Leaf 2: Another Top-Contender for Mac-only RSS Reading

In the past few months, RSS has gone through a dramatic transformation from being a one-man show to becoming a free-for-all with many players in the fold. I know a lot of people on Feedly, but I ended up going with Feed Wrangler to get things done. I think the transition to privately owned content, instead of Google’s focus on ad-serving, is highly beneficial.

But that being said, some services have been replaced by apps who operate independently of any free or paid RSS service. These are app-dependent RSS feeds that operate independently of cross-platform services. The most popular of these is probably NetNewsWire, but with version 2.0 of Leaf RSS Reader, Leaf enters the fold as a prime contender. I imported my Feed Wrangler feeds to the service to give it a whirl.

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Sort-of Easy Setup

We’ve looked at Leaf before, back when it was a brand-new basic RSS reader. It’s grown up since then, with a lot more features.

Leaf comes ready to go. By ready to go, I mean there’s already a few subscriptions in there — most obviously, TUAW features prominently — but a quick visit to the Preferences pane let me delete everything I wasn’t interested in reading. (Sadly, that was everything.)

Leaf is a beautiful RSS Reader that fits right in on OS X.

Leaf is a beautiful RSS Reader that fits right in on OS X.

From that point on, it was a little interesting to set up the feed. Importing my own OPML file was something I had to do from the File menu, but I could add a subscription in the Preferences pane without a problem. The fact that these two functions are in separate menus seemed a little odd to me until I realized I can also add a subscription from the FIle menu as well. But then I started wondering why I could add a subscription in two places in the app.

From the perspective of pure design aesthetics, Leaf looks really nice. It’s a simple little feed reader. Its design belongs on the Mac. It uses all of the advanced Mac technologies, including Notification Centre. I like the included colour options, but I was disappointed to see they only affected the article view and not any of the sidebars. While article reading can be customized, the entire app feels locked in stone.

The app also supports a great full screen view.

The app also supports a great full screen view.

Some people will also find it irritating that they can’t select articles by feed, instead only having an Unread and a Read view. Leaf is very minimalist in that regard.

These design principles are echoed by the fact that this is a stand-alone RSS Reader. It’s very “locked in.” There’s no iPhone app or iPad app. There’s no way to access these feeds anywhere else. In that sense, it’s a bit like an Apple product. It’s extremely polished aesthetically, but if you want to really use it, you have to be okay with it being your sole RSS platform.

Views: Trading Accessibility for Power

I don’t rely on Folders (or Smart Streams in Feed Wrangler) the way that I know many people do, but I do use them and I think they’re an essential part of many people’s workflow. For me, I want quick and easy access to folders.

These are the Smart Views in Leaf, and yes, they are amazing.

These are the Smart Views in Leaf, and yes, they are amazing.

Well, although Leaf does use folders, that’s not the primary way you’ll be organizing subscriptions. Leaf has different Views, which are customizable and similar to the Smart Playlists in iTunes. This is, again, something you’ll find in the Preferences pane. It’s a powerful and customizable system that allows you to create everything from a basic folder for unread articles in only certain feeds to a folder filled only with articles that match a certain search term.

In other words, I’ve organized my AppStorm feeds into one View. I can also designate a View specifically to news concerning iOS 7, if I so desire, just by setting one View to only include articles with “iOS 7” in the article or title. I can also add other rules to that View. If I want only articles with iOS 7 in the title, but I only want them from sources like TUAW or Apple’s website, I can do that too.

Views are really easy to access, but people using a mouse will feel more at home than those using keyboard shortcuts.

Views are really easy to access, but people using a mouse will feel more at home than those using keyboard shortcuts.

What Leaf achieves with this setup is, actually, pretty tremendous. It’s a combination of the Smart Streams that make Feed Wrangler so unique and regular folders that other people have come to love. It takes a few minutes to set these Views up, but generally speaking, the power they provide trumps the loss in ease of use.

It would be nice if you could view your Feeds and quickly click and drag a few feeds on top of each other to create Views without any hassle, but if Leaf allowed that, there’s a good chance many people wouldn’t discover the power their service has. I’m not even sure if Feed Wrangler’s Smart Streams gets this specific.

Leaf’s Future

But despite a really smart, pretty user interface and a powerful View mode, does Leaf have a future in the RSS world? If it was able to connect with Feed Wrangler, Feedly, Digg, Feedbin or any of the other popular options, this would be a no-brainer of an app. It has better integration with popular Read Later services than Readkit does, which is the other app I’ve been using for my Feed Wrangler subscription.

it's easy to favourite an article by dragging your cursor over the icon. It's also easy to send articles to Instapaper.

it’s easy to favourite an article by dragging your cursor over the icon. It’s also easy to send articles to Instapaper.

For example, Readkit doesn’t have a visible Read Later button at all. I haven’t found a way to connect my Instapaper account to save articles to it (although I can read my Instapaper queue in it, but that solves a different problem). With Leaf, it’s insanely easy to connect with a Read Later service.

In short, Leaf might be my favourite RSS Reader on the Mac right now. But the fact is, there’s no way to keep up with my RSS feed on a mobile device (I use Reeder on my iPhone, Mr. Reader on my iPads, and Press on Android devices). That’s a shame.

The powerful Search is also worth mentioning.

The powerful Search is also worth mentioning.

Rocky Sand Studio has two options with Leaf: Build their own syncing solution and offer well-designed mobile apps, or succumb to open web and integrate with the other popular RSS subscription sites. Until then, it’s hard to recommend it to anybody but the most die-hard Mac user.

Final Thoughts

Leaf gets full points for design and power, but I see no reason to make it my primary RSS reader. I check RSS so much on my mobile devices that my Mac is hardly the first place I go anymore. And let’s be honest, the prettiest design in the world can’t save anybody from a service that’s incomplete.

At the end of the day, that’s my recommendation: Those who use RSS solely on their Mac need look no further. But for people who need it on their mobile devices, you can sigh wistfully and hope for a future where Leaf allows you to use your own preferred syncing option. That’s the state I’m in.


Summary

Leaf is a beautiful RSS Reader packed with some cool innovations and features, but the lack of any sort of syncing solution is a real downer for the sort of users who benefit from power features.

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