I’m a huge fan of Netnewswire – it’s the only software by an indie-developer I’ve ever bought, back when it wasn’t available for free. Therefore I was thrilled when I heard that Brent Simmons, creator of Netnewswire, would bring Netnewswire to the iPhone and iPod touch.
My favorite newsreader of late hasn’t been Netnewswire, however. Instead I’ve been very pleasently surprised by Newsgator mobile for iPhone, a web-based feedreader optimized for your iPhone. Both Netnewswire iPhone and Newsgator mobile for iPhone are provided by Newsgator, and I had hoped that Netnewswire iPhone would borrow heavily from its sibling. Now that I’ve tried both I can say that they’re very similar, however that’s not necessarily as good as I had expected.
Both of them rely on the Newsgator online service for administrative tasks such as subscription management, and therefore concentrate exclusively on providing a reading interface for iPhone users. Their interfaces are relatively simple and straight-forward, following the same basic interaction model and therefore lend themselves to comparisons. So without further ado, a quick side-by-side comparison of Netnewswire iPhone (NNW, on the left) and Newsgator mobile for iPhone (NGm, on the right):
The feed lists for both are pretty similar: a simple listing of subscribed feeds with unread count, grouped into auto-expanded, non-collapsible “folders”. The subscriptions are synced with your Newsgator account and so far, I haven’t found a way to add new subscriptions, unsubscribe or otherwise organize them in NNW or NGm. The only difference I’ve noticed between NNW and NGm is that NGm hides feeds with no unread items, while NNW keeps them in its list. I personally prefer NGm’s behavior, however that one’s entirely up to personal preference I suppose. Both show about the same number of feeds in their listing and aesthetically they’re quite similar – a tie between the two in round one.
News item list
Once you’ve selected a feed from the feed list, both apps present you with a list of news items. NNW only displays titles in this view, while NGm also shows a short excerpt, some metadata and options to mark a news item as read or add it to your clippings. Both NNW and NGm allow you to mark all news items as read. Selecting a news item in NNW shows that news item in NNW. To read more of a news item inside NGm you have to click the more link, to head straight to the website you just click the title. Once again, NGm only shows unread items while NNW keeps read items around a little longer. While NNW’s view fits more news items on the screen, NGm facilitates quick scanning and skimming a lot better thanks to its excerpts and gives you more control right in the news item list. In NNW you can do hardly anything in the news item list directly. Therefore I’d say the winner in this area is NGm.
Full news item view
NNW launches a new window/screen/pane/whatever-it’s-called for a news item upon selection. The title takes a lot of space in this view, followed by a (typically large) block of rather irrelevant metadata – not the most efficient use of screenspace I dare say. You can go straight to a news item on its original website by clicking on its title – this opens the website directly inside NNW. There’s also a button to open the news item in Safari. There are also buttons for adding a clipping and skipping straight to the next unread item.
NGm doesn’t open news items in a new, distinct view, but rather expands them directly inside the news item list. I feel this behavior further benefits scanning and skimming in NGm. The big advantage of NGm being a web-app living directly in your web-browser is that opening a news item on its webpage in Safari is seamless and instantaneous.
While NNW tries to offer a similar experience with its integrated web-browsing capabilities, it just lacks certain crucial features for browsing, such as a back button or widescreen support. I’ve never been a fan of integrated web-browsers because of their inevitably lacking features, neither on the desktop nor on a mobile, so I might be overly sensitive here. However in this particular case the lack of a simple back-button in NNW’s integrated browser makes it practically useless for me. Opening news items in Safari from within NNW on the other hand isn’t as quick and seamless as one might hope due to the multitasking limitations of the iPhone and iPod touch: only one application may run at a time, and therefore opening a webpage in Safari automatically quits NNW before launching the browser.
One feature missing in both NNW and NGm is the possibility to mark news items as unread. This is somewhat understandable in NGm, where any read news item effectively vanishes from the system. NNW on the other hand keeps read news items around and accessible for a little longer (though I haven’t found out for how long exactly) and missing the ability to mark a news item as unread seems like a bit of an oversight to me.
Because of the wasteful layout in NNW’s news item view, its lackluster integrated browser, missing widescreen support and no other differentiating features, I declare NGm the winner in this area as well.
In their current state, Newsgator mobile remains my iPhone/iPod touch feedreader of choice for the moment. However when comparing the two I have this feeling that NGm is at its height with little room for improvement. It offers the most streamlined, bare-bones feedreading interface I can think of, which isn’t a bad thing for a mobile web-app. Netnewswire on the other hand feels like there’s ample room to grow and improve and I have little doubt that it will eventually surpass NGm in capabilities and usefulness in future versions. Once they improve the layout of the news item view and add some (rather obvious) features such as widescreen support or rudimentary subscription/feed management capabilities (even if it’s only a simple “Mark unread”-button) I’ll likely switch to NNW.
Another important difference between NNW and NGm is that NNW doesn’t rely as heavily on an active internet connection as NGm. Because NGm is a web-app, it’s only usable when you have internet access. With NNW you can just sync your feeds before heading out and keep reading them without being online. This difference might not be very important for iPhone users, but iPod touch users might find NNWs independence of online connectivity advantageous.
Overall it’s certainly a close call between the two and if you’re looking for a feedreader for your iPhone or iPod touch I’d advise you to try both and form your own opinion.