NewsBlur steps forward to replace Google Reader [Review]

In the wake of Google Reader’s impending demise, many RSS services have stepped forward to take its place, by offering a back-end service to gather news feeds to deliver to their existing clients. One such app is NewsBlur. As with Feedly, NewsBlur is offering an API for other RSS clients to use, in addition to, its fully featured app.

Compared to other news reading apps, NewsBlur has a decidedly traditional look and feel to it. Once you have signed in, and synchronised with your Google Reader account, you’ll be presented with a list of headings for all of your news feed folders. Tapping each expands to folder to show the list of feeds within.

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Talking of the sign up procedure, you have to have a NewsBlur account – you actually can’t get into the app without signing up or signing in. Once you are signed in, you are offered a range of topics, each containing several recommended feeds that you can subscribe to. This is using NewsBlur’s own content aggregation system. However, synchronising with Google Reader is offered as a category of its own. For most of us Google refugees, that will be all we need to select.

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As you start to use NewsBlur and explore its menu options, you begin to see that it has its own social network and automatic content recommendation system. Just as with Google Buzz and Reader, it’s possible to share news stories, internally within the NewsBlur network to your followers. The app also helps you find people to follow by matching its users against whom you follow on Twitter. Strangely though, I could not find a way to find an aggregate timeline of shared stories from the people I had followed.

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As for the automatic recommendation system; you’ll see at the bottom of the feed list that there are three tabs: ‘All’, ‘Unread’, and ‘Focused’. When viewing individual articles, there is a menu option to focus on the article. In doing this, you can select some or all of the title as keywords for NewsBlur to look out for, and you can tap on the publication and the author to mark them as sources that you like or dislike. The most focused material will be shown in the Focused view. Also, you’ll always see a total unread count, marked by a grey dot, accompanied by the number of unread focused posts, marked by a green dot.

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In terms of the app’s look and feel, there is a lot to like – especially from a utilitarian point of view. However, I felt that the app felt terribly old fashioned. The whole user interface was based on touch areas, and exceptionally small ones at that. So much so that I had trouble using the app, and had to spend extra time making sure I hit the ever-so small touch targets. These days, I think it’s natural to expect to operate an app mostly through gestures. NewsBlur did support a sideways swipe to move between individual articles, but that was as far as the gestures went.

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It’s difficult not to compare this app to Feedly or Flipboard which both have much more pleasing and gesture orientated user interfaces. However, there is one thing that NewsBlur can do which Feedly cannot do is move feeds between folders.

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NewsBlur is a solid application, and if you’re used to the expandable linear layout of older feed readers, the NewsBlur could be an attractive option for you – just note that to use the desktop web version of this app you’ll have to pay $24 per year.

Generally, I found NewsBlur too fiddly to use to regard it as a serious alternative to Google Reader. I have become far to spoilt by the magazine style interaction offered by Feedly and Flipboard.

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