iPhone Gems: Every RSS Reader, Reviewed
For those who like to stay as up-to-date as possible with their favorite sites, news, and time-wasters, RSS has become an invaluable online tool. It comes as no surprise, then, that there are no less than 11 RSS reader applications currently available for the iPhone and iPod touch. Ranging from extremely impressive to extremely disappointing, and from free to download to a price of $10, there’s a large variety in this group of apps, which should ensure that there will be something to meet each user’s needs. To see the best of the pack, check out Manifesto and Newsstand.
As a simple RSS reader, azRSS NewsReader ($2) falls short of the competition due to a questionable interface and a lack of common, user-friendly features. The app’s main screen lists subscribed feeds along with a “Feeds Directoy” containing roughly 45 different feeds which the user can choose to subscribe to; users may also add individual feeds. The app lacks any sort of feed auto-detection, meaning that users wanting to add feeds not listed in the directory need to remember and type in the complete feed URL (including “http://”), or the app will bring up an invalid URL error. The app’s interface is neither pretty nor offensive, but simply okay.
Tapping on a subscribed feed brings the user to the Articles view, where each item is listed with its title and a star for unread or a checkmark for read items; there is no way to mark all unread, or to mark previously-read items as unread. The individual item view page is plain, with text presented in a reasonably-sized serif font. Links clicked from within this view open in the app’s built-in browser. Limited by its inability to automatically find feed URLs, lack of syncing, lack of a flagging option, and hampered by relatively infrequent but still annoying crashes, azRSS would be hard-pressed to garner a recommendation even at the free price level. The addition of any of the above features would help improve this app, which at $2 falls well short of our recommendation. iLounge Rating: D.
Byline ($10) is a Google Reader application for the iPhone. Instead of offering users a list of subscribed feeds, Byline’s simple interface presents a set number of unread articles (25 by default, can be set from 25 to 200) in a smallish font with the source, title, time, and two lines of summary; options at the bottom of the list let the user mark all as read and load more items. Buttons at the top of the screen switch between new items, starred items, and notes views, while a refresh button resides at the bottom.
One of the big things Byline has going for it is the ability to archive entire webpages for offline viewing. The app automatically archives starred items and any news items linked to in your Reader account Notes, archived items are presented in a built-in browser, while normal (not archived) items are presented in a simple, standard view with a button to star the item. Links tapped from inside the normal item view send users to Safari instead of the built-in bowser. A menu in the iPhone’s Settings app lets users set the number of unread articles to display and toggle auto syncing, Wi-Fi-only archiving, sort by oldest, offline browsing, and the home screen unread badge on and off.
Byline offers many of the features we see as important to its category, such as offline browsing, the ability to sync with an online service, and the ability to star or flag items, but its limited, all-in-one new item view will likely be a huge turn-off for any user with more than a handful of feeds — a major problem, in our view. The ability to view individual feeds and groups of feeds would greatly increase the value of Byline, which currently boasts the highest price of any iPhone RSS Reader. At a lower price, we could overlook some of the app’s shortcomings, but for $10, we feel readers will be better off considering a better, more reasonably priced solution. iLounge Rating: D+.
Feeds ($2) is a fairly straightforward, standalone RSS reader for iPhone and iPod touch. After waiting through an unnecessary splash screen, users are presented with a list of subscribed feeds, along with a starred items option at the top of the list and an add feed button. Luckily, Feeds does offer auto-discovery of feed URLs, so the user need only enter the main domain for the feed they’re searching for. A selection of sixteen feeds, listed only by favicon, sits below the URL text field on the add feed screen.
Tapping a feed takes the user to a list of recent entries, with unread items in black text and read items in grey, all listed with the date, time, and title. The individual entry view shows the title at the top in a nice-looking blue box, with the summary directly below, and buttons at the bottom to email a link to the story, star the item, or open the story in Safari — Feeds lacks a built-in browser. Offering the ability to view individual feeds, the option to star or flag items, and auto-discovery of feeds, we feel that Feeds provides enough value at its $2 price point to be worthy of our general recommendation. The addition of syncing, offline browsing options, and a built-in browser would make it even better. iLounge Rating: B.
Taking nearly half a minute from launch to actually open and become usable (if it doesn’t crash beforehand, as it did for us more than 50% of the time), iRSS ($5) provides users with an early taste of the shortcomings they’ll find within. The app comes pre-loaded with a modest list of Mac- and Apple-oriented feeds, including iLounge, each listed in the main view with the title, a blue bubble containing the unread count, the time of the most recent update, and the feed URL, an unnecessary addition, in our view. A button for adding a feed takes the user to a rather unattractive page where they can enter a description, the feed URL (no auto-discovery here), and select how many lines of preview text to show and how many items to store. Tapping on a feed takes users to a list of entries, with a refresh button at the bottom and buttons for deletion of items and marking all as read at the top.
Selecting an entry takes users to a somewhat ugly individual item view, with a too-small trash icon to delete the entry, a button to mark the item unread, an “enclosure” compass button that did absolutely nothing in our testing, and an action button that automatically sends the user to a new email populated by the summary of the entry, but astoundingly, no link to the article, and no mention of what site it came from — not even the title. Likewise, for sites that don’t provide an extra link to the story in the summary of their feed, there is no way to view the item outside of the summary view — tapping on the title does nothing, and there is no other option for opening the item in Safari, meaning that iRSS is only good for reading the information found inside the feed itself. We could go into further detail on iRSS’ shortcomings, but frankly, there’s no need. For free, this app wouldn’t be worth the download, but it instead sells for $5, making it the worst value of any reader app. iLounge Rating: F.
iRSSFeeds ($2) is yet another disappointing standalone RSS reader for the iPod touch and iPhone. With no pre-installed feeds, the app at first presents users with a blank feeds list; an add button in the upper right hand corner lets users enter a description and feed URL. As the app doesn’t offer feed auto-discovery, users will need to remember and correctly enter the complete feed URL for it to work, otherwise the feed appears on the feeds list with a yellow caution symbol and must be deleted to remove it — the app wouldn’t allow us to edit a feed with an invalid URL.
Tapping on the feed loads the entry listing page, which features a mark all as read button at the top, the title, date, and time of each entry listed in small, cramped text, a grey dot to the side to denote unread status, and no lines between the entries, making choosing an item rather difficult. The entry view itself is sparse, with an Open in Safari button at the top, the title in bold, and the summary underneath. Lacking nearly every feature we consider important for this type of application at this price point, iRSSFeeds falls well short of being worth its $2 asking price. The addition of a syncing option, feed auto-detection, offline viewing, the ability to flag articles, a better interface, and a built-in browser would be a good start on improving this app, which is currently just a step above “complete mess.” iLounge Rating: D.
Compared to the other RSS reader applications at its price point, Manifesto ($2) is a breath of fresh air: a robust, full-featured app missing only a couple of features. Manifesto uses a bottom-tabbed interface with three options: feeds, new items, and flagged items. The add button lets users add feeds from a direct feed URL, a general site URL, or from a Google Reader account; the Reader option lets users select individual feeds or add all subscribed feeds. In the feeds view, each is listed by title with the favicon to the left and unread count to the right. Tapping on a feed from within this view lists all entries in the feed, including those marked read, each with the title and time or day. An action button allows users to mark all as read or all as flagged.
In the new items view, unread entries are listed by feed, in the same order as on the feeds view. The individual entry view lists the title, with the summary below, a small text link to flag the item, an action button to email a link to the entry or open it in Safari, and a button opposite that for “flipping” between the summary view and a browser view. A menu in the iPhone’s Settings app lets users users toggle an option to cache flagged articles for offline viewing, and set the amount of time to keep old and unflagged articles. While it doesn’t offer true two-way syncing, Manifesto is one of the most usable RSS readers for the iPhone OS, with a clean, smart interface, flagging and offline viewing support, a variety of options from which to add new feeds, and a well-implemented built-in browser view. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as we could expect from a $2 app; true two-way syncing with Google Reader or other online services could make it even better. iLounge Rating: A-.
With a name that should be familiar to any long-time Mac user, NetNewsWire (Free) is the mobile version of the venerable Mac OS RSS reader. Unlike some of the other RSS readers we’ve reviewed, NetNewsWire is meant as more of an accompaniment to NewsGator’s desktop-based RSS readers, NetNewsWire for Mac and FeedDemon for Windows, than a standalone reader. As such, it doesn’t offer the ability to add feeds from the app itself, although users can tap the edit button on the main feeds screen to delete feeds — either from just the iPhone version, or from the entire account. Each feed is listed in its group (if applicable) with the favicon to the left and the unread count to the right. A refresh button can be found at the lower right of this screen, and tapping on a feed brings the user into the entry view.
On the entry view, each is listed by title only, unread in blue and read in grey, with a mark all as read button at the bottom. The individual entry view shows the title in a blue bar at the top, with the summary underneath, a next unread button at the bottom, and an action button to email a link or add the story to clippings, which is NewsGator’s version of flagging. Tapping the title opens the story in the app’s built-in browser, or users can tap the “Open in Safari” button to view the entry outside the app. The app’s developer has said that new features are coming in future versions of NetNewsWire, and with a proven track record, we have every reason to believe this app will continue to improve. As it stands, it’s the only iPhone RSS app that offers NewsGator integration, and while it’s not overflowing with features, it is free. We’d like to see it gain offline browsing support, the ability to add feeds on the go, and more, but it still does what it sets out to do well, sports a well-designed interface, and is worthy of our general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B.
Possessing dual interfaces and a wealth of features, Newsstand ($5) is certainly the most interesting of all the currently available RSS readers for the iPhone. In vertical orientation (more on that later), the app opens to the feeds view, which offers an edit button for removal or addition of feeds, buttons for access to all unread and flagged items, and a list of feeds, along with buttons for refreshing all feeds or marking all items as read. The add feed menu sports a bottom-tabbed interface, with options for searching Bloglines for new feeds, importing feeds from a Bloglines account or an OPML file, adding a folder for feed management, or adding a feed by URL, complete with feed auto-discovery.
Tapping a feed in the main feeds view presents a list of all items in the feed both read and unread, each with the title, date, and three lines of summary, and refresh and mark all as read buttons at the bottom. The individual item view presents the title below the navigation bar, the summary below that, and a bottom bar with a button to flag the item, and eye button for choosing between six different view styles, a talk bubble button for sharing the item via email or posting to del.icio.us, and a compass button to open the item in the built-in browser, from which the user can choose to open the item in Safari.
Turn the iPhone or iPod touch on its side, however, and Newsstand becomes a totally different animal. Landscape mode, as it’s called, presents each subscribed feed as a magazine or paper on a shelf, complete with the feed title and most recent items on the “cover.” Users navigate through feeds like they would in the iPod app’s CoverFlow mode, swiping across to move through the options. Double-tapping on a feed opens it like one would a magazine, with two pages presented: entry titles on the left-hand side, and the selected entry summary on the right. It’s a great example of the kind of innovation we like to see from iPhone developers: well designed, unique, and novel new interface solutions for common applications. It’s this kind of innovation that will help propel the iPhone OS forward as a platform; an example of an experience that can’t be found on similar, competing devices.
What it lacks in features, such as two-way syncing and offline browsing, Newsstand makes up for with a wealth of import options, a highly-usable traditional interface, and a must-see alternate Landscape mode, the last of which could have easily been sold as a separate application. It provides more than enough value to be worth its $5 asking price, and while the addition of offline browsing and two-way syncing would make it even better, it remains worthy of our high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.
sebNews ($4) is a fairly simple RSS reader. The main feeds view offers users an edit button for deletion of feeds, a button to view all unread items, a refresh button, a list of feeds, a “problem” button that lets users reinstall the app’s database should they experience difficulties, and an add feed button. Users may add feeds by entering a URL (feed auto-discovery is offered) or by selecting a site from their Safari bookmarks — a smart option. Tapping on a feed brings up a list of entries listed in small text. Buttons at the bottom allow the user to select all or unread items, mark all items as read, delete feed items or the entire feed, and refresh, while a search button at the top lets users search the feed for a particular word, a feature that is carried over into the main unread items view.
In the individual item view, the date and title are listed below the navigation bar, with the summary underneath and a row of buttons on the bottom for previewing the entry in the built-in browser, opening it in Safari, or closing the entry and returning to the prior view. A menu in the iPhone’s Settings app offers toggles for showing feeds that have already been read, and for autorefreshing of feeds. The application offers no syncing options, no offline browsing, and no flagging, all features that would be appreciated in a reader app that costs $4. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not outstanding in any way, and with better options available for less money, it falls short of our recommendation. iLounge Rating: C-.
SimpleRSS (Free) is, unsurprisingly, an extremely simple reader application that is capable of handling only one feed at a time. SimpleRSS has no refresh button, so after we changed the lone feed to iLounge from the default (manually, as there is no feed auto-detection), we (thought) we had to go back to the home screen to see our changes. Unfortunately, we were unable to get the app to launch at all after changing the feed URL to iLounge’s feed because we had forgotten to include “http://”; each time this happened, we were forced to delete and then reinstall the application. We were finally able to load a different feed, but this experience served to make it even more obvious that reader apps should include an auto-detect feature. Once the feed is loaded, there is no indication if an item is read or unread, and tapping on an entry simply opens it in the app’s built-in browser, instead of showing the summary first. There is no way to sync feeds, no way to flag items for later reading, and no offline capability. SimpleRSS is free, but with the inability to read multiple feeds and the lack of many common features, it isn’t a worthwhile app, and falls short of even our lowest recommendation. iLounge Rating: D.
Listed as “Feeds” on the Home screen, Web Feeds ($4) is yet another straightforward RSS reader application. The main feeds view offers a list of feeds with favicon on the left and unread count on the right, a refresh button, an edit button for sorting and deletion of feeds, and an add button for adding feeds. The add feed screen is very simple, with a single field for entering a feed URL or the URL of a site offering a feed. Tapping on a feed opens the entry listing, which lists each entry’s title and three lines of summary, along with a blue dot to the left denoting an unread item. A checkmark button marks all items as read.
The individual entry view presents the title in a blue box, above a light grey box containing site, date, and author information, with the summary below. Tabs on the bottom let the user switch back and forth between summary and web page views. A menu in the iPhone’s Settings app lets users choose whether or not to refresh feeds on startup, and set how many items to keep. Unfortunately, Web Feeds strikes us as yet another “okay” app that is done in by its price. At $2, Web Feeds would be at least generally recommendable; the extra $2 added on to its price knocks down its rating substantially. The addition of offline browsing, a flagging option, or feed syncing, combined with a price reduction, would improve this app’s standing, which currently falls short of our recommendation. iLounge Rating: C-.
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