Sunday, 7 April 2013

Serious reading on an Android smartphone

I am still routinely assured, both by colleagues and clients, that "no one reads long-form articles on a phone". My response is always the same: "I do." If I'm feeling frisky, I'll probably mention that I read full-length novels on my phone, too. I am currently reading Moby Dick. Do these people even have smartphones?

Isn't that what they're for?

I have been reading books and feature articles on a small screen since I got my first Android phone three years ago. It always seemed to me to be a killer application. Unlike a paperback, my phone can be slipped into a pocket, so it's always with me. And it doesn't contain just one book or one magazine but an entire library, continuously enriched with fresh material of my own choosing.

Remember when serious reading required a pencil, a highlighter and a separate notebook? The smartphone replaces all of these in a single device. Individual sentences, longer passages or complete articles can easily be bookmarked, copied to a notebook, emailed to a friend or posted on Twitter with a swipe of the finger and a couple of taps.

And here's the real clincher, I can read in the middle of the night without waking up my wife by turning on the light.

I can see clearly now

And improvements in both hardware and software are further reducing the barriers to small-screen reading. The screen of my HTC Desire was considered excellent in 2010 - 3.7 inches AMOLED, 480 x 800 (252 ppi pixel density).

But the Nexus 4's display is even better - 4.7 inches WXGA IPS, 1280 x 768 pixel resolution (320 ppi). Contrast is better, and characters are sharper. In fact, the 'print' seems to me easier to read than that of many books, let alone newspapers.

Do we really need so many browsers?

Quite a lot of my daily reading still takes place in the browser. I now use Chrome for Android (free) and it seems to do an excellent job of formatting most web pages for the Nexus screen. I leave the User Agent on the default Android setting, and am usually able to reach the right level of zoom even on non-responsive desktop sites without any difficulty.

Many modern news and social apps include their own built-in browsers. The Google+ app for Android (free) opens links in the default browser (and on the Nexus Chrome opens very snappily). But my Twitter client, Falcon Pro ($1.49), and my RSS reader, Feedly (free), both use their own built-in browsers, as does BaconReader for Reddit (freemium).

Long-form reading in the built-in browsers of Falcon Pro (left) and Feedly (right).

I suppose the developers of these apps prefer to keep users within their own environments, though most do at least offer the option to open a link in the phone's main browser. But it still seems strange to replicate the same complex functionality three or four times on a single device. Wouldn't it be more efficient to rely on a single browser?

Night and day

I quite often save long-form articles to Pocket (formerly Read It Later, free) in order to - well, read them later. Pocket doesn't use a built-in browser. Instead, it strips out all but the essential components of the web page at the moment you 'pocket' it, in order to optimise the reading experience on whatever device you eventually choose to consume it. That optimisation is far-reaching. Notice in the screenshot below how Pocket dims both the three Android soft buttons at the bottom of the screen and the notification bar at the top, in order to reduce distractions.

A fully optimised reading experience. Pocket (left) and FBReader (right).

FBReader (free), which I finally selected as my e-book reader after trying just about every reader available for Android, performs the same trick. Indeed, it goes further by suppressing the notification bar altogether. If you haven't yet got into e-books, give it a try. Most classic literature (at least in English and French) is available completely free, and even a hefty novel like Moby Dick typically weighs in at only 500kB, so you can afford to keep several masterpieces on your phone.

Feedly, Pocket, and FBReader all offer 'Night' reading options, with white text on a black background. But I find black on white easier on the eye, and simply dim the screen's backlight to the minimum setting when I am reading during the night.

And so to bed

Clients and colleagues will no doubt continue to insist that nobody in their right mind would ever read anything longer than an email message on something as small as a phone.

But I think they've got it the wrong way round. I almost never sit in front of a desktop PC to do any serious reading. I'd rather relax in my favourite armchair, or curl up in bed with a good smartphone.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

From Google Reader to Feedly

On 13 March, Google stunned journalists and bloggers around the world with the announcement that it would 'retire' Google Reader on 1 July. Like 3 million others, I quickly found my way to Feedly as a possible replacement.

A better RSS experience

I had been using Reader itself for more than five years to manage, read and share content from around 100 RSS feeds on the desktop. For at least three years, Reader had been synced to Newsrob on my Android phone. (I described my use of RSS feeds in a previous post.)

I chose to make the switch to Feedly principally because it promised continuity of service after Google Reader is switched off on 1 July. The team behind Feedly is replicating the Reader API, and will transfer users' subscriptions to their own 'Normandy' back-end before Reader is put in the ground. Seamlessly, it says here. In addition, I'm a big fan of cross-platform applications. Although NewsRob synced with Google Reader, Feedly's Android app not only syncs, it also employs the same structure, logic and design values as the desktop app. The resulting familiarity makes Feedly easier to use on both platforms.

Today, with Feedly on work and home PCs and on my Nexus 4, I am getting more value out of my RSS feeds than I have ever done!

The Android version of Feedly. Sharing and bookmarking functions are easy to use.

The desktop version. A Reader-like list view is now also available, but I prefer the more graphical timeline view.

The features I miss

For me, there are just four priorities for future development:
  1. an offline mode for the Android version, so that I can continue to browse my feeds when I'm out of range of a WiFi connection - NewsRob has this, and I miss it
  2. Search functionality that will let me track down older items in my own feeds - this was one of Reader's most powerful features
  3. a way to push a new feed directly to Feedly from the RSS Subscribe button of a web page - ideally, this would be implemented as part of the browser extension (I use the Chrome one), putting a one-click 'subscribe to this page in Feedly' button in the browser bar
  4. a smooth scrolling option on the Android version - at the moment, Feedly breaks the content across separate screen-sized 'pages', which I find distracting
[Update: Chrome users can now install this version of the RSS Subscription extension, which uses Feedly as the default RSS reader. If you already have the old Google extension installed, I suggest you uninstall that first.]

Is Feedly sustainable?

I also worry about sustainability. How do these people make money? The very few ads on the desktop version don't bother me, but I would hate to see any more.

Personally, I would be very happy to pay for Feedly, even if payment was voluntary. Why not $5.00 a year? This seems incredibly good value for the service, would cement the company's relationship with its users and keep it on its toes against the competition, and would help to fund continuing development.

Reader is dead. Long live Feedly!

Next post: Serious reading an an Android smartphone