P.A.D. – Post #1: Google Reader

by Christopher Paul on October 12, 2006

Today I’m switching my RSS reader from Bloglines to Google Reader. Google recently upgraded their reader and just about everyone agrees that it was changed for the better. I, for one, agree that it has changed for the better but I also think it can get better still. Mostly through user preferences, however, and not so much in the most raw or basic functionality. I’m not as happy with Google Reader as I am with Bloglines but I like it enough to use it for all my RSS reading.

Bloglines is great. it has a great interface with the feeds you watch & read on the left with the articles on the right. It looks like a Windows Explorer interface if it were able to handle RSS feeds – folders on the left, folder contents on the right. And that’s what I like about Bloglines. if you organize your feeds into categories, like I do, you can easily navigate to a particular subject or feed very easily; it makes reading 110 feeds more manageable than just a simple list. If I wanted, I could navigate to the main topic area – say, technology – and read all my tech blogs like Engadget, DownloadSquad, TUAW, Slashdot, and the other 36 sites that cover that general subject. Of course, I can also navigate to a particular blog or feed and read it only. It comes in handy when you want to review a feed with rapidly changing entries like Ask MetaFilter. Bloglines has made improvements to itself which make getting updates easier but its an already robust web application.

Google Reader, however, is not a mature application and, admittedly so, it lacks some of the refinements that Bloglines has. Its first version was openly criticized and almost no one that I spoke to used it. But with the recent upgrade, people are beginning to switch to it – and with good reason. Not only does it address the concerns people had with it before, it offers functionality that many other services – Bloglines included – do not, and it makes the reading even easier still.

Like Bloglines, Google Reader has a folder like view but uses tags or labels as its way of separating the feeds from one another – their version of folders, really. And like the others, Google Reader lets you select from all your feeds, a folder, or a specific feed in the folders to read. It displays the first 20 or so unread articles and as you scroll down, it loads new ones; you never have to wait for the entire feed to load like you do with Bloglines. But Google Reader has some features that make it much easier to use which is why I’m switching.

First, it shares the familiar interface of Gmail and Calendar and, now, Docs & Spreadsheets. The shared select all or none is there with the filter by tag option helping out. And with those features, changing folders is a breeze. Bloglines lets you drag and drop – a very cool GUI based tool – but sometimes less is more and I can get a lot more changes made by using less flashy means. Also like Google’s other offerings is the seamless navigation between your feeds and the settings. Adjusting your preferences is fast that way and makes quick adjustments even more hassle free. The familiar DHTML/AJAX/Fancy Google code makes this all possible and you can see the lessons from Google Maps, Gmail, and other GOOG products materialize here.

Another reason I’m switching is the ways you can view your feeds. You can select the traditional interface with the articles fully expanded on the right or you can use a Gmail like interface with the unread articles in a list. In place of the author is the feed’s title and the subject is the title of the blog entry. And like Gmail, the first few words of the posts appear as conversation snippits that help you determine the importance of reading an article. If you click on the double arrows on the very right, you are taken to the post right off the site (useful for those feeds that don’t offer you the full article). If you click on the blog or article title, the entire article shows up and you can read that single post without others cluttering up your view. While Bloglines lets you customize how you view your feeds, you can’t change it on the fly like you can with Google Reader.

I do wish somethings were different about Google Reader that I like about Bloglines. For example, I like it how Bloglines asks you want folder you want to put new feeds into. With Google, its a two step process and you first have to subscribe to the feed and then add the tag to it later.

I also wish that the sorting options were better. I happen to like chronology as a sorting method like all the others do but I also want it sorted by feed title first. That way, I’m not flipping subject matter within a category. In my technology folder, I have different feeds for Apple, AJAX, gadgets, software, and tech commentary; with Google’s sorting system, all the feeds are listing in the order in which they were posted – no matter what site they came from. That means I’m reading a post on an iPod and then an article on JavaScript only to go back to an older iPod article.

I also wish there was a search feature or a history feature. With Bloglines, I can search for a post and I can go back in time with my session or a specific calendar period for all articles. If I forget to tag an article with del.icio.us, I can always use Bloglines to search for it again – very useful when you don’t know what feed the entry came from. I’m surprised Google hasn’t added that since they offer that feature with Gmail. If they had that search, I would have no reason to look at Bloglines again.

Generally, though, I like the latest version of Google’s RSS aggregator. And they recently made it a goal for their programmers to make their existing products better instead of launching new products for the sake of launching them. Even after the recent update, there was another minor update again based on some feedback in the forum they set up. If they continue to innovate like that I’ll be singing the praise of Google Reader for months to come.

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