If you're a fan of AOL's Alto email client, you'll be pleased to know that AOL Reader shares the same basic design language. That may seem minor, but UI consistency between services is a major plus, especially since many of the newcomers don't have a core branding to hang their RSS hats on. The web app's layout is pretty simple, with categories, tags and sources on the left, and headlines on the right. When you first fire up AOL Reader on the desktop, that right-most pane is populated with the 10 most active feeds in your collection. Of course, you can always switch from the standard list view to a more Now-like card view or a three-panel display that puts actual article text in a right-hand pane and displays headlines in the middle. Unfortunately, even in three-panel mode, AOL's reader makes pretty poor use of your screen real estate. There are loads of unnecessary padding all over the place and there's no getting rid of the giant, empty gray column on the right. To make matters worse, UI elements shift around as you change layouts, which leaves you hunting for the view button after you've decided the three-panel layout is too cramped.
Sitting atop all this is a straightforward navigation bar, packed with a web search widget and links to AOL Mail, On and Homepage. The most important feature, however, is the ability to quickly import your Google Reader subscriptions with just two clicks... provided you've already exported you data from Reader, unzipped the archive and located your subscriptions.xml file. Even then, you'll have to hope that AOL Reader is actually willing to import your feeds. A number of people on the Engadget staff have yet to successfully get the fledgling service to recognize their XML files. At the moment, even adding individual feeds manually occasionally caused the web app to hang. We'll cut it some slack since we're still looking at a beta release, and chalk up some of the issues up to being overwhelmed with traffic, but the inability to actually subscribe to anything might permanently turn off some visitors, even if the problems are only temporary.
While dedicated apps aren't available yet, the AOL Reader site does come in a mobile-friendly flavor. (AOL tells us that dedicated apps are coming soon, likewise with further integration of third-party services.) The web app works fairly well, propagating across the Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices with nary a rendering glitch in sight. It doesn't hurt that the phone interface borrows heavily from the current crop of native apps out there, with a menu that pops out of the left side and a minimal header populated with only the most basic controls. There's even a fancy floating tool bar in the article view that lets you quickly jump one post back or ahead, and star something for later.
While the interface might seem barren at times, all the most essential features are present. There's a pretty basic feed discovery tool that lets you browse topics or search by keyword and a host of Google Reader-esque keyboard shortcuts, which should have most of you RSS addicts dancing for joy. You can also make your own basic tweaks, like displaying an unread count next to a source, hiding empty feeds and changing the font size. If you're not a fan of the blocky blue and gray default theme, you can change it under settings to a lighter, still-blocky white and gray option. You can also star articles in case you want to read them later.
While we appreciate its clean and simple design, we did encounter some performance issues. More often than not navigating the interface was swift, but it did hang up occasionally, especially when trying to load heavily populated feeds (say, 100 stories or more). Honestly, we think that Feedly has a slight advantage in the speed department, which is somewhat troublesome considering it has loads of features missing from Reader and a much more robust UI.
AOL's (seemingly opportunistic) RSS reader clearly isn't quite ready for prime time and, as it stands, doesn't bring much to the table in the way of unique features. Though, the development team notes that having resources from content creators is something that they're confident will set it apart from the pack. After a few hours of getting familiar with AOL reader, we're not quite enthused enough to switch over from Feedly (and, honestly, we'd much rather Google Reader be granted a stay of execution), but AOL Reader shows some promise. Of all the services vying for title of king of the RSS hill, AOL's is one of the most unabashed in its aping of Google's soon-to-be shuttered platform -- and that's not a bad thing. The folks at Mountain View struck pretty much all the right notes when creating Reader, now AOL is simply trying picking up the pieces. That is, if its servers can handle the load.
Sean Buckley, Mat Smith and Terrence O'Brien contributed to this report.