I’ve been using Bloglines to read RSS feeds for what feels like forever. Certainly, I think, for as long as I’ve been reading RSS feeds. When Google Reader first came out I gave it a quick whirl but didn’t get on with it. Bloglines’ next incarnation, the eternal Beta version, improved on the original but recently Google updated Reader so I’ve given that another go. Here are the differences that matter to me.
Few people could find Bloglines Beta (BB) a thing of beauty (even fewer would find the original version beautiful; that blue… ugh). But the first version of Google Reader (GR) didn’t grab me much either. There was something missing for me, as if in trying to simplify things they’d omitted some solidity that left it all a bit loose for my eyes. With the new version of GR it’s been tightened up and the simplicity seems to work better now. BB looks clunky and unfinished in comparison but then it always did, unfortunately.
One of the factors that made me try GR again is BB’s flakiness. It’s usually OK but on several occasions over recent months feeds that have been dormant for ages have suddenly suggested they have hundreds of unread articles. Marking these all as read was only a temporary solution. Eventually the problem goes away but it isn’t encouraging. I’ve also had problems when trying to subscribe to feeds with BB not letting me but, when I try again, telling me I’m already subscribed.
I’ve only been using GR for a couple of weeks but it feels more solid so far.
The ease of browsing feeds is the critical task and in this the sites work almost identically. For me, BB works slightly better here. I can use the ‘J’ or ‘Space’ keys to move through unread items and, once I reach the end of a feed’s items, the same key will move me on to the first item in the next feed in my list.
GR works in almost exactly the same way — ‘J’ and ‘Space’ moving from one item to the next, or paging down through items, respectively. The crucial difference is that in GR if you’re on the final item of the final feed in a folder then another press of ‘Space’ (but not ‘J’ for some reason) takes you to the entire next folder, rather than the first feed within it.
I don’t like reading aggregated collections of all items within a folder, so this is a loss for GR for me. It’s not hard to move focus from the folder to the first feed inside — Shift-J for the next feed, then Shift-O to ‘open’ it — but it’s a bit of a hiccup in the flow.
When I’m out and about with moments to kill and I’ve read all my friends’ twitters and caught up on email, my feeds are the next thing I check on my iPhone. Both sites have mobile versions which work well. BB lets you select subscriptions that you don’t want to appear in the mobile version, which can be handy. But overall the GR mobile version is much slicker. For example, any large image in an item throws BB mobile’s whole layout out while GR re-sizes it to fit (see the image below). GR mobile feels more like a real iPhone app while BB only amplifies the standard site’s slightly clunky feel with more of a “Web 1.0” feeling.
If you click a link in a feed item in either mobile browser, you get sent to a simplified version of the page. BB uses Skweezer for this but it seems extremely flaky with some odd layouts and, recently, a complete inability to view any pages. GR’s by contrast tend to look pretty good on the iPhone and, so far, Just Work.
I haven’t done an in-depth test of this but on a quick comparison it looks like GR is much speedier at updating feeds. It’s possible that BB is just being flaky as I check now, but several feeds with updates in the last few minutes or hours in GR are lagging way, way behind in BB.
Starring vs pinning
Given the vast similarities between the sites, the slight difference in how items are marked for future reference is one of the biggest differences in basic usage.
In BB you can “pin” an item and it will remain visible in the feed, as if it’s permanently “unread”, until you choose to mark it as no longer pinned. The number of items in a feed that are pinned are listed as a separate number next to the number of unread items.
In GR you can “star” items. All your starred items are then listed in a separate “Starred items” list, rather than staying marked within their original feed.
I prefer BB’s approach as I don’t like mixing items from different feeds in GR’s “Starred items” list but as I don’t use either feature often it’s not a huge deal.
BB will let you subscribe to feeds that require a username and password using the form http://username:email@example.com/etc/etc. GR doesn’t offer this feature which surprises me and it was another reason I never gave GR a proper try when it first launched. But now Daring Fireball includes all items in its free feed I have no private feeds.
There are other, bigger, differences between GR and BB — such as shared items and notes in GR; weblogs, mailing list to feed conversion in BB — but I don’t use any of these features so they don’t sway me toward either service. I just want to read lots of stuff as easily as possible.
I’m a sucker for statistics though so I do like GR’s Trends screens (below) which give you graphs and stats for your aggregated and individual subscriptions.
And GR’s “Bundles” — collections of thematically similar feeds — is a great idea if you want a quick dip in what’s happening in a particular field.
Although I still feel slightly lost in GR it’s won me over after years of Bloglines, which is no mean feat. It’s amazing how incredibly similar the two services are but one or two niggles aside, GR has that final 10% of polish and attention to detail that makes all the difference.
(I did consider comparing Newsgator too, as I’d love to use its associated Mac application NetNewsWire, but (a) Newsgator’s not very pretty, (b) it appears to have no keyboard shortcuts, and (c) it refused to import my OPML files from either Bloglines or Google Reader.)