Feeding your iPhone

You’re a busy person. You’re on the go. Everything has to happen now, or just a little before now. Nothing can get by you, not for a second. You need to check every website you’ve ever expressed more than a passing interest in every second of the day. That’s why you use a feed reader on your iPhone.

Setting aside my pathological need to stay up to date about everything and hear interesting news the second it happens, there’s a few options available to me these days. I’m going to go over the three I’ve actually tried.


Fever is a peculiar beast, in that it’s a website you’ve got to set up yourself. If you do happen to have somewhere you can host your Fever installation though, then suddenly you’ve got a damn sweet web based feed reader… for your desktop computer.1 You’ve also got a reasonable iPhone interface, but it’s also a website, and not one of those clever ones what caches things offline. It’s also a bit clunky on an iPhone 3G (possibly an extra ‘S’ would speed things up). And, unlike the desktop app, there’s no handy way to send things away to read later on Instapaper or its ilk. The second someone makes an awesome native iPhone app that syncs with Fever, I’ll switch in a heartbeat.


I’ve long been a fan of NetNewsWire on the Mac. What it lacks in swish Newsfireish polish, it makes up for in syncability and customisable reading panes. But the peculiar iPhone version 2, now with Google Reader syncing, has made some odd choices, mostly in design. Folder headings don’t stand out as clearly as they could from individual feeds, and once inside a folder, you’re stuck with date-based grouping, not feed-based. When you star an item, its state isn’t reflected on the toolbar button, but at the top of the item; this means that if you’ve scrolled down at all, you can’t tell whether an item is starred at a glance.

In its favour, it does have some good sharing options (though not Google Reader’s sharing functionality). It can grab only specific feeds from Google Reader if you wish. It can send items to Instapaper, and it can post things to Twitter. In both of these cases though, I feel Tweetie’s recent implementation is better, though–refer to saving an article for later as “Read Later”, and let users choose what they’d like to use. And for tweeting, let people send the link to their twitter app, if they have one; I’m reasonably sure this is possible, since Tweetie and Birdhouse seem to be able to interact neatly. In general–and this is a bit of a nitpick–I prefer a “Read Later” item rather than a “Send to Instapaper” item. One of them describes exactly what I want to do, and the other describes what the software wants to do. There’s a reason why the default bookmarklet from Instapaper goes with the first option.


Byline is pretty much an app for Google Reader alone. It has starring, and sharing, and even note-taking as if you were using the actual Reader–though it doesn’t yet support some of the more social aspects of the website, such as following friends and the like. It also syncs quickly, almost certainly winning any speed race with NetNewsWire.2 It can also group your items by feed whilst browsing an entire folder, unlike NNW.

What it can’t do by itself is send things to Instapaper, though it is possible, by importing your shared items feed into Instapaper Pro.3 Its killer feature though is the ability to cache articles for offline reading. Byline can be set to store all your articles away, or just your starred items (by default, it’ll only attempt this whilst connected to a wireless network). Byline’s final cute feature is right-swipe to mark as read, and left swipe to mark as unread. Simple and clever. What it lacks is NNW’s handy “next unread” button at the bottom of the screen; if you’re navigating from item to item in Byline, you’ll have to tap the buttons in the upper toolbar, and if you’re skimming through things quickly, you may find that your hand obscures the screen.


So, I was all ready to finish this article, and then what should I find but Reeder, which unexpectedly addresses a lot of my issues with the three listed above. Again, it’s basically a front-end to Google Reader, but like NetNewsWire, it can keep read articles around–though unlike NetNewsWire, you can configure just how long. It has navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen (and animates the transition). It allows a small amount of styling from the feeds, such as text alignment and font size. It doesn’t have swipe to read/unread, but apparently, (it’s coming](http://reederapp.com/next.php). It has Instapaper4 and Delicious support, and Twitter coming. It supports a few of Google Reader’s features such as sharing and notes. Like NetNewsWire, it uses site favicons a bit too, which is a nice touch.

In a particularly nice touch, the “Mark All As Read” button also takes you back out into your folder list. Though, for the indecisive user, this could be quite annoying (luckily you will at least be able to find them again if you’re keeping read articles about). It’s also far and away the most attractive of the bunch. This may or may not be important to you, but let me say that no other iPhone app has made black look so good.

Things What No One Has Done Yet Unless They Have Somewhere Else And I Didn’t Notice

A few requests:

  • Scaling images to fit is a nice touch and looks better. But if you want to read a webcomic, and the text is too small even in landscape, then it’s no good. Let’s have some tap to full-size action.
  • While we’re talking webcomics, if I’m reading xkcd, then I want to be able to read the alt-text, too. Tap and hold?

So, which one is the best? I’m not really sure. If you’re using Google Reader on the web a lot, then at this stage you probably wouldn’t go with NetNewsWire, as it’s missing sharing and notes. If you don’t read feeds much on the iPhone while on the go, then you could feasibly get away with Fever, but otherwise I wouldn’t recommend it at this stage. I’ve only just met Reeder, so I’m reluctant to give it top-billing when what I’m feeling might just be a brief flutter and not true man-app love. And yet… it’s pretty sweet, and it syncs quickly, and you can’t shake the feeling that a whole lot more consideration has been put into the interface than any of the others. Sorry Byline. You totally would have won if I’d written this yesterday.

Oh, and there’s also Newsstand. Which looks like it has more features than any of the readers I’ve listed here. But I’ve spent too much money on readers already, and it looks a bit gaudy for my tastes, so I’m not buying it. Someone else can review it.

  1. Especially if you use Chill Pill.
  2. Fever would win in a competition to show you an accurate read items count, however would then start losing ground as you moved from item to item, which is practically instant on Byline or NetNewsWire, but clunky on a website like Fever
  3. This does have the unfortunate side effect of spamming all your friends with things you simply wanted to read yourself.
  4. Minor niggle–sending to Instapaper involves having to specify whether you want to send a description with the article. I never will, and I resent having to wait for the keyboard to turn up before I give yet another click.

6 Responses to “Feeding your iPhone”

  1. Two updates on Feeder have come to light. Firstly, a con–unread counts don’t always update when you think they should. Secondly, a pro–there’s a stop button in the built-in browser, which I find pretty handy if you’re loading a news site with associated crap you don’t care about.

  2. Reeder’s in-built browser sucks a little bit for me. Even on the simplest of pages it repeatedly hangs for a second when scrolling. I’d love a open in safari button along with all the instapaper, delicious buttons etc..

  3. Okay, it’s mainly The Age, which as you say has a ton of javascript and isn’t as simple as I think it is.

    I am trying to like Reeder, but it’s interface isn’t as immediately intuitive as other applications I’ve used. I’m sure how how a big tick means “Mark All As Read” – I should not have to click on that button to find out what it does. It also isn’t immediately obvious what icons for the three different “sheets” are. I know a star means my starred items, but what does a dot have to do with anything? I am still not entirely sure what the different between the “dot” is and the “three lines” icon is (everything?) – they look identical for some of my feeds.

    Whether you think I am being stupid or not, there should probably be some feedback about some of these things mean. At least the solid dot for an unread item is explicitly labelled and reinforced throughout the UI – the hollow dot for archived items is also explained, but not the three lines.

    Also swiping the screen in some instances will switch between these sheets, and in others. it doesn’t – you have to actually tap the button.

    These are not deal breakers, but it’s behaviour I have to relearn which I resent when there are things that break what I felt where reasonably strong conventions. The whole UI suffers because of their apparent desire to use a couple cute little icons that have little semantic meaning.

    Anyway I want to like it, I do. Just from a UI perspective I think it might even come last, frankly. Parts of it are excellent but parts of it are kind of sucky. I even disagree it looks the nicest but I can’t fault anyone for thinking otherwise. From a speed and functionality point of view I agree it’s better.

    I could go on nitpicking the interface, but I think I’ll stop since it is not particularly interesting.

    Here ends my messy and unstructured rant.

  4. Some thoughts on your thoughts.

    The Tick

    I did guess at what the tick meant, but probably equally through process of elimination as anything else. But in its defence: in NNW for Mac, the tick icon does “mark as read”, and in general “ticking” signifies to me “done with this”. If I tick something in Outlook or a to-do list I expect it to at least become de-emphasised, if not disappear outright.


    Dots totally mean “unread”. In iTunes, on iPods (including the iPod app on the iPhone), in Byline, etc. I can see one on my Mac’s screen right now (Tweetie). If there’s one thing I really really disagree with you on its this bit.

    Three Lines

    Agreed completely. Again, I knew what it was because there was nothing else it could possibly be. But given that elsewhere in the interface an empty dot = unread, as you pointed out, I’d rather they’d used that consistently.

    Icons v. Text

    After installing any Mac app, after reading what the toolbar icons do and looking at the other available ones are, I then turn the descriptions off. I prefer icons to text. In this case, the tick aside, discovering what they do is painless and non-destructive, so I have no problem with it at all. And once I’ve gotten past the 20 or so seconds it takes me to work out what they do, I’m very glad to have a mostly textless interface–especially since it’s an app with a lot of words in it which I’ll actually want to read.

    Swiping and Scrolling

    In a small defence to the whole swipe thing, I’d offer the timid point that there’s no swipe actions as far as I can see; just horizontal scrolling available in some areas. Which is consistent with the horizontal order of the star/unread/read toolbar at the bottom, but since it can’t possibly be consistent across the interface, I don’t think it’s worth having as it clearly just confuses and makes you look for it when it isn’t there. Irritating!

    Apparently in v1.2, right swiping toggles read/unread and left swiping toggles starred/unstarred. If they marry these directions with the horizontal layout of the bottom toolbar as this seems to imply they do, then I quite like the extra functionality over Byline’s right-to-read, left-to-unread option.

    A cheap shot at Byline

    I still like Byline a lot, but if we’re talking non-semantic buttons, how about the one at the top with the interweaving arrows that means “toggle between group by feed and order by date”? Being able to tap between an RSS logo and a clock in Reeder makes that much clearer to me. Even if…

    The icon for Google Reader’s “Share” feature is the same as the standard RSS logo

    Annoying yes. But not anyone’s fault but Google’s. In Reeder’s defense, they did try to differentiate by making the central dot darker on the “Share” button, perhaps to indicate that the icon in this case had an “active” state that had not yet been triggered.

  5. I’ll take a dot means unread when it’s directly beside the item in question – not so much when it is all by itself however. Personally, I feel it needs that context to have meaning. The dot is not that dissimilar to those on the iPhone home screen that each represent a different sheet of applications.

    Anyway like I said, I’m mostly just nitpicking. Most of them could be resolved with just a bit more feedback, particularly in relation to where I am in the application or what I’m looking at.

    NNW does have the double tick as Mark All As Read, but they do describe what it does. You’ve turned off the descriptions, but at least they were there in the first place so you could learn it without inadvertently marking ALL your feed items as read (which is what I did and triggered this all in the first place, it was annoying when I was on the train). That’s hugely different from just ticking a single item in Outlook. I appreciate you knew what it meant, but I don’t think it’s meaning is nearly as ubiquitous say as a ‘+’ to add something, or the refresh button in a browser, or the button to forward something in pretty much every iPhone application.

    In fairness to Reeder, I’m not sure what I expected the fucking button to do, on hindsight it couldn’t have done much else. I associate ticks with getting good test scores in Primary school so they make me happy.

    Apart from that I agree that it’s okay to make the user to experiment when they can’t do anything destructive. I just thought it wasn’t entirely clear (being an RSS n00B, comparatively) what some things where doing. Admittedly, it did not help that I had read an item, left it, swiped to my starred items and then swiped back to have it still there – right at the time I decided to figure out what it does.

    You don’t proof your comments do you? Because I don’t and while I always regret it when I read it over don’t feel like changing. You always have a structure I lack.

  6. I don’t proof them. I can clear that up right away. I used headings because I felt like it might become a bit long and unwieldy otherwise.