By November 19, 2006

Google Reader review

I’m a big fan of RSS feeds. I wrote an article about setting up RSS feeds in Firefox with an accompanying how-to on the Tome of Useless Knowledge. Firefox’s built-in RSS support was great, until I got about twenty feeds. It became a pain in the ass to navigate through all the Live Bookmark (RSS) folders. It was hard to remember what articles I’d already read on some high-volume sites, particularly CNN or Ars Technica. I started researching RSS aggregators. Aggregators are (usually) desktop programs that keep track of RSS feeds. I wasn’t excited about installing yet another application, and that’s when I found Google Reader.

There were a few things I liked immediately about Google’s aggregator: it was free, and it was a Web-based application. In the event I am away from my home workstation I can still access my favorite feeds. This was a big problem with using Firefox’s built-in Live Bookmarks; I would take my work laptop up to Maryland and my bookmarks would be out of sync.

This is the Google Reader home page. After my first visit I never came back. Well, except for when I got this screenshot.

Adding feeds is very easy. Click the “Add a subscription” link and enter the RSS URL. You can also browse for feeds. Google has fifteen “bundles” of feeds as of this writing. “Cars” for example has feeds from six different sites. You can also search seven different self-publishing sites, including LiveJournal, blogger, and MySpace.

This is where I spend 99% of my GR time. This is the “All Items” view, which puts all of your feeds together in one easy display. Newer items are at the top of the screen. I have my GR set to only display new items. It is possible to see all of your items by clicking the “show all” link atop the entry list. If you want, you can just see entries for a particular feed by clicking on the feed name in the left hand menu.

When you click on an item title the entry expands. If an RSS node has more information (and most do, CNN being my most notable exception) GR will display a short synopsis. Clicking on the larger-sized article title (conveniently hyperlink blue) takes you to the full article. You can also go to the full article by clicking the gray >> icon to the right of the item time.

Google Reader allows you to tag feed items. I haven’t used this function aside from demonstrating it here, but it’s an interesting concept. I’m not sure how long Google Reader retains feeds. Maybe forever? If so, tagging might be worth more investigation. I created “nintendo” and “wii” tags for this write-up. Clicking on either will display a list of feeds that pertain to whatever your label is: an aggregation of an aggregation. Pretty swank.

You can star items that you find important, or want to refer to later, etc, just like GMail. I don’t use this functionality in either application, but if you’re used to GMail then this might be an interesting capability for you.

RSS items may be shared. You may email shared items via GMail, display your shared items via a Google widget on your Web site, or even get an RSS feed of your shared items. Like the tagging functionality, it’s metadata upon metadata. This reminds of looking in a mirror that is opposite another mirror. I would deploy this widget on my site, but there’s no option to edit the title of the favorites page once you click the “Read more” link and I don’t want my real name associated with this site.

You can also get Google Reader on your Web-browser enabled mobile device. The url is

I’m really impressed with Google Reader. There are a few things I’d like tightened up/fixed, but I imagine this will be done incrementally like other Google products. My biggest gripe is the lack of an automatic refresh. The title of Google Reader automatically updates with the number of unread items, but the actual Web page does not. For example, my title bar says “Google Reader (25)” right now, but my “All items” view only lists 18. I have to click the refresh link in order to update to the advertised 25. Not a big deal, but Gmail does this, so why not GR?

I would also like the ability to sort my “All items” view by feed name. Group all the Ars Technica entries, for example. I’m not sure if I would actually use this, but it’s such an obvious usability oversight I’m surprised you can’t do this already.

As I already stated, there needs to be a way to change the “Read more” view of the shared items page. You can customize the title of the widget, why not the full view? Bah. I expect this to get fixed in a future revision as well.

There’s always room for improvement, but I like Google Reader so much it’s hard not to give it

four out of five STFU mugs!
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3 Comments on "Google Reader review"

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  1. RawCode says:

    Nice review. I have not heard about GR as of yet, so this was new to me. I will definitely check it out.

  2. Other feed readers / aggregators, for anyone who wants to compare (I haven’t done so; I just pick up feeds via LJ and the entries show up in my friends list):

  3. drfaulken says:

    Thanks for the suggestions!

    Too bad Feedlounge is a paid product. I’ll give Bloglines a spin and maybe do a comparison write-up later.