I’m converted!

To Google Reader, that is.

I’ve been a user of Bloglines pretty much ever since I started heavily using RSS feeds. Which is probably getting on for a couple of years. I was pretty happy with it. Sure, sometimes it is a bit slow to update feeds, and it is down more often than I would like. But all-in-all Bloglines is pretty impressive. There were just one or two things missing.

Google Reader used to be pretty much universally regarded as a duff product. When I first tried it when it initially launched it was chronically slow, ugly and generally clunky. I stayed well clear. But last week it was given a major spring clean so I thought I would try using it as an experiment over the weekend. I haven’t visited Bloglines since.

While the old Google Reader stank of a company beginning to rest on its laurels, it now looks as though they are proactively grabbing RSS by the scruff of the neck and making it seem interesting to normal people who don’t know their RSS from their elbow (sorry to whoever I stole that joke from; sorry for even telling it).

Describing it as “Your inbox for the web”? Why did nobody think of that before?! And as everybody else has noted, the email connection doesn’t end there. Google Reader’s new look is more than a nod towards the Gmail interface. A great improvement.

And there are a whole lot of nifty features that I have fallen in love with. Okay, that ‘next’ browser button is a bit of a gimmick. It’s not good if you’ve got about 200 blogs to read. You don’t know what’s coming next. Some blogs take bloody ages to load (this is one of the plus points of RSS). And if you wanted to do something like star or share it a post (more on those later) after reading it via the ‘next’ button it would be a right pain.

The next button is quite fun. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. It’s like a lucky bag. Which can be fun, I guess. It’s good if you’ve emptied your ‘inbox’ (as we now seem to be calling it) and you just want a quick way to see what’s been written in the past few minutes. It does seem to be a little bit quirky — sometimes it takes you straight to the actual post, other times it takes you to the blog’s front page. It’s not a major problem though.

The OPML import worked smoothly, and all of my RSS feeds appeared in the same folders (or is that labels? tags? More on that again in a bit) as in Bloglines. And one of the first things I noticed was that when I clicked on a folder the entries appeared in (reverse) chronological order, just like blogs. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for Bloglines to do.

Posts displaying in chronological order

In Bloglines if I click on my ‘Blogs’ folder, each blog is listed alphabetically with (as far as I could tell) no way to change it. If you want to be up to date it’s a poor system. The most recent stories are buried in among everything else. What a pain! Google Reader has recognised this. Top marks.

If I were to suggest an improvement, it would be an option for posts to appear in (non-reverse) chronological order. Maybe, perhaps if you wanted to see how a story developed, you would prefer to read the oldest posts first. At the moment I am scrolling all the way down, and by the end I could be reading stuff that is over a day old which feels a bit pointless.

Another cool feature, although not too impressive or unique, is automatic refreshing. It’s useful, but Bloglines also implemented this feature very recently.

In Bloglines, if you open a huge folder, everything in that folder is automatically marked as read, even if you haven’t come close to seeing it. If I was interrupted then I would have to manually mark each post as unread, which took a bloody age. Google Reader has an amazingly smart, yet simple, solution. Posts are only marked as read as you scroll past them. So I can safely click away from any open folder safe in the knowledge that everything that I haven’t read will still be there.

Another nifty interface feature is the option to change how you view your feeds. You can select ‘list’ view, where entries appear exactly as emails appear in Gmail. Then there is ‘expanded’ view which follows the familiar Bloglines-style approach. Although I would always prefer expanded view for reading blogs, list view is fantastic if you just want to skim headlines.

One thing that frustrates me about the feature, though, is that (as far as I can tell) there is no way to view one folder in list view and another in expanded view. I would like to read the Digg feed in list view because there are a lot entries that I don’t want to read, but I would prefer everything else to be shown in expanded view. It would be good if there was a way for me to set it up this way so that I didn’t have to keep on switching between the views.

Another feature borrowed from Gmail is the ability to ‘star’ items. If I find an entry particularly useful for whatever reason, clicking the star icon will leave it easily accessible in the ‘starred’ section. Once again, this was a bit of a pain in Bloglines. If I didn’t want to save it to del.icio.us I just had to make it as unread. Google Reader’s ‘starring’ system is much tidier. This is proving useful for roundup purposes.

A feature that shares equal billing with ‘starring’ is the ability to ‘share’ items. I’m not really sure what the point of this is supposed to be. It seems like it’s trying to do something similar to del.icio.us, but it’s much more basic and a bit rubbish really. As an example, I’ve decided to ‘share’ my last blog post on my shared items page. As you can see, it’s not up to much. It just reminds me of those blogs where all of the posts have been plagiarised. I’m not really sure what the point of this feature is.

Now on to my complaints! You can expect things to be a bit hairy because it’s still a Google Labs product, but there are still a lot of improvements to be made. Firstly, there still seem to be a few loading quirks / bugs / issues. Sometimes I find myself staring at the Google Labs fizzing conical flask for an eternity. Often the ‘updated subscriptions’ panel doesn’t update so it says that I have unread items even though I’ve read them.

Tags / labels / folders also need improvement. For a start, they seem to have three different names for the same thing now. That’s unless I haven’t understood some kind of subtle difference between tags and folders. I also can’t find an easy way to create a new folder. The only way seems to be to tag a post and then go to ‘manage subscriptions’ to put things into the relevant folder. What a pain.

Why can’t you just create a folder in the ‘manage subscriptions’ section or even when you’re reading a feed? There is a dropdown menu for each feed that only contains one option: unsubcribe. Why not put it there?

All-in-all, though, Google Reader is now fantastic. The only thing I really miss from Bloglines is the Firefox plugin, although I’m sure a Google Reader one will appear soon enough. There are still a few rough patches, but I’m happy enough with it for me to be using it all the time now. Good work, Google.

Update: Another great thing I’ve just remembered about Google Reader is that images from posts made on Blogger are actually appearing, which they never did in Bloglines. That’s probably just Google being crafty, but I like it.

2 comments

  1. I’ve been trying it last few days, and am finding it very good, except…

    It’s really dial up unfriendly. At work, it’s great, but I really don’t want to be spending much time at work looking at feeds, so my friends page is better. But at home, it’d be wonderful, except it’s so slow to do anything.

    But, it does seem to have everything I actually want from a feedreader, including folders and sorting chronologically. If they can make it easier to assign feeds to folders, especially on subscription, I’d be completely sold, despite the load lag.

    As it is, I think a combination of this and LJ will work well. Given it also allows you to make folders public, and releases a feed, it works as a mini aggregator as well, which is even better. Could easily integrate some content intoa few sites at some point. That’d be good.

    Thx for the mention; doubt I’d have re-tried it otherwise.