I love NetNewsWire (on the iPhone)

August 22, 2008

Ever since the introduction of Bloglines, and later, Google Reader, NetNewsWire and I have had an on/off relationship, and by on/off I mean effectively non-existent. Every once in a while I'd fire up NNW to see if it offered the features I currently desired in an aggregator, but it always seemed to come up a bit short. Don't get me wrong, for the most part it's pretty good — hell, it used to be the best aggregator out there, no matter the platform — and I used it for quite some time before the big web apps came along, but it's far from the best now; that title belongs to Google Reader.

Unfortunately, the problems I have with NetNewsWire on the Mac aren't minor; indeed, they cause the app to completely and continuously get in my way. My two biggest hang-ups are as follows:

  • You can't mark an item as read without manually clicking a button or hitting the "k" key. What? This makes me crazy. Google Reader introduced a brilliant method of marking items as read as they are scrolled through. This is great because it requires from the user nothing more than the action he must take to read the item. The absence of this feature becomes doubly annoying when reading a feed with a large unread item count, because you effectively are forced to finish skimming every item, unless you don't mind re-reading certain items again later (i.e., you have to finish skimming every unread item so that you can confidently hit the "mark all as read" button). Yes, I'm aware that you can go through each item individually using keyboard shortcuts, but that is a terribly inefficient way to work through your unread items, especially when we're talking about hundreds or even thousands of posts.

  • You can't show, in your list of feeds, only those feeds that actually have unread items. What? I just can't imagine that implementing this would require more than a few lines of code (and maybe just one), yet still we're required to scroll our entire list of feeds (in my case, ~300). Sure, there is the "Sort by Unread Count" option, but that really only works if you don't have any folder structure; if you do, then you are still made to scroll through your entire list, else you can't be sure that there aren't unread items near the bottom of the list.

Enter the NetNewsWire iPhone application

After not being able to get away from chatter about NNW's iPhone implementation (mostly on Twitter), I decided to give it a spin, not expecting much. Well, it seems my low expectations were entirely unwarranted. The iPhone application is fantastic. In fact, I dare say I enjoy reading posts on the iPhone app more than the Mac app. I'm serious.

The iPhone app teaches an old dog new tricks

The above complaints I have about the Mac version are nowhere to be found in the iPhone app: when I read an item, it's automatically marked as unread (and said status is synced with the cloud), and I'm only shown feeds with unread items.

Folders

The iPhone app follows whatever folder structure you've laid out in the Mac and/or web clients. Further, you can browse items by folder (instead of just folder-->feed), and can mark all items within a folder as read, without actually going into any of the posts (after, say, skimming over the title of every post in the folder).

Built-in browser

I love, love, love this feature. When you are looking at a particular post, you can tap the post's title and be taken to the post's web page, from inside NNW — you don't have to leave the app and open a new tab in Safari. This is indescribably useful, especially for those sites that still refuse to offer full-content feeds.

Ability to filter feeds

If there is a feed you don't want to see on the iPhone (in my case, I have quite a few, including all of the photoblogs I follow), you simply tap the "edit" button in the feed-list view (or slide your finger horizontally on the feed name, as in Mail), then tap the respective "minus" button, then the "delete" button, and finally choose "Don't show in iPhone." Very nice.

Marking items as read

As noted above, as soon as you "open" an item on the iPhone app it's marked as read, and after reading the item you can either go back to the list of items/feeds, or hit "Next Unread" and be given either the next unread item in the current feed, or, if you are on the last item in the current feed, the next unread item in the next feed with unread items. This is a great, time-saving feature.

Clippings

Like the Mac client, the iPhone app allows you to save any item to your "clippings" folder (NNW's name for a post you want to save for later use, similar to Google Reader's "starring"). You can't yet view your clippings on the iPhone, but they, like everything else, are synced to NewsGator Online. (Relatedly, is there a way to delete a clipping from within NNW on the Mac, or can this be done only through NewsGator Online?)

The experience

We can talk ad nauseam about what features are and are not (see below) in a particular application, but at the end of that day it's all about the overall experience, and that's where NNW really shines. It's just so much fun to use; fun because it's easy, and fun because it makes me feel like I'm being efficient with my time. Once a decent number of feeds have been loaded, I can blaze through them without much delay. It's fantastic.

Since installing the app, I find myself reading news a lot more in bed, before I get up in the morning. I roll over, grab my iPhone (which is sitting on the nightstand because I used a podcast to help me fall asleep) and start rocking and rolling with the days' news. By the time I actually get out of bed, I've already made a sizable dent in my feeds. This works only because the app is not annoying; indeed, it's quite a joy to use.

Issues with the iPhone app

As far as the interface goes, there isn't too much I'd change. That said, the following would be nice (and are no doubt being worked on as I type this):

  • The ability to sort posts within feeds so that older articles appear first. This is how I prefer to read my news (i.e., in time order), and the Mac app allows it.
  • A "Next Unread" button is provided at the bottom of every post, which is a very nice feature and makes going through multiple posts fast and easy. However, I wish it would tell you, when (or before) you click it, whether you will be pushed into a different feed with unread items (which happens when you are at the current feed's last unread item).
  • No "landscape" mode for the built-in browser. Surely it's coming.
  • No "mark as unread" option.
  • Images routinely (always?) scale incorrectly, which generally requires you to scroll left/right/up/down to view them.
  • No way to set "Don't show in iPhone" at the folder level (i.e., each feed needs to be configured individually).
  • No "pagination" (i.e., a very active feed with, say, 200 unread items, has to be read either all at once, or individually).

To the Google Reader team

As far as I'm concerned, Google Reader's web-app for the iPhone is second to none, and is damn near as perfect as it can be. It does what it needs to do in the most efficient way possible; however, it's somewhat held back by the medium. I've very few problems with it, but at the end of the day each user operation is, for all intents and purposes, tied to the web, one-to-one (i.e., user chooses something, you download and display it). This is slow (relatively), and can be oh so aggravating.

Accordingly, please, please, please develop a native iPhone app for Google Reader (and model it after NNW). Until then, I think I'm going to have to stick with the original king.

Also, while you're at it, let's go ahead and bang out a Gmail app too.  ;)

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