When we talk about free RSS news readers, we're usually talking about Google Reader. Or at least we used to be, until Google announced its demise.
The service, launched in 2005 by Google Labs, was the primary force in RSS reading; almost every piece of desktop software or mobile app out there syncs with it. Even if you haven't ever visited Google Reader, you've probably had it as the back-end for your main RSS reading tool. But now, the date for Google’s shutdown of Reader is approaching fast – in fact it’s next Monday, 1 July. After this week, Google Reader will be finished forever.
So what's a faithful reader of RSS and Atom feeds to do? Find an alternative, of which there are plenty. In fact many companies provide an API for programmers to take advantage of so you can sync apps with their services.
RSS readers are bountiful even without sync. Here, we’re going to look at your best free options in terms of software and web apps – most reader options are the latter, providing access anywhere, which is all the better to take over from Google Reader. Many have mobile apps and the best synchronise with mobile so you're never reading the same feed posts twice. There's also a category of mobile-only apps, especially for tablets – products like Flipboard and Zite – that incorporate RSS with their own article choices to get you reading.
If you are a current Google Reader user with a lot of feeds, make sure to back up right now, before it’s too late. Google's default is to send you to Google Takeout, a service that lets you download the complete feed in an XML file. (Most RSS readers can import or export an OPML file, but it's actually just XML, so you may see both extensions used – see our guide to migrating away from Google Reader for more details on all this).
Note that we haven’t included Digg Reader here, as it is literally just in the process of rolling out right now (with web and iOS apps), and doubtless will take a bit of time to bed in. It’s certainly one to watch, though, but it will have to prove itself to be pretty amazing to take on a service as thorough and ambitious as Feedly. Only time, and testing, will tell...
Top free RSS readers
Feedly doesn't need to import your Google Reader feeds with an OMPL or XML file; it links directly to your Google account (so make sure you get there before 1 July). It has one of the best looking designs in the world of RSS, making it a go-to app for reading Google Reader accounts even before Google decided to kill its service.
Feedly has spent the last two months bulking up its back-end servers to deliver on the promise of a totally seamless switchover following Google Reader's demise. As of this week, an import of your Google Reader feeds is permanent and there's no longer any sync with Google Reader – this is all part of Feedly’s plan to become the new backend to a number of feed readers, especially mobile apps such as Reeder, G Reader, Press, NextGen, and Newsify – all of which relied on sync with Google Reader.
That's all well and good, but is Feedly a worthy RSS reader? In short, yes. It has an interface unlike almost any other, designed to be much more than just text on a screen (not to mention that there are some ads). It takes the exact same content as Google Reader and makes it look like an online magazine. Sharing is emphasised, and not just with Google+ (one of the big faults on Google Reader). This is quite simply an excellent service (you can check out our full review of Feedly here).
Not that Feedly doesn't have issues. You'll still need a Google account for log in, and it currently lacks a published terms of service statement. As software analyst Jill Duffy says: "The lack of that information could just be the result of a small developer coping with the exploding growth of its user base, but that’s not a good enough reason for me to check my security concerns at the door.”
Reedah asks if you want to import Google Reader data during its sign up process (note that it will overwrite anything you already have stored with the system.) It's a direct import, not from OMPL/XML, so you get not only your Google Reader feeds and directories, but also posts marked as read or unread depending on their status in Google. It's not perfect – there were some errors when trying to import tagged items – but it pulls in the feed list which is all-important. Adding tags/stars after the fact is a breeze.
Reedah's got a minimalist vibe which is even stronger than Google Reader's, with the same basic layout of folders/feeds. It can't, however, run full-screen in the browser page, which is going to annoy some people, as will the lack of mobile apps or even a mobile version of the site. There's no way to share posts on social media; clicking on an unread post turns it grey, but also rolls it up into just a headline – and you can't unsubscribe from a feed without going into a separate "manage subscriptions" area. Overall, it's an interface that takes some serious adjusting for former Google Reader users.
Consider Reedah a quick and simple replacement for Google Reader, and a worthy feed reader to try if you're brand new to RSS.
Another fast and competent RSS reader vying for the attention of Google Reader users is InoReader, which allows sign in via your Google or Facebook account, or a separate setup. You can import from OPML/XML or direct from Google Reader, and InoReader has a unique option to make sure all your previous subscriptions and folders are cleared before import.
InoReader uses its own back-end so it doesn't sync with Google Reader – once the import is done, you're good to go using it on its own. It does a great job of importing even starred items, but it skips tagged items.
The interface is standard but the menu and buttons at the top are a bit unintuitive. Unsubscribing could also be easier; you have to go into User Preferences to do it. The grid layout is also pretty difficult to navigate if you're not looking for the pop-up tool tips as you pass your cursor over items. That said, there are cool extras to be found here, like the ability to automatically send posts in a feed to email, Pocket, or Instapaper. You can also deactivate following a feed, rather than completely unsubscribing.
InoReader isn't necessarily doing anything new or different here, and it lacks extras like mobile apps, but it's a good choice for desktop-only RSS fans who want a responsive site at their fingertips.
CommaFeed is an interesting new entry in the RSS reader world, billing itself as an open source, hosted platform that is "bloat-free" – meaning it's not only cost-free but should also perform very speedily. You can check out a demo before committing and during sign up you can import Google Reader feeds directly (no OPML/XML file needed). It looks like it plans to sync with Google Reader, managing the feeds there just as Feedly has done up to this point, but it turns out it keeps the list of sites separate, pulling in the 10 latest posts for each feed. It doesn't pull in starred items.
The site is as minimalist as they come, even more so than Google Reader or Reedah. CommaFeed doesn't even display its own logo on the site. The website mimics a lot of the general conventions of feed readers like Google Reader. For example, click a post to mark it read, click a headline to go to the originating site, or use the J and K keys to cycle through posts. It conveniently shows dead or outdated feeds in red, and you click a wrench icon next to a feed name to unsubscribe. Sharing of posts on email, social networks, or saving to services like Pocket and Instapaper is instant.
One downside I noticed with Commafeed is timeliness. It takes forever to update feeds that I watched update practically in real-time on Feedly and Google Reader. Also, there's no mobile option. However, if you only check your RSS feeds once or twice a day on the desktop, this site is a contender.
As the name implies, The Old Reader was designed to imitate Google Reader before one of its major redesigns – the one that nixed sharing, specifically. If you have long missed the sharing features of Google Reader, The Old Reader is hands-down the service you want. It works well and doesn't ask you to rethink how you use your feeds, or what kinds of feeds you might want to import, which some of the other alternatives do. In other words, it's totally non-disruptive.
The Old Reader is still in beta, but it's ready to import your Google Reader feeds (using the subscriptions.xml file from Google Takeout). You create an account by signing on via Facebook or Google, or by simply registering a new account. After import, you'll see the folders and feeds listed down the left-hand side. The Old Reader doesn't import your starred/tagged items, but you can start over again with "liked" items. There's an emphasis on social by signing in with Facebook and Google, so you can easily find friends to share with or follow.
Other free RSS readers to consider
We have no idea what to tell you about Bloganizer. It sounds good – it calls itself "the next evolution of Readers in the blogosphere" – and will allegedly preserve all your Google Reader info, even the tagged items. But it's still in private beta currently, so we can't tell if it's among the best. However, since it's free, it can't hurt to take a look.
EldonReader is one of those sites that doesn't support OPML files, so if you choose to use it in place of Google Reader, connect before July 1. When I connected my Google account, EldonReader didn't bring in any existing items, read or unread, so my entire feed remained empty until new posts appeared. I also had problems setting up and authenticating a new account, it takes a very long time to load, and I wasn't crazy about the interface. One thing it does have that many online RSS readers lack is a search option, but it doesn't seem to find much–Jill Duffy.
Feedbooster lets you create an account with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Yahoo, or with your own email. Then it imports feeds directly from Google Reader or OPML/XML if desired (though Google blocked me from signing in or importing, since FeedBooster's request originated from Germany and looked suspicious). This ad-free site can sort your feeds in multiple ways and has a great search feature, plus contextual filters to ensure you only see the most important content on the dashboard page.
FeedReader is so ready for the Google Reader influx that it'll import right from Google Reader or Google Takeout. Then again, maybe it's not that ready since my attempts at import were thwarted by "website currently unavailable" errors. It's also one of the few readers left that offers a local download program for the desktop, something eschewed by other readers since the goal is typically to have access anywhere. It’s a shame it lacks mobile apps for syncing.
Not everyone wants or needs a full-blown RSS reader. For those who just want a ticker with occasional pop-up headlines, FeedRoller shows the title with a summary of why you might want to read that item. It can be set to hide automatically if you're using full-screen apps, or you can use hot keys to put it on "do not disturb" or suspend it entirely. It's also portable so you can run it on a thumb drive.
I quite like the look and layout of FeedsBundle, which lists your URL subscriptions and a single line summary of each post in a column on the right, then displays the full web page for any post you select in the centre of the screen. It will import from OPML/XML files. What is very odd, however, is how FeedsBundle saves lists. There's no way to sign up for an account via the web app. Do I get to save my feeds and customised groups only until I clear the cache on my browser? The site has next to no information about FeedsBundle, such as who owns it or how it saves a user's feeds, which makes me hesitant to recommend it. Buyer (or free users in this case) beware–Jill Duffy.
Sign up for G2reader with your email or Facebook account and you're instantly in. You'll have to do an import from OPML/XML to get started with a full list, but the site makes that easy with a link right up front. The interface is standard but attractive, with excellent use of favicons to identify feeds in the navigation. There are no mobile apps but G2reader does have a mobile version of the site that works quite well for reading. One neat feature: You can save a list of key words that G2Reader will always highlight for you in the posts that are in your list to read.
Like Reeder (below), NetNewsWire has pinned its fortunes on the Apple ecosystem and delivers a good looking news feed reader that can either sync with Google Reader or act as a standalone reader. With the passing of Google Reader, developers at Black Pixel still plan to keep working on updates, including sync functions with the mobile apps. (Note that only the iOS version is free, and that carries advertising).
As much a dashboard to the Web as it is an RSS reader, Netvibes has been around since 2005. It offers up informational widgets like the old iGoogle homepage – another Google service getting shut down this year! – and social network aggregation. You can even view RSS feeds in the widget view, but the regular reader view is preferred. Import an OPML/XML file to get started.
The big problem with the free version of NewsBlur is the short wait; it doesn't provide instant setup, but you can get around that by paying $24 (£16) per year. That fee also lets you follow unlimited newsfeeds on the site. If you wait and don't pay, you get what's still a pretty great alternative reader for up to 64 feeds.
NewsBlur will import all your Google Reader feeds for access in the browser or on a smartphone, or also from an OPML file. It'll try to connect with your Facebook and Twitter accounts so you can use it to find friends and follow them, but you can skip that step. With the free account you have the option to pick which 64 sites you want turned on – by default it turns on the sites with the most recent updates. After that you'll encounter a smooth interface for reading, but the limitations will send heavy RSS users looking elsewhere.
Built with HTML5, Pulse ranks up there with Feedly for good looks and a clean switchover from Google Reader. Signing up is a breeze through Facebook, or setting up a Pulse account from scratch, and the site then offers to import your feeds from your Google account (no OPML/XML file needed). Well, it should have been quick, but it wasn't – I had to download the mobile app on an iPhone just to view my Google Reader feeds, then add them one by one to the preset categories. Very annoying.
Pulse wants to be like Flipboard or Zite, great mobile-only apps that especially shine on the iPad. Both do feed reading, but also a lot more, asking about your interests so they can throw some extra content your way. And socially, the site wants to make your profile public (that's optional). If you reckon that all feels a little too complicated for an RSS reader, you're right – but Flipboard and Zite show that there are people who love this approach.
Reeder is one of the few Mac-only RSS readers (with some iOS love), and is completely lacking a cloud-based interface. That's because in the past it's piggy-backed on Google Reader, syncing with that service. As Google Reader waves goodbye, Reeder's developers have pledged to keep the quirky feed reader going. It wasn't always free, but it is for now, and available in the Mac App Store.
Rolio is another site throwing a little more than RSS feeds at you by pushing big name sites for you to follow, then also making it easy to share by linking Rolio to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. You can skip all that by importing an OPML/XML file (which takes a while). It's not a traditional RSS reader in terms of appearance, and it’s a little hard to follow if you're used to the left-hand navigation/right-hand reading paradigm, but newbies might dig it. Rolio promises that mobile apps for iOS and Android are in the offing.
(Thanks to Jill Duffy for her help with this article).