Review: Reeder 3 for iPhone

As I write this very paragraph, I’m sitting in front of my MacBook Air typing in iA Writer. Twitter and nvALT are peeking out from the left-hand side of my text document, OS X’s Dock waits on the right-hand side of my screen, the Menu Bar watching from its usual top 20 pixels of the monitor, and my Desktop wallpaper rests in the background. Naturally, a fresh-brewed cup of coffee sits on the table next to my keyboard.

If I wanted, I could “remove all distraction” and temporarily transform my MacBook Air into a dedicated iA Writer machine by punching Control Command F and thus entering Full Screen Mode. But I’m not in a full-screen-mode-writing kind of mood.

Full Screen Mode on the Mac showed up last summer when Lion shipped. It is one of the elements brought over to OS X from iOS. It’s a way of removing all chrome from the screen save that used by the app itself. Even the ever-present Menu Bar gives up its 20 pixels.

On iOS, you’re always in full screen mode. When you’re using an app on your iPhone or iPad, the device, in a way, becomes that app.

And I find that because of this, writing about an iPhone or iPad can be difficult. You can’t give an iOS app review justice by reciting just the raw technicalities of the app. iOS apps have a bit of heart mixed in as well. Because you always only ever use the apps in full screen mode, they get your undivided attention in a way a Mac app often doesn’t. Moreover, due to the touch-screen nature of the device, iOS apps have a bit more personal of a user experience than mouse and keyboard driven apps.

OS X has heart too, of course. But most of it is found only in the design of the app. The blue progress indicator in Safari’s address field and the way application windows would shrink into the Dock when minimized were just a couple of the many interface and experience characteristics of OS X that enticed me to become a Mac user in 2004.

iOS is a UI Design Playground

The very first long-form software review I ever wrote was about an RSS reader you may have heard of: NetNewsWire. When I wrote that review, the original iPhone was only a few months old and iPhone software was still in its infancy. The Home screen couldn’t be re-arranged and there was not yet a whisper of an App Store or native 3rd-party apps.

Two years later, in 2009, John Gruber wrote about how Twitter clients are a UI design playground. The plethora of Twitter clients that were, and are, available for multiple platforms showed the vast array of design opportunities the seemingly simple service allowed. In his article, he made a statement about iPhone software that I think is even more apt today:

I read web sites and email and RSS feeds on my iPhone, but Twitter is the one service where reading on my iPhone doesn’t feel constrained compared to reading on my Mac. Put another way, MobileSafari is a good web browser for the iPhone, MobileMail is a good email client for the iPhone, but my favorite few iPhone Twitter clients are just plain good Twitter clients, with no need for a “for the iPhone” qualification. It doesn’t feel limiting to only use Twitter from my iPhone.

If you were to list out phrases that describe Apple’s software you’d come up with things like: intuitive and easy to use; it just works; fun and playful; simple; well-designed; beautiful. And I think it’s fair to say that Apple’s touch-based operating system epitomizes these characteristics even more than OS X does due to the inherent intimacy of iOS. The best 3rd-party developers know this and use it in their own apps.

It’s been 3 years since John wrote the above quote and it is more true of more apps today. And not just Twitter apps. How many tasks or activities do you prefer to do on your iPhone or iPad? It’s no longer limited to something as simple as Twitter. Some people are even replacing their entire computing experience with iOS software — taking their iPads on the road and leaving their MacBooks at home.

A few nerdy examples of iOS apps that are just plain good apps without the need for a “for iOS” qualification? OmniFocus, Diet Coda, Tweetbot, Writing Kit, and, as we’re about to discuss in great detail, Reeder.

Reeder for iPhone

For 5 years my iPhone has never been more than an arm’s length away. It’s my cell phone, my camera, my iPod, alarm clock, grocery list, task manager, note-taker, direction-giver, Twitter client, feed reader, and more. Affectionately referred to as Command Central.

In 2010 I lamented what I considered to be the non-ideal state of RSS feed readers for the iPhone. Reeder (still in version 1 at the time) was the best option at the time, but I felt there were several things about it that were still missing.

Reeder 2.0 launched shortly after my 2010 lamentation, and it answered nearly all of my needs. Today, with version 3.0, Reeder continues its hold as the best RSS client on the iPhone, period.

Version 3.0 of Reeder for iPhone is a major update. Not only are there a slew of new features, but there are an equal number of design improvements. The app has been completely re-written from the ground up and every corner of the UI has been refined. In short, Reeder runs better, looks better, does more, and is easier to use.

Some of Reeder’s hallmark new feature include:

  • Support for two new account types: Fever and Readability.
  • Subscription Management for Google Reader. You can now add and remove feeds, as well as move them around within folders, all from within Reeder.
  • Support for multiple accounts: you can have more than one Google Reader account, as well as
  • A re-written sync engine: and you thought Reeder was fast before.

More on these new features in a bit. First, let’s dive in to what I consider to be the best thing about Reeder 3: its new look.

Reeder’s Grown-Up Look

It starts with the icon. Though new, it is still familiar. You may notice it’s the same star found in the previous icon, but the “book spine” and the “RSS satellite waves” have been removed. It’s also the same star that sits on the front of the Mac application’s icon, and is more or less, the same icon as the 16×16 variant of the Mac app.

Reeder Icons: New and Old

Reeder’s new icon is only the tip of the iceberg. Once you launch the app you’re greeted with a design that’s been revamped from the Status Bar to the Home Button.

Remember how prevalent brushed-metal window chrome and striped backgrounds were in the early versions of Mac OS X? Now, nearly all of its general UI design elements sport a much more subtle design aesthetic. Gone is heavy-handed window chrome — giving way to a more simplified design.

Likewise with Reeder, much of the application’s design has been cleaned up and simplified. And all of it for the better. Articles have a more defined hierarchy and less visual clutter; menus have better contrast. This is not to say that the previous design of Reeder was poor — far from it — but the new design is unquestionably superior, and it makes the previous design instantly feel dated.

UI Comparison: Reeder 3 on the left and Reeder 2 on the right.

List View in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) The feed list. In version 3 you can tap the plus button in the top-right corner to add a feed. Also the “scotch tape” header divider has been slightly re-drawn.

Article Views in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) An individual article. The layout is far more attractive, tapping the top-right typography button gives you control over font size and line height. Swipe left-to-right and you’ll return to the list view, swipe right-to-left and you’ll go to the article’s permalink.

Popover Menu in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) The popover menu. Tap on the action button and you get a slew of options for the current article. Notice how the background dims ever so slightly?

Item Saving in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) Saving an article to Instapaper. Instead of a spinning progress meter you get an icon that matches the style of the rest of the menu popovers in Reeder.

Pull for next article: Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) Pull for next or previous article and the title of that article unfolds. Same functionality as Reeder 2, but a more fitting animation.

Apps like Reeder which immerse you in their custom interface design are often some of my favorites.

This is what the default iOS dialog box looks like: iOS Default Dialog Box

But in an app like Tweetbot or Reeder, every pixel has been assimilated to fit with the world of that app, and thus it’s an entirely customized experience.

Compared to the above iOS dialog box, here is a dialog box in Tweetbot: Tweetbot Dialog Box

And here is a dialog box in Reeder: Reeder 3.0 Dialog Box

Reeder’s New Functionality

Reeder has always sported a nice and customized look, but this app is more than just a pretty face. As I mentioned above, Reeder is jam packed with new features. Some are huge, some are subtle, but all are awesome.

Feed Reeder a Fever

If you’re a nerd with your own server, you want to set this up.

Fever is a self-hosted RSS app written by Shaun Inman. I reviewed Fever when it first came out in 2009 and it’s still just as hot now as it was then. Setting it up is a piece of cake. You upload a folder, do a quick server compatibility test, and then your locked and loaded. Fever literally installs itself.

Once you’ve got Fever set up and you’ve uploaded your OPML file — or you’ve scurried around the web adding your favorite websites using the Fever Feedlet (a bookmarklet that will grab the RSS feed of the website you’re on and subscribe to in within Fever) — then it’s time to add it to Reeder.

At the top-level screen for Reeder, tap the Plus icon in the top-right corner, and then tap Fever. For the “Server” field, enter the URL of your Fever install, then your login credentials using your Fever email and password.

With Fever, you’re basically rolling your own RSS server that is in sync and accessible via your Desktop, iPad, and iPhone. Reeder for Mac and iPad does not yet have Fever account support. But there are other apps, such as Ashes.

One caveat to Fever is that it doesn’t auto-refresh itself if you’re not logged in. There’s a way to get around waiting for a refresh by setting up a cron job to auto-refresh Fever for you.

You can find the cron job code in your Fever install under “Extras”. But basically, it’s going to look like this:

curl -L -s http://YOURSITE.com/fever/?refresh

I have my Fever install running on a side-domain I have on a Media Temple Grid Service, and the (gs) control panel allows me to schedule a cron job. There I have it set to refresh Fever every 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can trigger the cron jobs from your Mac (on a schedule or remotely) by doing what Gabe does and using Keyboard Maestro to execute a shell script.

Reeder will refresh Fever when you launch the app, but you’ll have to wait for Fever to update itself and then for the updates to download to your iPhone. This isn’t the fastest process, and so I highly recommend setting up Fever to refresh via cron. And if you do use the cron job to refresh I’d secondly recommend that you disable the option in Reeder to refresh your Fever server when you open the app. Though your RSS feeds may be as much as 10 minutes out of date, it will save you time waiting first for the server to refresh before updating Reeder with the latest feeds.

Checking your Fever feeds in Reeder is virtually identical to checking your Google feeds. The subscription list and article view looks the same and (mostly) acts the same. You can still send articles and links to Instapaper, Pinboard, Evernote, etc. Tapping on the star adds the article to your Fever “Saved” list.

The big difference between a Fever account and a Google Reader account is that there’s an additional list — a Hot list.

Reeder 3 showing Feever's Hot List

Here is where you see the most-linked-to items within all of your feed subscriptions, as well as the list of who is linking to them. This is the premier feature of Fever, and it is a great addition to Reeder.

Tapping on a Hot item, or on a supporting article, takes you to that article within Reeder. Swiping left or right on a Hot item to mark it as read and remove it from the Hot list. Often a hot item stays hot for a while, and this is a great way to clear away items you’ve already seen.

If you want a multi-device alternative to Google for syncing and reading your RSS feeds, Fever is the only answer I know of. I use Fever and Google Reader (because I’m extra nerdy, I guess). The former because of the Hot list, and the latter because it’s faster.

Readability

Reeder’s integration with Readability’s mobilizer service is not new. But what’s notable is that you can now add your Readability “read later” bookmarks as an account within Reeder. If you use Readability’s read later service, then Reeder 3.0 could become your one-stop mobile reading application. Containing both your RSS Feeds and your read later queue.

Google Reader Feed Management

Reader now lets you add, delete, and move around specific feeds.

When you are in a list of a specific feed’s articles, tapping on the site’s favicon that sits in the top-right corner takes you to an information pane. In previous versions of Reeder this would take you directly to the website.

Reeder now presents you with a slew of helpful options for the specific RSS Feed.

The Feed-Specifi Info Pane in Reeder 3

You can unsubscribe to the feed, add or move it to a folder, or create a new folder altogether. If the feed is already in a specific folder and you unselect that folder then Reeder plops the feed into your top-level subscription bucket.

The Little Things:

  • When you mark all items in a feed as read, a confirmation box appears at the bottom of the screen, rather than sliding up. And in Reeder 3, the box is a custom design rather than the default iOS slide-up buttons.

    Previously in Reeder, you had the option of disabling the “mark all as read” confirmation right from within the slide up notification pane. That option still exists in Reeder 3, but it must be manually configured within the app’s settings.

  • Also a nice touch when it comes to the dialog boxes: when one appears, the rest of the app dims out ever so slightly.

  • In Reeder’s built-in browser, there is now a button to enable Readability’s text mobilizer. When you tap on it to enable or disable the mobilizer a small triangular arrow slides up from the bottom menu bar.

  • When in article list view for a specific feed, do a two-finger swipe above or below an individual article and you can mark all the respective items as read.

Back to the iPad

The look, the feel, the new functionality, all of them come together to take Reeder 3.0 over the top. This update is a big step forward for Reeder. Next in line will be the iPad app says Reeder’s developer, Silvio Rizzi.

I have always preferred to read through my RSS list using Reeder on my iPad, but for the past several months that I’ve been using the Reeder beta, its new look and new features have been compelling enough that I now reach for the smaller device when it comes time to check my RSS feeds. I can’t wait for the next version of Reeder for iPad.

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