A Review of Fever

For the past several months, I’ve been searching for alternative RSS syncing solutions that didn’t rely on the Google Reader API. For a brief period of time, I grew weary of searching and went back to using my faithful companion — NetNewsWire, eschewing the  syncing aspect  in favour of simplicity. Of course, I still wanted a better solution so I didn’t have to reside in front of my Mac, just to catch up on feed reading. This is where Fever app comes in.

Fever has been long recommended by many people that I trust. In actuality, I’ve been aware of its presence for quite some time, however previously I never had the inclination to use it. Admittedly the barrier to entry for me was three fold: its relatively high cost, the cost of running my own web server to host the app, and the time involved with setting it up.

To put it simply, I’ll cite the developer — in this case Shaun Inman — on what Fever is:

Fever reads your feeds and picks out the most frequently talked about links from a customizable time period. Unlike traditional aggregators, Fever works better the more feeds you follow.

If that doesn’t get you excited, this part will:

By default Fever hides unread counts to spare you unsavoury unread item guilt but sometimes you want to keep an eye on those climbing numbers. Control unread counts on a global, group or feed level.

The single largest complaint that I’ve ever had with nearly ever RSS reader is that they treat feeds like email. If you’re a news junkie and follow a lot of different websites, it’s nearly impossible to keep up on a day-to-day basis (especially with high volume feeds) when you have unread guilt. In the past, there have been times where I walked away from my Google Reader account for a couple of days, only to come back to a thousand or more unread items — all longing for my attention. Now that I have completely given up on Google Reader, Fever aims to solve many long standing issues I’ve had with traditional RSS feed consumption, and it actually does so with aplomb. As the aforementioned comment about treating RSS like email, I’m happy to report that Fever does not do this. By default, Fever hides unread counts so you don’t feel guilty. Essentially, you have a river of news (as Dave Winer so aptly calls it) flowing by you. Where things get interesting is with Hot Links, Kindling, and Sparks. Jargon aside, any feeds you add to Sparks are typically considered high volume (this is good for link blogs) and repost a lot of content. Feeds added to Sparks increase the ‘temperature’ of your ‘Hot Links’ view — meaning this helps surface frequently talked about content by various aggregated sources. Anything that is unread from Sparks doesn’t appear in the ‘Kindling’ group — which are your lower volume must read feeds. Once you manage to add your favourite RSS feeds, or import from an existing OPML file, you definitely will want to spend some time assigning certain feeds to Sparks Vs Kindling.

Fever is not a hosted service, but an app that needs to be installed and configured on your own web server. There are certain requirements your server has to meet (none entirely vexing), such as having PHP and MySQL support. I did some considerable research myself on finding an inexpensive and reputable web hosting company. I wasn’t interested in being locked into a contract, so that alone eliminated a lot of options. I ended up choosing the good folks at NearlyFreeSpeech. What attracted me to them was that they offered an extremely cheap hosting service, with zero contracts. You actually can sign up for free and start using the service without entering a credit card. The reason they do this is so that you can really get a feel for what they offer. Once you start using it, you have to top up your balance in your account by adding a credit card (that means you only pay for what you use, which is brilliant). Speaking of only paying for what you use, check out the screenshot below of what my estimated recurring server costs are — you can see that it’s incredibly inexpensive.

The Installation And Setup

I’m no novice when it comes to working with web apps and web servers, however, I’ll concede I’ve been putting off getting Fever going for quite a while — no doubt in part to my laziness. If you consider yourself a nerd, you’re probably qualified to get Fever running. In actuality, even with little technical skills, you can probably do it as long as you can use an SFTP client and can follow steps.

The first thing I did was create an account on NearlyFreeSpeech, create a MySQL database, and then prep my favourite file transfer app — Panic’s Transmit — with the login credentials for my server (I only use SFTP for security reasons). The next step was to download a Zip file from Fever’s website, which contains a few PHP files that you need to upload to your server. This is a mandatory step in order to run the Fever compatibility suite. Once you have uploaded the files and set the appropriate permissions (755 or 777 depending on the server), you simply run the compatibility suite by going to: http://yourdomain.com/fever/boot.php (where your domain.com is your actual domain). The compatibility suite verifies that your server meets the minimum requirements, and only if it passes can you purchase a licence. Forcing the prospective buyer to run their server through a requirements checklist is incredibly clever on Shaun Inman’s part — after all, you wouldn’t want to regret plunking down $30, only to find out that you can’t run the app. One thing of note: on NearlyFreeSpeech, I had to switch my account to use PHP Flex in order to get the Fever compatibility check to work. I was not entirely sure why I had to do this at first, and all that’s mentioned on their wiki page is that PHP 5 Flex “allows operation with Safe Mode disabled.” I ended up reaching out to the developer, Shaun Inman, and he was nice enough to explain the situation.

I’m assuming you’re referring to the ‘Unable to copy the necessary files from a remote server. Your host may block outgoing connections.’ Safe mode appears to prevent copying files from a remote server, which Fever needs to do to install and update itself.

Well there you have it!

Once you get the app running, you’ll probably want to use Fever’s OPML import option. Since I had exported my Google Reader feeds via OPML, this was quick and painless to do via the Fever web UI.

The Web Interface

Fever provides quite a nice web interface, both on the desktop and mobile end of things.

You are provided with a very handy set of Gmail inspired keyboard shortcuts (J to scroll down the list of items, and K to scroll back up to name just one). Speaking of shortcuts, when reading an article, you can also use keyboard shortcuts like ‘I’ to send it to Instapaper, or ’T’ to send a Tweet.

A Native App to Read Fever with

Up until only very recently, the only way to read what’s in Fever is through the web interface, or via a third party app called Fluid, which attempts to turn web apps into native Mac apps via a handy menu bar item. With the introduction of Silvio Rizzi’s Reeder 3.0 for iPhone, Fever sync support was added via the very simple API, finally giving users a viable alternative to Google Reader syncing. Fever integration in Reeder is not complete at the time of this article’s publication. Currently, the only thing it seems to sync is Hot Links, and then just lumps all of your unread feeds in an “Unread” section. Lastly, syncing Fever via Reeder takes an unusually long time to complete. Even whilst on Wi-Fi, I find myself waiting minutes for the entire sync to finish, not to mention waiting for Reeder to cache all images. At first I thought this was purely a Reeder issue, but after using the web interface, I noticed that refreshing over 100 feeds does take a bit of time as well (though not as long as it does with Reeder, so I consider this a minor quibble).

It also turns out that there is another native iOS app that supports Fever. The app is called Sunstroke (hat tip to Thomas Brand for recommending it), and it provides access to all of the features I came to expect, such as: Hot Links, Kindling, and Sparks. This is important to me, and a huge bonus is that Sunstroke is quite the pretty app. In terms of user experience, you can do the same things you could with reader, like swipe right to mark items as read, or swipe left to star an article or send it to Instapaper. If you’re looking for full Fever functionality, I’d recommend first looking into Sunstroke on the App Store.

Final Thoughts

For those that feel locked into Google Reader, Fever is an excellent alternative. Sure, it’s not a free service, but you get what you pay for. In addition to supporting an independent developer, you also get free support and the comfort in knowing your data is not being collected for the sole purpose of displaying advertisements. Personally, I feel better about being in control of my own server, and since I own the application, I know it will continue to work until my server stops working. Whilst Google Reader is and continues to be a reliable service for many, the future of the API remains uncertain. As Google continues to sunset services that they feel don’t have a monetization strategy, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of that stick.