Byline iPhone App Review

Google Reader has become one of the most popular RSS feed readers available. It’s a clean, easy to use service that funnels content from all of your favorite websites into one convenient location. Unfortunately, finding a comparable iPhone application has not been so easy. Enter Byline ($3.99) by Phantom Fish Software, a Google Reader client for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Google Reader has Never Been Cleaner

What is immediately noticeable when Byline is first launched is the sparseness of the application’s home screen. Rather than clutter the interface with gratuitous buttons and other assorted eye-candy, Phantom Fish created a UI that is both easy on the eyes and easy on the fingers. Each menu option is large enough for even the pudgiest of fingers to accurately touch.

By default, there are folders for “New Items”, “Starred Items” and “Notes” that correspond to their Google Reader counterparts. If the user has created any other folders in the Google Reader web application, those will also be loaded on Byline’s home screen. Folders containing unread items display little blue badges with white unread counts inside, while at the bottom of the screen, a toolbar displays options to refresh the feeds and add new notes.

Syncing Done Right with Byline and Google Reader

Byline definitely delivers on its promise of seamless synchronization with Google Reader. When the app is launched, all unread and starred stories are downloaded and cached locally. Once a story is marked as “read”, that change is sent to Google Reader (as long as an Internet connection is present). In addition, any notes created on the device are automatically synced back up to Google and vice versa.

If the user lacks cell phone reception or a Wi-Fi connection, any changes made on the device will sync up as soon as signal is restored. Automatic data synchronization is the killer feature for Byline, as it would be frustrating to catch up on 200+ articles via the web-based Google Reader, only to have to weed through them again on a third party iPhone application.

Byline Takes Your Feeds Offline

Downloaded feeds, including all images and text, are cached locally on the user’s iPhone. Clicking on a link within a particular news item will open the page using Byline’s built-in web browser. All pages (and their content) accessed via this browser are also cached locally, making Byline the perfect RSS reader for frequent-fliers.

All a user has to do is download the content before a flight, then catch up on unread feeds with the iPhone in airplane mode. When the plane lands, the user can turn off airplane mode and have everything automatically synced back up to Google. Syncing works extremely well and is almost instantaneous, depending on the available connection.

Byline’s Not-So-Minor Problems

Phantom Fish incorporated a useful landscape mode for reading feeds and navigating the app, but didn’t think to include it for note creation. The user must still fumble with the finicky portrait-oriented keyboard to compose new notes.

In addition, when the device is turned on its side, the home screen’s bottom toolbar vanishes, taking with it not only the “New Note” button, but also the “Refresh” button. To restore this toolbar, the user must reorient the device vertically.

Finally, while Google Reader allows feed items to be marked as unread, or send them to services like Instapaper and Twitter, Byline does not offer any of those options. Many people use Instapaper or Read It Later to store long articles for postponed reading. For Byline to be a truly killer RSS app, it has to let users mark items as unread and save them to external web services, just like Google Reader.

Final Thoughts About Phantom Fish’s Byline

Other than the aforementioned flaws, Byline is the RSS app other RSS apps aspire to be. With its ability to mail links to articles, share articles with notes attached and cache all content for offline viewing, Byline will surely replace most users’ iPhone-based RSS readers (including the mobile version of Google Reader).

There’s no reason to exclude landscape mode from new note creation while the rest of the app has it. Perhaps in a future update, that feature will be included, as well as the ability to send articles to Instapaper, Twitter and Delicious. However, what Byline does, it does well and that’s giving readers a clean, slick way of catching up on their RSS feeds.

Hardcore RSS subscribers should feel comfortable spending $3.99 on Byline. Those who only subscribe to a few websites or to websites that don’t post new content too often might want to find a lower-priced/free app, or stick to Google Reader altogether.