Why I Chose NewsBlur

Not all that long ago Google Reader closed it doors pushing millions of users off the platform. Many users were frustrated to lose their long time place to get their news not all that different from someone in yesteryear losing their favorite newspaper.  The whole thing was far from ideal but did go to teach users that you can’t expect cloud services to last forever (which is a good wake up call). But in the fall of Google Reader came many possible replacements which added their own spins on how one reads news. Feedly, The Old Reader and NetVibes were a few of the popular replacements. But I settled on NewsBlur and eventually became a paid user.

NewsBlur is mainly written by Samuel Clay (more on why I say mainly later).  He seems like a friendly, hard working fellow. He responds to bug reports and is active in his products community.  While this may seem like common sense just take a few minutes to look at random SaaS products on the Internet. You’ll find many of the developers are hidden behind customer service groups who, at worst, are outsourced and are more of a dead end than a way to get things fixed. Long story short, it seems like Samuel really cares about his product.

It is possible to have a Free account on NewsBlur. While you are limited to a specific amount of feeds many people will find the limits are higher than the feed counts they had in Google Reader. At the time of writing the limit is 64 sites.

There are some social features provided by NewsBlur yet these features are not required nor forced into general workflow. For instance, there is a concept of the BlurBlog which looks like it could be fun. But I tend to read the news and share elsewhere. If I ever decide to use the BlurBlog functionality it’s there. Otherwise I can just use NewsBlur as a fantastic reader.

NewsBlur is Open Source under the MIT license (also known as the Expat License). This gives me peace of mind knowing if Samuel ever decided that he was done with NewsBlur I could export my feeds, setup my own instance, and continue using the product on my own infrastructure. Yeah, it’s not trivial but it’s possible which is a huge advantage given the last reader I used shut down.

No software is without it’s bugs but Samuel does a good job bug squashing. And if you are developer who wants to give a hand you can patch the issue yourself and submit the fix (another win for Open Source). At the time of writing there are 43 development contributors to NewsBlur. This is a much better solution than waiting for a customer service representative to reinterpret your bug submission to a developer so that the fix may be done someday in the future.

If you are still looking for a replacement for Google Reader give NewsBlur a chance even if it’s a second chance as the application seems to be enhanced weekly. If you like it, consider becoming a paid user. Can you can’t say no to Shiloh:

RSS Isn’t Dead

Google announced that they are discontinuing their popular Google Reader service. For those unaware Google Reader is a convenient way to read RSS feeds. For anyone who doesn’t know what RSS is it stands for Really Simple Syndication: a convenient way to bring customized web content to you all in one place. Google Reader was a very popular way to read RSS feeds which, upon it’s notification of closing, had large amounts of users searching the Internet for a replacement.

Apparently RSS is dead. Well, if you listen to some writers. Their thought is that “everyone” uses Twitter, G+ or Facebook to read or be notified of new content. This probably comes as a big shock to the large amount of people who use RSS readers and services everyday. The truth is that not everyone uses social media as a way to keep tabs on news and information outside of their own social life. I’d hazard to say most people use social media for social purposes with an added small amount of news/information usage. For instance, if someone is really in to Lenovo products they will probably follow or friend Lenovo to get updates from them. But following posts directly from a company or organization is not the same thing as reading feed from multiple sources. Even those social platforms that do offer the ability to mix general life with corporate/news generally lack the ability to separate the two well. Maybe I’m odd but I don’t like seeing pictures of everyone’s kids and family updates mixed with not-so-happy hard news.

Saying RSS is dead reminds me of how email is dead. It isn’t at all but people do like to state it. Maybe people should also say going to CNN.com to read CNN news is dead? News organizations have social media presence and if social media is where everyone reads content then shouldn’t these organizations post directly to the social applications and skip the overhead of running their own systems? Using social media as the location for news sounds like trading custom news and data for digital water cooler conversations with company PR women.

RSS is not dead. RSS services are evolving into different platforms where focused data is king. At least the smart ones are. As a prime example look at Newsblur. It’s a web based RSS reader with options to train the system on the kind of news you like from your subscriptions. Granted, it does add some social functions for those who want that but the reader alone is what makes the service great. When it comes to hanging out and sharing random bits of life the social media outlets are still, and will likely always be, the most attractive players.

In the end social media and RSS are not the same thing. Yes, there can be crossover but that does not mean RSS is dead or that social applications and RSS are truly competing  RSS services are just evolving.

Nexus 4 Mini Review

This Nexus 4 has only been with me a short time but I can already see why the guys and gals who got their hands on the original batch of devices have raved so highly about them. Here’s a short run down of my thoughts so far…

The Look

Nexus 4
Nexus 4 (Photo credit: abuakel)

The device is understated for what one expects from flagship devices. By that I mean the Nexus 4 is not meant to draw eyes to it or make you the talk of the cool guy crowd. It’s meant to look like a lot like every other Android device out there. Not exactly like others but close enough that by glancing it wouldn’t stand out. The main thing that does stand out when focusing on the device is the back due to it’s sparkle/glass look. It actually does make the device look special without forcing it’s ‘coolness factor’.

As a side note it’s nice to have fewer brand names thrown all over the back. I’ve had phones which had multiple brands plastered on it followed by reminding me (and everyone around me) the brands ‘involved’ in the device. The Nexus 4 says Nexus and has a smaller LG logo near the bottom. The front is refreshingly brandless. Bootup also avoids yelling about it’s Google and LG makers. I love it!

The Form

Like the look the form isn’t much different than many other current generation Android devices but does have a slightly larger screen than my previous SGS II. To be honest I really like that as I’ve grown accustomed to the general Android device slate. Where it does part ways with most of it’s siblings is in how well the build feels. It’s light without feeling cheap. It’s thin without feeling frail. I’m not totally sure why the back is glass (other than giving it a slightly different look on focused look) but I have to assume that ends up adding to the positive build feel.

General Usage

Blockbuster
Better than the app. (Photo credit: ario_)

Hopefully every Android device manufacturer is taking notice of this device because this thing is exactly how I want to use a phone. First off I didn’t have to spend time hiding a bunch of ‘value added’ applications that I’ll never use. The amount of telco bought devies I’ve had which forced me to keep NASCAR or Blockbuster installed even though I never used either is a sad number.

Next, the device is fast. Really fast. I’ve been on the Tegra everywhere bandwagon and now I’m thinking Snapdragon really may be where it’s at for phone size devices. Then there’s the fact the device is running stock Jelly Bean. This means no Sense, TouchWiz, etc… Just Android the way it was meant to be. No extra value is added which makes it much more valuable.

Most of the applications the one expects are there so I won’t jump into them but Google Now is something I can see using pretty often. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my first Jelly Bean device. I have a Nexus 7 which I’ve been very happy with, but the Google Now software on a device that only has wifi access does not do Google Now justice.

The camera seems quite good so far. To be fair I have not used it much yet but here is a test photo I took in moderate to low light in a coffee shop. For a more in-depth look at the camera look at TechRadar’s review.

Medium/Lower to low light indoor photo. No flash.

Some Downsides

Nothing is perfect but wow does the Nexus 4 come close! Two of the three downsides are minor and only are noticeable one time only.

SIM Size

The first thing I did after charging the new device was to pull the SIM card from my old device for use in my new one. I should have noticed when reading about the Nexus 4 that it uses a Micro-SIM. Not a big deal but it did require a run to the closest telco store to get one.

English: GSM Micro SIM card vs. GSM Mini SIM card
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Initial Usage

There was a decent amount of updates ready to be installed upon first usage. An OS update along with many application updates. It would be nice if Google could use the latest ROM when shipping new batches. Again, not a big deal at all but still would be nice.

Storage

This is what kept me from buying it originally. The storage is capped at 8 or 16g which doesn’t sound like a good deal for those of us who keep our music library with us at all times. There are options that limit this as an issue. Using Google Music, Amazon Cloud Player, Subsonic, Pogoplug, etc.. can keep your music collection within reach as long as you have a data connection but each has it’s own downsides as well. My annoyance is generally with the quality of the music player for the services. It’s not that they are bad players but they are feature poor compared to many of the locally players.

tl;dr

Reign Of The Android
(Photo credit: JD Hancock)

If you are in the market for a new Android phone right now then there is no better option than the Nexus 4. While not perfect it’s downsides are few and are heavily overshadowed by how well the device works both in terms of physical feel and software. A real Jelly Bean experience, great build quality, no telco lock in and really fast. Did I mention you don’t have to put up with apps forced on you by telcos? Assuming that the device is currently available in your region there is not a reason to avoid it. Go get it!

AR Gaming: Ingress If Fun If You Don’t Give Up

In 2001 a game was released that I so badly wanted to play. It was called Majestic and was one of the first alternate reality game with a lot of game press and hype. I wanted to play it due to the blur between reality and game as the game takes place in real life — but just with false facts. I remember reading that one could change the level of realism for the game. For instance you could configure it so that any communication that came your way would be prefixed by a notice that it was from the game, with a marker of some kind or simply not differentiate itself at all. Or at least something like that could be done.

In conversations with my friends I found out that I was the only person I knew who thought this could be fun. My friends would state things about how it would be to much of an interruption to life or that people with severe mental problems could be sucked into the game believing it as reality. As it turned out there was not enough love for the game for it to continue and, sadly, I never got to give it a go myself.

Years went by where I figured the genere had been put in to a corner where only AR geeks would dare go. Half baked sub-indie attempts, extreme role playing guilds and stupid marketing tie-ins. None of these seemed that fun to me. I actually thought about trying to write my own (as in the server application for an ARG) as that seemed more fun than joining one of those ARG-but-not-really-ARG games.

Then Google released Ingress and I waited for an invite. I signed up for the closed beta. More waiting. And then a coworker passed me an invite and I was in.

I loaded up the game and went through the tutorial which confused me. See, I thought I was actually playing in the tutorial and not just learning how to play. I looked around and saw no portals (except the tutorial one) and though that maybe my area was not that hot for playing. Then I realized it was not the full AR but just a tutorial and got into the game proper.

Still confused. I saw these large green things on my device. There wasn’t anything explaining to me what these were so I assumed it meant ‘out of bounds’ areas. Of course later I learned what this meant. I actually played the game for a few weeks before realizing that they were Control Fields. If it wasn’t for my coworker essentially being the instructor of the game mechanics I’d probably of grown tired of being confused.

Once I got the hang of the game running to locations with portals became fun. Granted, I couldn’t do much yet a I was a level 1 agent in a level 4 or higher world but I still I knew I was helping. And it got better. Like any good ARG there was a community which was very active. And not just active within faction but outside as well. While playing it is faction versus faction but we all can have fun outside of the ARG together as well. How great is that?

I’m so glad that today there is the Ingress Field Guide which is exactly what I could have used when I joined up. It explains the dynamics of the game much in a way that Google should have done itself. If you get to join the closed beta take the time to read it guide.

Some Issues

I think that Google not providing information is probably the biggest detriment to the game as people can easily get confused, bored or frustrated especially if there is no community already established in an area.

Another issue is in smaller cities in towns where portals are, at best, very sparse. In such areas I think they should start to place some portals based on people who have joined in the area so that there is something for them to target. When I visited the place I lived previously I found there to be 5 or so portals in the entire city even though there was probably enough players to have many more portals. I have a feeling that those players will get frustrated or bored fighting over the same 5 portals. Even as I left I noticed most of the portals were owned by one of the factions and were high enough level that I doubt the other faction could do much back (unless there was an Op coming in from other cities).

The last issue I see is in balance. If either faction becomes too powerful they can dominate and sort of force the other faction from playing any longer. This takes time (and a whole lot of effort from the first faction) but it’s possible. The only fix for this is in rules and game balance as set by Google. We will see how they fix this over time.

But Worth It

Even with it’s faults I’m having a lot of fun and meeting people I normally would have never met. People in different industries. Folks from different backgrounds. People traveling in from different areas. The game is still evolving and the player base continues to grow as well. If all goes well the issues will be addressed by Google over time. The game is still in closed beta so changes and fixes are likely to continue. But even if they don’t fix all the issues the game is still a blast right now!