Google Reader Beta
The Google machine is in overdrive, and the release of Google Reader Beta brings the company closer to becoming a one-stop portal for your e-mail, hand-picked news, and more. Google Reader Beta is a free, Web-based service that allows you to create a personalized newswire of RSS feeds. Coming on the heels of the recent rollout of Google Blog Search Beta, the timing of the Google Reader announcement makes sense. With the groundwork laid for scouring the content of blogs, making that content available to individual readers is the next logical step. Google's powerful search capabilities make its Reader more appealing than other RSS services, such as the otherwise excellent NewsGator, which sometimes turns up few or no relevant results when you look for obscure subjects. You must have a Gmail e-mail account to test Google Reader Beta; if so, just access the reader by logging on at reader.google.com.
Upside: Overall, we found the blue-and-white interface of Google Reader Beta uncluttered and intuitive. It wastes little screen space by organizing content into four sections: Home Page, Your Subscriptions, Read Items, and Starred (as with Gmail, you can highlight incoming feeds with a star icon). Finding content to subscribe to is easy; just type a phrase or a publication name into the upper-left search box, and Google Reader retrieves up to 10 results. If you're familiar with the ins and outs of Google search, you can make searches as specific as possible. Look up "make your own biodiesel," for example, and you'll find precise directions from 10 blogs. We tried to trick Google Reader Beta by subscribing three times to a single feed, but it smartly recognized the duplicate and added only one. Once you've added some feeds, click Google Reader's Top, Up, or Down links within the list of blogs, and the contents scroll down in a slick way without demanding repeated mouse clicks. You can sort feeds by name or date added and import or export your feeds.
Keyboard shortcuts spelled out at the bottom of the page let you navigate--moving to the next feed by typing the letter J, for instance. Savvy Google engineers added the ability to attach labels to feeds, similar to tags that categorize content in blog searches, such as Technorati, and bookmarkers, such as del.icio.us. And for bloggers, Google provides a nice surprise; click the More Actions drop-down box above the text of any message and pick Blog This to post an entry to your Blogger account.
Downside: Gmail raises the hackles of privacy watchdogs who dislike that it pokes its nose in your messages so that it can serve you ads that relate to what you write about. Now that RSS feeds are tied to your Gmail account, those ads could get even more personal, if they draw from your reading list. And though we found Google Reader slick and clean-looking, some of its features were less than simple to grasp. If Google gave each section header a color, the interface would be a nice tabbed arrangement, but only the Your Subscriptions distinguishes itself with a blue tab.
And unlike excellent newsreaders such as NewsGator, when we tested Google Reader Beta on its release date, it didn't provide a list of popular news sources that would allow you to subscribe off the bat to, say, the New York Times. We also wish that it would display more than 10 results. Given Google's famed search skills, we'd expect this to change. We were confused when we found a story on the Smart Mobs blog and subscribed to it; Google Reader Beta's confirmation message made it look as if we were subscribing to a single article rather than to the blog itself. And if you're unfamiliar with RSS, it's hard to tell which of the search results contains a bona fide feed; only savvy subscribers will recognize the XML or RSS at the end of the displayed URLs. We'd also like more choices to organize feeds; while you can label feed messages with a star, you can't create subfolders in which to place them.
Outlook: Google Reader Beta needs to iron out a few usability issues, but we expect that the search giant's brand-name power and broad reach could help to mainstream RSS. Overall, this newsreader is a sleek-looking tool that makes it painless to create your own customized newswire. Google Reader Beta may scare Yahoo and MSN, which are scrambling to revamp their Web-based e-mail services but haven't come as close as Google to integrating RSS feeds and blog updates into users' accounts.