Turbine: An Alternative RSS Reader for NewsBlur and Feed Wrangler

I’ve written a couple times about how much I rely on my RSS feed. After the demise of Google Reader, I switched to Feed Wrangler and didn’t look back. The service is fast and consistently reliable, and I love that its open API integrates with a ton of other apps for iOS.

I’m always on the look for new RSS experiences. Turbine Reader offers exactly that: it’s designed from the ground up for iOS 7, tries to put a focus on content, and integrates with Feed Wrangler and NewsBlur (with the developer promising to work with more services soon). But is it worth displacing your favourite RSS app from your home screen? Read on to find out.

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iOS 7 Ready

The first thing you’re going to notice when you boot up Turbine Reader is its heavy use of iOS 7 user interface elements. For some people, this is going to be a massive turnoff. What’s interesting for me is that this is one of the first RSS apps I’ve seen rely so heavily on it. The UI elements look at once comfortably familiar and dull, and I feel surprisingly passé about it. I’m not bothered by the user interface, but I’m not blown away by it.

The app doesn't look bad, but it's not blowing me away either.

The app doesn’t look bad, but it’s not blowing me away either.

I do have a couple qualms. The first is that I wish the toolbars and navigation bars would fully disappear while I read. It matters more on an iPhone than it does on an iPad, but the useable space for an article is consistently reduced to about 3.5“ when I’m reading. If Turbine’s toolbars receded the way the URL bar in Safari recedes, we’d be looking at a more compellingly designed app. Not only that, but it would feel more like it was ”made for iOS 7″ in a meaningful way.

The app also uses a lot of the technologies introduced in iOS 7. It will download all your articles in the background so they’re ready for you as soon as you open the app. It uses Dynamic Type, which sets your typefaces at the same universal size across the operating system.

Turbine sets text size with Dynamic Type, which means that it can't be changed in-app and reflects what you've set in Settings.app.

Turbine sets text size with Dynamic Type, which means that it can’t be changed in-app and reflects what you’ve set in Settings.app.

In other words, while Turbine plays with iOS 7’s advancements, it ends up coming across as a mixed bag. It represents both the best and worst of the new OS, and I think that’s a bit of a missed opportunity.

Little Goodies

But I still think there’s a lot to like here. One of my favourite features is the way that the app automatically enables Night Mode when the sun sets in your area. It happens a little bit too early, though. Right now, it’s 4:00 in my time zone and the sun shouldn’t be setting for another hour, but the app is already in Night Mode.

Night Mode is my favourite.

Night Mode is my favourite.

And as an additional note, I’ve noticed the app seems to turn Night Mode on and off as the sun sets, as if it can’t decide which setting should be enabled. I can’t tell if Night Mode is enabled when the lights are dim or when the sun sets, but my office has a lot of windows so my lighting tends to get dimmer as the sun sets. If Night Mode is enabled when lights get dimmer, that’s poorly communicated by the name “Night Mode.”

I don’t think that’s much of a problem, as I really like the Night Mode. If I could, I’d enable it all the time. Sadly, the app doesn’t allow you to turn on Night Mode by default. Not unlike Instapaper, it not only dims the browser, but also all the images. Unfortunately, there’s no way to brighten images; tapping on them doesn’t do it. That’s a bit of a shame, but the Night Mode is so much easier on my eyes that I don’t think I care.

The app gets a couple other things right, too: 1Password is integrated right in for those who want to use it. The app makes it easy to share any article with your preferred Read Later service, including Pocket, Instapaper, and even Safari’s built-in Reading List. It caches all your articles so you can read them without an Internet connection. And, partially because the app uses familiar UI elements, it’s very easy to use.

Little Oddities

But I don’t like that there’s no Pinboard support for easy bookmarking. I wish that you could enable Night Mode all the time. There’s an odd-looking button in the app that looks a little bit like stacked paper. It saves an article “for later,” according to the app. After tapping this button with numerous different articles, I still have no idea what it actually does. It doesn’t seem to save articles to my Instapaper queue, and no matter what I try, I can’t find a place in the app where I can view the articles I’ve read.

Sadly, there's no Pinboard integration. Support social networks beyond Twitter and Facebook is practically nonexistent.

Sadly, there’s no Pinboard integration. Support social networks beyond Twitter and Facebook is practically nonexistent.

And even if it does save my articles to Instapaper (and again, it doesn’t appear to be), then why have Instapaper in the Share Panel? Notably, you can turn on Pocket and Instapaper at the same time, and both can be available in the Share Panel at any time. So if the mysterious Save For Later button correlates with your Read Later service, and you’re signed in on both, that makes the question of which service your articles are saved to even more mysterious.

I also don’t like the way the app handles reading the previous or next article. Double-tapping on the bottom of the screen quickly opens the next article in your queue, while double-tapping the top of the screen opens the previous article. The problem with that is that touch screens are pretty sensitive, so Turbine often mistakes my attempt to scroll as double-tapping to open the next article.

The app isn't exactly bug-free. I managed to make it freeze like this.

The app isn’t exactly bug-free. I managed to make it freeze like this.

Finally, the app is not bug-free. I’ve experienced some odd bugs that have forced me to quit the app from the Multitasking pane and reopen it. These bugs are more frequent for me on the iPhone version of the app, and are seemingly random, but the app is universal. Since both versions of the app share the same code, I presume they also share the same bugs.

Turbine’s Real Problem

If you’ve read all this, you’d be correct in assuming that Turbine Reader is a little half-baked. But the real problem is pretty simple: the app needs to better communicate what it’s doing. Having a button labeled as “Saved For Later” is mysterious at best when the app allows you to simultaneously integrate Pocket and Instapaper.

Some people might really love this interface, and for them, it’s a shame that the app doesn’t feel as good as it could. While an RSS reader like Reeder 2 “just works,” Turbine feels like it’s halfway there. Sadly, people looking for alternative apps to sync NewsBlur and Feed Wrangler with will have to put Turbine Reader on their “wait and see” list.


Summary

Turbine looks promising, but feels half-baked. RSS addicts should put it on their "wait and see" list.

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