Mixtab Pro: RSS Meets Magazines

For many of you, March 13th was a dark day. In fact, in the intervening months, just the mention of the words “Google” and “Reader” in the same sentence has been enough to send chills down many a spine. The time has come for all of you who are wedded to the Google style of RSS aggregation to face the facts, though, and find a new home for your feeds.

The innovation and competition among feed readers in the Mac App Store, however, is rather lacking. The granddaddy of Mac feed reading, NetNewsWire, is currently beta testing a new version, and the reading later app ReadKit has emerged as one of the best new RSS readers if you’ve switched to one of the new reading services. Outside of this, the field is looking wide open.

There is one promising entry, though. Mixtab Pro is the $4.99 descendent of the free, long-term resident of the App Store, which was named, simply, Mixtab. It is one of the new breed of magazine-style readers, which provide a highly visual way of staying up to date with the latest headlines. The popularity of many such apps on touchscreen devices shows that this look can be popular, but does that extend to the desktop environment?

The Feeds of Choice

The first port of call in any RSS reader is, obviously, the addition of some feeds. As you might expect, you can add feeds singly, or grouped together in an OPML file, which is a format many Google Reader outcasts will now be very familiar with.

It should also be noted that Mixtab Pro, like many of its competitors, has a feed search and discovery area, which is known as the Gallery. Here, collections of feeds – called tabs within this app – compiled by your fellow Mixtab Pro users can be browsed through by subject, or via the in-built search, and added to your list of sources with one click.

The Gallery provides a very competent area for feed discovery.

The Gallery provides a very competent area for feed discovery.

Once you’ve added your reading matter of choice, you can then arrange the sources into whatever order you please.

The Browsing Interface

The look of Mixtab Pro can be described, essentially, in three words: Flipboard for Mac. No, it may not share certain specifics of design with the world’s favourite iOS news browser, but the large number of similarities make for an obvious comparison.

Mixtab Pro's Home page is pleasant enough, but it isn't the apps strongest area.

Mixtab Pro’s Home page is pleasant enough, but it isn’t the apps strongest area.

The home page of Mixtab Pro is filled, almost entirely, with a grid of box-shaped feeds and tabs. The content of each box includes the title of the feed or collection, the latest headline, and a RSS-derived background image when one is available. At times, this can look classy, but the text sometimes gets lost if the background image is light in colour. Additionally, it must be noted that the list of feeds is not paginated, meaning that if you are an avid reader, you may end up having to scroll a long way to find a particular source, especially as there is no search available in this area of the app.

The look changes subtly, but significantly, when you enter a feed or tab, and start browsing the stories it contains. The grid layout remains, but the large white spaces between boxes on the home screen are minimized noticeably, providing more understated demarcation. This also allows the boxes to be a little bigger, and it removes some key visual clutter. Another positive here is the placement of each story’s headline on top of a dark, semi-translucent rectangle, which offers much improved legibility.

The article browsing view looks good, and provides access to the useful sidebar.

The article browsing view looks good, and provides access to the useful sidebar.

The best part of the article browsing view, however, is the expandable sidebar, which is only available in this part of Mixtab Pro. It contains access to the Favourites folder (see below), as well as links to all of your individual feeds and tabs. It is a more traditional way of accessing feeds, and though I understand that the design is meant to be distinctive, the option to use a simple list, at all times, should you wish, would be welcome.

Reading Your Content

Mixtab Pro certainly has a unique design – among desktop apps, at least – throughout its browsing screens, and this trend continues when you arrive at the single article view.

Articles are split into columns, and are placed on a large white canvas. Acting as a background behind this is the article’s featured image. This looks great if the image used is of a decent resolution, but small images, when stretched in this way, start to become badly pixelated.

Another quirk of Mixtab Pro makes itself apparent when you come to scroll down an article…because only sideways scrolling is on offer. As the owner of a Magic Mouse, I don’t have a problem with this. Folks who use a non-Apple mouse, though, may find this unusable, especially when you consider that the direction keys do not provide an alternative method of scrolling. Some comfort, however, can be taken from the fact that a linear scrollwheel, when combined with the Shift key, does work with Mixtab Pro’s articles (something I tested personally).

The article view is quite newspaper-like, but pointlessly side-scrolling.

The article view is quite newspaper-like, but pointlessly side-scrolling.

Aside from all of this visual playfulness, Mixtab Pro’s article design is pleasantly uncluttered. It is disappointing that there is no font size adjustment on offer, but you can mitigate this to some degree by viewing, within the app, the original web page of any article.

Also included with each article are a handful of sharing options – email, Twitter and Facebook – as well as the ability to favourite the post you are reading by clicking the star.

Though limited, Mixtab Pro's sharing options work nicely.

Though limited, Mixtab Pro’s sharing options work nicely.

Conclusion

It is certainly the case that Mixtab Pro provides a unique RSS environment on Mac, and users who enjoy visual influence in their feed reading will love this app’s design. In spite of the timing of Mixtab Pro‘s release, I don’t think it has actually been designed with Google Reader refugees in mind, so to judge it in terms of its suitability as a replacement seems unfair.

Equally, I must note Mixtab Pro‘s weaknesses, which are mostly related to usability. The default text size, for example, is comfortable for me, but it seems silly not to include the option to adjust it. Similarly, the sideways scrolling may be fashionable, but it seems to be an unnecessary stifler of usability.

Mixtab Pro is very well put together, though, and suffers from no faults on the development side. It isn’t an app which will please hardcore readers, but designers, creatives, and others who enjoy visual browsing, may find Mixtab Pro to be the best of the Mac feed reading options available.


Summary

Very respectable RSS reading, with a strong visual bias. Won't suit the bookworm type of reader, but great for design feeds.

8
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