I’ve got a pretty nasty RSS feed-reading habit. I’m currently subscribed to 116 feeds (down from around 200 at my peak), and I start to feel anxious and disconnected if I go too long without sucking from the webtap. I blame NetNewsWire by Brent Simmons, which set the standard for how a desktop RSS feed reader should be written. It’s so extensible and so efficient, it practically makes fun of you if you’re not keeping track of thousands of posts in hundreds of feeds.
One of the most important things I was looking for in the iPad was a way to make the whole feed-reading ritual more enjoyable and less like work. Instead of getting up in the morning and immediately sitting in front of the computer to pore over news articles like a less effective Winston Smith, I could lean back on the couch like they show in the Apple ads, and develop some kind of “morning paper”-esque ritual that would make me feel more like a bonafide grown-up.
The iPad version of NetNewsWire was released at launch (or maybe soon after), and I’ve been using it since then. It’s fast and efficient, but it just didn’t flow as well as it does on the desktop. It understandably stays very close to Apple’s established UI for iPad apps, which is part of the problem: I don’t like the standards Apple’s put into place. They claim that “it doesn’t matter” how you hold the iPad, but their own system of pop-ups and full page views ends up giving every app two modes: an orientation that’s efficient (usually landscape), and one that’s enjoyable to use (usually portrait). With NetNewsWire, it meant a lot of flipping the device around — landscape to get through lots of posts quickly, portrait to read in depth — and forwarding the ones I wanted to read in greater detail to Marco Arment’s outstanding Instapaper app.
There’s a separate app called Early Edition that compiles newspaper-style page views from your available RSS feeds, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted, either. It was kind of the opposite extreme to NetNewsWire: nice-looking, but not as efficient. What I really wanted was something that would split the difference: good for reading single posts in detail, efficient for scanning through blogs that could have hundreds of entries, and a seamless way to switch between the two modes.
Reeder for iPad by Silvio Rizzi is exactly that. I’d already been a fan of the iPhone version of Reeder, but reading lots of text on a cell phone is never going to be ideal. The iPad version, though, gets just about everything right. I started gushing about it as soon as I tried it, but it’s really not an exaggeration to say that it’s turned the iPad from an overpriced novelty to a genuinely useful computer.
Here’s why I like it, with pictures. I really do believe that the interface is worth studying; anybody who’s considering making an iPad app should look at how Reeder does things and why they’re usually a good idea.
The Folder Browser
This is the main view of the app. It looks the same in portrait or landscape orientation, so flipping the device around isn’t a “mode switch;” it doesn’t significantly change how you’re interacting with what you see.
The toolbar stays on the left in every mode. Again, no matter how you hold it, the top-level interface remains constant. And you want it on the left, because that’s where your thumb is. (Kindle gets this right with its hardware buttons, but iPad designers keep wanting to make you swipe or use “hidden” buttons). And the locations and functions of the buttons stay constant for as long as they’re relevant: the “Back” button always means go back a level, the “Sync/reload” button always means sync, etc.
In my Google Reader account, I’ve got everything arranged in folders. Each of the folders is represented by a stack of papers, and you can just tap on the stack to get a list of all the posts for every feed in that folder. (And at any point, you can switch between starred, unread, and all posts).
Pinch to Expand
Instead of tapping a folder stack to get a list of all the posts inside, you can read just the posts from individual feeds. To do that, you pinch on a stack and expand outwards, which gives you a browser view like this one. Each page here is an individual feed, with its favicon if the blog has a full-size one available. You can tap on any one to see a list of just the posts for that feed. Or, you can pinch-and-expand on an individual feed to get a preview of all the post titles in that feed. The reverse gesture “compresses” everything into one stack. The gestures always work the same way, no matter the view: pinch and expand takes you down the hierarchy (with preview), pinch and compress takes you back up.
I complained about swiping and page-turning gestures in other apps, and the pinch-to-expand/contract gesture in Reeder may seem even more counter-intuitive. (It’s probably something I would’ve stumbled on eventually). The key difference here is: most common functions are done with clearly-marked buttons, less common functions are done with gestures. The page-curl transition in iBooks makes for a neat demo, but when you’re reading, you just want to tap the sides of the screen. You can do that in iBooks, but it’s not visible. In Reeder, the thing you do most often — advance to the next or previous post in a feed — is clearly marked with a button on the toolbar on the left, which never changes position. The pinching gestures are a neat effect, but they’re not essential to using the app — you could use Reeder effectively without ever knowing about them, but you couldn’t use iBooks (or Kindle) without knowing how to turn the page.
Also, once you’re taught how to do this, it’s a great way to navigate hierarchies on a touch-based device. I hope this eventually turns into some kind of standard for the iPhone OS, since it feels more natural than toolbars with “back” or “containing folder” buttons.
The Feed List
This is the list view that shows up when you tap on a folder or an individual feed. Again, the starred/unread/all buttons work here to filter the view. If you’re looking at the contents of a folder, you can also sort by date or by individual feed.
The most obvious neat thing here is the graphic design, which looks a lot like the iPhone version’s. It’s fairly low-contrast and easy to read, and you get exactly the information you want to see.
The less obvious neat thing is the use of gestures. Swiping any item to the left marks it as starred. Swiping to the right marks it as read (just like swiping to the right marks an item for deletion in the standard apps). This makes it easy to scan through a blog with a lot of items in it, marking some as read and choosing others to read in more detail. Tapping on any post item will open up the single item view.
The Single Item View
The view for a single post looks great and is easy to read, much like Instapaper’s. (And Reeder can send posts to Instapaper, as well as working with a dozen different apps and online services via the “forward” button in the upper right). UI elements are repeated in multiple views, such as the buttons to star a post or mark it read: you can quickly do it with gestures in the list view, or just tap the visible buttons in the single post view.
The toolbar on the left has up-down buttons to go to the next or previous post without leaving the single item view. This recognizes the fact that some blogs have tons of posts, of which you may only want to read a few in detail (e.g. Engadget); and others have few posts but you want to read every one (e.g. this fine blog you’re reading right now).
There are more gestures here, too: you can swipe left or right to make the single post view slide away and reveal the list again. (This is my only complaint about the app: the left-to-right swiping is too sensitive, so you can inadvertently trigger it while trying to scroll up and down). And like Tweetie, you can scroll past the bottom or the top of a post; in this case, it takes you to the next or previous post. Functionality is duplicated by visible buttons and by learned gestures.
And one thing you may have noticed from the screenshots: I never have to go into landscape view. I can, and in some modes I’ll get the standard split-view, with a list on one half and the single post view on the other. But it really is designed so that there’s no one “right” way to hold it; I can do everything I want in portrait mode, without feeling like I’m sacrificing any efficiency or functionality.
Magical and Revolutionary
So basically what I’m saying is that I love this app. I’d been considering writing an RSS feed reader app for a while, to get one that does exactly what I want, but Reeder just blew that whole idea out of the water. (Who knows, I may still try it, but more as a novelty. I can’t imagine anything will be able to top all the stuff that Reeder gets exactly right).
And it’s one of the few apps — the Comixology apps, Instapaper, and Plants vs. Zombies are the only others that come to mind — that feel as if putting them on a tablet computer makes them better than anywhere else, instead of something that’s been scaled back and loaded down with concessions just so that you can touch it.
So let’s see how my initial wish list for the iPad is coming along:
- Sketching/Drawing: SketchBook Pro is as nice as you’re going to get, but a touch screen will probably never be 100% ideal for drawing
- Comic Book reader: Comixology’s apps are great, we just need to get Dark Horse and DC involved, and to get all the companies to release current stuff at a reasonable price
- RSS Feed Reader: Reeder is about perfect
- E-book reader: I’m very happy so far with iBooks and Kindle
- Video: Netflix and ABC are great, syncing with iTunes fills the rest so far
- Blogging Client: Still nothing
Not bad, so far. Plus any of the ten billion things I never would’ve wanted the iPad to do until somebody makes a great app for it, and it becomes essential.