RSS on the Go: A look at Web-Based Mobile Aggregators

You can read RSS/Atom feeds through desktop applications, browsers, email applications…you name it. The challenge is that most of these feed readers require you to pick one method and stick with it. If you’re in a feed-reading mood and you’re not at the computer that has that desktop application or a full browser, then what?

When I’m stuck in line or sitting on a long train ride, it’s a perfect time to skim headlines and catch up on some RSS-reading using my smartphone. There are quite a few applications for reading feeds on a Windows Mobile phone like mine (Cingular 8125). No problem. But when I’m at my laptop, I’d rather read the feeds on the computer than the phone’s tiny screen. On top of that, I want articles I’ve read in one location to be marked read on the desktop and visa versa.

What’s a web worker to do? Up until the past couple of years, this kind of syncing/cross-platform reading was impossible. Now, there are a few choices for those of us who want the same feeds accessible in both big and small formats at the same time, without requiring the download of a dedicated application on any platform. Let’s take a critical look at the current crop of options…

All of these web applications work with Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer on the desktop side and an application like Pocket IE for Windows Mobile or the S60 browser on Nokia smartphones. If your mobile device can handle the mobile version of Google’s personalized home page, it will do just fine here.

Google Reader: Google’s full browser-based feed reader is popular for a very good reason. It’s good and fast. Keyboard shortcuts are easy to remember and use. You can easily set Google Reader to work in any way that you are comfortable, whether it’s reading one article at a time or viewing a “river of news” or a list of headlines. Articles can be starred for later reading or shared for public view and Google Reader integrates well with Firefox and other browsers (using Live Bookmarks to add subscriptions directly to the web application, for example).

The mobile version is best for folks with very good eyesight. The fonts are small and the text is densely packed together. I find this an advantage, as I can read more without having to click or scroll. Of course, you can change your browser’s zoom to make the fonts larger on screen. By default the articles are laid out chronologically from newest to oldest (same as the “All Items” view on the desktop browser version), with links at the bottom to read by tags (in “river of news”) or alphabetically by subscription. You can mark 10 articles at a time as read in a single screen based on a skim of the headlines. Navigate with the phone’s D-pad or by the keypad, pressing the corresponding number. By far the best feature of Google Reader on a phone/PDA is that clicking through to the original story keeps the text rendered for a mobile device. You aren’t sitting there with your slow GPRS/EDGE connection waiting for complex graphics to render. At any time you can jump over to the fully rendered page, but for most “more…” links off a blog the quickly rendered Google mobile version does quite nicely.

Bloglines: One of the first web-based readers, the browser interface hasn’t changed much (if at all) since parent company bought the site 2 years ago. Let’s just say you have to really like teal blue. Although Bloglines can drag down with a lot of unread feeds and it gets buggy, it is still a good online feed reader. It’s simply about time that Ask gives it a visual overhaul. It’s dated in both appearance and performance.

On a mobile device, Bloglines offers an outstanding reading experience. The font is large and legible, and indenting clearly separates the folder/tag name from the feeds. It’s the only mobile browser reader that gives you the feed description, last update date and unsubscribe options when you click on a feed, like in the full browser version. The “river of news” uses shading to separate stories, and clicking through articles brings you to a Skweezer mobile version (similar to Google’s mobile rendering engine). If only Bloglines wasn’t so buggy at times and had a better full browser version, this would be my top choice.

NewsGator: NewsGator has put a lot of their energy into Enterprise RSS while they bought the very best desktop aggregators on all platforms (and had the good sense to hire their talented developers). FeedDemon (PC) and NetNewsWire (Mac) are outstanding in too many ways to list here, and it’s fantastic that they now both sync to the same source feed list. However, it’s frustrating that as good as the desktop applications are, the free online version never quite makes the cut speed-wise. While it’s far more attractive than other web-based readers, it continues to be plagued by performance problems. It can be painfully slow to navigate, even with a handful of unread feeds.

For mobile platforms, NewsGator continues its practice of offering the feed for free but charging for the application to read it. NewsGator Go! has been out for a while for Windows Mobile. Just last week, the company introduced an application for Blackberry and Java. I tried NewsGator Go! on my Cingular 8125, and unfortunately I found my device’s slower processor to have difficulty with the application. Like on the desktop, I prefer to read feeds in a browser on my phone and not devote the resources to a dedicated application. NewsGator offers a Premium online package for $19.95 per year that allows for reading feeds in HTML on a mobile browser, among other goodies like smart feeds and the ability to sync your feeds across multiple platforms.

NewsGator clearly prefers its customers to use NewsGator Go! for mobile feed reading, as they unfortunately put little effort into their mobile HTML experience. There is no way to flag an article, or skim headlines. All links are in “river of news” style, whether you like it or not with a “Mark as Read” link at the very bottom. If you don’t wait for the entire page to load, or go to the bottom, the articles you read will not be cleared. Clicking an article takes you to the slow-loading full HTML version instead of a page optimized for mobile viewing. These features are all available in NewsGator Go! only. While NewsGator’s mobile HTML loads fast, there isn’t much to it.

NewsAlloy: Ask yourself, “what if every single thing you can throw at an RSS feed were available in a single window?” and the answer is the full browser version of NewsAlloy. Mind you, despite all the bells, whistles and icons NewsAlloy is fast. Take the time to get familiar with the keyboard shortcuts and fine tune the preferences for the best browsing experience.

On the mobile side, the interface feels similar to Google Reader, with the navigation below feeds that are listed in chronological order by default. No “river of news” option…clicking on a folder (channel) gives a list of headlines you have to click on to read the summary. The text is not laid out as tightly as in the other mobile interfaces. I appreciate the time stamp, but I would rather see the date the feed was published, not when it was updated. It takes a lot of scrolling and clicking to get around. Articles are automatically marked as read when opened. You can “pin” an article to flag it for later. Clicking the article link takes you to the full HTML version of the page.

The bottom line: If it were possible to take the full browser version of Google Reader and sync it with the mobile HTML version of Bloglines, I would be a very happy camper. That said, I have to give the edge to Google Reader for the best all-around cross-platform browser feed reading experience.


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