RSS Apps on iPad

A while ago, when I wrote about organizing your news feeds in Google Reader, I mentioned a couple news reading apps for the iPad.  Finally, I’ve made the time to really compare the apps I’ve been using and explain why I use the ones that I do.  To see a chart of the features I look for, and the apps I considered, see this Google Spreadsheet for RSS Apps.   Please feel free to add your comparisons, too!

Flipboard, Pulse, etc.

In case you’re wondering why the pretty magazine-style apps are not here, let me just say that they simply don’t mesh with my news reading workflow.  I do appreciate Flipboard and have shown it to several other people, but I take a more methodical approach to my news feeds.  I haven’t yet seen a way to incorporate such a workflow into something like Flipboard, though I still try it out once in a while.

First Place: Mr. Reader ($3.99)

I started using Mr. Reader just a couple months ago.  Two big reasons I switched to it:  1) my other favorite RSS app, MobileRSS HD, kept crashing… a LOT.  I was over it.  2) I started using Diigo for all my bookmarking and Mr. Reader lets me send links directly to Diigo with tags and description.  If there was some way to also highlight text in an article, Diigo-style, I would be the happiest camper ever.

Likes:  At first the interface appeared a little cluttered, but once I started using it, I found it helped me go through my news feeds more quickly since I didn’t have to open every article to take action on it. I love the little sound effects that are sprinkled into basic functions of the app, but have no fear – you can turn those off.  I also appreciate having the favicons next to the feed titles and thumbnail images from each post.  A wonderful bonus feature is the ability to add new blog subscriptions within the app. But it would be nice if we could then put the new feed into a folder, as is done in MobileRSS HD.  One of the best features is having 4 different view options for your feeds: RSS (just the blog post), Web (view the original, with comments), Mobilizer (like Web but simplified), and Readability (full post).  The ability to easily and consistently bring in the full post on those super annoying blog feeds that only send out truncated articles is the stuff of rainbows, my friends. And finally, a bonus feature that has become one of my “must have” tools is the ability to open links in non-Safari browsers such as Atomic Web, Mercury, or iCab.  Those three are the only alternative browsers available in the app so far, but it also gives the option of using Send2Mac, which I have not played with yet.

Dislikes: Seriously, how can this be a Google Reader app and NOT have a “Share with Note” option?  I’m hoping this gets added in an update soon. It’s one of the biggest features that keeps Mr. Reader from being my one-and-only RSS app.  It has had 5 updates since it came out in April, so the developer appears to be fixing things on a monthly basis.  I also wish there was a way to get back to the original blog post after following links – as in, a back button?  One little thing that would be nice but isn’t crucial, would be a setting to choose between scrolling a post up to see the next post, or scrolling sideways to see more posts.  I prefer sideways but the default right now is up/down, which causes a problem sometimes when it’s not obvious that I’m at the end of a long post.

Second Place:  MobileRSS HD ($4.99 or free)

I have a love / hate relationship with MobileRSS.  They have some great features and a nice interface, but the app crashes so often I have deleted it off my iPad at least twice.  And yet, it can do a couple things other apps can’t do (like Comment View and adding new feeds), so then I end up putting it back on.  But I can only use those features when it’s not crashing, of course.

Likes:  The interface is similar to Reeder in using swipes between posts, but it doesn’t mess around with the goofy pinching piles of paper metaphor that Reeder uses.  Going through posts in portrait mode is lovely – the text fills the screen but with good margins on the sides, and you can simply swipe to the next post like you’re turning a page.  Using the book metaphor for news reading appeals to me, but for longer text I prefer this style of seeing one post at a time over the Flipboard style of showing several at once. On another note, MobileRSS seems to be one of the few apps that can display a subscription to another Google Reader user’s starred items – not shared items, mind you, but starred items.  A couple people have shared their starred item feeds with me so we can discuss more posts without cluttering up each other’s shared items.  But only MobileRSS and Feeddler will display them.  Argh.

Dislikes:  The crashing.  And have I mentioned the crashing?  If they could fix that problem, and add Diigo integration, MobileRSS HD would win back its crown as “Sara’s only RSS app” away from Mr. Reader.

Honorable Mention: Reeder ($4.99)

If you go back through the reviews in the App Store of MobileRSS HD you will see many disgruntled customers accusing them of stealing their design from Reeder. Reeder and Flipboard set precedents when it came to designing an interface for the iPad, not just for doing computer-like things on an iPad.  I used Reeder for quite a while alongside MobileRSS HD, but as you’ll see from the Google Spreadsheet comparison – there is quite a bit that Reeder can’t do… for my purposes, anyway.

Likes:  Clean interface, swiping between posts, holding on a link brings up the full action menu so you can send it to Instapaper without opening it.

Dislikes: It has no free version to try out and it’s never been cheaper than $4.99.  It has no “Night” theme so if you try to read in a dark room, the screen is blindingly bright, even with the iPad’s brightness turned down all the way.  Many apps are starting to incorporate their own brightness settings now, which can get darker than the iPad’s settings, thus avoiding some strain and headaches for night readers.  But then, Reeder is guilty of one of my all-time greatest pet peeves in iOS apps — putting the settings in the iPad Settings app.  I hate this.  If I want to change something about your app, I’m only going to think of it when I’m using your app.  Why should I have to switch to something else entirely in order to change your app?

The biggest reason I don’t like using Reeder much is the way it displays people I follow in Google Reader.  I prefer to see each person’s shared items separately, but Reeder only shows them in a big muddle and it’s hard to tell who shared what.  Both Mr. Reader and MobileRSS HD separate the shared items by person sharing.  This makes much more sense to me, for whatever reason.

Looking ahead

The beauty of using Google Reader for my news feeds is that I can switch apps on a whim and all my stuff is synced. There is the little set-up time when you have to log into Instapaper, Evernote, and so forth again but that usually doesn’t take long.  Some RSS apps that I’m keeping an eye on, in case they get upgrades and improve are:

Readict ($4.99)  –  This is the app I’m most excited about.  It was made by Diigo for Diigo, but works with Google Reader and Twitter favorites.  However, it has not had many reviews yet in the App Store – only 7.  It came out in early July but has only had one update so far.  I like to see regular update activity on apps, because there is almost always something to fix, and I want to know that the developer is committed to their apps.  I have it on my wishlist at AppShopper in case anything changes.

River of News ($3.99)  –  I picked up this app when it went on sale briefly several months ago.  It has an interface very similar to Reeder and MobileRSS HD, but with a lighter touch and little letterpress-style details in the design.  However, it also has many of the same problems as Reeder.  One interesting addition that keeps River of News in the running is the ability to add customizable gesture commands for shortcut taps.  I’m watching to see where this app goes, but it hasn’t had an update since February.

Perfect RSS Reader ($.99)  –  This has some similarities to River of News, including gesture options, but the interface and design give the app a style of its own with very thin lines and sandstone coloring. It definitely has potential but there are little things that keep me from using it regularly, such as only displaying the feed list in a pop-out window, and not having a night-reading theme.

What’s your favorite way to read news and RSS feeds?  I’d love to get more suggestions!

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Not Your Normal Librarian

It’s been an amazing year at Briar Cliff. I started here in July 2010 as the Reference and Instruction Librarian, and in July 2011 became the Director of Educational Technology. This is due in large part to having a wonderful library director and incredibly good timing. A quick rundown of things that have happened over the past several months:

Fall 2010

  • the library started checking out iPads
  • started the casual discussion series Let’s Talk

Spring 2011

  • launched an iPad Pilot with 30 faculty member volunteers
  • trained Education and Nursing students in using WordPress as an online portfolio
  • created a task force for staff and faculty to start evaluating LMS alternatives to replace Angel

Summer 2011

  • trained 25 more faculty on the iPad

Fall 2011

  • deployed over 400 iPads to students
  • led a Faculty In-Service on technology training topics, with mini-sessions from our early adopter faculty members

A lot has happened in one short year. We have a new Reference and Instruction Librarian now who brings a whole wonderful set of mad skills into the mix. We have a coffee shop in the library’s lobby for the first time. The campus has switched to a semester calendar rather than terms, and we have students from the Writing Center doing their evening hours in the Library – which has been a goal for the library for a long time.

When I think about how much everyone has accomplished in the last 14 months, I am astounded. When I think about how much my own job has changed I’m downright dizzy.

This semester started out a little strange since Mark and I had to be out of the country when classes started. I’m also trying out a very different schedule: I’m working Mondays to Thursdays from about 10 am to 8 pm. “About” means I actually arrive much earlier but the upside to these long days is that I don’t come in at all on Fridays. I wanted to try out a schedule like this in hopes of being available for the widest range of people on campus. I set my “office hours” as 4pm to 8pm – a time when anyone with iPad or classroom tech questions can come find me and get some answers. The 4pm to 8pm window straddles the time from faculty getting out of their last classes to the evening students arriving for their night classes and the on-campus students start pouring into the library for their late night study time. If I had the stamina to stay up later, I would probably get far more questions between 9pm and midnight, but 8pm is already pushing my bedtime.

I have to admit, the evening hours have been more productive than I expected. I often have a regular stream of questions from both students and faculty, and when I don’t have a visitor I can get more catch-up work done because most staff and faculty go home by 6. Most of my daytime hours are spent answering questions on the phone, in email or going to people’s offices to show them how to do something. I love all this. It feels like That Thing I’m good at. But there is always more to do, too, and it’s very easy to feel very behind. I’m also seeing an unexpected benefit in having more morning hours at home. I’m starting to set a routine of waking up, writing for at least half an hour, reading some RSS articles and with the arrival of our brand new treadmill, I’m even able to squeeze in a work out, which I am absolutely ecstatic about. These things never happened after work even when I was leaving at 4:30. Typical work days leave me wiped out by the end of the day so why not make it the true end of the day? So far, being personally productive in the morning is far more successful than it ever was in the evening.

Next up – I want to set up some specific workshops (the persistent challenge – when will people come?) and find a way to reach out to more students. I’m hoping we can have a couple longer faculty workshops during the J-Term. In the spring it would be great if we could start beta testing a couple learning management system options and Google Apps.

The biggest change I want to make is creating a culture of ongoing professional development across the campus. One of the long workshops I would love to do would cover Getting Things Done and the most basic elements of project management wrapped up in a package to help employees with time management, productivity, and communication. That’s a huge goal and I have to keep reminding myself that it won’t happen with one workshop. I have to figure out a way to incorporate these elements a little bit at a time until they seem second nature. If you have some ideas, I’d love to hear about them!

Organizing Google Reader

Last weekend’s THATCamp LAC had many wonderful sessions full of discussions. One of those sessions was “Is there a tech in this class?” which became a show-and-tell of favorite online tools, in about five minutes each.  I gave a quick overview of my Google Reader workflow, based on an old blog post I had stumbled across a couple years back about optimizing one’s Google Reader experience.

The short version:

Instead of sorting your RSS subscriptions into folders by subject, sort them according to how frequently they have new posts and how much you want to read them.  This way you will always go through your most important and/or timely articles first, saving the not-so-important articles for a more leisurely time.

Google Reader FoldersThe long version:

In the screenshot here, I’ve numbered my folders according to how often I try to read them.  “1 Daily”, “2 EdTech”, and “2 Skim” are all folders that I try to look at everyday if I can, but I will settle for a purge every few days if necessary.

The feeds in “1 Daily” post something new at least once a day, if not more frequently, and their posts usually require more attention than a quick glance.  This includes the wonderful book reviews from The Millions and CultureLab, ebook news from No Shelf Required, plus musings and links from Text Patterns.

The folder “2 Skim” has crazy ridiculous feeds that have, on average, well over 100 new posts every week.  I subject myself to these feeds because I feel that an important part of my job is staying up-to-date on tech trends so that my colleagues don’t have to.  To that end, I have things like ReadWriteWeb and Lifehacker here. There are other more techie, and even more prolific, news feeds I could subscribe to but I’m not that big on punishment.

One of the benefits of lumping feeds together in folders like this – after skimming through the headlines to star or Instapaper those that interest you, you can then use the magic “Mark all as read” button to clear all the other posts away.  Ta da!  This way I funnel the posts I’m most interested in to my Instapaper feed, which I also subscribe to in Google Reader, but I keep it separate from any folders.  After I’ve quickly cleared out a couple folders, I can go into my Instapaper articles knowing those are the things I want to spend more time with.

Up to this point, each folder has only had a handful of subscriptions since the respective feeds all delivered so much content.  For the folders “3 Weekly” and “4 Monthly” the RSS feeds have maybe 5 new posts a week, and although they’re very informative, I don’t mind letting them pile up to be combed through once a month over the occasional weekend with downtime. The folder “3 Weekly” has a miscellany of things like Google for Students, FlowingData, BookTwo and about 30 other feeds.

And, yes, I do still have two subject folders after all.  Two reasons for this:  1) my Library folder is huge, with about 60 different feeds.  Fortunately, none of them post more than a few new items each week, and some only post new items once a month (journal TOCs).  This, too, is a folder that I will save for those weekends when I do a lot of RSS catch-up in one go.  2) my People folder is the special place for friends I know in real life who have personal blogs. I don’t want these posts getting lost in the shuffle of skimming folders so I keep them in their own cozy corner.

Trends in Google Reader

The details: 

You might be asking, “How do I know which feeds are which?”  Google Reader has a couple handy dandy tools for this.

1. Trends (click screenshot for bigger image)

Log into the web version of Google Reader, click on Trends from the sidebar.  Toward the bottom of that Trends page, you should see a column for Reading Trends and one for Subscription Trends.  These columns tell you which feeds are most active (Subscription trends) and which feeds you interact with the most (Reading trends).   Unfortunately, the information is only for the last 30 days so ask yourself how typical the past month has been for your reading habits and take the stats with a grain of salt.

Google Reader Subscription Details2. Subscription Details (click screenshot for bigger image)

To see how often a specific RSS feed has new articles, click on that feed from the Subscriptions area of your left sidebar, then click “Show details” to see how many posts per week you can expect from that subscription.  I’ve started using this information in evaluating new feeds before committing to them.  If a feed has truncated posts and spits out more than 10 each week, I probably won’t be following unless it’s REALLY good.

I do my actual reading on my iPad, and I’ll be looking at my two favorite RSS apps – Reeder and MobileRSS HD – in a future post.

iPad Pilot Programs

At the end of March, we started an iPad Pilot for faculty at my university.  We had 20 devices to give out, but ended up having 30 people involved because other faculty and staff who had purchased their own iPads wanted to be a part of the group, too.  Our virtual discussions have been documented at the BCU iPad Pilot Blog, but we also met in person once a week to demonstrate and share apps that we discovered.

At the end of this post I included links to other iPad pilots from a variety of universities.  Each one is a little different, from who is included, how much training they received, to how much freedom the participants have with their devices.  In our iPad Pilot, the participants used their own iTunes accounts and synced to their own computers so they could add whatever apps or content they wished.  Pilot members were given a small iTunes gift card to help them get started with apps.

The first three weekly meetings were used as training sessions to get the group acquainted with iTunes, the App Store, the iPad, and set up access to their campus mail and calendars.  You can see very brief summary outlines of these sessions under the Training link on the Pilot Blog.

What would I do differently if I could do it over?  The biggest change I would make is in the assessment department — I wish there had been time to create some sort of “Before and After” survey instrument to give participants before the Pilot started and then again six weeks later when the Pilot ended for the summer.  Without that, the only real assessment tool we have is the blog, which did have contributions from about 60% of the group, but not consistent information.

The nice surprise benefit of the Pilot was the social interaction and networking that came about thanks to the weekly meetings.  These sessions were casual and open to suggestions from the whole group, which resulted in a lot of peer-to-peer teaching and learning.  Several of the participants have asked for such a group to continue in the Fall, even though the Pilot will be over.

Some outcomes of the Pilot:  lots of local media coverage for the university, classroom ideas for the iPads from several faculty members involved, more e-textbooks are being considered for upcoming classes, video interviews with Pilot members were shown to the university’s Board of Trustees, and many of the Pilot members will be involved in leading a professional development workshop for faculty at the end of the summer.  Given the very limited time, planning, and resources we had to put the Pilot together, I consider it a wonderful success.

My only advice for other universities or institutions considering a similar program would be:

1. Don’t underestimate the need for some training.  Basic tips and tricks can go a long way toward alleviating early frustration with this new device, especially for users who have no experience with the iOS interface.

2. Find at least 3 to 4 different ways to evaluate or document the progress and accomplishments of the Pilot participants, using both qualitative and quantitative methods.  Our main goal when we started the Pilot was to give faculty exposure to the iPad in order to start finding ways to implement it in the classroom, but we only have anecdotal information to show how things went.  I would suggest having some more concrete objectives in mind, if you can.

Have you started something similar?  I would love to hear about it in the comments or by email.  Thank you!

Some Helpful Resources: 

Apple AcademiX Webinar:  http://education.apple.com/academix/ 

Lafayette College – http://sites.lafayette.edu/ipad/

I especially like the assignments under “Pilot Tasks”

Reed College – iPad Pilot Overview     http://www.reed.edu/cis/about/ipad_pilot/index.html

Oberlin College iPad Pilot    https://sites.google.com/a/oberlin.edu/ipad-pilot-program/

Oberlin iPad Pilot Blog     http://octet1.csr.oberlin.edu/wp/ipad/

Trinity College     http://ipadpilot.wordpress.com/

Mobile Educause – Seton Hill University     http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume46/iMobilePerspectivesOniPadsibrW/226163

Faculty iPad Study at North Carolina State University — with individual blog posts from the participants:
http://fit.itecs.ncsu.edu/category/ipad-study/

iPad or iPod Touch Training Checklist

We are introducing a lot of people to the iPad at my library and many of these folks — probably most — have no experience with an iOS device.  This part of Iowa has no AT&T 3G reception so most folks are on Verizon or other carriers.  The checklist below gives folks who are old pros at iOS a nice reminder of the features that are not immediately intuitive to newbies.  (Heck, did you know that you can get back to the beginning of a long page just by tapping the time in the status bar at the top?)

I am sure I’ve left out important features so please feel free to leave additions in the comments.  I’ve left the wording very simple to just serve as memory joggers.

Physical

  • outside buttons – volume, rotation lock (iPad), power, home
  • speakers, microphone (iPad), headset jack

Basic Screen

  • top bar: wifi signal, time, battery status
  • dock, swipe screens, dots show screen number
  • hold icon to move apps around, move apps on dock

Settings

  • wifi, brightness (Auto Brightness is better for battery)
  • General — About, Sounds, Passcode

App: Safari

  • tap in address bar, use X to clear the field (type nyt.com to get plenty of text & nice long screen to play with)
  • hover on a link to open in a new tab
  • changing tabs, closing tabs
  • click plus to add a bookmark, email a link
  • hover on a word to select, drag blue dots, copy
  • scroll down, then tap time in top bar to get back to top
  • zoom with fingers, double tap or pinch
  • press at the same time – power button on top and home button – to take a screenshot
  • (screenshots will be saved to “Photos” automatically)

App: Notes

  • tap to get keyboard
  • tap and hold for pop-up menu to paste
  • use magnifying glass to edit, drag to place cursor

Spotlight search

  • always the screen to the left of your 1st home screen
  • searches email, calendar, notes, apps
  • priority can be changed in Settings