It seems fairly clear now that Google has won the RSS war. There aren’t many serious contenders for the title now that Newsgator has closed down their own aggregators and shifted their users over to Google Reader. Bloglines, though it has a pretty good web interface, seems to have suffered by comparison.
There are of course other options out there (Fever is a favourite among the more tech savvy), but of these three who were a while ago the main contenders, Google seems to have come out with the greatest number of users and the most rapidly developing platform.
Today we’ll be taking a look at a desktop companion to the Google Reader juggernaut. Gruml is a relatively new RSS reader for the Mac that syncs well with the service, and offers plenty of customisation options. Join us after the jump for a quick tour of its main features.
A Little Background
Until recently, there was no Mac desktop app that could sync with your Google Reader account (though there were a couple on the PC). And then there came a new version of NetNewsWire, Newsgator’s venerable and formidable Mac RSS app that was the envy of other operating systems.
But the truth is that NetNewsWire is rather foundering at the moment. Syncing with Google Reader is still cranky and why, oh why, can they not get Starred items to sync properly? It’s under development, that’s for sure, but the pace is slow…
Given this, the arrival of another good-looking desktop RSS reader for the Mac is interesting news. Gruml looks to be rapidly approaching a 1.0 release (at time of writing, it’s at version 0.9.19.12, and that’s the second update this week), and has made some pretty big improvements over the past few months.
The first thing you need to do is to link Gruml to your Google Reader account, which you do simply by entering your account details. Gruml will then quickly sync your reading list, and you’re good to go.
Let’s walk through that screenshot: the main window is divided into three columns: on the left, sections for Your Stuff, Feeds, and Folders; to the right of that a list of available articles; and on the right, the text of the selected article. As you’ll see, Gruml has a good ‘widescreen’, three-column view – you can also choose to have articles displayed under the list, in a more traditional ‘Mail.app’ style.
Each of those headings in the left column can be folded up or down to reduce visual clutter:
The standard toolbar gives you a number of options:
From left to right, the first three toggle Unread, Starred, and Shared states, the fourth lets you Like an item, the fifth adds a Comment, the sixth lets you Tweet the current item (a panel drops down for you type anything you want to add), the next two buttons allow you to add or remove Notes, and the final two mark all articles in the current view read, and manually reload items.
Of course, you can customize the toolbar, and showing the range of options available also demonstrates a very strong feature of Gruml – let’s call it the app’s linked-in-ness:
As you can see, Gruml has options to send items to several social networks and other sites – from Delicious to Evernote and Stumbleupon. Here’s the full list – in this instance taken from the context menu’s ‘Send Article To…’ option when clicking on an item in the article list:
That’s a whole lot of sharing and saving for later!
Coming back to those items in the left column: you can choose to display all of your feeds one by one by unfolding the Feeds heading – they will display in alphabetical order, which makes it easy to track down a particular source. I keep them hidden most of the time, and rely on the folders I created in Google Reader.
As you saw in the first screenshot, you can also display the contents of any of your folders by clicking on the disclosure triangle to its left. And you can choose to display your articles arranged by Tag – if you do so, Tags will appear as a new heading in the left column.
In fact, you can have a good deal of control over what items are displayed and hidden from within Gruml’s Preferences, under the Appearance tab:
Being able to choose here is a fairly recent addition to the app, and comes as a relief to the anti-social. Thanks very much, but I don’t really need to know how many people have Liked articles in my feed-list, and I don’t actually follow anybody else’s Google Reader items. So it’s great to be able to switch off display of the features that I don’t use.
If you click on one of your folders, read and unread items will display, so you can scroll back through articles you’ve read previously. Gruml has a few Styles built in – accessed via the View menu. The one in this screenshot is called Simple Sans – it’s a nice, easily legible reading view.
And here’s another example, Graphite:
In time, I expect it will be possible to make and share your own Styles, as in NetNewsWire.
You can click through on any of your articles to open the original in a new tab – or select in the Preferences menu to have items open in your default browser.
The All Unread heading is useful for thinning things down to just the most recent items. My own preferred way of reading is to click on each folder, scan the article list, and read only the few things that seem most immediately interesting. I Star a few things to review later, and send a few to Instapaper for reading on my iPhone when I get the chance.
I decided to test Patrick Rhone’s RSS system a few months back, and it’s worked very well for me. Having worked out at the front end which of my feeds are really worth paying attention to, I tend to blaze through the others, and spend most time on the ‘a-list’ now.
A nice feature is the menubar icon’s HUD-style display of headlines: just click on the icon and you’ll see a scrollable list of all your new articles:
Why Use an App at All?
There’s been a lot of discussion of this question on various blogs and forums. Most often, people cite the greater speed of a native application over a website. I can’t say I’ve ever seen much of a difference, but then maybe those people are reading many more feeds than I am.
Personally, I find it a bit hard to decide – I like having a native app, but, actually, Google Reader’s interface has improved a lot over the last couple of years. I know the changes have been quite subtle, and if you fundamentally don’t enjoy Google’s visual style, you might never feel comfortable using the site.
There are, of course, various ways to improve it – at the moment, I rely on Helvetireader, but I’ve also tried a bunch of other scripts in Safari, Firefox, and Chrome. I actually find the website a bit quicker, but this might be down to my familiarity with its keyboard shortcuts. Gruml has a fair few itself (I’m particularly pleased they’ve implemented [shift]+[a] for Mark All Read, since that mirrors Google Reader), so that’ll bring some peace to keyboard junkies’ hearts.
An Important Issue
To close, I need to mention the most significant issue I have with Gruml at the moment – it’s not quite ready for showtime. The developer has fixed some pretty big issues recently: at last the memory leaks seem to be in check, and it’s no longer consuming hundreds of Megs of the stuff. But while writing this review, I’ve had two bouts of the app suddenly closing down and then showing up this screen on restarting:
On both occasions, it took several minutes for the app to open properly again. Gruml is often slow to start, but this was beyond the usual lagginess.
But it’s unfair to criticise a beta app for being a beta app! Gruml looks like being a very good entry to the world of RSS reading, and it might appeal to many people, and perhaps even tempt some diehard fans away from NetNewsWire (if the last few months of hassles with the app haven’t already sent you in search of alternatives).
What do you think? Do you feel the need for a separate RSS application, or are you happy using an browser-based aggregator like Google Reader, Bloglines, or Fever? And do you care about keeping things in sync at all, or are you using a local, unsynced solution, like Safari or Mail’s support for RSS feeds? And do you think Google Reader deserves to carry away the prize?