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Late to the Party

or, what’s the use of an RSS reader?

On the face of it, it seems freakish that as recently as September 2005 NetNewsWire was “the most popular desktop newsreader on any platform” considering that it was (and still is) Mac-only software.1 It also costs 30 bucks which is a significant chunk of the operating system slice-of-pie.

So, I did some research and came across two reviews. The first is actually a site dedicated to reviewing RSS readers. While the Mac OS X section is undercommented (i.e. none) it provides a nice set of summary reviews.

The second useful review I found is on the beloved-by-geeks Ars Technica. There, Brian Warren reviews eight OS X RSS readers, giving the highest marks to Newsgator’s NetNewsWire and Freshly Squeezed Software’s PulpFiction. Check out Warren’s conclusion for the pros and cons of those two pieces of software.2

Some of you, as I did up until today, may be scratching your heads about RSS readers. Always late to the technology party, I couldn’t wrap my head around the why-would-I-want-to-do-that of RSS, despite that this very site publishes several types of RSS feed. But now I’m starting to grok. If you are frustated by a website that has not updated since your last visit, or if you are overwhelmed by the amount of new material because you hadn’t visited recently enough, you might benefit by subscribing to that web site’s RSS feed. A feed reader automatically checks websites for updates. You control which sites should be automatically checked by subscribing to RSS feeds.

A few more words of prelude before I give my own RSS feed reader recommendation.

There is a second kind of software I had to run back to the house for.3 In my defense, even my department’s super-knowledgeable tech guy wasn’t clued in either. When I showed it to him, he started making I’m-being-blown-away noises, remarking he had tried Growl when it first came out but that he had not been impressed because it wasn’t very polished. I also think that back in the day Growl had not yet gotten the support from third-party developers it has since.

If you’re wondering what Growl is, it’s like IM for your computer. With Growl, your computer has a private channel to tell you things like you’ve received new email, your music has changed, the server’s gone down, etc. in summary form. (Hrm, maybe Growl is more like RSS for your computer.)

There is a even a THIRD piece of software that I had tried years ago but which lacked the polish of software I adopt. It has since cleaned up nicely, but still suffers from what I call “preference complexity,” a problem to which Open Source Software seems particularly susceptible. Still, AdiumX is a wonderful heap of compilable-code that produces a shiny binary with features and capabilities so sophisticated that IM starts to seem like something hackers do to train for writing assembly.4 AdiumX is Growl-aware, which I know means nothing to anyone who doesn’t already know this. Still.

With the above plugs for Growl and AdiumX in place, I am brought to an important selling point for Shrook as an RSS reader: Shrook is free as in beer. While the zero capital outlay for Shrook tipped the balance between it and NetNewsWire, what weighed the scale down is that Shrook is Growl-aware,5 which again means nothing to anyone who doesn’t already know.

UPDATE: Growl-support is in my opinion the killer feature of an RSS reader, allowing the reader to behave as a single-announcement ticker. The way NewsFire and Shrook support Growl is different enough that some explanation of their differences is in order.

Shrook allows one to specify which feeds will notify Growl, a first-rate design decision. However, Shrook’s implementation is not as useful as it should be. Here is a Growl notification delivered by Shrook

Shrook Growl notice

which as you can see is not very informative.

NewsFire, on the other hand provides a brief summary of the updated feeds and the titles of the articles, as shown below

Shrook Growl notice

However, NewsFire does not allow a user to specify which updated feeds will post a Growl notification.

There are also a number of differences between the user interfaces of the two programs. NewsFire does not allow for more than a sidebar and a main window to be displayed at any one time. When NewsFire first starts, the sidebar shows the names of feeds and the main window shows the titles and summaries of the selected feed’s articles. Selecting an item in the main window causes NewsFire to redraw that main window and fill it with a detailed article summary (depending on the feed). This is bad design because it makes NewFire aggravating to use for any length of time.

In particular, the mouse must be used to select a single article directly. After selecting an article, the keyboard (CTRL-left arrow) can be used to again reveal the list of items, but selecting a different (or the same) item directly requires a return to the mouse. The alternatives are either to use the arrow keys and blindly scroll through the list of items or to never let go of the mouse. In fact, using the mouse only provides the most consistent experience, but moving back and forth with a pointing device is inefficient and frustrating. What is touted as NewsFire’s simplicity ends up being an interface design fault.

Another weakness masquerading as a feature is that NewsFire does not fully render HTML. Clicking on an article title causes the article to load in Safari. While this behavior is hard to discern in the video below (you can see an article load in the edges of the movie about halfway through), the summary/article toggling is clearly demonstrated.

NewsFire Demo

Clicking downloads a 1.3 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”

In this regard Shrook has much more desirable behavior, maintaining in its window groups, feeds, and summaries as one navigates deeper into the hierarchy. Only the user can initiate a window redraw that removes the top part of the feed hierarchy. Shrook also uses WebKit to advantage providing a browser-quality view of the article within the program.

Shrook Demo

Clicking downloads a 13.9 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”

It works out well for me that Shrook can be used with all its features less one (Web browser-accessible RSS feed subscriptions) for no cost.6 That way, I can take advantage of NewsFire’s informative Growl notices while using Shrook in its capacity to single out specific feeds for special notifications (e.g. persistent notices for the blogs of close friends).

In the end, I paid for a NewsFire license and emailed the developers of Shrook that the lack of a more informative Growl notice was my primary reason for splitting my attentions between Shrook and NewsFire. I also told the developers of NewsFire that the ability to select Growl notifcation on a per-feed basis would be kickin’.

However both Shrook and NewsFire could benefit from a feature I have not seen in any RSS reader I have tested. It would be great if a user could select a non-continguous set of articles and open them up in a single tabbed web browser window. Shrook feasibly could provide this capability, but it is difficult to imagine Newsfire adding such a useful feature given its bizzare and frustrating toggling between headline/summary and article. end of article


1 The quote is from Warren’s review and can be found on the fourth page. Regarding RSS readers for Windows, Waldo Landers provides some pointers in his article “RSS for total newbies,” though he does not mention what seems to be a fairly well-regarded Windows RSS reader, BottomFeeder.

2 I’m confused by Warren’s conclusion where he gives 7s to Shrook and NewsFire (which I evaluate later in this entry) and awards an 8 to PulpFiction which sucks like a cheap hooker.

3 This is actually a slight bit of distortion as this “kind of software” is actually a single piece of software, unique among all others for the time being.

4 Kudos to Mandy O. for reintroducing me to AdiumX.

5 In case you didn’t catch it, Shrook is my recommendation. Given the balance between Growl-support and interface polish, I might say NewsFire edges out Shrook but as I explain, above, I really don’t have to.

6 For Warren, this is Shrook’s killer feature. I haven’t tried it (because it costs money for upkeep), but I can see how synchronization across several computers RSS subscription sets would be extremely useful if they could be accessed anywhere one can access a web browser.



I'm surprised you went ahead with the demos -- nice work! I have had time to get to know Shrook a bit and your demo gives a correct overview of its Safari-Bookmarks-Menu-like simplicity/conciseness. Though I haven't used NewsFire personally, your demo confirms what I suspect: Shrook wins. Newsfire might have a prettier, ::ahem:: "candybar" polish, but it is confusing in that the menu displays the most recent headline, not making it obvious that you will actually gain access to all of that pages' headlines if you click it. I don't really mind the webpages opening in Safari in the background, but Shrook does such a good job rendering pages that I may never use a browser again! Kidding.

The kicker, though, is this point:

It would be great if a user could select a non-continguous set of articles and open them up in a single tabbed web browser window.

That's the sort of thing that makes me want to write progams. Being able to select a slew of unrelated, freshly-updated links and open them in a single tabbed web browser window?!? That would be killer!!! If an RSS reader had that kind of functionality, it might win me over no questions asked. That, or if the Windows folks could provide me with a great Shrook-Growl experience for the PC where I (unfortunately) spend most of my computing time. For now, the closest thing is Google Desktop's pop-up notifications indicating new email or calendar reminders. : / At any rate, thanks for the observations!