Why RSS Feeds and alternatives to Google Reader

When reading about Google Reader closing down on 1. July, I was in panic because to stay on top of the news (mostly IT specific news in my case), I was depending on Google Reader. I was depending on Google Reader because I am depending on RSS feeds.

Google writes (in the article linked above):
"While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. So, on July 1, 2013, we will retire Google Reader."
I would never have imagined a decline of use in RSS (and I assume that the decline of Google Reader usage also means a decline in using RSS in general because it is very hard to find good alternatives for Google Reader). And therefore before diving into the alternatives I want to - no, I need to - go into the advantages of using RSS feeds first. And although there are plenty of articles about Google Reader alternatives out there, it was very hard for me to find the proper substitute and this is the reason why I decided to write yet another article about this topic.

The reasons why I am depending on RSS:
  • Knowledge is power
    Information overflow is a problem these days. Recently I was asked (again) why one should - in these days - foster information overflow even more by opening even more channels where the too much of information rushes in.
    Information (as long it is not misleading or wrong) can be a life changer. You want samples? Think of a company investing in technology that is about to be obsolete (like Adobe flash) loosing a lot of time and money investing into the wrong product, think of a friend who found his spouse over the internet, think of going on a cheap vacation not knowing about risk of war in the appropriate country. Oh and another example I have experienced already several times: I get informed by RSS feed about food that gets withdrawn from market because polluted or containing toxic bacteria and strangely I sometimes see them on sale in the supermarket the day after I've read the article. Who has the knowledge has the edge over the others!
    The problem is not the information, the challenge is the appropriate filtering of information! And RSS feeds help!
  • Time and information
    I do not have the time to visit each single website or blog providing (probably) interesting information. Many sites and blogs do publish very important or very interesting information - from time to time.
  • More efficient scrolling through articles
    Many sites do publish a lot of information, but I am interested only in a few articles, so searching through many articles to find one or two interesting ones is annoying. An RSS reader (be it through the web or a local application) allows more efficient scrolling through articles.
  • Different user interfaces of websites and blogs
    Different sites have different GUI (graphical user interface) and different layout. Visiting the sites one by one also implies being familiar with many different user interface styles. Many of them are not very efficient or it is difficult to find the information.
  • Ads, bulk and other time and space wasters
    Even if you use an ad blocker in your browser often big graphics already consume a third of your screen distracting from the core information. Not only because of big graphics, but also because of many third-party service-sites (like Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, Adthis, Sharebar, ...) that are integrated on websites/blogs those sites take longer to load and having you to wait for the content that ... maybe then isn't so interesting today (while tomorrow may show a very interesting story that makes it worth waiting).

The reasons why I was using Google Reader (= the 5 core requirements of the substitute):
  1. In-Sync-View on the Laptop/Web and on the mobile device (so what I've already seen on my mobile phone did not get presented when reading news on my laptop - one of the most important features for me).
  2. List view option for feeds - I hate the hyped square interface. I want to read from top to bottom - that's it.
  3. Simple and efficient user interface for dealing with the news fast.
  4. Fast and reliable feed loading.
  5. Nearly identical user interfaces on the web and on the mobile device - or at least not lacking core functionality. (Mobile device in my case is Android, Mac and iPhone users, when reading this article, Apple-only alternatives are left out here).
Reasons 1 and 2 are a must have  for me, but found that not having 3 and 4 can also drive me mad in minutes. So, now you are understanding the focus I had while choosing the alternative, here are my proposals:
  • Feedly
    Feedly was the first alternative I got aware of and I observed it was the first alternative where the masses took refuge. However, I wondered if it will continue to work after Google Reader shutdown as it seemed to be just a front-end for Google Reader. Indeed they were (or are still while writing this) relying on Google Reader but developed a new backend on their own - see comments here. Not sure if the transition will work flawlessly and if the performance can be kept due to massive increase in amount of users. While I also find it one of the best alternatives, I am not as convinced as most of the others.
    Pros: Many features, mobile app (for Android, iOS, Kindle), similar GUI, laptop stays in sync with mobile app.
    Cons: Needs a plugin for Firefox (why the hack?), No mobile interface via browser only, even no https connection, Don't see how many articles still left to scroll through (no scrollbar) on mobile app. When I want to share an article link via K-9 mail (or other mail app than GMail) from within Feedly it does not transfer the article title as email-subject which is quite annoying. Further it restarts accidentally when returning from another app back to feedly (e.g. browser view - does not happen always) which is even more annoying.
  • netvibes (= Bloglines - same GUI, same login)
    Pros: Clean, simple and compact web interface, additional widgets in addition to rss feeds. Also looks ok and is usable on mobile device in browser being very, very similar to Google Reader - but only with default browser and Dolphin (Firefox and Opera Mini displayed it totally different and it was total crap). Videos are displayed directly in the article detail view.
    Cons: No dedicated mobile client and using some browsers (in particular Firefox and Opera Mini) you get complete crap. Due to mobile app missing, it does not offer any enhanced features via menu button (normal browser menu displayed). Limited share options given (Mail, even multiple clients plus Twitter and Facebook).
  • RSSly
    Seems to use Tiny-Tiny-RSS (which you can also install on your own server, if you have enough permissions there - see below).
    Pros: Many features, mobile app, similar GUI on laptop and mobile phone, laptop stays in sync with mobile app, display in browser on mobile device is also very good (Dolphin and Firefox - which is seldom - see below), many features including list of not responding feeds or feeds that seem abandoned as well as filter settings to filter out spam posts.
    Cons: It took me a good while to find out, how articles are marked as read on the mobile device. It does not work automatically, but when you do it manually it had unexpected effects until I found out, that doing it on the first page marks the first 30 entries as read and on the last page it marks the complete feed as read. On the mobile device I have cannot switch between show all articles or only unread of a feed. And RSSly seems to load feeds respond to article clicks a little slower than Feedly. I could also not get it to display article title only without abstract on mobile device.
  • Fever°
    This is not free and no hosted service. You can buy it for about 30$/23€ and host it on your webserver. I took the risk and bought it. Installation was very easy. I only had to temporarily disable PHP securiy settings on admin interface on my hosters website for my page (for the time of installation and activation).
    Pros: This is then yours, no risk of the next RSS service closing down. Clean interface, some extra features (kindling and sparks) to make your RSS experience even more efficient.
    Cons: You need a web server with PHP support for it. If you don't have a web host with your domain then you cannot use this. Mobile client meltdown for Android still missing some features and available only for Android 4.0 and later. Refresh of feeds is not done in background (you can cron it but in my hosting case I can only cron it once in the night) and I experienced it also to be slow.
  • The Old Reader
    Pros: HTTPS connection supported. Simple - no other clutter than plain RSS feeds. Few but clean settings, you will be familiar with it fast.
    Cons: No mobile client (yet). When importing my feeds it queued me up after 12 other users. This makes me worry if they have enough servers to have my feeds stay on top of the news. Although they say that their mobile web interface is good, I had already troubles logging in from my smaller phone (small screen) and categories were completely missing and similar issues here when using Firefox or Opera Mini (complete crap is the result).

What I also looked at but excluded from closer investigation and why:
  • Pulse
    Pulse has a mobile client but no simple list view of the news feeds - they always use the squares or rectangulars and I am never sure about the direction into which to read. Also I could not find a button to set a feed to completely read. So this lacks a lot of important switches in my opinion.
  • NewsBlur
    Free version has limits which I already exceed when importing my current feeds from Google Reader.
  • Mocharoll (=former Blogroll)
    Failed importing my RSS feeds from Google Reader (took a very long time and I then gave up first. Looking back later it had imported my feeds but I had no chance to switch to list mode instead of the square view. And in general configuration options are not really existing. Also refreshing problems - so didn't look either how it behaves on the mobile device.
  • Feederator
    Looked similar to netvibes or TheOldReader, but could not find a method for importing opml files or my Google Reader feeds.
  • Good Noows
    Looked nice on my laptop, but mobile view again awful (does not wrap around text. On the laptop I also had problems getting a complete feed beeing set to read. At least it supports https connection (not all of the online services do).
  • Tiny-Tiny-RSS
    As for Fever, TT-RSS is not a hosted server. It is free, but you have to install it on your own server. I could not test it because it said that it requires open_basedir turned on which seems to be disabled by my host.
  • CommaFeed
    Looks simple but already on Dolphin sucks in display (too small but when you zoom into it, display gets mangeled.
  • Flipboard
    Mobile app only - no sync-view between mobile app and laptop.
  • Feed2Imap
    Self-hosted solution, so requires your own server and then forwards RSS news items as mails into an IMAP account. I am not sure, if my hoster supports ruby and I did not want to introduce another protocol (RSS->Mail) where again something can go wrong.
  • feeder.co
    For what I need, I would need the variant that costs monthly fee.
  • FeedBooster
    Online-Reader only with https capability but no specific mobile device/browser adapted display.
  • Flud
    Seems to have a web plus mobile client but people reporting stability problems of the mobile app and pricing is not completely clear to me (maybe because this is not 100% RSS focused) so I refused testing this.
  • news360
    Web and mobile app but no possiblity to add your own RSS feeds - just what you get from them.
  • More alternatives here...
    I skipped everything in testing that obviously
    - syncs with Google Reader (and hence die with it)
    - does not have any sync option
    - does not have a mobile app or at least a useful mobile web stylesheet in use to show an adapted GUI for small screens
    - costs money on a monthly basis
    - does not have a list view for articles
So despite this long list of alternatives (Feed2Imap apart, I have listed only those I have also tested), in reality there are 4 which are fairly useful for me: Feedly, RSSly, netvibes and Fever. All the others had too many (for me important) flaws. I have Fever up and running and I feel good with it - as it is mine (nobody can shut down the RSS-service). However, best efficiency is given by Feedly and netvibes. Reading this (Feedly gets Unity webapp integration in Ubuntu) was one reason to go with Feedly for the next weeks. I still feel bad about it's desire to read my Google profile but I hope that will be gone when they synchronize with their own alternative but with Google Reader - currently Feedly still remains in sync with Google Reader. I can work around the mailing issue with the subject by first opening it in the external browser (there is an option for this in the advanced settings) and send the link from there. What I find more alarming: Feedly already thinks of asking money for the service. They already created a survey for that. Anyway, I have 3 other alternatives now I can immediately switch to and this gives me some feeling of safety.

Related post: Efficiently following web news with RSS.