iPad RSS Reader Shootout

The iPad is a great device for reading. With the full color screen, it is a glossy magazine if the Kindle reader is a text only novel. And considering our addiction to news feeds the iPad is an indispensable tool for us, but which app is the best one when it comes to reading our news feeds? We decided to put a few to the test and see which one comes out on top. Aside from being specifically an iPad app, the only requirement we had for the app was it had to sync with Google Reader. We chose three apps to battle it out for a position on our iPad home screens.

Third Place — NetNewsWire for iPad [App Store, $9.99]

NewNewsWire, by NewsGator Technologies, is one of the most recognized names in RSS readers, offering a Mac OS application as well as an iPhone app. NewsGator doesn’t offer a universal app, which is a bit of a bummer if you were hoping to upgrade from your iPhone version. NewNewsWire also offers a free version of their Mac app and a free version of their iPhone version, but for some reason they only offer one option for the iPad and it’s the most expensive of the three iPad apps we reviewed.

The appearance of NetNewsWire was the best of the bunch. The highlight for a selected row is visual perfection, the unread badge for each feed is simple yet pleasant, and this was the only app of the three to offer expanding and collapsing folders. Folders appear as a darker color than single feed lines. The in-app icons (refresh, mark all as read, send to, star) are all intuitive. Articles that include an image would be presented with a thumbnail in the item list.

However, some of the odd interface quirks and minor glitches undermined any of the points NewtNewsWire gained from its pixel perfection. For example, on occasion NetNewsWire would display a feed or a folder with no unread badge. But when selecting the folder or feed, we were presented with one or more unread items in the list. Additionally, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what items would be displayed in a feed’s list. When selecting Daring Fireball, we were presented the latest unread item, one starred entry (despite having starred several items), and then a hodgepodge of random older stories that dated back to earlier in the month. Tapping on a folder presented one read item at the top, all of the unread items below that, and then none of the starred items.

NetNewsWire offered no visible settings for the app except for the Google Reader account information and the Instapaper account information, both appearing in the settings app as opposed to being contained in the NewNewsWire app itself. As an example, tapping on the “mark all as read” icon brings up a dialog you have to tap again to complete the action. This is a great feature, no doubt, but there really should be a setting to disable it.

There is no built-in web browser, which seems like an odd omission considering the Mac OS version of NetNewsWire offers this. Also, when the app is twice as expensive as the next contender, it seems almost unforgivable.


Second Place — Bulletin XL [App Store, $2.99]

The reader from Concept Cache is the cheapest of the three tested. It also offers more settings than either of the other apps, perhaps too many as it became unclear what all of the toggles do. (Unfortunately, like NetNewsWire, they chose to put their app settings in the iPad settings app.) Another point for Bulletin XL was that they carried over two features from Google Reader that neither of the other apps offer — Notes and Shared Items.

The visuals in Bulletin XL are less appealing than the other two apps. The first list offers folders, followed by an app created folder called “Single Feeds”. This is not as clean as the other two which simply list each of the individual feeds below the grouped feeds. The list is the basic white iPhone OS interface with uninspiring orange icons. Once inside a folder, the background turns gray and unread items are grouped by feed.

Bulletin XL’s “mark all as read” icon is intuitive enough, however this app doesn’t warn you at all before marking as read. As for some of the app’s other icons, it is anyone’s best guess as to what they are supposed to do. For example, there is one icon that looks like the RSS icon. Tapping this icon provided no feedback as to what action was performed, and while the icon changes state, it is so subtle you can’t tell at first glance whether your action turned something on or off. We were able to figure out what the other icons were for by deductive reasoning, but they are a bit unclear, and likely confusing to the average Joe.

All of the apps we reviewed offered navigation icons (up and down arrows) when in portrait mode. Bulletin XL was the only one to offer the arrows in portrait mode as well, which was a nice addition.

The built-in browser was very nice, providing a full screen view with only a small navigation bar at the bottom. We were confused by the placement of the popup when tapping the “send to” icon, however. Rather than appearing right above the icon, the popup was positioned in the middle of the screen.

Perhaps the biggest annoyance was the inability to read previously read articles. The oversight seems so great, we suspect there is an option in the app settings but we never found anything that stood out. And considering you have to close the app each time you want to enable an option, trial and error with the options was no simple task. Even if there is a hidden preference somewhere, being able to read previously read articles should have been enabled by default. If we couldn’t find the setting, it is unlikely less techie users would be able to find it, and that becomes a deal breaker.


First Place — NewsRack [App Store, $4.99]

Coming in at half the cost of NetNewsWire and only a couple dollars more than Bulletin XL, omz:software’s contender is well priced and is a fully capable reader app. NewsRack could be considered the best value of the lot since it was the only universal app of the three, great for people upgrading from an iPhone app or users who simply want to have the same app on both devices.

Visually, NewsRack is only a point below NetNewsWire. The folder arrow is not as pleasant as NetNewsWires, and folders can’t expand and contract. However, NewsRack makes up for this shortcoming with a nice feature only available in this app: the unread badge for a folder is tappable, providing a list of unread articles in that folder. That single, simple feature pushed NewsRack skyrocketing towards first place.

The top of the feed list provides a link to all the unread articles regardless of which feed they come from. At the bottom of the list is a link to hide read feeds. Also at the bottom of the feeds list is an obvious icon for control all of the app settings. All of the settings are intuitively titled, and grouped to make it easy to find the option you might be looking for. 

In the list of articles, NewsRack has a separator for each day. This simple, yet useful addition shows the developer’s attention to detail. Hidden at the top of the article list is a search box, exactly like the Apple’s own Mail app. (NewsRack was the only one of the three we reviewed to offer search capabilities.) A small feature that might be missed in the articles list is the option to tap on the blue “unread” dot to mark an article as read. Tapping this space again, marks the article as starred. NewsRack doesn’t provide a way to mark an article as unread, which was a surprising omission. As with NetNewsWire, articles are presented with a thumbnail of the story’s image when available.

The built-in browser fills the same space as the original article. There are always trade-offs with this type of decision. The advantage NewsRack has over Bulletin XL is that you can view the web version, and then tap the next article in the list without having to close the browser. However, the user is limited by the width of the browser.

NewsRack was the only app to offer complete control of your news feeds right from the app, the other two require you to manage all of your subscriptions from Google Reader. Within the app you have the option to move feeds in and out of folders, unsubscribe, and even set some preferences per feed.

Options for sharing are not lacking with Twitter, Instapaper, Delicious, ReadItLater, and Facebook all provided, and of course standard email and Google Reader sharing included as well. These options are available for the feed article as well as the web URL.

When we reviewed the three apps, only NewsRack became the RSS reader that we wanted on our home screen. It doesn’t lack in features, the interface is darn near perfect… NewsRack is the best value of all of the RSS readers.

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