RSS isn’t dead. The demise of Google Reader last year inspired pearl-clutching about the demise of the standards-based Web and the rise of Google+ and other proprietary content filters. But here we are in late 2014 and podcasts (audio RSS) are thriving and there are multiple sustainable RSS engines available for subscription, from Feed Wrangler to Fever. Making a podcast client is the new making a Twitter client.
Meanwhile, Google+ has lost its mastermind and services such as SoundCloud, through their increasingly onerous EULAs, show the perils ahead for insular networks. RSS, email, et al will outlive Facebook. In my own ridiculously small slice of the Web, I have proposed that blogging will survive because it’s the foil to the artifice of social media and “solutions.”
Android is less a playground for RSS and podcast clients than iOS. It makes sense, given the Android clientele. Android lacks a built-in pod catcher like iOS’s Podcasts, though it can do RSS reading via Google Play Newsstand. For less than $25, an Android user can get a top-notch RSS and podcasting experience.
For RSS reading (news):
1. Subscribe to an RSS service
Feed Wrangler is my pick here. It’s got a simple, barebones Web interface that makes adding feeds easy. It only costs $18 for a one-year subscription.
2. Buy Press and log-in with Feed Wrangler or another account
Press is the best RSS client for Android. It has a sleek interface that nicely weaves-in Pocket, Instapaper, and Readability, support for DashClock Widget, and its own large widget. You can log into it with Feed Wrangler, Feedly, Fever, and Feedbin
1. Buy Pocket Casts
Podcasts are having a moment, for at least as long as Squarespace is willing to keep sponsoring episodes. Shifty Jelly have made an outstanding, Android-optimized podcatcher called Pocket Casts that offers variable playback speeds, easy navigation, lock screen controls, and a handy widget.
Google Currents, which as an Android snob I still prefer to Flipboard, got one of those dreaded “oh yeah we still have this product lying around” updates from Google, with “bug fixes” listed as the only change (Google Voice got one such update back in April). My hope was that maybe they would fix the RSS reading feature to be a bit more usable.
I actually use Currents a lot more than ever now that Google Reader is gone. I still use the exceptional Android-exclusive RSS client Press to keep up with a few blogs (most of them by Apple bloggers), but I rely on Currents for Android news and rich editions of magazines like The Verge and Slate. Its flippable (heh) widget is also one of its handiest features.
I had wondered what would happen to Currents’ feed-reading/RSS abilities now that Google Reader is not only dead but also wiped clean (the final data purge took place…today). It still seems to work in that characteristic did-it-or-didn’t-it way; e.g., the Daring Fireball feed (which Currents laughably says has “0 subscribers”) is up to date until Friday, and new feeds can be added, although they’re still hard to search for or find. If you really must use Currents to consolidate your magazine and RSS reading, then by all means do so, but a standalone RSS client is probably better at this point.
“Mobile-first” and “mobile-only” are almost clichés in terms of current app design. But overuse of “mobile” language aside, iOS and Android users have definitely benefitted from this new focus from developers on producing software that exploits and respects the unique capabilities of smaller devices. Maybe even too much so: I recently combed thru my app drawer and felt overwhelmed by the nearly 100 apps – most of them both beautifully designed and easy to use – in it. My first instinct was to simply cut myself off from many of the services provided by these apps, so as to simplify my experience and reduce app count. I initially thought about completely ditching RSS reading and some social networking, for example.
Ultimately, I opted to do something different and instead I redistributed my workflow across my mobile device (a Nexus 4), my Mac, and my wifi-enabled Wii U. Although many of the apps and services I was using had versions available for both Android and OS X (and Web), I decided to restrict many of them to only one of my devices and ignore its other versions. So for example, I kept the mobile Google+ Hangouts app, but eschewed its desktop Web/Gmail version, and likewise kept my desktop RSS reader (Reeder) while ditching my previous mobile RSS clients.
The most difficult, yet most rewarding, part of this process was determining which apps and services I could remove from my phone and perform only on my Mac or Wii U. Amid the swirl of “mobile-only”/”mobile-first lingo,” I reflexively felt that I was selling myself short by offloading many of the excellent apps and services I used onto my relatively old-fashioned Mac and my dainty Wii U, but the experience has been liberating. I have improved my phone’s battery life, reduced clutter in its launcher, and restored some piece of mind: there are fewer things to blankly stare at and anxiously check on my phone while on the train, at the very least.
More importantly, I know have a firmer sense of what I want each device, with its accompanying apps and services, to do. The productivity bump and happiness that I have experienced has also made me realize, finally, why Windows 8 has flopped. Trying to treat all devices the same and have them run the same apps is a recipe for poor user experience and too many duplicate services. It becomes more difficult to know what any given device excels at, or what a user should focus on when using it. If focus is truly saying no to a thousand things, then it’s important to say “no” to certain apps or services on certain platforms. Steve Jobs famously said “no” to Flash on iOS, but one doesn’t even have to be that wonky or technical when creating workflow boundaries and segmentation in his/her own life: I’ve said “no” to Web browsing on my Wii U and to Netflix on my phone, for example.
With this move toward device segmentation and focus in mind, I’ll finally delve into the tasks that I know do only on desktop or in the living room, so as to relieve some of the strain and overload from my mobile device. I perform these tasks using only my Mac or my Wii U, and I do not use their corresponding apps or services on my Nexus 4.
RSS can be tricky: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to any frequently updated sites, since they will overwhelm your feed and leave you with a “1000+ unread” notification that makes combing thru the list a chore. Rather, sites that push out an update once or twice per day (or every other day) are ideal material for RSS. Rewarding RSS reading requires you to have specialized taste borne out of general desktop Web browsing (see below), as well as a tinkerer’s mindset for adding and subtracting feeds. It’s a workflow meant for a desktop.
Granted, there are some good RSS clients for Android: Press and Minimal Reader Pro spring to mind. However, neither is great at managing feeds due to their minimalism and current reliance on the soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader. Plus, I’ve yet to find an Android rival for Reeder, which I use on my Mac an which is also available for iOS. The time-shifted nature of RSS also makes it something that I often only get around to once I’m back home, not working, and sitting down, with Reeder in front of me, and so I forego using a mobile client most of the time. This may change if and when RSS undergoes its needed post-Google Reader facelift.
The thrill of wide-open desktop browsing doesn’t exist on mobile. Maybe it’s because most mobile sites are bastardizations of their desktop forbearers, or because screen size is a limiting factor. Moreover, most mobile apps are still much better and much faster than their equivalent websites. I haven’t disabled Chrome on my phone, but I seldom use it unless another app directed me there. Instead, I prefer news aggregators like Flipboard and Google Currents, or strong native apps like The Verge, Mokriya Craigslist, and Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum.
Of this trio, only Tumblr has a first-rate Android app in terms of aesthetics and friendliness to battery life. It’s easy for me to see why I don’t like using any of them on mobile: they all began as desktop websites, and then had to be downsized into standalone apps. Alongside these aesthetic and functional quibbles with website-to-app transitions, I also consciously limit my Facebook and LinkedIn intake by only checking them on desktop, and in the case of Tumblr, I may create content for it on my phone, but I usually save it to Google Drive (if only to back it up, which I’ll always end up doing one way or another) and then finish formatting and editing it on my desktop before posting it.
Twitter is a different story, due to its hyper-concise format. I’ll talk about it in the next entry. Google+ – which is almost completely ignorable as a standlone site on desktop – is also much better on mobile, wherein it performs useful background functions like photo backup. Mobile-first networks like Instagram and Vine are obvious exclusions as well.
Spotify is a unique case. Its Android app is certainly functional, but unstable and not so good with search. It is difficult to get a fully populated list of returned search results, and in many cases you must hit the back button and re-key the search. Its Mac app is much better – the gobs of menus and lengthy lists are right at home on the desktop. For listening to music on my Nexus 4, I use Google Play Music, where I have a large, precisely categorized personal collection accessible via a clean UI, and the terrific holo-styled Pocket Casts, which I use to play weekly trance podcasts from Above & Beyond and Armin Van Buuren, among others.
I’m not a huge fan of Netflix on tablets or large-screen phones. I do probably 99% of my Netflix viewing on an HDTV connected to my Wii U, with the remainder done on my Mac. I can see the appeal of viewing Netflix while lying in bed, so I don’t rule out its mobile possibilities altogether. However, most of the video watching I do on mobile is via YouTube, Google Play Movies, or my own movie collection as played by MX Player Pro.
Skype is a good desktop messenger and video calling service, but it may as well be DOA on Android, especially stock Android. Google+ Hangouts (the successor to Google Talk) is much simpler, since it requires only a Google+ account and has a dead-simple video calling/messaging interface. Plus, Skype for Android is unfortunately a battery-drainer, in my experience. That said, Skype’s shortcomings on mobile are balanced by its strengths on desktop: its native Mac app is still an appealing alternative to having to open up Google+ in Safari/Chrome.
In part two, I shall look at apps or services that I now do exclusively on mobile, as well as the select group of apps and services that I use on both desktop and mobile.
“Stock” Android has become increasingly functional, reliable, and consistent after getting a facelift with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and then 4.1 Jelly Bean. The evolution of its current unified “flat” aesthetic has arisen from Google’s renewed focus on, well, everything, and in its wake it has opened up a gulf between itself and the looser, anything-goes aesthetics of Android 2.3 and earlier. As such, Google’s vision of “stock Android” can often clash with the design of many 3rd-party apps, even as many of them have risen to the challenge and issued their own Holo-designed apps. Commercially, stock Android is a dud: even LG, after the heartening success of the Nexus 4 (which in the Samsung-dominated Android world is victory enough, for now), is no longer going to be bothering with Nexus manufacturing.
So what’s the point of Holo and the whole “stock” experience? Well: I think it has its merits, if only because it weeds out crapware and bloat and gives users a quality experience due to its reliance on Google’s mostly great apps and services (even if you don’t use G+, the app itself is still a beautiful thing, for example). But it still has lots of shortcomings, like its blatant disregard for entire categories like podcasting or good video playback, and the increasing sprawl of Google apps and services – now that Google wants to stick its fingers in every pot, how long until the Android install image is itself so large and bloat that it won’t be much of a relief from the overloaded ones that come with the Samsung Galaxy S4 or many other bloatware-stuffed phones?
Since it’s unlikely that stock Android will ever be a blockbluster, it’s basically left behind for nitpicking types like me to nit and pick it apart, so with that, let’s look at some of the most important stock Android apps, and the available alternatives. These lists aren’t totally comprehensive, for the sake of conserving space more than anything. I apologize in advance if I’ve left out a key app(s): let me know in comments.
Stock Option: Chrome
Chrome is a capable WebKit-based browser, but so is Dolphin, and thanks to Dolphin’s Jetpack add-on, the latter’s speed can often outstrip even Google’s own browser. But speed isn’t everything. Dolphin’s tab interface is straight out of Android 2.3 and feels like a desktop app that has been scaled-down for mobile. Chrome, by contrast, feels mobile-first and has a nice stacked window interface. It also keeps in sync with Chrome on other devices.
Firefox is a good alternative to either of the above. It also keeps in sync with your other instances of Firefox and is decently fast. Firefox also does a better job of respecting privacy, by letting you enable Do Not Track and install ad-blocking add-ons.
Opera is now Webkit-based, too, and it features a neat “offroad” mode which lets you get better speeds even on slower connections.
The one worthy challenger, however, is Next Browser. Built by the team behind the GO Launcher, Next is a speedy, sleekly designed browser that I now use as my default.
Stock option: Gallery
Major alternatives: QuickPic
This is a tough one. Gallery has a slick scrolling interface (one of the only instances of satisfactory Android scrolling, sadly) and keeps in sync with your Picasa/G+ albums. It also has filters, if for some reason you didn’t get your fair share from Instagram, Snapseed, Flickr, Pixlr Express…
QuickPic, however, is, well, quicker. And it weeds out those Web albums by default, making for a simplified photo browsing experience.
Stock Options: Email, Gmail
Email clients are a wasteland on Android. Gmail for Android, with its swipe gestures, quick actions from notifications, and compatibility with Dashclock Widget and Google Now, is so good that it discourages competition. The stock Email client has a similar interface, sans swipe gestures or quick actions, and can be made compatible with Dashclock via the handy Any Dash Pro app.
K-9 Mail is my favorite of the non-stock options: it has a ton of functionality and customization built-in, along with a handy Dashclock extension, although its interface is reminiscent of the 2.3 era, with lots of options tucked away in the menu.
MailDroid Pro is a completely built-from-scratch client that is either ad-supported or ridiculously expensive (or maybe not, given the difficulty of building good email clients), neither of which make it an easy buy unless you’re looking to experiment.
Stock Option: Messaging
SMS seems to be on the ropes outside of the US, where unlimited text/talk plans are rare. Even in the US, it is under siege from OTT (over the top) services like WhatsApp and Line (see below). All the same, SMS is still important for many users since it sidesteps many of the requirements (like two-way clients) that OTT services have.
Sliding Messasing Pro is an immaculate, super customizable SMS client with MMS support and a buttery sliding UI. Highly recommended. Go SMS Pro is packed with features, but is also in-your-face and a little too eager to have access to your phone so that it can begin spamming you with offers to join its own messaging network. Chomp SMS is fine but a little strange: it hasn’t worked out its notifications such that it doesn’t duplicate the stock app’s SMS notifications.
Stock Options: Gallery/Google Play Movies & TV
Major Alternatives: MX Player Pro
Android doesn’t do video playback so well natively: it sends the video to Gallery, doesn’t offer many options, and doesn’t support all formats. MX Player Pro has nice acceleration options, pinch-to-zoom, and support for virtually all video formats.
Stock option: Google Currents
The demise of Google Reader leaves behind a strange RSS landscape on Android. Google Currents is Google’s own alternative: it can integrate RSS feeds, as well as pretty “editions” of many popular websites and blogs. I wrote about it here. However, it’s a bit unstable and gummy at times. You’re likely better off sticking with its editions when possible and limiting its RSS feeds to just a few favorites.
Feedly is a popular alternative that updates promptly and has lots of sharing and sorting options. It perhaps isn’t ideal for huge feed collections, which is where rival gReader can excel. While gReader doesn’t have the slick interface of either Currents or Feedly, it is a bit more feature-rich, and one hopes that it’ll keep its word and remain functional past July 1.
Press is a minimalistic, subtly designed RSS client with Dashclock Support that also promises to remain operational after July 1. Its my weapon of choice if I use RSS on mobile, which isn’t that often.
Stock option: News and Weather
The stock News and Weather app is pretty bare-bones, but it’s weather and uses common weather data, so you’re not going to find a revelatory alternative. Accordingly, assessing weather apps is more about style and bells/whistles.
Eye in Sky has a good widget and lots of customization options for its colors and icons. Beautiful Widgets is true to its name, letting you setup sophisticated widgets on your screens that display date and weather; it also has a neat Daydream/screensaver. And WeatherBug Elite is a more traditional, fewer-frills weather app that receives frequent updates. Like Eye in Sky, it can also pin a temperature read-out to your task bar.
Stock Option: Clock widget
Major Alternative: Dashclock Widget
This is one of the easiest ways to upgrade your Android experience (on Android 4.2 and later, anyway). Simply download the free Dashclock Widget, add it to your lockscreen, and remove the default clock widget. You can then begin adding all sorts of custom extensions and data to your lockscreen.
Stock Option: Google Play Music
Music apps are a dime a dozen, and despite their number I don’t think they vary all that music in their quality. Most of them have licenses for the same catalogues, so differentiation comes down to interface, price, and, probably, whatever service you began using.
Google Play Music offers a music store, a locker to which you can upload up to 20,000 songs, and access to album/song streams and custom radio stations. It covers almost every base, and it’s cheap, too (for now – signing up before the end of June can lock you into a lower $7.99 monthly rate). But it doesn’t have a desktop app, works only on Android/Web, and has a relatively minimalist aesthetic (in keeping with stock Android).
Spotify works on nearly any platform, but its app design is wonky and often unstable, especially on Android, where sometimes I have to go back and reenter a search query for it to register. Since I’m already entrenched in Spotify, making the switch to near-duplicates like Rdio or Last.fm is pretty much out of the question, but the prospect of integrating a streaming collection with my 8k song library in my Google Play Music library is also enticing (Google Play Music displays both locker-stored albums, store purchases, and streaming albums/songs in the same location, unlike Spotify, which separates them).
Stock Option: QuickOffice Viewer, Google Play Books (kind of)
The default PDF viewer is stock Android is ungainly, with all of its option tucked away into the overflow button on 4.0+. You can load your PDFs into Google Play Books, but you’ll have to go to the Play site on your Mac/PC first.
Adobe Reader and iAnnotate PDF are both free and feature annotation tools, with iAnnotate having a slightly larger variety. But ezPDF Reader Pro is worth the price tag, since it has high-level features like PDF reflow, integration with cloud services, and a bookshelf UI.
Stock Option: Google+
Major Alternatives: …just kidding
-The ScreenGrab Team