I rely on RSS feeds as my main source of news and interesting stories on the Internet. But I don’t have time to go through every single story blurb to see what I’d like to read in full. I know I’m not alone in my awful noise to reading time ratio. The developers of Cream, a new lightweight RSS reader, seem to get this, and so they baked a recommendation engine right into their app.
Cream sports a modern, clean interface and design, but I’m not sure that it’s quite ready for the prime time. Let’s explore what it does well, and where it falls short.Like the article? You should subscribe and follow us on twitter.
Cream takes note of the stories you read, analyzing their language and metadata to find keywords and common themes. It then builds a kind of ranking system called Creaminess. The Creamiest stories are the ones the app thinks you will be most interested in. If your eyes glide over a recommended story, it notes this and tunes the algorithm accordingly. Similarly, if you often read stories from the same website, stories on that site are likely to be pushed up to the top. It also manages to figure out who your favorite writers are on a website, highlighting all of their work.
This part of the app is fantastic, and it manages to consistently draw out stories that I missed on my more full-featured RSS reader of choice. The longer you use Cream, the better its recommendations get, and after just a week I’m already impressed.
You can sort by Creaminess, date, or feed, and stories are color-coded according to how Creamy they are. There are also filters for showing only unread or unseen stories (the latter refers to stories that haven’t appeared on screen in the main Cream window). All functionality (except for Preferences, oddly) is visible on the main Cream window, with a great layout that likely takes its cues from the likes of Twitter for Mac.
Visually, it’s a beautiful app. A coffee-colored sidebar and buttons join a pleasant cream-colored highlight on Creamy stories. It’s very easy on the eyes. If something has been read, a little open book icon appears on the right-hand side above the date of publication. Stories expand in a floating grey box, with a link to the full article and buttons to send to your preferred read it later service (Instapaper, Pocket, Safari Reading List, and Readability are all supported). These larger previews are sadly text only, so you’re not going to see any images contained in the blurb until you click through to the actual story.
Feeds can be added manually, or imported from Google Reader, another app, or an OPML file. It’s a one-time sync, mind you, so you might need to import on a regular basis. You can also export your feeds as an OPML file. Unfortunately Cream does not play nice with other apps when it comes to keeping an accurate list of what stories have been marked as read. If you use another feed reader — and if you’re a habitual RSS subscriber you’ll have to — there’s going to be a lot of doubling up, where stories that catch your eye have already been read in the other app.
The Taste’s a Little Off
The unfortunate irony of Cream is that its algorithm for recommending stories works best when you follow lots of RSS feeds, yet its interface and design is wholly unsuited to more than a handful of low or medium-volume feeds. This issue could be offset by syncing with web-based RSS services such as Google Reader, to help you keep track of read/unread stories, but that would not solve the problem — only mitigate it. Cream, for all its individual strengths, is fundamentally flawed in its current design.
If you want to use only a small number of feeds, and to quickly skim for the most relevant or interesting content, it’ll serve you well. But piling on more feeds in hopes of Cream filtering out the crud doesn’t work as well as it should. Cream’s recommendation algorithm seems fairly robust, but the app is just not designed to handle several hundred new stories a day. Power users should not even think about installing the app in its current state — when it calls itself lightweight, it means lightweight.
Cream enters a market crowded with excellent RSS readers. Reeder, Caffeinated, Mixtab, NetNewsWire, NewsFire, Vienna, NewsBar, Pulp, and several others all do a great job. It has most of the qualities to compete against these more established readers — gorgeous design, easy to use interface, and a fantastic recommendation algorithm. But it just doesn’t handle the core element of being an RSS reader well enough.
I’ll be watching closely to see where it goes from here, since Cream has all the makings of a great app. The cream rises to the top in both the apps market and Cream itself, and with that hook it could do very well. But it needs to decide whether to emphasize the algorithm for learning what you like, transforming your RSS experience with top-notch recommendations, or to keep the focus on being a secondary RSS reader, which you glance at when you’re strapped for time.
Right now, it tries to do both —failing to fully execute on either concept — and suffers as a result. Consider Cream for its beautiful interface and excellent algorithm, but keep in mind that this initial release is flawed.