I am a news junkie. There’s no way around that fact. It started in eighth grade when our history/current affairs teacher required students to have a subscription to Newsweek.1 I remember waiting every week in anticipation of the next issue, reading it cover to cover and being completely enthralled in events occurring in a world that I truly didn’t understand at the time.
From that moment my love of periodicals exploded. In college I transitioned to publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Then I got a Mac and heard about this little program called NetNewsWire and this technology called RSS.
I was hooked.
I’ve spent so much time since then reading RSS feeds that I don’t even care to guess at how long all that time would add up to. At one particularly dark point in my life I subscribed to over 700 RSS feeds.
‘700 RSS feeds of what?’, you may ask. To which I would answer: nothing really. I just always wanted there to be at least 100 RSS items to read when I checked in. This was when I discovered that many RSS programs don’t count over a few hundred unread items — oops.
Life is markedly busier for me now. I still have over 450 RSS subscriptions, but increasingly I think that there must be a better way to read about today’s news.
RSS readers like Fever° do an excellent job of showing what others are linking to and talking about. Things like NextDraft, The Brief, and Evening Edition, do an impeccable job of keeping you informed about worldwide current events and ensuring you don’t look foolish at the next trivia night. None of these really offer you the same experience of following one person, or one outlet, to see the entire river of information coming out of that site. So while you know the gist of what’s going on, you miss a lot of small and very interesting articles.
With that in mind I set out to see if any enterprising iOS developer has solved this problem. I tested three apps: Summly, Prismatic, and Circa. All three want to rescue you from RSS and keep you informed.
None of them come close to rescuing me from RSS.
I initially downloaded Summly because the design looked very nice and—true to the screenshots—is very nice, if a bit confusing at times. Summly asks you to subscribe to different news categories: Headlines, U.S. News, Local News, Technology, World News, etc. Drilling down through the categories shows the different websites from where the news will be sourced, allowing you to “turn off” certain sites, like TechCrunch.
Once you’ve chosen and subscribed to all the categories you’re interested in Summly shows a list of categories with an unread article count. You can then swipe through the stories, which have been loosely summarized, and see a word count for the article at the top should you decide to read the whole thing.
The entire interface is gesture driven and it feels backwards. To get to the next story you swipe from right to left. Swiping from bottom to top will, annoyingly, take you back to the category list. Even more annoyingly: Swiping from top to bottom will take you to the full story — which annoys me because I wish I could just tap.
The most annoying aspect of Summly’s interface is the cover-page. Here you’re shown a total unread count and a “hot” story. The entire page feels like you should be able to swipe and read through all your content, but nope. This is the dumbest screen I have encountered in an iOS app in quite a while.
Summly’s layout and design is pretty, but its user interaction is horrible. Worse yet: There’s very little value being added to most of the stories and no real eye on “what’s important”. I can’t tell you how many European soccer stories I see. It should be clear, based on my location, preferences, etc, that I probably don’t care for European soccer stories.
Overall Summly, like many before it, is simply a pretty RSS reader that hides the RSS technology from less advanced users.
Prismatic has been getting rave reviews from fellow news junkie Justin Blanton — that alone was enough to necessitate trying it — and I can see why Justin likes this app. The design is nice and the app is fast. Like Summly, Prismatic is simply an RSS reader with no import or export to OPML files. However, you can actually choose specific sites you want to subscribe to.
Everything is shown in one long list that snaps to scroll points, which actually feels more like janky scrolling than a feature. Tap a story to read the full thing. You can share but you can’t send a story to a read-it-later service like Instapaper. (None of these apps allow this.)
I really wanted to like Prismatic, but at the end of the day it’s just another RSS reader that lacks Instapaper support.
I had almost given up on the idea that “we” are ready to move beyond RSS when I came across Circa. Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: Circa is not a pretty looking app. There’s a lot of odd UI choices and overall I really hate the way it looks.
That said, Circa really is a good app. Like Summly the news items are broken into categories, however, unlike Summly you can’t choose those categories: Circa gives you categories for Top Stories, United States, Politics, and World.
Nothing new here. Clicking on a category opens a list of news headlines with photos and the opening paragraph of the story. Where Circa really changes the game is when you dive into a story. What you find is not the full story or a computerized summary of a story: You find a collection of snippets about the story.
This may seem really useless at first glance, but it truly is neat. When I click on a story about black and white TVs still in use in the UK, I find in just five quick swipes the following information:
- 13,202 users in the UK still use a Black and White TV
- There are 25 million TVs total in the UK
- There is some kind of license fee for a color TV that costs more than for a black and white TV
- There’s a bit about sentimental value
- And lastly information that Amazon.com sells just one black and white TV for $86.
I listed those all from memory after skimming the snippets in Circa for 15-30 seconds. This is what Circa excels at: news for people that only want the talking points.
But Circa doesn’t stop there.
Let’s say you find a story about the TSA being charged with treason. (I can dream right?) You can hit a follow button on that story and as Circa adds snippets of information to the story, you have quick access back to that story to see subsequent updates.
Let’s take a story we know a little more about: Apple’s recent rule changes for developers that prevent developers changing screenshots in the App Store without a review. Most readers of this site know, or have read, about this story and it’s a pretty easy concept to grasp.
Here’s what Circa tells me about the story (in the order shown in the app):
- To fight scams, Apple now requires developers to re-submit their app for approval with any screenshot, or description change.
- This fights a scam where scammers upload an app and then, once approved, change the screenshot to match a more popular app’s screenshots and descriptions.
- This change sucks for legitimate developers, as they now have to pay the same penalty of re-submission.
- Panic showed how developers do this, using Mooncraft as an example.
It’s a simplification of the story, but pretty accurately stated. We have the change Apple made, the reason, the impact to others, and credit to Panic who pointed out the problem.
In a sense Circa is a larger scale version of Evening Edition or The Brief, where a human (or really good computer algorithm) takes several stories about one topic and uses them all to create an informative, but short, executive summary.
You can see the source links if you want, but honestly this is best for people who want to read a lot of news, not a lot about the news.
Is this the future?
My goal was to see if there were any apps that could replace RSS for me. What I found was two RSS reading apps masquerading as something more, and one truly new app. I didn’t find a single app to replace RSS for me.
Circa is easily the most interesting app of the bunch, which I could truly see myself using when I travel, over the holidays, or any other time I just want a break from RSS. It’s more of a news summary app than a news reader. Still, it’s very good.
None of these apps do a very good job collecting the stories that are likely to interest me. Services like Stellar.io, or Instapaper’s social network do a much better job finding things that truly interest me — but those services only work if a lot of other people use them, which is rather hit and miss from day to day.
RSS is still king for me, but Circa is a better news information tool than my RSS reader with over 450 RSS feeds. Impressive job, Circa.
I went to a small, very wealthy, private school where such demands seemed very normal. ↩