I’ve started a series about “lifestyle data management”, which loosely translated means how can I keep dibs on all my e-mail, tweets, facebook updates, friend’s blogs, and news/tech/coding blogs without going insane. You can read the introduction here.
The first peek in our toolbox is Netvibes, or a little more specifically, the Wasabi version of Netvibes, which hopefully will go out of beta soon. Netvibes lists itself on its welcome screen as “a free web service that brings together your favorite media sources and online services.” It can also be thought of as an enhanced start page when you start up your browser, because it can immediately go out on the net and get your news/updates for you. There is a huge collection of widgets that really do some slick things on your home page, such as grab your e-mail, or see some stock quotes, or even stream internet radio down to you. Equally impressive is the fan/developer base that is coming out with new widgets all the time. You can also create tabs on your home page to break up the number of widgets or feeds. Here’s how I have my current page setup:
You’ll notice that I have a “home” page, where I keep my mail, Facebook, Twitter, and a few other random items. Then each tab is categorized based on my feed group (Coding, Theology, Blogs, etc.) and all the appropriate blogs are listed within. What is REALLY nice is that if you have an OPML file with all of your feeds and groups (most readers provide this now and you can easily get an OPML file from Google Reader of your subscriptions) you can easily import this into Netvibes and have it create the tabs for you.
Once your tabs are setup, your feeds are organized into a general layout, where you can see the title of the post, how long ago it was posted. There are nice boxes around each feed which provide quick access to changing the layout or refreshing the feed.
What is really nice is that Netvibes allows you to customize the layout of a tab in a variety of fashions. I’ve used Netvibes off and on for at least a month, but I didn’t have time to really fancy up a layout. But here’s an example of how you can modify the layout:
The problem I ran into with Netvibes is that I had a huge amount of feeds (85) that I am following. While the periodic peek of the feeds isn’t too difficult, since each tab shows you the number of new items in it, taking the time to dig down into each tab and wait for the screen refresh started to take a toll. In addition, it was sometimes hard to just stare at that many titles at once, even on a single tag. It could be due to the spacing issues when dislaying a feed in the design, but I have no problems chalking some of my disenchantment with the number of feeds I have.
When I saw the announcement about the Wasabi edition, and their “Smart Reader”, I was excited to see what it held. Once I got my beta testing code and upgraded my account, I simply clicked the icon that read “Smart Reader” and took a peek at what was presented:
I was immediately impressed with the layout. The default view provides a master list of all my feeds at once, with the option to drill down to a specific group or feed. When possible, the title of the feed was followed by a bit of the text, which is nice since sometimes the extended view displays the entire post. Mousing over the title of a given post also revealed a few icons for sharing the item or going directly to its website. There is also a “read later” option that I haven’t tried out, but seems intriguing.
As I was taking in the layout, the page refreshed itself with a new feed and labeled it as “Just received”, which I found very nice. I also laughed to myself when I saw one feed labeled “Doc are you telling me you built a time machine?” I think this is a very clever approach to take with those random feeds or posts that seem to muck up the date/time of the posting on occasion. If this was a new post, but simply grouped with its feed, I may not see it since the bad timestamp would force it to the bottom of the list, or maybe not even display it.
Navigating into an individual feed gave me a couple of options for the presentation of the posts. While the “classic” Netvibes has about 5 or 6 different presentation models, Wasabi picked the two best outside of the standard list view. There is extended view:
As well as the mosaic view, which works perfect for my LOLCats:
At this point, if you’re a veteran RSS reader, you may be thinking that there is nothing profound to this layout.There are many other readers out there that do a similar thing, and Google Reader in a lot of regards is a standard layout that works quick. While I agree to that, I will point out a few things I see here. The first is that the performance in the Smart Reader is a lot better than in the “classic” mode. Secondly, there is a little more “bling” on the page and in the layout than the standard Google Reader format. I’m not a proponent of form over function, but Wasabi functions quite well and having a layout that is a bit easier on the eyes with a large amount of feeds is very helpful. Finally, my home page widgets (E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter) actually register in the sidebar list for me to access. This is handy so that I don’t have to keep going back between the classic and smart reader modes when I want to check my e-mail.
There are a few items of concern that I want to point out at this point. The first is that the widgets are not auto-refreshing for me like rest of the news feeds. I have to select my mail widget and then refresh it if I want to check things out. If I was in the classic mode, this would refresh automatically for me. I’m unsure at this point if this is by design or if it is a bug to be worked out (remember Wasabi is still in beta). I also find that the classic (I believe they call it the widget view) can easily get cluttered too fast with too many widgets or feeds, regardless of what format you layout a tab in. This could be seen as a petty concern, but it was a motivating factor for me to put Netvibes off to the side initially. If I couldn’t get a good layout established for viewing all of my feeds, I don’t really care how many cool widgets I have to tweak around with. The classic view also doesn’t provide a “master feed” of everything that is new, but that’s also what Wasabi helps solve.
So that’s Netvibes in a nutshell, or at least my best take on it. All in all it is a very serious contender and you should check it out for yourself. If you’ve used Netvibes, or are checking it out after reading this, add a comment and let me know your thoughts!