FeedLounge Alpha Review

Update on November 22nd: The Feedlounge interface has been upgraded substantially since this review was written. I’ll try to update it soon.

Update: Alex of FeedLounge responded to various of my comments on his blog. Cool or what ๐Ÿ™‚

I was lucky enough to get onto the FeedLounge alpha a while back. Like Bloglines or Newsgator, it’s an online RSS aggregator. FeedLounge is trying to better the existing apps, and it’s certainly very impressive. It uses ajax technology heavily, meaning that javascript fetches the information and updates the screen. As such, there’s no need for continual page refreshes that Newsgator suffers from. The system also supports tagging on both feeds and posts. I like this idea a lot as the Bloglines ‘clippings’ folder isn’t really customisable enough for me. There’s a lot more, but I’ll introduce that as we go.

The heart of any aggregator is the interface for viewing feeds.

FeedLounge Review - Feeds Page Columns

FeedLounge has a choice of two layouts. The classic interface consists of the feed list on the left, post list (Items panel) on top and post content (View panel) on the bottom. Or there’s the three-column layout, which I personally prefer. Changing between the two takes place without a page refresh, which I bet took some doing.

The feeds list is very configurable. When adding a feed you have the option to tag it. The tags are listed at the top of the list – you can see my comics, delicious, flickr etc. tags. It’s very much like a folder system, except that a feed can have multiple tags, so can appear in multiple locations. The total unread count appears next to each tag, and clicking on each will show all posts from the feeds below it. This works very well. I’m too used to the old-fashioned methods so still have most feeds untagged and in a very long list. I must go through and assign tags at some point.

New items appear in bold in the Items panel. Due to the ajax nature of the site, new items will appear as you are browsing – there’s no need to refresh the page at any point (update: not quite true as yet – see Alex’s response). You can select whether to keep or discard read posts, on a feed-by-feed basis. The view is paged, with 30 per screen, presumably to keep loading times down. The ‘mark all read’ button does exactly what you’d expect ๐Ÿ™‚

The View panel is where all the action happens. Each post is dated, and there are links to the particular post as well as the website it came from. There are toggle buttons for ‘Read’, ‘Flag’ and ‘Save’. ‘Flag’ adds the post to a special ‘Flagged Items’ feed that appears at the top of the feeds list. There’s also a ‘Tags’ button, which when clicked provides a text box to enter tags for that specific post. I tend to use the Flag option as a ‘toread’ tag, then add other tags if I know I’ll want to find the post in the future. As with all of the site, all of this happens without a page refresh.

Tagged posts can be viewed in the ‘Tags’ page:

FeedLounge Review - Tags Page

I don’t have that many tagged posts yet, as you can see. The only disadvantage to this system is inherent to tags; it’s easy to end up with hundreds and hundreds of tags (see my del.icio.us page for an example) and I worry this page could become unwieldy. Still, that hasn’t happened yet ๐Ÿ™‚ Will it be possible to subscribe to feeds of other FeedLounge users’ tagged posts, I wonder…

The other page is the ‘History’ view:

FeedLounge Review - History Page

This shows any posts you’ve read, sorted by day. It’s surprisingly useful.

Adding feeds is pretty easy, although there’s no bookmarklet as yet (it can be found here). You currently have enter the feed address manually:

FeedLounge Review - Adding Feeds

Or import an OPML file – a standard listing of all subscriptions that almost all aggregators support. It’s possible to subscribe to feeds that require authentication (although this may become a pay-only feature). There’s also the ‘Private’ option, but I confess I don’t really know what that is. FeedLounge has a few pre-configured feeds that you can edit, including flickr photos and technorati tags.

I’m a pretty heavy RSS user:

FeedLounge Review - Statistics

That’s 220 feeds with over 19000 items in total. FeedLounge is handling all this very well, in my opinion.

Ok, so with the tour finished, how well does it actually work?

Issues:

  • My main issue is to do with the RSS refresh period. They’ve cleverly implemented a system which looks for feed updates based upon the average time between new posts, up to a limit of 48 hours. Some feeds, like Slashdot or Boing Boing, will be checked every half hour. But less frequent blogs may only be checked once per day. I can perfectly understand why they’d do this – they have to pay for their bandwidth, after all – but one of the things I like about RSS is its immediacy. I like seeing new posts pop up that were written in the past hour. I’ve been watching my own site and have seen it take more than 12 hours for new items to show up. I’d personally prefer a maximum limit of an hour. But that’s me.
  • There are occasional pauses when there’s a queue of ajax commands to process. Having said that I’ve never seen it go wrong or get confused -that’s very impressive!
  • It’s a little slow currently. It’s faster than Newsgator but not so snappy as Bloglines. This could well be a side-effect of using ajax, to be fair. Hopefully things will speed up as more hardware is purchased. Update: Alex says this is more to do with the hardware than the software, which is good to know.
  • The unread items count next to each feed sometimes goes out of sync with the feed, but refreshing the page solves that.
  • Links in feeds currently open in the same window – I’d personally like the option of opening links in a new tab by default. Update: See Alex’s response.

Features I’d love to see:

I have no idea whether these are being considered or even in the plans. Some may well be unworkable and I’m by no means complaining – they’re just ideas that occurred to me:

  • Tagging feeds and individual posts is great, but I’d like to see it go further. A ‘smart-tag’ of some kind, that can link into the category systems on the major blogging engines, would be great. I talk about a huge variety of topics on my site and try to categorise them using the built-in WordPress category system. This information is published in the ‘category’ tag of the RSS feed, and it’d be great to have a tag/feed that picks up anything with the category name ‘politics’, for example. This would by no means always be accurate, or even work with most feeds, but it’s more elegant than having the same feed appear under multiple tags as happens presently. This would likely go hand in hand with searches for specific words, but that’s much more general, I’d like to see something specific.
  • Selecting multiple feeds at once (so as to alter the ‘save items from feed’ setting) would be good.
  • This is very likely just me, but I’d like to be able to fine-tune the ‘Unread Items’ a little. I subscribe to the BBC news feed, which has > 100 new items every day. As such it tends to take over the Unread Items list. An option to exclude specific feeds would be cool.
  • An ‘only show new posts’ option would be great. When you have 220 feeds, it’s handy not to be able to see feeds with nothing new. Bells are ringing in my head that there’s a good reason for not implementing this, so I’ll probably kick myself later.
  • And, of course, I’d like Opera support. They’ve said they’ll work on supporting other browsers as soon as they’re happy with how it works in Firefox. That of course means IE, and I hope Opera too.

Overall Impressions:

It’s a very smooth and polished web app. The interface is definitely superior to Bloglines, my current aggregator of choice, and I see no reason not to move to FeedLounge permanently. The lack of page refreshes makes for a much smoother experience. Of the issues, none are really show-stoppers. The feed refresh time is a little disappointing, but I can live with it.

Once FeedLounge launches its public beta, I highly recommend you give it a try.