Thoughts on NetNewsWire 2.0+ for the iPhone

November 03, 2009

I told myself repeatedly that I just wasn't going to write this post, yet here I am banging away at the Das Keyboard Ultimate making it happen, making dreams come true.

When NetNewsWire initially was released for the iPhone (long before Google Reader integration and long after I gave up on desktop NNW (and pronounced Google Reader the RSS king)), I gave it a shot because, well, I try everything. Turned out I really liked it, as the title of my rather long post made clear: I ♥ NetNewsWire (on the iPhone).

At the end of that post I pleaded with the Google Reader team to "please, please, please develop a native iPhone app for Google Reader (and model it after NNW)." Well, it looks like NNW actually beat them to the punch, because this latest release, which syncs with Google Reader, is great. In fact, I'm a bit puzzled by the overwhelmingly negative reviews for it in the App Store.

For those reviews predicated on the app constantly crashing (a problem that I just haven't had), the unfavorable opinions obviously are justified, but as far as everyone else complaining about everything under the damn sun, I'm convinced that they simply haven't used any of the GReader-syncing alternatives (e.g., Byline, Newsstand, Bulletin, etc.), all of which are good (Byline is my favorite of the bunch), but, for my money (and time!), none are as good as NNW.

Most of the positive/negative points made in that earlier NNW post persist in the 2.x release, including the most important positive point of all, namely the ability to blaze through a large number of unread items in rapid succession; this ability is maintained in the new version despite the addition of (best-of-breed) Google Reader syncing. (I'll be honest, after my terrible experience with desktop-NNW↔GReader syncing, I was reluctant to even try the iPhone implementation.) All of the other readers mentioned above sync with Google Reader, but none do it nearly as quickly as NNW. It is fast. In fact, when using WiFi you just don't notice it.

The only slight complaint I have regarding the syncing is that when it shows you the progress of a sync operation it says: "Syncing 10 items…," etc. The problem is that it isn't entirely accurate and you can't tell how many items you're syncing. To be honest, it really doesn't matter how many items you're syncing, but if you're going to tell me a number, tell me the correct number, or give me just a progress meter, etc.

I've a feeling that it's not as "inaccurate" as it is inelegant. My guess is that it syncs 10 items at a time, and so if you've just "marked as read" a folder with 23 items, it has to go to Google three times (10+10+3), but it presents this as "Syncing 10 items" and "Syncing 3 items." Surely, the "Syncing 10 items" actually is displayed twice, but the screen redraws too fast for you to notice. Why not just say "Syncing 23 items?"

Other than GReader syncing, I think the biggest thing for me is that it supports Instapaper; a lot of the currently available alternatives still don't (including Byline). In fact, I wouldn't use NNW if it didn't support Instapaper. (Recently, the Instapaper bookmarklet was updated to work within GReader (and it works with MobileSafari too), and GReader added Instapaper to its native "sharing" functionality. I previously touched on both of these things.)

The Instapaper support is great, but I've a couple of niggles. The first is that it doesn't seem like you can go "back" more than one pane while Instapapering something without the app crashing. Generally, I want to go back more than one pane (two, actually) when I'm Instapapering the last item in a feed/folder, because at that point all of the items in that feed/folder have been reviewed and I'd like to move on to something else.

The second thing is that I wish the "Sending to Instapaper" HUD was more transparent and not in the middle of the screen. As soon as I tell the app I want to Instapaper something, I immediately go back one pane to continue scrolling through the other unread items in the feed/folder; this obviously is a bit difficult when the HUD is effectively opaque and in the middle of the screen. Frankly, I wouldn't mind it if there was no HUD whatsoever, or maybe it could just display for a split-second and then disappear (and reappear only if there was an error).

Regarding the app generally, I do wish it was a little smarter about showing me only subscriptions with unread items. I can't quite figure out how NNW decides what feeds (with unread items) will and won't be shown; it seems to be completely random. It's all over the place. If the developers told me there was some method to the madness, I'd be shocked, because I just can't find a pattern. I'm not sure much makes me angrier with regard to aggregators than when they insist on showing me every single feed, no matter how stale, etc. I don't want to see a feed — especially on a phone — if it doesn't have any unread items.

Some other niggles that I hope are resolved quickly:

  • Can't sort posts in chronological order (i.e., least recent to most recent). Yes, I realize that most people read in "reverse" chronological order (i.e., most recent to least recent), but they're doing it wrong. There, I said it. They're doing it wrong. They're reading their news backwards. Just because that's become the default behavior doesn't mean it's right.  ;)
  • No way to set "Don't show in iPhone" at the folder level (i.e., each feed needs to be configured individually). This is a terrible inconvenience for me because I have some rather large folders that contain stuff that just shouldn't be viewed on such a small screen (e.g., the folder of all the photoblogs I follow).
  • The app seems to get bogged down over prolonged periods of use, especially when viewing feeds/folders with tons of unread items, and the screen becomes slow to refresh with proper unread item counts.
  • I wouldn't mind some pagination being added to feeds/folders so that, for example, in a feed with 101 unread items you aren't forced to read/scan all 101 items at once (before marking all as unread), but instead can tackle the items in smaller, more manageable chunks.
  • No way to mark an item as unread. Huh?

I'd like to end this post on a positive note and say that I really like the look of the app, probably more than I do all the other GReader-syncable iPhone readers. It's simple no doubt, but it gets the job done, and doesn't get in the way.

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