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iPhone app showdown: App.net clients

Can you ever have enough microblogging services? Probably. But the newest popular entrant into the field that Twitter made popular, App.net, rose up in large part as a response to the increasingly onerous restrictions Twitter places on its developers--and by extension, its users. I tested a slew of App.net clients for iOS to find the best options available: Netbot, Appeio, Rhino, Adian, and Felix.

I know what I want out of a good Twitter client: I want features like buttery smooth, stutter-free scrolling; easy access to profiles; feature-rich composition screens that make quick work of posting status updates with metadata like photos and videos attached as desired; seamless insights into the conversation surrounding an individual post; with all of that bundled into an attractive design. Are those the same features I'd like to see in my ideal App.net client? I truly didn't know, before I dived into this new world of App.net apps.

Here's what I found.

The global feed

There's a tendency amongst App.net clients to include access to a global timeline--one that shows every App.net post, across all users of the service. It's a feature that will steadily make less sense as the service grows in popularity, and I don't value it much. Rhino, Adian, Appeio, and Felix all make that global feed a top-level option. Netbot tucks it away under search instead of giving it a hallowed spot in its tab bar, which I appreciate; I don't ever want the firehose, so I appreciate it not gobbling up such prime real estate.

The conversation

For me, a highlight of Twitter is the exchange--the asynchronous, semi-public conversations you can have with one or many people. App.net's user community is, of course, an order of magnitude smaller than Twitter's, but my anecdotal experience is that the smaller network is actually even more conducive to conversations than Twitter. That might be because App.net, by default, shows you all @-reply posts from the users you follow; Twitter limits you to seeing only those @-replies that are directed towards people you follow as well.

My ideal App.net client, then, should make it easy to dive into conversation threads--and easy to jump into them for posting, too. I also want easy access to features like reposts (the App.net equivalent of a Twitter retweet) and stars (like Twitter's favorites).

Several of the apps I tested visually distinguish those posts that are part of a larger conversation. Rhino gives a bright yellow flag to messages with replies, which may be too prominent a marker; the posts look as if they've been starred or somehow designated as worthy of extra attention, which isn't entirely accurate. Appeio shows a much smaller, subtler icon to indicate posts with conversation threads--a nice implementation of the feature. In Adian, you must first swipe across a post to expose several options, one of which shows its thread; unfortunately, the thread icon appears even when no thread is available. Felix shows a simple, obvious speech bubble on posts with threads. Netbot doesn't show a visual indicator, but a swipe on the post exposes the full conversation surrounding a post if there is one, and cleverly keeps your place in the thread, showing the conversation both before and following the selected post.

All of the apps make quick work of replying to posts. While most rely on a button tap, Rhino instead has you tap the post itself.

Netbot offers both native and manual reposting options, the latter allowing you to add your own comment to the post, but the former being the official way to share someone else's post. Felix and Appeio offer native reposts, too. Adian offers only manual reposting; Rhino has no reposting option at all.

All of the apps make it possible to navigate to the profile of the person who penned a post, but the process feels slightly clunkier in Adian than in the rest of the apps.

The interface

There's no way to sugarcoat this: Appeio is ugly. It scrolls too slowly, elements get stuck at the top of the screen sometimes, and the app simply lacks the interface refinements you'd expect to see on iOS.

Rhino and Adian are both simple and pleasant enough to look at, with smooth scrolling. Both also use small, unadjustable font sizes. They're legible, but I'm an old man--I'd prefer a font size bump. I did encounter occasional interface glitches in Rhino where my timeline could disappear during pull-to-fresh actions. Appeio also sports a too-small default font that you can't change.

Felix scrolls smoothly, too, but stands out with its sepia tones. Its default font is larger than the other three, so you get fewer posts per screen, but they're more legible because of it.

Netbot looks just like Tweetbot, a nearly identical client for use with Twitter instead of App.net. It's far and away the most visually polished of all the App.net apps I tried, and--unsurprisingly, given its predecessor Tweetbot's head start--it's the furthest along in terms of options, too. You can tweak the font size to your liking. And the interface head start means that Netbot's interactions are the best of the bunch, too: Tap and hold on a link to save it to a deferred reading service like Instapaper or Pocket; tap and hold on hashtags to search for them or make new posts with them; tap and hold on user avatars to follow/unfollow users, mute them, or get more information about them; tap and hold on posts to save or share them; and so on.

Adian, Rhino, and Appeio lack optimization for the iPhone 5's taller screen. Felix and Netbot fill the whole screen. Netbot is the only one of these apps to offer an iPad native version, too.

Only Adian and Netbot support multiple App.net accounts.

Push notifications

Adian and Felix offer native, built-in push notifications for new posts mentioning you on App.net. Rhino, Appeio, and Netbot don't. (The free third-party service Notifo offers push notifications for App.net alerts as well.)

Composing and posting

Rhino offers no extras when you compose a post. Adian, Appeio, and Netbot all allow you to attach photos to posts. Adian, Netbot, and Felix also add the ability to save unfinished posts as drafts to revisit later.

Conclusions

It's almost not even a fair fight. While many App.net clients are still struggling to perfect core functionality, Netbot is well beyond that phase of development; instead, the app offers a slew of advanced, clever, and helpful options for reading and enjoying App.net.

Felix is probably the best of the rest, thanks to its understated elegance. But none of the other apps I tried can compare favorably to Netbot. Its lead isn't necessarily insurmountable, but there's an awful lot of work ahead for the upstarts looking to unseat it.


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