A few weeks back, having ditched my dying beer-stained PowerBook for a shiny slightly-used MacBook Pro, I found myself trying out news readers for the first time in a long time. I’ve been a NetNewsWire 2.0 man for nearly ever, but I thought: it’s a new computer, a new architecture, heck, practically a new century since I last looked at the competition.
Google Reader kept coming up. There’s a massive migration towards it going on now in the geekosphere. And I could see the advantages to an online subscription experience: access from any machine, truly native re-publishing, etc. Maybe it was mostly peer pressure, but I was sold.
I’m only a week in at this point, but I think I’m starting to settle on a verdict that’s taken me quite by surprise: Google Reader is shockingly schlocky. Don’t get me wrong, it has its upsides including a surprisingly smooth and snappy reading UI (for a browser-bound app), and all the cool Google-y features like search, recommendations, stats, et al.
And the problem isn’t the look: I’ve tried it in its natural state and with Jon Hicks’ beautiful Mac-ish mod. I like both pretty well.
The problem is the details. With an app like a news reader that you use everyday — heck, that you practically live in — the details make or break the experience. With repeated use, any slightly sharp or awkwardly-shaped bits are going to leave scars and sprains; any especially slick or well-made bits will make your whole day better.
And Google Reader is covered in sharp bits. Here’s my running list:
- OPML import doesn’t respect folder structure. This meant that when I imported my existing 700-ish subscriptions, they were just thrown in chock-a-block. After a week I still don’t have them all categorized so I can’t just read, say, my batch of watch feeds from various wikis or anything else I might want to scan for urgent changes.
- Entries in imported feeds get the wrong dates. At least for me, on importing those 700+ feeds, all unread items displayed with the date I did my import. This made for a disastrous time trying to follow ongoing threads and conversations.
- Feeds display most recent first only. This is subtle, but it’s a big one. Its effect is to force you to read feeds in the reverse of the order they were written, preventing you from following any continuity.
- Paging through items jumps the current item around on the screen. Another biggie. In both list and combined views, hitting ‘j’ to cycle through unread items jumps the expanded item around on the screen depending on its length and position in the list. Unlike the three-column view seen so commonly in desktop browsers which allows you to keep your eyes still in a single spot on-screen through which items cycle, this jumping causes major eye fatigue and confusion.
- Scrolling through items marks them as read too early. If you want to avoid the jumpiness of hotkey paging through entries, you might try scrolling down feeds as I did. If you do that you’ll soon discover that feeds below the one you’re currently reading will get marked as read before you’re ready for them to be, i.e before you’ve even glanced at them.
- No ability to mark something unread. If a post does get accidentally marked as read, there’s no way to restore its unread status so you can remember to come back to it later. (UPDATE: Thanks to trusty reader, Will, I now know that hitting ‘m’ toggles an entry’s read/un-read status. Check out his comment below for some other great tips on hidden Reader hotkeys.)
- Feeds with one unread entry require a click to mark as read. If a feed or folder only has one unread entry, it will be show on the screen when you select it, usually allowing you to read the full entry. However, the entry will remain as unread until you click on it.
- Poor support for increased font size. When you plus-up the font size in your browser (an essential prerequisite for reading large swaths of text like you’re constantly doing in a news reader), all of the Google Reader menus go a little haywire and become pretty unusable. Also, being trapped in a browse, obviously Google Reader can’t remember your font size preferences between sessions.
- Bad Safari support. Running Safari 2.x on OS X, at least, scrolling is all kerflooey. Sometimes the whole page scrolls when only the subscription or entry list should. Sometimes the subscription list jiggles as you click through entries. Sometimes the currently-selected entry jumps off the bottom of the screen. Ugh.
- No way to see all feeds/folders at once. Another big one. Whether you’re in ‘all’ or ‘updated’ mode, the subscriptions panel only shows about 25 feeds or folders at a time. If you have a lot of feeds this will be only a small fraction. There’s no way to tell which feeds or folders have the most unread entries or if any feeds or folders you especially care about have new items. It’s impossible to get a handle on your whole world of feeds.
- No podcast support. Maybe this one is a lot to ask of an online feed reader, but given the excellent experience I’ve been having the last few days with AmazonMP3.com and its download tool it no longer seems impossible or unreasonable. And podcast downloading is a lot of what I do with a feed reader, so it makes a big difference.
Believe it or not, this is an abridged list.
Taken together, at least for me, all these relatively small problems add up to a death of a thousand cuts. While I still think I’d like some of the features of an online news reader, I don’t think I can give up the usability of an honest-to-goodness Mac app with its (even partially implemented) Human User Interface guidelines, rich dependable UI, etc. I think I might try NetNewsWire 3.0. Its NewsGator integration is a baby step towards getting comfortable with an online reader, I’m familiar with the UI and the most recent improvements (especially the previews in the tabbed browsing) seem significant.
Here’s hoping Google Reader’s OPML export support is better than its import…