Friday, 7 October 2005

Google Reader: beta feed reader

This is clearly the year of the newsfeed. Google Labs have just announced the release in beta an online feed reader inventively called "Google Reader" - effectively a Bloglines rival. Here's an initial review.

In a nutshell, if you like testing stuff, go ahead and try it out (you'll need to have a Google account to use it), but there's no way this is a "proper" news aggregator yet, if you need to use it regularly as your main reader you may need a whole lot of patience.

With the might (or, more relevantly, money) of Google behind it, I'm sure Google Reader will improve quickly and well, but it is clearly very much a beta still, and it shows - I'm surprised that Google released it in this state. I know a beta is normally expected to be buggy, but I'd have thought they would have got it a bit more advanced first.

The main page itself, oddly, lacks links to resources such as the Reader FAQ. So here are some links:
Some preliminary observations, now. I've only tested it looking at some old items (it will show the last 10 from a newly-subscribed feed), I've not seen an updated feed yet as none of my test ones has updated since I started trying this out!

It certainly looks nice. Your home page view (which appears to be what they refer to on other pages as "Your reading list") lists your subscribed feeds on the left and presumably individual items on the right (mine are currently still empty). Where you've just subscribed to a feed so there are no updates yet, you can view the last 10 items from the source, again with item title on left and text of the item on the right, and navigate through them.

You get a "Your subscriptions" page to view your list of subscribed feeds, from which you can also add a feed or unsubscribe, and label a feed or edit labels (like Gmail labels - effectively, tags). The feeds can be viewed by labels, sorted by name or date added, and you can even type in words to filter the feeds listed (see only feeds whose names have the typed word in it). There is supposedly the ability to import existing feed subscriptions in OPML format though I've seen a comment in the Google Group that it doesn't work for Bloglines (I've not tried it yet). You can also export your feeds, that seems to work fine.

The default way to add a feed is to do a search and when you find something you like in the results list, you can click to subscribe to it. When I searched for my blog URL it autodiscovered my Feedburner feed fine. You can also add the feed URL direct if you know it.

Reading individual items is fine when it works. You can navigate the list of items by mouse or shortcut keys, and when viewing an item it seems you can (like with Gmail) star it and apply or edit labels, mark it unread, unsubscribe from the feed, Gmail the item or even blog it (except that neither "Gmail this" nor "Blog This!" actually worked for me, in Internet Explorer). And of course you can click through to the original item. You can star and label individual items within a feed too, just like with Gmail. (But you can't star a feed as a whole, just particular items.) And you can choose to view just starred items, or read items. I've not been able to test the starring etc yet - it certainly doesn't work with "old" items from a new feed, as you think you've starred it but when you try to view starred items nothing's there, and when you go back to the item the star has vanished!

For both lists of feeds and lists of individual items within a particular feed, there are links to sort by date and "relevance", but I don't see how the latter works in relation to the list of feeds. And read items can be hidden or made visible, again I can't see the logic with a feed unless you've read all items in that feed, maybe. Can't test that properly yet, either - with the "old" items, hiding just doesn't work, but maybe it will with new items.


Things often take forever - to login, to preview a feed (even Google-generated feeds!). I've had quite a few timeouts. On trying to subscribe to a feed, hitting the Subscribe button doesn't seem to do anything (if you're lucky and very sharp eyed, the nth time an unobtrusive pale yellow box appears towards the top of the page saying you've subscribed to whatever, and to click to return home). It may take a while before a subscribed feed shows up on your subscription list. When you click to return home after subscribing, sometimes that doesn't work either or takes ages.

When things go wrong they sometimes stay wrong. Feeds or items occasionally vanish (as in, blank. Nada). Sometimes when you switch to another app then return to Reader, it's come back. Or if it was there before, it's gone. I've had lots of different error messages (e.g. Server errors, or Javascript errors, or other errors!) just clicking on links (e.g. to view something), or got weird pages instead of the page I thought it would be (as in a strange Google search within Reader, once). As mentioned, other things don't seem to work yet too like "Gmail this".


I want to be able to subscribe with one click, without having to go through a preview view of the feed first (especially as it takes forever to come up). More navigation links would be good e.g. from the feed preview page you should be able not just to return to the search results but to your subscriptions, reading list etc.
As an aside, and this is about Google accounts generally not Reader, but I do wish that the login page for Google accounts did NOT have the "Remember me on this computer" ticked by default so often, for security reasons. I'm always having to untick it...

In summary

Google Reader looks like it has the potential to be good, and of course Google want to integrate it with their other services as part of what you'll get with your Google account - but be prepared to be frustrated, and occasionally bemused, until they iron out the bugginess and slowness issues.

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Fritz said...

Not quite the "one click" you're wishing for -- you still get the preview screen -- but you can add a subscribe button to your blog like some people do for Bloglines, Yahoo, etc. The URL to use is*/feed/http://FEEDURL

I have an example in the sidebar of my blog.

Mirko said...

Very good review! As a heavy Bloglies user and a fan of Google stuff I tried it to switch if it was good. I was very disappointed to find out:

- importing feeds and browsing them takes very very long.
- unsubscribing from a feed is science, it just takes at least 5 times for Google to get it.

I still prefer the Bloglines philosophy, makes much more sense to me. With desktop RSS readers offering the possibility to sync with Bloglines this is a no-brainer for me.

This is the first time I've been disappointed with something Google did.

Improbulus said...

Fritz - yes that could be useful, but until they get Reader usable I'm personally not going to offer that. In fact I don't anyway because links for Yahoo etc are in the browser friendly view of my Feedburner feed. What I might do though is ask Feedburner to add the Reader option to that view.

Mirko - thanks. As you know, I wouldn't recommend switching just yet as it really is too buggy and slow at the moment!