So you need an RSS reader, or maybe you don’t because a zillion sites have been mourning Google Reader’s demise for months (it’s alive for a few more hours, then sayonara) and you’ve already found your lemonade-out-of-lemons substitute. Or maybe you’ve never used RSS, content to flick through a social feed like Twitter for your daily digest. Let’s talk about why you might want to rethink that strategy, then run through the top RSS services in a post–Google Reader world.
What’s RSS again?
RSS, a.k.a. Rich Site Summary, a.k.a. Really Simple Syndication (but never Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist paramilitary group), is a way to keep tabs on news sites, blogs or anyone else publishing in the abbreviated notification-oriented format, eliminating the need to revisit websites throughout the day and manually scan for new content. When an RSS-enabled website updates, it generates an RSS-specific view that an RSS reader can scrape, proactively notifying you with a stack of headlines and (usually) short summaries and links to the content. You configure the client to scrutinize and pull story info from each site (or a subcategorized feed within a site), then sit back and watch the content roll in.
Yes, you can sort of do this with alternate tools like Twitter Lists, but it gets tricky. If you care about timeliness, you need to be certain your sources are updating their Twitter feeds simultaneous with the site update (many don’t, including TIME). Others don’t use Twitter at all, or do so inconsistently, piping only some of their content over. If you don’t care about immediacy, or you’re sure the sites you follow are Twitter-synchronous, Twitter Lists may be for you. Otherwise you’ll want to think about an RSS reader, which remains one of the only dependable mechanisms for grabbing published content from sites in near-real time, depending on your settings.
How do you subscribe to a site’s RSS feed?
Everyone handles this differently, but in most cases, you’re looking for a button (usually orange) on each site that reads “RSS” or an icon (also usually orange) that look like a wireless symbol tipped on its side (a dot with two curved lines stacked above, extending to the right). If you click on TIME’s RSS link (top of the homepage, right-hand side), you’ll jump to a sub-site and find our feeds sorted into categories like Top Stories, Most Viewed or Techland. Click any of these and you’ll conjure a list of popular Web-based readers to import the feed to. If you’re using an unlisted reader, you’re looking for the “view XML” option, which takes you to the actual RSS URL (in this case, TIME Tech’s); drop that into your RSS reader’s “add feed” or “subscribe” dialog box and you’re in business.
With that out of the way, let’s talk post–Google Reader services:
Elegant and simple, Digg’s RSS reader for browsers and iOS devices could be AOL Reader’s twin, though it’s a step ahead of AOL in its support for iOS devices, with an Android version coming this month. There’s not much to it, but then there wasn’t much to Google Reader (with RSS, less really is more). You’ll find the typical sorting views at left (“all,” “popular,” “Diggs,” “saved”), just above your subscriptions, and the content’s given plenty of room to stretch out at right. Digg also supports keyboard shortcuts, lets you shift between “list” and “expanded” views, lets you create folders to aggregate feed types and supports sharing to Twitter or Facebook. Like AOL Reader, you unfortunately can’t search your feeds (Web or mobile) — if Digg added this, it’d be my pick for Web-mobile cross-platform RSS reading (whether or not Google Reader were still with us), though Digg says its reader will eventually be “freemium,” meaning features like search, notifications and whatever else Digg cooks up may be available for purchase when they arrive.
It’s a toss-up between AOL Reader and Digg at this point (see my review of AOL Reader, including a bit more about RSS’s history, for a deeper dive), but summing up: AOL managed to craft an equally elegant, uncomplicated Web reader with similar default views and the same basic organizational layout as Google Reader and Digg. Feed content appears in a wide center column, bracketed by a right-hand column designed to blast ads — a downside, unless you’re running ad-blocking extensions that wipe these away. One of AOL Reader’s upsides: it’s more configurable than Digg, allowing you to tweak color schemes, font sizes, language (English or Spanish) and default reading behaviors. It shares Digg’s chief deficiency (you can’t text-search) and adds one of its own: it doesn’t sort its “all”-view list by date, meaning you’ll see blocks of stories sorted by site first, date second. Both issues seem like easy fixes, but until AOL does to the extent use either, these could be deal breakers.
Feedly is the most visible of the post–Google Reader free RSS services, with synchronized browser and mobile (iOS, Android) versions available today. It’s also arguably the prettiest RSS client, offering a minimalist-chic look with modern fonts and hover-over pop-up views and view-based auto-adjusting columns (in a browser) that add a little something extra if interface dynamism’s your thing. The only oddity: you have to drop feeds into categories (that, or Feedly dumps everything into an “uncategorized” view), which may be an issue for RSS wonks who prefer their feeds un-nested. Feedly is also the most tweakable app in this lineup, letting you fiddle not only basic formatting, but also more esoteric reading aspects like link colors, social-networking integration (think Pinterest), whether to view a mini-toolbar in the browser (as well as its size, in pixels) and the option, however random, for inline financial-stock tracking (by symbol).
If you’re looking for an unadorned, just-the-facts free RSS client that operates outside your browser, you don’t care about mobile sync and you’re running a Mac, consider RSS Bot, a free app by FIPLAB that resides in OS X’s menu bar and displays unread feed counts and stories in a drop-down menu. You click the stuff you want to read, or mark what you don’t want to as read — no fuss, no muss. I’ve been using it since Google warned of Google Reader’s demise, and it’s the happiest I’ve been since Apple yanked Safari’s RSS reader.