AOL Reader Is a Slightly Better, Slightly Worse Version of Google Reader

It's a superior version of Google Reader that's missing a few important features.

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Matt Peckham / TIME

What do you want from an RSS app? Bells? Whistles? Extra “features” (whatever those might be)? RSS’s efficacy over the years has been its simplicity (it technically stands for Rich Site Summary, but the alternative, Really Simple Syndication, seems more appropriate). It’s a way for people to keep tabs on news sites, blogs and the like without having to manually scrutinize each one for new content periodically. When an RSS-enabled website updates, it generates an RSS-specific view of said update that an RSS tracker can scrape, proactively letting you know there’s something new and possibly of interest — a curated form of web-pulling.

For years I used Safari’s built-in RSS scraper, mostly because if you dropped RSS links into Safari’s Bookmarks bar, it displayed unread RSS counts beside the bookmarks while keeping the experience inline to the browser. Decoupling RSS readers from browsers never appealed to me, though I can understand why snapping the experience out might be preferable if you like to compartmentalize things or view RSS aggregation as something that warrants more nuanced organization.

When Apple yanked RSS from Safari 6 last summer, at OS X Mountain Lion’s debut, I forced myself to give Google Reader a shake. It wasn’t as elegant from my vantage, adding steps to my personal consumption process: You had to first click over to Google Reader’s app page, log in if you weren’t already, then poke around using Google’s less-than-graceful navigation layout. That said, Google Reader was dependable and, importantly, broadly supported: third-party notification utilities flourished, including a few that almost gave me back the experience I’d had using Safari. I wasn’t smitten — I couldn’t bypass Google Reader’s app page in the third-party tools to go straight to the web link — but satisfied? Sure.

Then Google dropped its own bomb: Google Reader would shutter on July 1, 2013. Why? Because “over the years usage has declined,” wrote Google — a sadly deficient epitaph for an app that probably cost Google little, resource-wise, to sustain. But there it was, and the app’s remaining user base nonplussed and eventually furious (albeit not enough, it seems, to push this save Google Reader petition to its required 200,000 signatures).

I considered Feedly, of course, the most visible of the post-Google Reader readers, but didn’t care for its hover/pop-up web interface or, for me anyway, its superfluous organizational features. I’m an RSS minimalist: I want unread story counts and linked titles, nothing more. I don’t monitor RSS feeds on my smartphone or tablet and don’t care about rolling my own magazine-like online info-garden. RSS for me is a transport mechanism, not a destination. (That said, TIME Tech editor Doug Aamoth thinks highly of Feedly, and it frequently shows up on best apps lists, including our own.)

I even gave Twitter Lists a shot, but they’re still too capricious — too far behind the information curve for the sort of story-watching I do, since even the most prominent news sites (including TIME) don’t reliably link website updates to tweets, which might not appear until hours after whatever story goes up. Many of the more obscure websites I track hardly use their Twitter accounts, in some cases never bringing a story over. RSS, however un-hip it seems, remains the only dependable mechanism for consistently tapping published information flowing from sites in near-real time.

Which brings me to AOL Reader, AOL’s attempt to capitalize on Google Reader’s forced exodus. It’s launching today in public beta, and while I can’t name a single AOL product or service I’ve used in recent years, if I had to select a browser-specific RSS interface at this point, I’d probably choose this one.

AOL’s take on RSS feels elegant and uncomplicated from the start, eschewing “features” like Feedly’s pop-ups for a static, standard interface that stacks nested sources in a lefthand column that includes “Home” and “Starred” views. Feed content appears in the wide center column, bracketed by a weirdly empty righthand column, apparently designed to offer symmetric balance to the lefthand one. [Update: There’s apparently supposed to be an advertisement here, but between AdBlock and ClickToFlash, it’s been dutifully scrubbed.]

Color scheme-wise, I prefer AOL Reader’s mutable light/dark box tones and default smaller (and on the left menu, narrower) fonts to Google Reader’s chunkier, less interesting gray/white scheme. The way AOL Reader divvies up sections also feels cleaner, with a less busy top bar (just AOL’s search box, a few icons and a link to your account info, versus Google’s asymmetric link-bar on top of its search bar and account buttons on top of the Google Reader area — notably lower than AOL Reader, which can display more stories on page at once). Yes, I realize no one uses Google’s web apps for their scintillating aesthetic panache, but AOL Reader’s cleaner, tidier layout just illustrates what seems an increasingly visible creative deficit in Google’s visual approach to its entire suite of web apps.

Another perk: AOL Reader comes laden with keyboard shortcuts just like Google Reader and Feedly. I don’t use shortcuts for web apps in general, but if you do, AOL has you covered: The settings button — which, interestingly, lives in the lefthand sidebar — leads to a “shortcuts” link that pops up a hotkey overlay with dozens of navigation options.

One area AOL Reader falls behind Google Reader: expanding and collapsing story views. In Google Reader, you just click a story’s title to expand or collapse it. In AOL Reader, you also expand a story by clicking its title, but clicking the title again does nothing — you have to move the mouse over to an “X” icon at right to collapse it.

Once a story’s open, you can make it a starred item, share it to the usual social networks and/or email it, or drop in a tag that manifests as a new sort-by category in the lefthand sidebar. The default “list” view displays stories as single-line items, but an eye icon that sits next to the “mark as read” button lets you toggle the view between cards, full stories (titles and sub-headings) and a pane view that splits what you’re drilling on into two screens, though the latter feels superfluous, since the full view does this better, and you’re seeing roughly the same number of stories on screen simultaneously in each.

While you can’t pull your Google Reader feeds into AOL Reader directly, AOL provides simple instructions for exporting from Google Reader using Google Takeout, a process that’s as straightforward as this sort of thing’s always been. If you’re coming from another RSS reader, AOL lets you add feeds with search, URLs and OPML files, and organizing feeds is just as straightforward, whether creating folders, adding tags or just drag-and-dropping feed names in the stack. Unlike Google Reader, AOL Reader neither auto-alphabetizes nor offers an alphabetization button; if you hand-tweak everything, no problem, but if you like to eyeball your feeds (or folders) in alphabetical order, you’ll have to organize them manually.

What else? AOL Reader won’t let you look at all your feeds in a single date-sorted view, which seems odd. Click the “All” view and you’ll see a list sorted first by feed, then by date, meaning you’ll see the last several days’ worth of updates from one source before you see the next source’s items (“sorting by newest first” doesn’t fix this). That may be a deal-breaker for some — I never use the “All” view in RSS readers myself — though it seems like an obvious and easy problem to solve.

The greater omission, however, is an option to search your feeds. Where Google Reader’s search box lets you comb through everything and sort results by read items, starred items, recommended items or specific feeds, AOL Reader’s search box lets you search the web and that’s it. Again, it’s another feature I never used in Google Reader, since I was just scanning and relegating “marked as read” stories to the dustbin, but if you rely on search to find specific stories, this one’s a definite deal-breaker; hopefully AOL addresses these deficiencies soon.

Sidenote: If you’re looking for the sort of unadorned, just-the-facts RSS experience I was and you’re running a Mac, consider RSS Bot, a free app by FIPLAB that sits in OS X’s menubar 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 notified us of Google Reader’s demise, and it’s the happiest I’ve been since Apple scuppered Safari’s RSS reader.