(Wired) The Web is awash in little orange buttons. Those buttons take readers to pages filled with XML code for RSS or Atom syndication services. People who don’t know about XML or RSS or Atom get a screen full of ugly computer code. But those clued into the secret handshake — or more accurately, the right decoding software — know those buttons are the key to speed-reading the Web.
Those buttons are for people who use aggregators (sometimes called newsreaders or RSS readers). These programs are hybrids of a Web browser and an e-mail client, allowing Web users to peruse hundreds of information sources in one place. Instead of surfing dozens of sites for the latest news or blog postings, aggregators let people read headlines from those sources in one window.
The aggregators come in many forms, sizes and prices. There are open-source apps for the desktop, Web-based applications and even readers for Palm PDAs. Wired News took a look at four leading readers to get a sense of which tools are the best for keeping an eye on breaking developments on the Web.
SharpReader: This program is a hefty, but free, stand-alone reader that runs on Microsoft’s .Net framework. SharpReader, developed by programmer Luke Hutteman, looks and feels like a three-pane e-mail client such as Outlook Express, and easily handles hundreds of feeds divvied into folders.
It hasn’t quite reached a 1.0 release, but it’s already one of the best tools out there.
SharpReader makes it easy to group feeds into categories, so you can keep political blogs separate from news sources. SharpReader updates channels hourly by default, though this can be customized for each feed.
The program also slides small system-tray notification windows up the right side of the monitor when new items are retrieved. The first time you see the feature you might be alarmed, but the alerts can be easily turned off.
SharpReader’s other plusses include a threading feature that shows a user which entries or news stories are being linked to by other entries in your blogroll. It also searches for a site’s feed address on its own, once users type the site’s main URL into the address bar.
The main drawback of SharpReader (aside from that it’s only available on a Windows PC with the .Net infrastructure installed) is its reliance on Internet Explorer’s rendering engine. Users occasionally get redirected pop-up ads outside SharpReader when clicking on a link in the third pane. And there’s no option to open multiple tabs.
NewsGator: NewsGator also feels like Microsoft Outlook — primarily because it runs inside Outlook. For those who use Microsoft’s flagship e-mail product, the interface will be familiar.
You can easily add feeds to NewsGator by right-clicking on an RSS feed or XML button in Internet Explorer. Also, NewsGator can forward stories very easily, just like an e-mail in Outlook.
But NewsGator, which costs $29, has some serious limitations. It has troubles with sites that use a third party to take care of their feeds (latimes.com, for example, uses NewsIsFree.com for Web syndication). With that kind of feed, you need to click on a link essentially twice.
There also doesn’t seem to be a way to rearrange the feeds, which are displayed alphabetically. Moreover, while grouping feeds into folders is possible, NewsGator cannot show you all the items in a folder or even tell you how many items are in there.
NewsGator is useful for those who don’t want another application running. But it’s best only for those who read a handful of news sources and don’t mind clicking multiple times to see a story.
Bloglines: Unlike NewsGator or SharpReader, Bloglines is a Web-based application that lets you look at your list of news and blog sites from any Internet-connected computer.
Bloglines is free, powerful and intuitive, making it a good choice for those new to RSS. You can subscribe to hundreds of feeds without slowing the service (or your computer). It handles categories of feeds beautifully and has a strong search feature.
Bloglines also gives out disposable e-mail addresses so you can subscribe to discussion groups or news alerts and have them displayed in the newsreader without having to worry about flame-mail or spam. This is really handy for those who want to keep standing searches going on Google News, without having an inbox full of e-mails.
Perhaps Bloglines’ best feature is its recommendation list. Using collaborative filtering, Bloglines suggests feeds that are similar to the ones you read, based on the feeds subscribed to by others.
But the Web-based nature of the service has a drawback, since its speed is constrained by your Internet connection. This is particularly noticeable when looking at a feed like The New York Times‘ science feed, which has 1,605 items in it. You can weed out older items in a feed through a date-filtering mechanism, but the way to do that isn’t easy to figure out.
KlipFolio: Serence’s free KlipFolio takes a different approach to feeds. It’s essentially a convenient notification tool that doesn’t eat up much screen real estate — it’s about the size of an IM client. As such, it’s not an ideal tool for browsing lots of sites. Still, it has a lot going for it.
Unlike RSS feeds which are generated by a website and read by a reader, Klips are custom scripts that run on a user’s computer and scrape a website for headlines.
KlipFolio is great for reading a few sites’ headlines. It even shows the first couple of lines of each story in a message bubble when you hover the cursor over the link. The customizable weather feature is quite handy. Users have even added a few custom scripts that make KlipFolio quite useful, including one that pulls headlines off Google News and another that will tell you if a given Web page has changed.
What’s more, since KlipFolio is not limited to just reading RSS files, it is also a good bet for companies with internal databases that need to be tracked closely by employees.
Of course, there are plenty of other readers. Some of the better ones include Radio Userland (which merges a reader with blog-publishing software), NetNewsWire (a widely praised three-pane reader for the Mac), FeedDemon (a well-designed reader that has some smart features such as tabbed browsing) and NewsMonster, a reader that lives in the Mozilla browser and runs on almost any operating system.