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News Readers Reviewed and Compared

As the internet becomes an increasingly large part of our lives it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with all the information available to us. Unlike the nightly news or the paper on your doorstep every morning, the websites we read are being updated continually, anytime day or night. How can we possibly monitor dozens of sources spontaneously posting new information?

Enter:
RSS technology


Just like any such technology, the means through which you access and organize the information is as important as the information itself. And just like all televisions and radios are not the same, there are a variety of unique RSS news readers available for mac OS X.

I've selected five news readers to talk about today: NetNewsWire, Vienna, Shrook, Safari and Newsfire. There are of course many more like RSS Owl, Pulp Fiction, NewsMacPro and NewsFan but I've chosen these five for review based upon a combination of their simplicity, ease of use, prettiness and price.
First: NetNewsWire

NetNewsWire is the 800 pound gorilla of desktop news readers. At one point in 2005 FeedBurner reported it was the most popular reader on any platform, Mac or PC. It's simple interface and abundant features make it a real workhorse and the reader of choice for such productivity-savvy individuals as Merlin Mann and Walt Mossberg. Some of the stand out features that I find useful in NetNewsWire are smart folders, integration with Del.icio.us, and compatibility with Automator and Applescript. I like being able to include NetNewsWire in my workflows, and it's really nice to be able to throw together a smart folder that contains all the news items from local sources that contain information about crime in my neighborhood, or this time of year, to automatically collect all the news that makes reference to WWDC.


All things considered, I would say that NetNewsWire's flexibility is it's primary strength. Everything that I could ever want to customize is customizable, and it's very easy to make changes. Chances are that NetNewsWire can be tweaked into just the right news reader for you, if it isn't that already.

On the other hand, I think that NetNewsWire's greatest weakness is it's price. I'm not going to get into the sticky topic of application pricing here, and I would be very hesitant to ever accuse a developer of overpricing. Considering all the work that went into it I think NetNewsWire is probably well worth the $30 it costs. The problem is all the free or cheaper news readers out there. Is it really $30 better than some of it's free alternatives?

There is an aptly named free version of NetNewsWire called NetNewsWire Lite. It looks and acts the same but lacks much of the feature rich flexibility that makes it's big brother so useful. Most notably it lacks smart folders, searching, flagging and scriptability. I think it's a great idea to offer a stripped down version of an app like this, and I am sure that more than a few folks have used the "lite" version only to later upgrade for the missing features. For my own use however, NetNewsWire Lite is a bit too lean to be my primary news reader, and $30 is a bit too steep for my wallet.

Bottom Line: If you're a power user who thrives of features and customizability, spend the money and get NetNewsWire.
Second: Vienna
Vienna was my news reader of choice for the better part of last year. It's simple and clean and has most of the features that I use. It's also free and open source, which I think is a huge plus.

Among other things, Vienna includes smart folders, an embedded browser, flagging, and feed importing/exporting. Certain aspects of Vienna are customizable, but nowhere near to the degree of NetNewsWire. You can select from a few different layout options and article styles and decide how often you would like your feeds to be refreshed, but that's about it.

Other than that, there isn't too much to say about Vienna, and depending on how you like to read your news that could be a good thing. Sometimes an unobtrusive application that just does one thing very well is exactly what you're looking for.


One complaint I have with Vienna is a quirk in the way it sorts articles. I generally organize my feed items by read status, those that I have not read yet being at the top. This allows me to select a feed and quickly scroll through the newest items first. The problem is that when I click on an item to read, it loses it's unread status and is resorted by date or whatever secondary criteria Vienna is using. This can be frustrating when I'm going through a feed with 100 items, 20 of which are new, and every time I select one it suddenly jumps halfway down the list. The "next unread" shortcut takes me to the first unread item in the next feed, so I'm forced to scroll back up to the top of this list and select another item, which then jumps down the list again. This may be an error on my part rather than a problem with Vienna, but I have yet to be able to find a solution.

Bottom Line: If you don't need all the features of NetNewsWire but you would like a little more than NetNewsWire Lite offers, download Vienna. You can't beat the price and it has a cool icon.
Third: Shrook
Shrook is something of an enigma to me. It's billed by it's developer as a "next-generation news reader" that "offers advanced features not available to Mac users anywhere else". It definitely offers unique features, but I have yet to fully understand their usefulness.

In addition to the usual options like smart groups and an embedded browser, some of the features that make Shrook unique are online synchronization with Shrook.com, a distributed checking mechanism, learning smart groups and iPod syncing.


While all that sounds pretty cool, I hardly ever used Shrook's advanced features in the weeks when I was using it. The iPod synching feature and learning groups where a little too cumbersome to be convenient for me and I was unable to see the benefit of the distributed checking mechanism. It may have been working flawlessly in the background, but I didn't notice the difference. Also, Shrook's four column layout didn't sit well with the 12 inch screen on my iBook. I can see how it might be nice on a much larger screen, but on my machine it felt cramped.

I don't want to sound overly negative towards Shrook however. I understand most of it's advanced features and I can imagine how they might be wonderful for certain users. Unfortunately, I am not one of those users and I found Shrook to be unintuitive and a little confusing. Also, in April of this year it became freeware as part of an effort by the developer to compete with NetNewsWire. The developer has also committed to make Shrook into "the greatest newsreader in the history of the cosmos". So, sometime in the near future Shrook might be seeing a major overhaul. Until then I think that Shrook will probably the preferred news reader for just a small portion of the market that find it's more quirky features useful.

Bottom Line: If you have some unique feed reading needs that require features unavailable in most applications Shrook might be perfect for you. If not, you may find it frustrating and cumbersome.
Fourth: Safari
As you may or may not know, you already have access to a news reader through Safari's RSS feature. Safari 2.0 and above has the ability to gather and display RSS feeds built right in. When you navigate to a page that offers a news feed Safari displays the RSS icon at the right of the address bar like this:



By clicking that icon you can read the content of the feed and access some of Safari's RSS options. Clicking that icon again (it's colors are now inverted) returns you to the regular page. When you bookmark an RSS feed in Safari it will display the number of unread articles in parentheses to the right of the bookmark.


Safari's RSS feature is convenient in it's integration with your browser, but it's lacking in flexibility and advanced features. You might find that Safari meets all of your news reading needs, but in my case it doesn't quite cut it. I spend a lot of time in my browser and when I was trying out Safari as a news reader I found that it was actually a little annoying as new feed items where continually popping up and distracting me. I prefer a separate news reader that is only active when I want it to be.

Bottom Line: If you just want to keep track of a few news feeds and you don't mind being interrupted while using your browser, Safari's RSS feature might be just what you need.
Fifth: Newsfire
I'll confess, Newsfire is my news reader of choice. I've paid the $19 and it was worth every penny. The features it offers are exactly what I'm looking for, it's very clean and attractive and it operates just like I want it to.

Unlike the rest of the news readers I've tried out, Newsfire uses only two panes in it's user interface. The left pane contains your feeds and folders or smart folders if you prefer. I was used to using a lot of folders for organization when I used Vienna, but when I switched to Newsfire I quickly saw that folders where superfluous. The feeds themselves swoop around as they update and reorganize dynamically by number of unread items. Every time I open Newsfire all my unread items are right at the top and they automatically get out of the way when I'm done with them. The right pane displays both the list of items in a selected feed and the content of each article as it's selected. At first I was a little put off by losing sight of my item list when reading an article, but it didn't take long to start preferring it that way.


When I open Newsfire it updates all my feeds and automatically organizes them. I am then able to navigate through them all using only the spacebar. Hitting spacebar once selects the feed with the most unread items and displays it's contents in the right pane. Hitting spacebar again selects the first unread item in that feed and displays it's contents. Hitting spacebar yet again either scrolls down or moves directly to the next item depending on the length of the article and the size of my window. This process continues until all items in all feeds are read, and I never have to take my finger off the spacebar.

Bottom Line: If you subscribe to a moderate number of feeds and you want an intuitive and attractive application to organize them, Newsfire is worth buying.

I hope you found this discussion of news readers for mac OS X helpful. If you have any questions, comments or criticisms please feel free to speak up.

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