here, and Part 3 here.

**Why keeping up with RSS is poisonous to productivity, sanity

***Sane RSS Usage

****RSS Usage

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s