Review: Ashes for iOS

Several weeks ago I wrote about Fever, a self-hosted RSS reader, as an alternative to Google Reader. One of my biggest complaints about Fever was that it lacked strong third-party app support. For a lot of developers, there just weren’t enough people using Fever to make it worth their time to build apps for it.

That is beginning to change. After Google decided to shut Reader down, many people switched to Fever. As a result, many developers began working on apps for it. One of those apps, Ashes, launches today.

Ashes is the work of James Finley, and it is not a new idea. Ashes existed as an iPad app a couple of years ago, but was discontinued. Today the app is returning in a much better form.

Ashes works with Fever, so you will need to have a server running Fever in order to use this app. When you launch the app, you are asked for the URL of your Fever installation, your email address, and your password. When you log in the app begins its initial sync, pulling down all of your feeds.

Syncing Ashes with Fever does not perform as well as Sunstroke. Ashes takes some time to sync if you have not refreshed it in a while. The app seems to take longer syncing because it downloads Sparks as well. For instance, when the app syncs it sometimes tells me that it is downloading over 1,000 items. I know that almost all of these must be Sparks, but the app seems to treat them like any other item. Sunstroke doesn’t seem to do this when syncing.

It should be noted that Ashes doesn’t have the option to refresh your server upon sync, so you will want to set up a cron job to refresh Fever. However, the option to refresh your server has bee teased by the developer as a feature in version 1.1 of Ashes.

The app has a manual refresh button in the menu, but if you come back to Ashes at least five minutes after the last sync, it will automatically start synchronizing. This is a handy feature, but I wish it could be toggled off.

Hot Pixels

The first thing you notice about Ashes is that it was designed to impress. The app’s icon is a stunning combination of orange, blue, and black1. The icon stands out amongst others, which is rare in iOS apps today.

Once you open Ashes, you are once again greeted by that familiar orange color. The title bar of the app is bright red-orange, but it is not ugly like a traffic cone. The use of dark grays and off-white for the content of the app is accented nicely by the orange.

Ashes uses a navigation system that is being heavily adopted by many different iOS apps. The content you are viewing occupies the screen, and you can then swipe that screen to the right in order to access the menu. As more and more apps begin to use this method of navigation, I find myself beginning to dislike it. It has begun to feel stale to me in most apps. However, I don’t mind it as much in Ashes. The app makes good use of the gesture to access the menu, and also uses it to go back to a list view from an article. I think the idea just makes more sense in an RSS reader than it does in something like Foursquare.

Ashes Menu

The one gripe I have with Ashes about its navigation is that once the menu is opened, you cannot slide the content panel back over to the left to close it. You either have to choose a menu item or click on the panel. This just seems unintuitive to me.

The design of the app is as nice as the icon. Once you have swiped to access the menu, it features everything you could expect in a Fever app (Hot, Kindling, Sparks, etc.). Clean typography and bright icons make it very easy to navigate.

Reading and Sharing

Ashes opens to your Hot list, where you can see the temperature of every item and all of the sources for that item. I like how Ashes makes good use of site favicons. It makes recognizing sources quick and easy.

One of the most frustrating things about Reeder is that it does not allow you to set the offset and range of your Hot list. Ashes allows you to do this in the settings.

The most important part of a Fever app is viewing your Kindling. Ashes lists your Kindling groups in the menu. Clicking on a group will take you to the list of unread items for that group. You can also click the arrow to the right to see a list of feeds inside that group.

Getting around in Ashes works exactly like you would expect. The app makes it very easy to quickly access your unread items. There is a setting to show read items within the settings menu of the app. I know some people would prefer having quicker access to that, but for me it is fine where it’s at.

The app has the option to sort your unread items by newest or oldest. I would appreciate the option to sort by feed as well, but for now chronologically is your only choice.

In the list of articles, you can swipe left to mark an item as read or unread. I would love the ability to swipe right to send the item to Instapaper, but Ashes cannot support that gesture because swiping right opens the menu panel.

For me, the most important part of an RSS app is the reading experience. The interface of the app doesn’t matter when I am in the app doing what I’m there to do: read. Fortunately, Ashes’ article view looks great. The colors are subtle and it is very easy to read.

The article view features a toolbar that allows you to mark as read/unread, save, go to previous and next article, read later, and share.

Ashes Nav Bar

One quibble I have with this toolbar is that the “read later” and “share” buttons are separate. It makes sense for the “Send to Instapaper”2 option to be in the share menu, but it is not. I feel that if they were combined it would save valuable screen real estate.

The share menu plays host to a variety of services and apps. The one service it does not support is Pinboard, which disappoints me. Hopefully the developer will add this in the future.

Ashes does not use iOS 6’s share sheets. I have grown quite accustomed to seeing them in most apps. I wish Ashes would support the new share sheets because they look much better than the old, standard list of grey buttons.

+ + +

Ashes is a nice app that exists in a sorely undersaturated market. The app looks great and gets the job done with style and grace. However, I did encounter some performance issues.

The app does not feel as buttery smooth as some other apps. Swiping the panels and opening articles weren’t necessarily laggy, but they did feel rusty. Scrolling can also have a slight lag, especially when the app is syncing. This is definitely not a deal breaker, and I can’t speak for the performance of the app on a newer device like the iPhone 5. However, I know that performance enhancements are coming in the next update that will release soon after the initial launch.

If you use Fever, you absolutely should download Ashes. I am still going to use Sunstroke as my primary RSS app because of its superb performance, but Ashes wins hands-down when it comes to good looks.

Ashes is a universal app, and is available in the App Store today.

  1. Bird themed icons FTW!  ↩

  2. Ashes supports Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket. ↩

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