The ideal feed reader

I have never found a Mac OS X RSS feed reader that, after extended use, I was completely happy with, and this makes me sad because my feed reader is right up there with my email client for regular usage. Every time a new feed reader comes out, I eagerly try it, am often very happy with it initially, and then inevitably become dissatisfied with its shortcomings after a week or two of use.

I’ve tried and discarded NewsFire, Vienna, NetNewsWire, NewsLife, Times, and many others which were on my computer such a short time they don’t deserve a mention. None of them fully satisfied my needs.

Most recently, I decided to give Fever a try. Though I highly dislike web apps (I’ve never found a web app that was remotely as good as its desktop counterparts, mainly thanks to speed and usability issues), I love Mint and figured that maybe, just maybe, Shaun Inman would be the one who could write a web app that was actually useable day to day.

Sadly, my hopes were dashed. Fever is too slow to handle the speed that I can skim through feeds, and has some of the same problems that drove me from NewsFire (like refreshing automatically and losing your place in whatever you’re viewing after an update). I find that I never use the “Hot” functionality because it is so useless at actually predicting what I’ll find interesting (partially thanks to my lack of Spark link blogs, but others have had similar issues), and as a result Fever for me has turned out to just be a rather unresponsive generic feed reader.

(Side note: I haven’t been happy with Fever, but I’d still hesitantly recommend it for some people. Simply the fact that its capable of standing up with options like NewsFire and NetNewsWire is a big point in its favor if you don’t mind the Ajaxy slowness.)

Despite my rampant discontent, I still do not want to code a feed reader myself, so on the off chance that someone is trying to make the perfect feed reader, here’s what it needs.

Make sure keyboard navigation is easy to use. This is the part of Fever that I enjoy most. Hit space bar to jump to the next item. Right arrow opens the item in the browser. Enter swaps between excerpt and full text. Left arrow jumps back to the source list to select a different group. Brilliant.

Allow grouping items by source feed. NewsFire does this beautifully, but for some reason none of the other feed readers have even attempted it. I typically want to read or skim items based on which feed they’re in, and grouping items visually by feed makes it very easy for me to do so. Sticking the source website in a column, or under the title, or over the title, or next to the title does not work as well.

Don’t use a three-pane interface. Mail is a brilliant application for reading email. Feeds are not email. Go use Fever, NewsFire, or Times and find out why designing a great, feed reader-specific workflow is a better plan than rehashing the tired old three-pane news reader.

Settings should be possible to apply per feed, per group, or as application defaults. I love that NetNewsWire and Fever both allow me to granularly set behavior preferences for feeds. Setting refresh rates on a per-feed basis is rarely necessary, but when you need it you’ve got to have it. When I was hunting up freelance work, I subscribed to a few Craig’s List feeds. I eventually had enough work that the feeds were just noise, so (thanks to NetNewsWire), I stuck them in a group and turned off refreshing for that group. They were ready for when I needed them in the future, but out of my way for now.

Don’t sacrifice performance for aesthetics. Times, I’m looking at you. Times is a beautiful feed reader, with an innovative approach to feed reading, and a great set of features. I’d be using it right now if it weren’t buggier than an anthill. The somewhat recent 1.1 update fixed a lot of the really annoying bugs, but the program still isn’t usable. Maybe in another few point updates.

Don’t sacrifice aesthetics for performance. Hi, NetNewsWire! To be fair NetNewsWire mitigates this problem somewhat by offering some really top-notch themes, but although the application is certainly solid and obviously has been given a lot of attention to detail, it could still use a bit of the flair of NewsFire, Times, or Fever. I think there’s a middle road here, and on that middle road a talented designer and talented developer are collaborating. Sadly, feed readers appear to be primarily one-man-in-his-basement affairs.

Remember that users will subscribe both to feeds they want to read every word and those they merely want to skim. Times and Fever are both best for feeds that you want to focus on every headline. NewsFire is great for skimming through lots of headlines thanks to its group-by-feed feature. NetNewsWire is actually pretty good at both, as long as you’re careful about how you sort feeds into groups. The problem here is that the needs (and thus best interface) for feeds with lots of signal versus feeds with lots of noise are quite different, yet feed readers invariably only offer a single interface for browsing and accessing feeds (or offer multiple possible interfaces, but you have to switch between them globally for the whole program). I don’t know what the perfect solution is here, but I do know that it can only exist if the program recognizes that I have two very different approaches to feed reading and provides options accordingly.

Perhaps I’ll never see my perfect feed reader, and instead be destined to keep bouncing between substandard options as they release new upgrades and rekindle my hope that maybe this time they’ll have gotten it right. Perhaps Mac OS X feed readers simply aren’t profitable enough to attract the time and care necessary to craft something that does everything I want without being bloated and terrible, and I’ll eventually just have to suck it up and go with a web app.

But I hope that isn’t the case.

7 responses to “The ideal feed reader”

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  1. Carl says:

    I can’t say I’ve used many alternatives, but I like Google Reader.

    Not sure it gives you as much control as you’re looking for, though.

    • Ian Beck says:

      Yeah, I may have to give in and finally give Google Reader a try. I’m not a fan of web apps, so I’ve always given it a wide berth, but the desktop options just aren’t meeting my needs.

  2. Michael says:

    Generally I agree with you Ian, and I wonder why we have — for instance — excellent Twitter clients, but not-so-good feed readers.

  3. Scott Hughes says:

    Hi Ian

    I have a very similar dilemma but I do about 50% of my feed reading on the iPhone so what I need is iPhone/Mac syncing of feeds. Currently this only really leaves me with NetNewsWire to use. I don’t mind the dektop version but the iPhone version is currently limited and really shows as a pre OS3.0 app now.

  4. Simon says:

    You should really try Google Reader. It’s really fast, faster than any of the desktop apps I have tried. I group my feeds into related subjects e.g. Apple and then hit “n” and “p” on the keyboard to read through them.

  5. Bart says:

    I think the one about a three-pane interface is strictly a personal preference. NetNewsWire can let you change that, though. In the latest beta (which they’re sort of forcing everyone to use cause they’re switching to Google Reader for sycing) there’s a Google Reader style view that shows all the posts stringed together vertically. But I hate that kind of view. I want to skim through headlines and pick and choose what I want to read instead of scrolling past entire posts I don’t want to read (this is why I can’t stand Byline on the iPhone… if I have a bunch of tech blogs in a group and I only want to read Daring Fireball’s posts, I have to scroll past all the other blogs to get to Daring Fireball).

    The latest NNW also lets you enable Gmail-style summaries next to “subjects”. You can pretty much make it work exactly like Google Reader if you play around with the options in the ‘View’ menu. But I prefer to make it work like Mail (with Gmail-style summaries next to titles). :)

  6. Ian Beck says:

    Admittedly, there’s a strong element of personal preference throughout all of my desires for a perfect feed reader. :-)

    However, I think the advice to avoid a three-pane interface has broader applicability than my personal dislike of it. As I see it, most people have two types of feeds:

    1) Feeds for which they want to read every word
    2) Feeds they want to skim headlines

    A three pane interface is good for neither of these tasks. For the first group, Fever or Google Reader’s “show the full content inline in a list” is best (no navigation necessary, just scrolling). For the second, NewsFire’s “group by source in a long list” approach is preferable because you get very direct access to the info that matters (where the feed is coming from and its headline).

    A three pane interface, on the other hand, only provides you easy access to the headlines and assumes that although you want to read every word, you also want to explicitly invoke each feed in order to read it. This is a weird amalgamation of both worlds that doesn’t serve either particularly well. Certainly, it’s functional and familiar, but even beyond these objections to the interface I don’t like it because too many feed authors lazily default to three pane interfaces without putting any design consideration into the decision. If a dev has evaluated all the options, tried to think of a better way, and come to the conclusion that three-pane is the best possible way to read feeds in their app, that’s all well and good. But I don’t think that happens much (if ever). Mostly people are just lazy.

    I’ve actually tried NetNewsWire’s “combined” view, but it doesn’t do anything for me. For one thing, it’s paginated (and you have to use the mouse to move between pages). For another, I don’t actually like Google Reader’s interface for reading all my feeds. What I really want is a feed reader that offers on a per-group basis a Google Reader/Fever style interface (so I can scroll through the feeds I find important, reading every word), and a NewsFire “grouped by source” interface for the other groups.

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