With Google Reader's permadeath only days away, companies and developers are frantically trying to get their products out or upgraded before that happens. Aol Reader is one of the few products that is been designed from the ground up after Google decided to retire Google Reader on July 1 (another is Digg Reader).
Aol launched Reader as a beta product today. Sign ups are enabled for users from all over the world, provided they have no objections linking the Reader account with their Facebook, Google or Twitter account, or to create a new AOL account for that.
Once you have created an account you are taken to a blank home page that you can use to add individual feeds or import a feed list from an opml file. I experienced issues trying both options for the better part of the day. While I cannot say for certain why this happened, it may have something to do with the public launch of the product. Anyway, not a great start.
Once you do manage to get your feed list imported into the program you will notice that it may take a while before they are all updated. The first wave of updates seems to ignore publication dates and use retrieval dates instead. What this means is that posts are displayed when they have been retrieved by Reader and not when they were published on the site.
The feed listing itself uses a pleasant design, displaying individual items in rows by default. Here you find the publisher's name, title and the first words of the article listed. You can modify the display if you want, to a card, full or pane view instead. Lets take a look how these look like in comparison, shall we?
The only view that seems half-way practicable besides list view is pane view as it is displaying unread articles on top and one selected article in the lower pane like it is handled in many email readers.
A click on an article in list view displays its contents right in Aol Reader. This includes textual contents but also images. Multimedia contents on the other hand seem to be ignored, at least for now. I could not get embedded YouTube videos to show up in AOL Reader nor podcasts streams.
Articles are automatically marked as read when you click on them. There is however no option to mark them read while you are browsing past them in list view. You can however use mark as read buttons at the top to do so, or use shortcuts instead for that.
AOL Reader supports a wide variety of shortcuts.
The shortcuts hint at a couple of features that I have not mentioned yet. You can star articles which adds them to the starred category in Aol Reader from where they are accessible. You can also tag articles so that you can find them when you use the search, or share them using various sharing options that are displayed when you have selected an article in the program.
The home page displays the latest articles of each folder or category that you have created, as well as the top list of feeds with unrated items. Last but not least, it also recommends services to you, but those seem to be the generic high profile suggestions that you come across every where (Huffington Post, TechCrunch, TUAW and so on).
The settings enable you to switch from a dark to a light theme, change the default font size, and turn off confirmations for various activities such as unsubscribing from feeds.
The biggest issue right now is feed import which does not work well right now, followed by the fact that articles are sorted by retrieval date and not by date they have been published on websites.
There are other issues, like the inability to change the size of the sidebar that is displaying all subscribed feeds and that switching to a new article using the shortcut n is not marking it as read.
The reader shows promise, but it is clearly a beta product at this point in time.
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