Review: Unread: An RSS Reader for iPhone

Since iOS 7 landed last year, several venerable iOS apps have seen their place eroded by newcomers. The new UI and APIs have given countless developers new ways to tackle old ideas.

When I find an app I like, I stick with it. Heck, I rarely change where apps sit on my homescreen. I’ve used the same RSS client on my iPhone for years — Reeder. Reeder is great. In the wake of Google Reader, the developer has supports a ton of account types, and the UI overhaul for iOS 7 is pretty good.

I figured it’d be on my homescreen for years to come, but then Jared Sinclair sent me a copy of his new RSS client, Unread. It’s been on my home screen since the day I downloaded the beta.

Unread supports David Smith’s Feed Wrangler, the enormous Feedly and my RSS backbone of choice, Feedbin.

For users of the second two services, Unread allows the unread count to act as a button to jump straight to the list of items, skipping the view of feeds. I have Reeder setup this way, and am glad to see this option in Unread.

Sadly, Feed Wrangler’s Smart Streams aren’t handled this way. As Streams aren’t really folders, Feed Wrangler users have to tap through the list of feeds they are subscribed to to see their unread items. It’s a subtle difference, but one that does slightly slow down the reading experience. Furthermore, adding, editing and removing feeds isn’t currently supported.

On the sharing side of things, all the usual suspects are here:

  • 1Password
  • Facebook
  • Instapaper
  • Pinboard
  • Pocket
  • Readability
  • Twitter

Unread ships with OvershareKit, a sharing system based on iOS 7’s share sheets, but on drugs. It includes a lovely UI, and lets users tweet (or email, copy, send to, etc…) a headline, link and photo from a story with just a few taps.

But the real magic of Unread isn’t the service support or the sharing of stories and links — it’s what is in between.

Unread is almost completely gesture-based. In fact, the only taps required to use the app are for drilling into folders of items. Swiping from the left goes back to the previous screen, while swiping to right brings up content-aware controls, including account settings, “Mark All As Read” when in a list view, or “View on Web” and “Share” when viewing an individual article:

In all three cases, the menus are easy to read, with great icons and the slightest hint of transparency.

In addition to content-aware controls, the menu holds the in-app browser, making it easy to jump back to it from anywhere in the app. The browser packs a Readability-powered reading mode, its own share sheet and even has a few tricks up its sleeve. Federico explains:

One of Unread’s peculiarities is the browser view, which acts separately from the feed view and that is restored every time the app is launched. Articles can be opened in the browser by tapping on their title, but a “View on Web” option is also available in the action menu; you can go back to the browser at any time by tapping “Back to Browser” in the same menu. The browser retains history navigation (so you can navigate back and forth between articles you’ve decided to view on the web), and it comes with its own sharing menu and optimized reading view.

Sadly, as Shawn Blanc points out, the in-app browser can feel slow, as its behavior is unexpected in a world where most apps throw away loaded pages in their in-app browsers without much thought.

While I find swiping-based UIs tiring in some apps, Unread is tuned in such a way that using gestures never feels like its slowing me down while navigating through items or folders. In fact, the gestures give Unread a playfulness about it I think embodies much of what Apple wants to see in iOS 7-era apps.

Unread comes with several themes. I much prefer the “Day” option, but the other built-in themes are nice, too, and I’ve been told by Jared that there are several additional themes waiting to be unlocked as Easter eggs.

Themes change the overall color scheme of the app, including the top and bottom bars. The latter changes to show where in the hierarchy of lists and items you are. It’s quite helpful.

It’s no secret Jared’s been vocal in his criticism of iOS 7, and I worried initially that Unread wouldn’t look at home on the new OS. While there are UI elements here that don’t fall in line with what Cupertino is doing, I don’t think the app suffers from it. I don’t agree with some of Jared’s comments on these subjects, but that’s what makes the Internet great.

The themes do, however, show one area in which Jared’s apps — including the well-loved ADN client Riposte — break from iOS 7’s conventions. None of the themes use the unified title bar that Apple shows in its first-party apps. As a result, Unread feels a little more boxed in than many other iOS 7 apps. I prefer the look Apple leverages in its apps, but it’s not a deal-breaker for Unread — or Riposte, for that matter.

Unread leverages iOS 7’s background fetching to help keep content up to date. Very rarely do I open the app and have to wait for it to sync with the web. While many apps offer this these days, I have come to really enjoy it in my RSS apps.

All in all, Unread is what an iOS 7 app should be — modern, fast and well-designed. It’s fun to use, and had helped me read more from the feeds I subscribe to than I ever was before while using my iPhone. It’s a winner in my book, and looks great on my homescreen.

Unread is on sale now at an introductory price of $2.99 on the iOS App Store.