Review: NewsGator Online Makes RSS Reading Simple, But Irritating

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My day revolves around web-based RSS readers. Google Reader, Bloglines Beta, NewsGator...you name it, I've tried it. Unfortunately those services aren't conveniently rendered on iPhone's 3.5" display, and require lots of pinching, jiggering, and side-scrolling to view content. Adding to that frustration, Safari tends to choke on AJAX code which these online readers employ heavily - crashing the browser and dumping you back to the home screen.

Enter Newsgator Online for mobile users; a service designed for small screens with low overhead.

newsgator-screeny2.jpgThe biggest drawing card that NewsGator Online has in its favor is that it allows you to access your standard RSS feed list without any changes. No importing of OPML files, no creating special "mobile feed" list. Nothing. If you already have a NewsGator account (signup is free), just point your browser to m.newsgator.com and login to your account. Doing that will automagically kick you to NewsGator's mobile web-based reader, specially formatted for iPhone. As as I said, the beauty here is that no special privileges or footwork are required to use this service. Your list of feeds is staring right back at you, ready to be tapped. To view a feed simply select it, and the interface will then drill down to a page containing the entries in that feed, displayed almost exactly as it appears on the desktop version.

newsgator-iphone-screeny-weeny.jpgSo far so good, right? Well not quite. Unfortunately the service falls apart at this point. Let's start with the issue of feed management. I have roughly two hundred feeds in my OPML list. NewsGator Online makes accessing those feeds almost intolerable. My feeds are categorized in folders I labeled for specific topics, like Mobile news, Mac, Windows, etc. All of these folders displayed properly on the iPhone, but they're open at the same time, displaying all 200+ feeds on one screen! If I want to view feeds that appear at the bottom of the list, I have to scroll scroll scroll to get to them.

newsgator-screeny3.jpgWhen I first made that discovery my immediate reaction to this was..."no, this can't be right. I must be doing something wrong. There has to be an option to check off, surely." Nope, that's how the wheel spins, boss. NewsGator desperately needs to offer a way to collapse folders to free up screen real estate, and liberate my sanity. The tragedy is that if you look beyond that montrous shortcoming the remaining experience works slick as a greased doorknob. After you've strained your thumb scolling down your feed list, and made a selection, an animated page transition takes place, transporting you to that feed and its entries. The entries themselves are truncated, or abbreviated. If you want to view more, just tap on the "More" link appearing at the bottom of each post, which then expands the entry to its full content including photos (if available).

Once you've finished reading your feed of choice, hit the browser's back button to take you back to your soaring feed list. Here again another snag presents itself. In theory doing this should take you back to the last point of departure; to the spot in your feed list that was last viewed. Not quite. This works a bit unpredictably at times. Sometimes it works, but other times you may be taken back to the top of the list, again forcing thumb strained scrolling to get back. Not good.

So my overall impression of NewsGator Online is mixed. I love the convenience it affords by offering universal access to my RSS feeds, be it from a desktop or iPhone. But the experienced is muddied by lamentably inferior feed management and unpredictable browser behavior. Still, I would recommend this service to my readers, provided you are willing to tolerate its shortcomings and perhaps bypass them altogether by creating a smaller feed list with just the essentials - thereby shortening the load. Of course, doing that kind of defeats the whole purpose, doesn't it?

In the meantime, my advice to the folks at NewsGator is to keep working, you'll get there eventually.

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There are 10 comments. Add yours.

Hexghost says:

Have you tried the mobile version of google reader? It formats great on the iphone's screen, it's low bandwidth friendly (FU Edge) and they use GWT to even render the destination pages for your mobile if you want.

admin#IM says:

Google reader is great but it manages RSS the same way NewsGator does - by dumping all your feeds in one huge scrolling list. The best solution would be a tree-view method for collapsing categories to free up screen space. Nobody seems to have thought of that yet.

Dave M. says:

Kent, Google Reader's default is to dump you into the "all feeds" list, but at the bottom of the page (only a few stories down) is a set of links including "tags". Tapping on tags will display the list of your tags just like Google Reader does in a normal browser. You can then pick and choose which one you want to read from with ease.
Just spend a little more time with Google Reader. I also have looked at all the web based readers out there. I have landed on Google Reader for both my desktop RSS reading and mobile (iPhone) RSS reading.
I think the only thing missing on the mobile version of Google Reader is a way to tell it which view you want to start with. If they had that, it would be absolutely perfect.

admin#IM says:

Thanks for the tip, Dave. That's an improvement, but I still want to see better navigation implemented by Google.
Google Reader is my number one pick on iPhone and the desktop. Bloglines new beta service is a fairly close second.

Dave M. says:

I just took a peak at the Bloglines beta. Interesting. I finally was able to "unpin" some entries that were in my old account for 2 years. That feature has been buggy longer than I can remember. It's nice to see they finally fixed it. It's nice to see them doing anything with Bloglines other than running it into the ground. I'm going to have to take a closer look at it myself.
As to "Tommy's" post. I haven't seen that type of comment spam before. The site looks related, but on closer inspection, they have a blog roll to all kinds of unrelated sites. Plus, according to Alexa, they have over 80,000 sites linking back to them? If that's true, Tommy has been really busy posting links back to his site all over the web. I'm really glad I stopped taking comments. I just hate dealing with comment spam or spam of any kind.

admin#IM says:

Comment spam is a real problem. These jackholes are like rodents leaving "droppings" everywhere. Gone!

Jason says:

I find it interesting that you complain of having to "pinching, jiggering, and side-scrolling to view content" when last week I mentioned the layout of this website and some of the feedback I got was along the lines of "what's wrong with pinching, etc?"
Don't get me wrong. I love this site and its content. However, the layout is more suited for reading on a desktop rather than on an iPhone.

Jeff Nolan says:

Kent,
First and foremost, I work for Newsgator and also use the iPhone app.
I think the issue you raised is a good one and quite frankly it's the one thing I don't like about the current iPhone app. Well, two things actually, the first being that the folders are not collapsed and the list gets unmanageably long as a result and the second issue is that when I hit the back button to go to the index of feeds I'm back at the top as opposed to down on the list where I left off.
You and I are probably in the very small subset of users that have a lot of feeds (I'm over 400) so while these complaints may not impact everyone I do think that addressing them makes for a better app. One thing I have done is create an group of feeds that I like to read but rarely take any action on (e.g. Valleywag, autoblog, etc.) and put that at the top of my listing so when I use the mobile client I see that group first and minimize scrolling.
Apple's attempts to control the iphone space and force app developers to use AJAX is commendable but the fact remains that if software developers were free to create non-browser apps like you can on Windows Mobile and Blackberry, well everyone would be able to build richer applications. But we can't do that for now.
This post was clipped to our internal Newsgator server (we have enterprise products in addition to client apps, you can clip, comment, forward, post individual feed items) so I'm sure the dev team will have a more substantive answer to your issue.

Kevin Cawley says:

Hey Kent, great feedback and awesome timing... you and Jeff aren't the only ones annoyed with the flat feed/folder list. Rest assured - this is being taken care of right now.
I am working w/ our designers and resident iPhone junkies to make this issue go away! Keep an eye out for that change real soon. And Jeff, if you select the "Feeds" button at the top of the article list it will/should preserve your position in the list.
Thanks again and if you have any other feedback please pass it on - kevinc at newsgator.

admin#IM says:

Thanks for your comments, Kevin. It's great to hear that you guys are working to improve your service. NewsGator Online is a fantastic service, so I look forward to seeing the changes. Thanks again! :)