Google Reader vs Feed On Feeds

Google has just entered the world of RSS readers after having made a failed push for the alternate Atom protocol at the time they purchased Blogger. They have recently added RSS support to Blogger and now have the Google Reader available from Google Labs. I’ll review their new app against the rest of the RSS Reader world. Up until now the only reader that I have found worth my attention is Feed On Feeds. Its simple and fast interface meets all of my needs. Let’s see how they compare.

Google Reader
Feed On Feeds

In taking a look at Google Reader, I am immediately drawing comparisons against my current RSS reader, Feed On Feeds and any other readers that I’ve come across in my search for a decent reader. First and foremost, my requirement for a good RSS reader is usability across different systems: I want to be able to access the same exact setup from the office computer as I do from my home computer. This immediately precludes anything that is not web-based. I understand that if you have your own laptop system that you use everywhere you go, you can use something like NewsGator for Outlook, RSSBandit (my first reader – almost made me swear off feeds), FeedDaemon, BottomFeeder, or any other application-based RSS reader. Personally I can’t stand the idea of having my information locked up on a single system. This leaves web-based apps like Bloglines and Newgator Online. These are examples of feed services that offer free and premium versions. Like most businesses, the free versions are there, but with slightly less features or support or bandwidth than the paid versions. Another requirement I have is that my feed service be free, so in order to get all the features I want, these are immediately out of the running. Yeah, I’m cheap…tough.

My next requirement is that the interface allow you to hide read articles. This is something that immediately knocks myYahoo’s RSS capability out of the competition. I read so many feeds and see so many articles, that I don’t want to have to look at a page of links and try to remember what I’ve already read. In this respect it must be like existing email tools, and even this functionality comes to us from the Usenet readers of old. This all might sound like a lot of moaning and groaning about tiny faults, but operating a feed reader can be a lot like driving a car. Think about it, I’ll spend most of my web browsing, not in the actual sites themselves, but in the reader itself reading story summaries that may or may not entice me to click through to the story.

Google’s latest offering is something that people have anticipated for some time. It’s not much different than a mail or Usenet reader and they already have both. Overall their effort is pretty slick and usable right out of the box, but remember that I’m a little picky. The most immediate deficiency in the Google Reader is a lack of “mark all read” button for those times when you glance at the page after an hourly update and see nothing that you’re interested in reading. This is also good for the first time you set up your Google Reader account and add a ton of feeds that have articles you may have already seen, some from many months ago. At this time, if you have a long list of articles, you have to click Up or Down in the Home page for each and every one to make sure they all get marked as read. This means that given three stories, I would have to go down from the first twice to see the individual summaries and then potentially have to go back and mark some as unread if I decided that I wanted to read them later. Feed on Feeds has special “flag up to this item” links that allow one to make select articles Mark As Read, whether in the full aggregated list or in a specific feed, or even Mark All Read. This is really just a clever piece of Javascript that checks the boxes next to each article, so you can check those boxes off yourself, or in combination with Mark As Read to make sure the articles you no longer want to see are no longer there. I very rarely find myself going back and marking anything as unread, but the option is there. Extremely flexible, yet Google Reader has none of this. Points go to Feed On Feeds for having mature article management.

Portability. I can use Feed On Feeds from my Treo 600. Google Reader, not so much – not at all, in fact. Sure I don’t use this every day, but it’s nice for when you’re on the train or sitting down while you wait. This is a difficult juggling act, pushing the limits of AJAX/DHTML to provide people with powerful web apps vs the need to keep the interface light for those future webphones/iPodWeb devices. Although the Feed On Feeds frame interface doesn’t work so well on the Treo 600, I have to award points to Feed On Feeds for lightness.

Reblogging. Google Reader allows you to do a “Blog This!” action for select articles to push to your Blogger account. With the full support of Blogger, there is a lot you can do. This is not a stock option for Feed On Feeds, but with the Reblog patch I’ve been pushing, this is as easy as checking off a checkbox. However, there is no commenting option and it only produces another RSS feed. To compete, this would need to be expanded to interface with something like PHP-Nuke. The upcoming 0.50 version of Feed On Feeds is supposed to have a plugin capability that will allow it to add things like reblog capability, but that’s not so definite. These points go to Google Reader.

Email support. Feed On Feeds has no support for this, while Google Reader has a “Gmail this” action to forward stories. This is a small thing, because it is as easy as right-clicking on the story link in Feed On Feeds, selecting Copy Link Location in Firefox, and then pasting into GMail which I keep open anyway. Still, I love integration and this should be easy to do for a future Feed On Feeds version. Points to Google Reader.

Speed. Google Reader’s Lens interface is really slow and buggy, but it’s a beta and has many users accessing what is not a fully blown system. If they could speed that up, it might be usable for GMail as well to present a common Google interface. My Feed On Feeds setup is really fast, but I’m the only user on the system. The jury is out on this one, but I like fast. For now, Feed On Feeds wins this category.

Compactness. The Google Reader’s interface is very shiny and slick, but for usability I have to give points to Feed On Feeds for good use of space. The Your Subscriptions page of Google Reader comes closest to the Feed On Feeds frames view, but things are just too big in some spots. Google should consider different skins for the page if they intend to keep the default interface big, or at least a way to shrink fonts that doesn’t involve the browser settings. The Google Reader subscription page should make the “expand list” link a toggle, since one cannot expand a list that is already expanded, nor collapse a list that is already collapsed. The expanded list should offer an option for paging since my 78 feeds made the page unusable since everything appeared below the fold. I would prefer to see that size be adjustable, not between 7 feeds and all feeds, but between no feeds and N number of feeds. This would also get rid of the need for the separate Home page since it would effectively be the same thing once you pick All under labels.

Labeling and tagging. The current version of Feed On Feeds does not have this, but I’ve seen that the 0.50 version will clearly have it. I’m a big fan of the tagging and I think it will have a profound impact on how we store data, since it offers a closer approximation to a virtual folders model that presents views, rather than a rigid filing system. This seemed more chaotic at first, but one can quickly see the benefits when you realise that looking for information is really that…a search, and tagging facilitates search technology. For this same reason I’m a big fan of GMail over Yahoo! Mail. Both GMail and Google Reader offer support for Starring, but I haven’t personally found a good use for Starring since it amounts to nothing more than placing the message/article in a Star folder and at that point I might as well just have a Temp or Star tag to apply to it. It would be nice if there were different color stars that could be applied to signify priority or other such multiple meanings. Points go to Google Reader.

OPML support. In both tools I can import and export a list of feeds in OPML format. I easily took my list of feeds from Feed On Feeds, exported as a feeds.opml file, imported into Google Reader, and there I had my 78 feeds listed for me. This is a tie.

So how does it all add up? I really want to like the Google Reader, but the lack of “Mark All Read” or “Mark as Read” is crippling. The speed of the interface is also too slow – I’m just an impatient person. I’ll definitely take a look at the reader as time goes by and they head into the long long Google beta process, but for now I’m sticking with “old faithful”: Feed On Feeds.