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Newsblur So Far

Lee Phillips
March 20, 2013; Updated March 28, 2013

Signing Up

After waiting a few days for the initial frenzy to at least begin to subside, I made my move to a Google Reader replacement.

I decided to try Newsblur, because it claimed to support pubsubhubbub, it seemed to have a highly evolved interface with a complete set of keyboard controls, and had a good reputation. Also, it charged a small fee for “premium” service, which is preferable to the alternative business plan with which we are all much too familiar: stuffing an increasingly desperate wad of tacky advertisements in my face and then folding after a few months or years when nobody clicks on them.

After trying a direct import from Reader and discovering1 that this fails mysteriously, I exported my feed list from Reader and imported it into Newsblur. Since I had not yet upgraded from my free level of service, Newsblur showed me only the 64 “most popular” feeds from my list of 160 or so. After playing with the service for a little while, I gained enough confidence to upgrade; as soon as I did, the rest of my feeds showed up. Not all the information transfers over from Reader, however: the feeds are all there, but their manual ordering is gone — I have a choice between alphabetical or by “popularity”. All the data about which stories have been read is gone as well: only newly fetched entries in Newsblur will be listed as unread. This is not Newsblur’s fault, as none of this information is in Google’s OPML file.2

Immediately following Google’s doomsday announcement, Newsblur had been hit with a massive influx of new users and other traffic, a fate that also befell Feedly and several other potential Reader replacements. So when I say that I gained confidence in their service, it is with a generous allowance made for the current conditions. Considering the frenzied scrabble to find online RSS services, and Newsblur needing to rapidly scale up, the site is more responsive and usable than I had hoped or expected.

There are still regular delays in response, sometimes accompanied with a message that the server is down, but recovery is always rapid and seamless. The site is nothing like as fast as Google Reader, but I’m optimistic that, when things settle down, Newsblur will provide an excellent RSS service.

Interface Issues

Although there seems to be a complete complement of keyboard shortcuts, I don’t seem to be able to use the site without having to touch the mouse now and then. Reader provided a total mouse-free experience that worked, after getting used to its quirks. It might be that I need more time with Newsblur to learn how to use the keyboard with it more effectively.

Newsblur’s interface is clearly more sophisticated than Reader’s, and seems to be the result of a great deal of thought and craft. Despite the potential, however, the intention behind several of its elements are still mysterious to me, and it has a few quirks. There is a little orange triangle that follows the mouse around one of the panes; I don’t know what it’s supposed to be doing for me. I’m still not quite clear about the differences between the “original,” “text,” and “story” views. There are several little arrows and things; I don’t know what they’re supposed to do. These are the quirks; most of the affordances, for adding subscriptions, changing site settings, etc., are nicely done and much better than back at Google.


Update March 28, 2013 — Pubsubhubbub now seems to be working! After refreshing the subscription to this website by clicking on Insta-Fetch, I added a story to my feed, and it showed up in Newsblur in less than a minute.

It doesn’t work. This is the one and only thing that will cause me to ask for my money back if they don’t fix it soon, because I only considered RSS services that claimed to support this standard.

(Pubsubhubbub is a mechanism for RSS (and Atom, of course) feeds to push updates in real time to a subscriber. You get your stories as soon as they are published, and the newsreader does not need to poll the server, ever. It is trivial to implement as a publisher or as a consumer. It is often mentioned as a critical component in an imagined open, standards based replacement for Twitter.)

The feed for this website uses pubsubhubbub. When I add a new entry, I can see it appear in Google Reader in a few seconds. It never appears in Newsblur. I’ve tried the developer’s suggested fix, and Newsblur claims that they are accepting pushes from my feed, but the stories never show up.

A related issue is that the developer, Samuel Clay, claims that “Premium accounts have all of their feeds updated at the very least once every hour”, but this is not true. Examining the site statistics for various feeds shows that the polling frequency varies, apparently depending on how active the feed is. This seems reasonable; why poll a feed every hour that only posts something new every month? But this practice is at variance with what the developer claims they are doing.

Looking Good…

For the future of Newsblur, I think. In addition to its other virtues, it is a single-developer open source project that you can install yourself, if you can handle all the dependencies. There is an iPhone app that looks good and is easy to use. The site is scaling up rapidly; that it can provide a useful service at all a few days after the Google announcement is pretty impressive. I look forward to settling in for the long haul, if they fix pubsubhubbub — which I expect they will.

  1. This is the main complaint in recent user reviews of the iPhone Newsblur app.↩︎

  2. It’s not Google’s fault either, as this information is not part of the OPML standard.↩︎

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