October 18, 2006

Google Reader take 2: Not bad at all

Author: Dmitri Popov

The first version of Google's RSS reader, which debuted in October 2005, was so light on features that it was more of a curiosity than a serious application. Now the wizards in white coats at Google Labs have cooked up a new version. The almost completely reworked Google Reader includes a slew of new features and improvements that make the Web-based application a viable alternative to the existing desktop and online RSS readers.

The new version features a redesigned interface, which now looks and acts like a "real" RSS reader. You can tag feeds and star individual articles, so you can manage your subscriptions in a manner similar to Gmail. However, the use of the tag feature can be slightly confusing for newcomers. Under Settings -> Subscriptions, you can group your feeds using folders, which are actually tags that you can manage in the Tags section. The same tags, a.k.a folders, are also referred to as labels in the Actions menu. While this is not the end of the world, a more consistent terminology wouldn't hurt. Another usability issue is that you can't tag the currently viewed feeds; you have to switch to Settings and do it there.

The reader now has two viewing modes: List view and Expanded view. Articles in the feeds are automatically marked as read when you scroll past them (this option can be turned off in the Settings section). You can view all new unread articles on one page using the All Items view, or you can browse the feeds one by one. Handy counters show the number of unread articles in each folder, but there is another fly in the ointment. As far as I can tell, the reader doesn't have an option to refresh the subscriptions automatically at predefined time intervals. If you want to update the feeds, you have to reload the reader -- not exactly an Ajaxy way of doing things.

Another major improvement is the addition of the article sharing feature. Click on the Share button in the article you want to share, and it is automatically added to your personal Shared Items page that even has its own RSS feed. This feature is perfect for people who want to share news articles with minimum fuss. Better yet, you can put a clip of your shared news on a Web page using a small piece of JavaScript code. Finally, you can now access Google Reader using a mobile phone.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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