· geek ·

RSS reader applications and frameworks are in a period of flux. As you’ll know if you read the technology news, Google announced recently that it would shut down Google Reader on 1st July 2013. While it’s probably true that the number of people using Google Reader’s interface directly (and therefore seeing the advertisements) has declined, most of the current feed reading software depends on Google Reader as its syncing mechanism, or indeed for the entire back end. This is obviously a problem for those of us who enjoy keeping up to date with our favourite sites using a feed reader.

It actually wasn’t a problem for me personally. I used to use Google Reader, but for a variety of reasons (including wanting to reduce my dependence on Google), I moved from Reader to Fever more than 3 years ago. Fever has a lot of great features. You host it yourself (which is admittedly a problem rather than a feature if you don’t have web space), and there is an absolutely wonderful third-party iOS client for Fever called Sunstroke. In addition, Fever has a clever mechanism for using the content of high-volume feeds to pull out ‘hot’ topics, without making you read those high volume feeds directly. You put high-volume feeds (like Wired or BoingBoing) in to a ‘Sparks’ category, and then any topics or links that are shared with feeds in your ‘Kindling’ category cause those items to appear in a ‘Hot’ section. The feeds in Sparks are not shown independently.

However, I had a couple of long-term niggles with Fever. While Sunstroke fulfilled my every need on the iPhone, I have never liked the web interface to Fever on the desktop. For some reason, I find it awkward to use and unattractive, and I haven’t found a way around that. As yet, no-one has developed a Mac app with Fever syncing (though I believe that the makers of Reeder promised it at one time). Similarly, while the ‘Hot’ items feature is very clever, it tells you what everyone is talking about, which isn’t necessarily that same as what you personally are interested in.

A while ago, I had tried out NewsBlur, which is an independent feed reader built by Samuel Clay. It’s a really amazing project, but when I originally tried it, it was at a relatively early stage, and I wasn’t convinced to switch from Fever. Following the announcement by Google, I decided to take another look at it and — to cut a long story short — I signed up for a Premium account and am using it as my only feed reader.

NewsBlur is an unusual project because Samuel has to a large extent re-thought the way a feed reader should work. It’s an open source project, so if you wish (or if he should ever decide to stop developing it) you can install and run your own instance of NewsBlur. While that would be quite a technical undertaking (as he himself admits), it’s reassuring to know that the option is there. NewsBlur operates on a ‘freemium’ model whereby you can have a free account with a large but limited number of subscriptions, or you can pay a reasonable minimum of $24 per year to have as many subscriptions as you like.

The design of the interface is very attractive (particularly if you use the development version at, and there are lots of power features. For example, there are keyboard shortcuts similar to those used in Google Reader for getting around your feeds and articles. Each item can be viewed as the standard Feed view, Original view (the entire original site), or Story view where each post is shown in the original format, one at a time. Story view is incredibly useful for feeds where the full entry is not posted in the feed, or where you prefer to see the content in the context of the design of the page. You can set this preference — along with whether you view all items or unread items only, and the sorting of the list — per-site as well as globally.

The crowning feature of NewsBlur is the ability to train it with your preferences for content. I should say that you don’t have to train it, but you get a much better experience if you take the time to do so. The way this works is that you can bring up an interface for each of your feeds in which you give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to various elements associated with the feed, and that helps NewsBlur to classify the feed’s items for you. For example, you could highlight a phrase in the title and either tell NewsBlur that you want to see all items containing that phrase, or that you don’t want to see items with that phrase. Similarly, you can like or dislike a particular author (in multi-authored feeds) or particular tags or categories. Alternatively, if it’s a low volume feed and you want to read everything by the person, you can just like the whole feed.

This is incredibly useful with high-volume feeds like Wired, BoingBoing or Slashdot. There are some topics (like posts about Disney, Windows or Android) that I am not interested in and don’t want to see. Similarly, I love reading Penny Arcade, but I come for the comic strips, not the articles, so I can choose to filter out the latter. It does take a bit of time (though you don’t have to do it all at once, and can update or change it whenever you want), but it filters your feeds really effectively. After training, items (and item counts against feeds) are colour coded. They show green for things you have actively chosen, yellow for things you haven’t chosen or rejected, but where you’ve approved the whole feed, and red for items you’ve rejected. In addition, there’s a grey label for feeds you haven’t trained. The ‘Unread’ view shows you all the grey, yellow and green items, but there’s also a ‘Focus’ button that allows you to just see the green items. It’s hard to describe how cool this is, but it works really well, and I find that it winnows down the items in my 89 subscriptions very effectively, so that I keep up with stuff that is important to me, but am not overwhelmed with items that I just skip over.

If you want to share stores or save them, you can do that, saving or sharing either within NewsBlur itself1, or posting to services like Pocket, Evernote, Twitter or Pinboard. The mechanism for this is a little hidden on the web interface (though easy to use once you’ve found it), but more obvious on the iOS client. Oh yes, I haven’t yet mentioned the iOS client! It works extremely well and is cleanly-designed and easy to navigate2. It’s not quite the minimalist wonder of Sunstroke, but it’s very usable and offers almost all the features of the full web interface.

There are lots of other lovely little features of NewsBlur that show great attention to detail. One of the minor inconveniences of reading site content in a feed is that it can be easy to forget which site you are reading if you are working through a group of feeds. NewsBlur shows a coloured border for each item in the list and when you are viewing the item itself that is matched to (I think) the header of the site3. Thus Slashdot has a two-tone green border, BoingBoing is red and my own feed is dark grey. It’s a small thing, but it makes it much easier to remember what you’re reading.

I’m sure it will be obvious that I’ve rather fallen in love with NewsBlur. Even if something better eventually comes out of Google Reader’s demise, I think it’s well worth putting a modest amount of money Samuel’s way to support him in his Herculean efforts to change the way we read feeds.

  1. Each user gets a ‘BlurBlog’ of their own, which is a bit like Tumblr, to which they can save and comment on items, and which can be made public. ↩︎

  2. And free as in beer. ↩︎

  3. Or perhaps the favicon. Either way, it’s fiendishly clever. ↩︎