Over the last couple of months, I’ve changed the apps I use for interacting with RSS feeds. That’s a big deal for me, since my RSS readers are apps in which I spend a great deal of time. I use them for leisure reading, and for keeping my work-related knowledge current.
What is this RSS Thing?
I’ve blogged about the benefits of RSS feeds before, but in the interests of making it easy for people who are new to the subject, let’s start by defining what RSS feeds are , and why you might want to use them.
RSS, or really simple syndication, is a standard offered by many news and blog sites. In fact you’ll find such a feed right here on the Mosen Consulting site.
There are a few advantages of subscribing to an RSS feed in a feed aggregator, rather than visiting a site in your web browser.
First, you don’t have to keep coming back to a blog to see if its author has updated it. Subscribe to the RSS feed for the Mosen Consulting blog, and the latest post will just appear in your reader as soon as Bonnie or I have written it. So it saves you time, and you are likely to see a post more quickly.
Second, we all know how cluttered a lot of news and blog sites can be. They’re full of extraneous links, ads, and general clutter. JAWS users can of course work around this with the unique and impressive Flexible Web feature. In some cases, the problems may extend beyond clutter. A site can be downright inaccessible. Subscribing to a bunch of RSS feeds means that you can have all your favourite news sources in one accessible place. Many RSS apps have highly effective methods of stripping clutter, leaving you with a simple list of news articles and the content you want.
You can categorise RSS feeds by folders to make it easier to get at the information you want. For example, I have folders for blindness, tech news, New Zealand news, international news, health and wellness, and more.
So why not just use Twitter? Using Twitter intelligently as an alternative to RSS is worth considering. Many blogs and news feeds automatically publish links to new articles there, and you can emulate the grouping of RSS feeds into folders to some extent by organising your news feeds into Twitter lists. For example, you could have a Twitter list for political news, another for tech news, perhaps another for local news.
The reason why I still come back to RSS is primarily because of my ability to preview more of the article without having to click through to the full text. I subscribe to a lot of feeds, I’m a news junky. Sometimes, reading the first few lines of an article is all I need to do to get the salient points, or to realise that the article isn’t of interest to me. With Twitter, the 140 character limit means I would spend a lot more time clicking links and waiting for the page to load. It’s just less efficient.
Cloud-based services let you access a common set of RSS feeds across devices. Sadly, since the demise of FeedDemon, I’ve not found an RSS reader for Windows that is accessible and supports cloud-based services. There’s a market right there for someone to fill.
There are a bunch of these cloud-based RSS aggregators, many of which sprung up to fill the gap after Google Reader shut down in 2013. If you’re just getting started with RSS, it’s important to give consideration to the apps you might like to use before choosing your RSS aggregator. Not all apps may support the aggregator you want. These services offer websites, but many are not fully accessible, and reading RSS feeds this way isn’t as efficient as using a good, accessible app.
This brings me to my transition from FeedHQ, the cloud-based RSS aggregator I’ve been using since 2013, to Feedly. I was pleased with FeedHQ and appreciated the fact that its developer would respond to feedback. Its application programming interface was supported by Feeddler Pro, the RSS Reader I’ve been using for a few years on iOS.
Because this set-up worked well for me, and Feeddler Pro didn’t used to offer Feedly support, I looked for a Windows and Mac solution that also supported FeedHQ. On the Mac, I was recommended the Vienna RSS Reader, an open-source project which has clearly given commendable thought to accessibility.
I used it for about 18 months, but my main beef with it was the rather clunky support for sharing to other services like Twitter, Facebook and Instapaper. My goal was to see if I could find something that worked as seamlessly for sharing as did the Night Owl Twitter client for the Mac, where one key press sends an article to a read later service.
I have Alex Hall to thank for recommending ReadKit to me. More on ReadKit later. I wasn’t able to give it a try, however, unless I switched RSS services to Feedly, which is now very widely supported by a raft of third-party apps.
If you’re using another cloud-based RSS service, and an app you want to try doesn’t support it, all of the services I’m aware of provide a facility to export your list of feeds to an industry-standard OPML file. You can then import this OPML file using your new provider, and all your subscriptions will make the transfer.
Signing up with Feedly is a straightforward process. You can log in with many common credentials, including Facebook, Twitter and Google.
The basic service is free, and that’s all you’ll need if you’re going to spend your time in third-party applications that talk to Feedly.
I’ve not spent a lot of time on Feedly’s website, but a quick play indicates that each folder is its own heading, and you can then skim through recently added articles.
But it’s interfacing Feedly with third-party applications that makes the service really shine.
ReadKit on the Mac
ReadKit doesn’t support my previous RSS aggregator, Feed HQ, so I hadn’t given it a try until I took the time to do the migration to Feedly. I’m glad I did, because ReadKit is fantastic. Not only can you interact with a cloud-based RSS service or RSS feeds stored locally, you can also read content you’ve stored on all the popular “read later” services.
ReadKit is a powerful application, and I’d recommend checking out the extensive feature set on its website. But I’ll point out a few things from an accessibility perspective that stand out for me.
When reading through articles by navigating the list with the arrow keys, you can press “g” to have the focussed article read after being put through the Readability API, and it’s very quick. In practical terms, what this means is that you can press “g”, wait until VoiceOver says “HTML content”, and then begin continuous reading with VO-A. You’ll hear the article read to you, without any waiting or clutter. It’s as if you opened the web page in Safari and then activated Reader mode, but way quicker.
In System Preferences, you can configure a bunch of keyboard shortcuts. I now have ReadKit set up so I can send articles to Instapaper with a press of Option-I. I can then read it later in my regular news bulletins I have Voice Dream Reader read to me.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I share things that interest me, and that I think might interest my followers. I can now do this from ReadKit just by pressing option-T. Option-F lets me share the article to Facebook, I can email it with Option-M, and text it to someone with Option-I.
ReadKit is powerful, efficient, responsive, very well designed, and accessible. I’m delighted I made the switch.
Recently, I and a number of others have been experiencing an issue where articles that are put through the Instapaper API in the Feeddler Pro RSS reader for iOS have been truncated. Updates to Feeddler Pro since the most recent major release have been slow in coming.
Having made the switch to Feedly, I revisited an app I bought almost as soon as it was released, Lire RSS Reader for iOS.
Lire is an app I’ve watched closely, because since its first release, it has embraced the concept of being able to fully cache articles. This means that Lire can be an RSS reader and a read later app all rolled into one.
For example, you may be taking a long plane trip where Wi-Fi isn’t on offer, or you have a long journey and would prefer not to use too much mobile data. Lire lets you download the full text of the articles from your RSS feeds, a little like the way the NFB Newsline App operates, so you can read all the content you want without being online.
The downside to this approach of course is that if you have a lot of feeds as I do, the start-up process, where the articles are cached, can take many minutes. It was this, and the lack of cloud-based RSS support, that caused me to check in on Lire from time to time, but not use it full-time.
Lire has supported Feedly for some time, and now that I’m on that platform, I gave it another look. By default, Lire is set to cache everything, and I think that can put some users off as it seems slow and cumbersome. But caching is only an option, an option that may not be necessary if you have access to the Internet much of the time. Once you disable the caching in Settings, and enable syncing with Feedly, Lire is as responsive as any other app that uses the Feedly API.
If you make this tweak, you’ll find that Lire is a delightful powerhouse of an RSS reader.
On the Settings screen, you’ll find an entire group of settings devoted to exactly what VoiceOver will speak on a range of screens. Do you want to hear the publisher of the article or just the headline? Would you like to hear the unread status of an article? You have a remarkable granular level of control of what your speech will say thanks to this group of settings.
You can control whether opening a folder displays all the articles from every feed in that folder, or whether you’re presented with a list of feeds. Which ever option you choose as the default, you can choose the other with a double-tap and hold gesture.
Unlike some other feed readers, all articles from a folder, no matter how many there are, can be flicked through without the need to resort to a “load more items” button. Obviously if you load a folder with hundreds of articles, maintaining your place might be a problem if you have to come back later. But that use case is catered for in Lire. Double-tap and hold the article you’re finishing on, and all previous articles can be marked as read, meaning you can open the app and the folder later, and pick up right from where you left off.
If you’re a heavy Instapaper or Pocket user like me, you can configure Lire so a triple-tap will send the focussed article to a read later service without having to open it.
And what’s really brilliant about Lire is that if an RSS feed contains the full article, as is the case with many blogs, simply flicking to it in the article list will cause VoiceOver to speak the whole thing without you having to open the article at all. You’d be amazed how much time this saves, and I simply can’t imagine how access to a wide range of news could get any more efficient than this.
If you do have to open the article, the full text is rendered promptly.
A developer who has paid so much attention to VoiceOver accessibility that it gets its own verbosity screen deserves applause. And he should also be applauded for his responsiveness and willingness to take feedback on board. I’ve had some Twitter exchanges with him over the years that have left me feeling my opinions are valued and understood. I may not get all my feature requests granted and that’s fair enough. It’s his app, not mine. But he seems genuinely interested in suggestions and willing to engage.
In summary then, I’ve become a massive Lire convert. This is right up there with Voice Dream Reader in terms of remarkable apps that can change the way we access information.
It took me a while to find the time to make the jump to the Feedly cloud-based RSS aggregator. My previous service and the apps I had connected with it were working for me to a large extent. But I’m glad I made the switch. It has brought two new apps on two different platforms into my life that has improved the efficiency with which I access and share information.
There are a number of excellent options for accessing RSS content out there, and the fact we have a choice is a testimony to how far we’ve come. But this combination is working very well for me indeed.
Whichever apps you use, if you enjoy reading news efficiently, do give a good RSS reader a look.
Do you have any thoughts on these apps, or other RSS solutions? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.