AOL Reader — My New Favorite Feed Reader

I often proclaim myself to be platform agnostic and as one who doesn’t belong to any popular fanboi groups. In reality though, I have a soft corner to all things Google. I use many of their services even when there is a competent alternative in the offing. I strongly believe that Google is one of those companies that get things right most of the time.

That’s all changed with their announcement of shutting down Google Reader on July 1. It’s not a mass market product that was making money hand over fist for Google, but was used by thousands of vocal advocates of Internet and technology. By shutting it down, Google has unwittingly reinforced the notion that free services from Internet giants aren’t always in the best interest of the users.

I could cry a river about the loss of a faithful companion that brought sanity in this era of information overload, but thankfully, a handful of worthy big name alternatives have emerged in the past couple of weeks. I tried and dumped most of them and finally settled down with AOL Reader.

After the break, I’m gonna tell you how the popular choices – Feedly, Digg Reader, Ino Reader, and more fared in my evaluation and why I went with AOL instead. Read on!

Choices Galore

Google’s announcement didn’t come as a surprise for the fans of Google Reader. In fact, for the past couple of years, there were indicators that Reader is not a priority for Google. First was the removal of a ton of sharing features from the app and the second was a long wait for the UI refresh in line with revamped Gmail, Calendar and other Google applications.

It’s quite surprising that companies like AOL and Digg didn’t see the writing on the wall and only started scrambling after learning about a tight deadline. What happened to staying on top of your competition and having your ears to the ground?

Thankfully, a handful of serious players jumped into the fray to build a worthwhile alternative. But, their launches were so close to the July 1 deadline leading to a confusion as to whether wait for them to launch or pick an existing app and just move on. I tried two self hosted solutions and deleted them instantly off my servers.

Feedly’s offering was all style and very little substance. The app was very rough around the edges when I tried it out few days ago. I had trouble with changing views and the unread articles count and unread queue were very inaccurate. However, they have addressed many of these issues and when I tried the app today, the experience was way better.

Digg’s indication that they’ll integrate the experience of Digg into the app was a non starter for me. I was part of their mailing list and gave them feedback and answered their polls to shortlist the featureset. However, I didn’t receive an invite on time and the invitation just came in as we speak.

Setting Up AOL Reader

Every app I tried did a fine job at importing feeds from my Google Reader account. (Feedly took forever to sync feeds when I tested it few days ago.) I was delighted to see my folder structure intact as well. However, none of the apps got the unread count and content correctly. It could be a problem with the Reader API, but, I wonder how iOS apps like Reeder get it right the very first time itself!

Home Page View

Home Page View

AOL Reader synced up in seconds and you don’t have to create an AOL account to access the app either! The UI isn’t pretty enough, but somehow I felt at home and the layout was close to what we have in Reader.

Folder Structure and Unread Count

Folder Structure and Unread Count

Google Reader’s homepage displayed feeds and folders that are frequently accessed. It’s an amazing feature and at this moment, I don’t see it in any app. May be the app needs training or they’ll probably roll that feature down the line. In AOL Reader, the article summary view displays three line of each news item of which only one is legible and the other two are blurred for some weird reason.

Usability and Sharing

Navigation Buttons and View Options

Navigation Buttons and View Options

AOL Reader retains most of Reader’s navigation and usability features. There is a dedicated refresh button, all feeds and folders have their own unread counts and there are buttons to access the next and previous items in the list. Feedly doesn’t have dedicated buttons to move forward or backward the queue and scrolling is not always the best option to go through a feed.

Star Button to Add Favorites and Sharing Options

Star Button to Add Favorites and Sharing Options

There are many different views to choose from and all new players in the market have innovated a lot in this feature. Sharing options cover all de facto social networks. But, AOL needs to add more services to share and try to be creative with respect to the sharing feature. This is one area that can single handedly help bring traction to the app.

Final Thoughts

Frankly, I have never thought I’ll ever use a service from AOL ever again. I have stopped following their blogs like Engadget and Techcrunch for some new exciting alternatives in the market and they were totally not in my radar (I guess that’s the case for lots of people going online these days).

It was smart move from the part of the AOL team to grab an opportunity bring some vocal technology enthusiasts to its fold. That said, I don’t remember seeing an announcement about AOL working on an alternative to Google Reader. Digg milked the most out of this scenario and I wish team AOL had put some more marketing muscle behind this awesome app.

The last thing I want is for AOL to axe the app sometime in the future owing to poor adoption rate! (If that unfortunate event ever occurs, I would opt for Feedly as they have improved a whole lot since launch.)


AOL Reader is a RSS feed reader and is an alternative to Google Reader.