A short review of Times for Mac

If you take a close look at my current Dock, you may notice something rather ridiculous:

Times and NetNewsWire, side by side

For those who didn’t get past the funky CandyBar-ed Finder and Trash icons (courtesy of Icontraband), icons number four and five are both RSS readers: NetNewsWire and Times, respectively. NetNewsWire, of course, has been the de facto standard of Mac RSS readers for years, but Times is a newcomer to the scene (released only last week). I discovered Times via Daring Fireball and on first glance agreed with John Gruber’s analysis; it was an appealing looking interface, but probably not for me. With the various software blogs and so forth that I follow for Tagamac, NetNewsWire handles about 140 different feeds, and Times’ newspaper-style interface didn’t look nearly robust enough to handle them.

It isn’t. In fact, along with that discovery a quick review of my first Times impressions is none too pleasant:

  • Times is incessant nagware. I don’t mind if a program reminds me there’s a demo period when I launch it, but when it does it periodically throughout the time while it’s running, I start wishing that I could somehow transmit electric shocks through the internet to the developer.
  • Times can’t keep track of unread feeds to save its life. When you have a lot of feeds to read, you need to know which articles deserve attention and which don’t. Times is extremely buggy in this regard. If I’m lucky, it will mark unread articles with little blue bullets for a single feed on a single page. If I’m unlucky, it won’t mark anything unread at all.
  • Times is slow. Aside from the slowdowns that you occasionally get from all the Core Animation shenanigans, Times by design moves at a casual pace.
  • Times has a criminal lack of keyboard support. By default the program doesn’t even have shortcuts for commonly-used menu items like “Mark all articles as read”, never mind any semblance of keyboard navigation.
  • Times feels buggy. Overall, Times works well, but it didn’t take me long to start running across small, frustrating bugs (like Times loading external article text for Daring Fireball’s linked list, despite my checking the “disable full article downloading” checkbox).
  • When something fails, the user gets no explanation and often no feedback. Multiple feeds that I’ve added have simply failed to work (despite validating in Times, and working perfectly in NetNewsWire); no explanation by the program of why. Given the number of small bugs that I’ve come across in just five days of use, this is extremely foolish on the part of the developer because it means that I can’t communicate to him accurately what isn’t working.

Yet despite that impressive laundry list of cons, I used Times for four days, then moved it to a permanent place in my Dock and purchased it. And I don’t have a single regret.

The reason is simple. All of my feeds fit neatly into one of two categories: feeds whose headlines I skim, and feeds where I read every headline and often read every article. NetNewsWire is great for the former category; Times is perfect for the latter (minor bugs notwithstanding).

When I first ventured into feed readers, I liked NewsFire because it was easy to scroll quickly through the “New Items” list and keep track of which feed I was looking at while I went. This meant I could quickly skim the feeds I didn’t care about much and read the ones I did care about more carefully. When I switched to NetNewsWire (prompted by NewsFire’s lack of updates and several annoying shortcomings), I organized my feeds into two primary groups based on how much focus I gave each (further organized by topic in most instances). However, I was never happy with NetNewsWire’s workflow because its Latest News area is worthless (particularly compared to NewsFire’s). It’s just far too difficult to keep track of what feed a headline comes from when that info is stored in columns. I found myself clicking around in the NetNewsWire sidebar for every feed that I cared about, and then skimming through collections of feeds in folders for the ones I didn’t care about. It worked, but it never really sat well with me.

Times in actionTimes is completely inappropriate for skimming through large numbers of feeds, but it’s perfect for a small number of feeds where you want to focus on every headline. The program uses the metaphor of a newspaper, complete with different pages and sections within those pages. Two of the three sections can contain multiple feeds, and you can resize the sections to provide a couple variations on the basic three-section page. By default, when you click a headline, Times folds or slides down to reveal the full text (your choice; I chose slide as the less superfluous and quicker of the two). If the feed doesn’t contain full text, Times tries to fetch it from the webpage to display for you (extremely handy for major news sites that provide a couple sentences or less, although sure to give them headaches in the bandwidth department).

I didn’t expect to enjoy browsing through articles in Times, but I do. Not only does it provide an easy way to track just the feeds I want to read, but the attractive interface, ability to read full text without the distraction of the flashing ads normally littering the page, and just overall laid-back and friendly attitude of the program make using it a joy that offset my frustration with its various small bugs and shortcomings.

I didn’t really fall in love with the program, though, until I added a couple keyboard shortcuts using the System Preferences “Keyboard & Mouse” pane. Adding shortcuts to just two menu items made all the difference: “Mark All Articles as Read” received command-K and “Return to Page” (the command you have to trigger while reading the full-text version of the article) got the plain old left arrow. With these two commands, using Times became a relaxing one-hand maneuver: I use my right hand on my laptop’s trackpad to scroll through any sections on the page or click article headlines. Spacebar or two-finger scrolling takes me through the full text, and then it’s a short reach for my pinky to the left arrow to return to the page. When I’m done, command-K is again a very short reach away and all is right with the world.

What clinched the deal for me, really, was that the developer has been fixing bugs as fast as he can. Although he hasn’t been particularly responsive, he’s surely facing a mountain of feedback, and I’ve seen multiple bugs (and a small feature request) that I ran across and reported fixed within days. Plus the dude’s 19 years old and probably has homework or term papers to write. Given how polished Times looks (even with its usability shortcomings), I’ve got high hopes for its future. The newspaper metaphor is a great alternative to standard feed readers, and makes Times vastly different from the rest of the crowd. And if we’re lucky, Acrylic Apps will take the newspaper metaphor even further (I want to put the webcomics that I read on a single comics page in Times; who’s with me?) as they continue to refine and improve the program.

Despite my expectations and initial impressions, I’ve ended up a happy user of Times and NetNewsWire both, and I highly recommend Times for anyone who wants an elegant way to track a small number of feeds they care about. This is certainly not a program for everyone, but if its presentation of news makes sense to you, I doubt you’ll look back.

21 responses to “A short review of Times for Mac”

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  1. Alan Schmitt says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been looking at it for a while, but not wanting yet to dive in. You’re giving me one additional reason to try… It sure looks pretty!

    Does it work well with other programs? One of the strengths of NNW is how easy it is to send things to Twitterific/MarsEdit/EagleFiler…

  2. Ian Beck says:

    Glad you enjoyed the review! Times currently has limited functionality as far as sharing links between programs. There’s a “Share” menu with entries for Digg, Facebook, and Del.icio.us, but these are little more than glorified bookmarklets.

    About the best you’ve got at the moment is a contextual menu when you click on an article headline on a page that allows you to copy the link to the clipboard or open it in your browser. EagleFiler doesn’t capture from Times, but you can use the drop-pad to snag stuff quickly by dragging the headline.

    I’ve sent a support request for third party software integration, and I’m sure other people have as well, so hopefully it’s a feature that we’ll see added down the road.

  3. Alex Holt says:

    Hey Ian, nice review. You blew a drafted post for my blog out of the water!

    I too have been using Times for a few days now… although i haven’t paid for it yet.. i too have parked it right next to NNW in my dock.

    Fully agree with what you’ve said, and also agree about bugs. I’m hoping that the bugs will be ironed out between now and when my trial ends ;)

    Did you try out the page curl animation for reading feeds? I found that on my core2 duo macbook that animation wasn’t even visible… which i was a bit surprised by.

  4. Hans-Christian Fjeldberg says:

    Hei.

    I really liked Times too, but when it crash my machine, a PowerBook G4 12″, every time I run it, I simply can not use it. Hopefully it will be better eventually, and I can start using it again.

  5. Hans, the same thing happens to me.

    I think it looks like a great program, and based on this review it fits the way I use RSS perfectly, but on my 12″ G4 PowerBook, it crashes every time.

    I’ve read that one of the Leopard graphics updates breaks something on the 12″ PowerBook (there is a crashing problem with DVD playback as well) so maybe it has something to do with the animation used by Times and this bug, but it’s frustrating either way.

    On the flip side I haven’t bothered submitting a bug report so I guess I have no right to complain until I’ve at least taken that step.

    …maybe next week…

  6. Grover says:

    feeds where I read every headline and often read every article

    In these cases, why are you using feeds at all? Why wouldn’t you just visit the site? I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m genuinely asking.

  7. Ian Beck says:

    @Alex: Yep, I tried the page curl maybe twice before I turned it off in disgust. I’m using a MacBook Pro; maybe the page curl requires a dedicated graphics card?

    @Hans and Jason: I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that there’s issues with PPC hardware and Times. It also wouldn’t surprise me to hear the developer tested on Intel and just assumed it would work across architectures. Definitely worth sending a bug report about the problem.

    @Grover: The main reason I prefer RSS to visiting sites every day or two is because an RSS client saves me time and effort (the sites I read regularly aren’t necessarily updated regularly). I also enjoy reading and browsing in a unified interface without the distractions of ads and so forth (for those sites that offer full-text feeds). The ability to see headlines side-by-side sites writing about similar topics is another benefit; if I were visiting the sites, I wouldn’t be able to do this.

    It took me a while to get into RSS clients, actually, because I figured that visiting the sites was just as good, but I finally got sick of loading pages only to discover no updates (and no fast way to see that there were no updates if I didn’t remember the latest headline). I have about 20-25 sites that I follow closely (with varying regularity of updates), so an RSS reader makes life much simpler.

  8. The nagging from it was far too annoying me. It seems every time I try to look at the window, it’s demanding my attention.

    That was the first (and last) couple hours that I ran it.

    It may very well be great program. It looks interesting. But the developer really has to work on first impressions.

  9. Well-done, sir. I wrote about Times last week as the “skimmed headlines” feedreader, but you stated it more eloquently than I would have done.

    Also, to add on regarding PPC support: I use a 15″ PowerBook G4 and haven’t seen many problems, aside from the one crash I had after trying NNW importing. But performance problems persist, indeed.

  10. Rudolf says:

    Your review perfectly mimics my own experience, with a different outcome: I ended up deleting it and went back to NNW as I simply no longer have the time to help debugging apps that shouldn’t have been released before the developer had done so himself. I know, it’s now standard that we get involved in every release, but I think it kills goodwill towards a new app, something not often realized apparently. I’d rather give an app like Times a try when it’s grown up and I don’t have to Guinea Pig it. Love the interface!

  11. Ian Beck says:

    @Rudolf: if I weren’t so used to beta testing the apps that I use regularly, my end result would have been the same as yours. I think the Times developer would have been better off releasing a public beta (or even a large private beta) rather than a 1.0, given the number of issues that it has. Times is such a good idea yet so poorly tested.

    We can only hope that the dev has learned something about the importance of beta testers.

  12. Andy Kim says:

    The thing that I noticed the most with the app—and this is more of a complaint about Core Animation—is that there is no sub-pixel anti-aliasing. That was the deal breaker for me.

  13. Dylan says:

    Good review. I agree 100%, though I use Mail rather than NetNewsWire for important feeds.

    There is a default keyboard shortcut for backing out of an article. Just hit esc.

  14. Ian Beck says:

    @Dylan: Good call with escape. For myself, I like the left arrow because it’s right there at hand on my laptop keyboard, but it’s good to know that there’s a keyboard equivalent built-in.

  15. Every time I try to remove the Sports page, the app crashes with an overrelease. I gave up after the fifth variation of trying to remove it without crashing. I’ll wait ’til at least the next version.

  16. David Day says:

    I too have been using Times for a few days and would just like to say that I love the refreshing way it delivers your news, I wish Times could replace NNW but for me it can’t, due to two main reasons…

    (1.) I read RSS on my iPhone, MacBook & iMac, keeping everything in sync is a must and thanks to Newsgator this is done perfectly. Times offers no syncing feature.

    (2.) The ‘unread’ blue dot indicators are a disaster, this just never works properly for me and I end up missing stories.

  17. Ian Beck says:

    The unread marker is indeed a disaster. I file a bug report every time the developer updates the program, since it hasn’t been fixed in any of the small releases since 1.0.

    I feel bad about doing this (because of bandwidth), but when I started using Times for real I migrated all the subscriptions that I’d copied to Times into a “Times” folder in NNW. Originally I turned off refreshing for the folder, but a day later I turned it back on. Now I read articles in Times first, then after I’ve skimmed through stuff in NNW I take a look at the sidebar to see if there’s any numbers next to feeds that I missed in Times.

    I’m fervently hoping that the unread marking gets fixed for the next minor release.

    In one of those mixed blessings syncing isn’t an issue for me since I never leave the house. That’s a good call that syncing is another reason to stick with NNW, though. I didn’t think to mention that.

  18. Alan Schmitt says:

    About synching: there might still be the old way to do it: copy over the support files. But that certainly won’t work with the iPhone though.

    Ian: you say you use both NNW and Times (NNW for skimming, Times for feeds you read). I’d be curious to know how many feeds you have in each (excluding the NNW ones that duplicate the ones in Times)?

  19. Ian Beck says:

    @Alan: I’ve currently got 24 feeds in Times, and somewhere between 110-120 in NetNewsWire.

  20. Joe Trnka says:

    Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog is in the very same niche as yours and my users would certainly benefit from a lot of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this ok with you. Thank you!

  21. Ian Beck says:

    @Joe: you are welcome to quote me, but please do not republish my work in whole. If you think it is of interest to your readers, quote a small section that you feel is particularly pertinent, link to the main article here on Beckism.com, and describe what you agree with and disagree with on your own blog.

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