Thursday, April 30, 2009

RSS/News/Feed Aggregators - Why they aren't good enough

I have been sifting through the Internet in search of a good RSS news aggregator (something to organise my panic attacks about not having enough hours in a day to read all the news and articles out there). Before I get into the ones I tried and dropped (or on the verge of doing that), let me specify what exactly I want in a feed aggregator (other terms would be "RSS aggregator", "feed readers", "RSS readers", "news feeds", "news aggregators", etc.). I searched for everything ranging from "best news aggregators" to "comparing RSS readers" and was able to gather information, screenshots and feature lists for a lot of them. Let me list what I think I need from a RSS aggregator.

  1. Reliability: If a feed is updated, I should know about it nearly immediately or within whatever duration I deem appropriate.
  2. Scalability: To manage a growing number of feed subscriptions well and without bloating horribly.
  3. Usability: A clean, elegant and luring interface which doesn't bore me in seconds. Under this category come several things:
  • I don't want a million buttons
  • I don't want to click more than once for anything as simple as adding a feed
  • I don't want the service to push things down my throat (this is where Feedly fails or perhaps is poorly-suited to my needs)
  • I don't want a mere list of feeds which I need to scroll through endlessly
  • I don't want a million panes and windows making quick reading enormously difficult
  • I want an entirely new way of looking at and presenting news.
  • I want the ability to share (through email or through the service's network), include (blogs, personal newspapers, etc.) and manage (save entirely locally, clip, tag, index etc.) feeds, news items and individual webpages.
  • I want to see some intelligence in the service (based on the articles I have read, the tags I create, the kind of links I seem to click on, the nature of news that attracts me, the kind of articles I share etc.) without making an assumption that I am retarded and incapable of picking for myself.
  • I want the ability to customise my daily view (or as is called landing page, startpage, etc.) without having to write scripts or CSS.
  • I want the ability to rate my content and annotate it
I am tired of every single news reader giving me nothing more than the same thumbnail view of news or the "river of news" view. They actually think they are creative by changing the colour of the header and the like!Clueless
Before I proceed, I am not a Net-addict and hence, solutions like Twitter do not work for me. I don't have a Twitter account and don't see myself getting one. I like being educated and not being filled with gossip and pointless lines of info like "I am bored", "Dropped a pizza slice on my lap" or "Wow! Saw the hottest girl in town" because I am not interested in your boredom, I hate wasting food and where I work and live there aren't any hot girls so I don't know what that means!
One can go here to get a list of available news readers.
I will focus on 3 categories of RSS readers:
  1. Web-Based: This would include Bloglines, Google Reader and Newsgator
  2. Desktop: FeedDemon, GreatNews, Omea
  3. Browser-Based: Feedly, FireFox, Opera, Flock, Snackr
WB solutions have one big problem - no offline viewing (though Google Gears might partially help as far as GR is concerned). All of them require me to be connected else they are useless. The concept of offline mode is usually only for the feeds and not for the webpage itself. So the notion of picking a few news items (and maybe feeds) and clicking on a "Prefetch" or "Retrieve" or "Offline Mode" where those news items will be fetched and I can read through them while on my flight or while shuttling between locations in a horrible traffic (like the curfew days in Bangalore) does not exist. What am I going to do with just the feeds? Fine, that looks like an interesting piece, let me read all of it, but no! We aren't connected!
Another big problem is the inability to design my view (though Bloglines Beta is kinda changing that). Google Reader is plainly pathetic in the straight line of news that it throws to the screen. I simply have to keep scrolling on and on forever. Another super big problem is the inability to organise my favourite webpages. I can Star, Tag or Flag a news item but if my news item contains multiple links (as does the feed from Arts and Letters Daily) then I cannot mark individual items. Newsgator does permit me to organise clippings and websites that I like but the method is not simple or straightforward. Google Reader only allows you to Star them or Share them as long as that is a feed. If the feed links to an external article, you can't do anything with it. What if I wished to organise them for future reading and/or reference? Hence, I think GR is really not good enough for all the hype surrounding it. When I have to compare these 3, I would rate Newsgator better than Bloglines which is nearly as good (if not better) than Google Reader. Newsgator lets me import from other places and OPML files without having to go through the export-import routine. I need to do that to get my Bloglines feeds into GR. Too circuitous. Bloglines has a concept of clipping and more and hence that could be better than GR. Otherwise, they are pretty much alike and this whole thing about keyboard shortcuts is only for those who are vying to be some feed-racer! Bloglines Beta is better than the earlier version of Bloglines.

Amongst Desktop apps, I would rate FeedDemon great because it lets me sync up with NewsGator and Bloglines. FD lets me organise individual weblinks in my clippings folder so that I can view them later. FD allows for pre-fetching and offline viewing (again, only of the feed snippets). I can assign tags to my news items. I think FD has it all except for unreliable syncing (my folder on my desktop app shows 46 unread and the one in Newsgator shows 31) and some accessibility issues (scrolling on top pane is frigid). The good facilities include simple dragging and dropping articles (and not merely news items or feeds (the granularity is higher)) into the clippings folder, leaving them with me. I can organise all of these based on what I deem logical. All of this syncs with my online NewsGator account and hence, they are available for viewing from anywhere. GreatNews is also good but doesn't have a clippings management facility and sometimes doesn't sync up well. I had used Omea Reader/Pro for long and I thought it was really good. Some minor glitches exist and the problem of trying to do too many things with one piece of software plagues this one. It tries to integrate with Outlook, ICQ, NNTP etc. One can always disable these, but it still adds to the clutter. Startup times and memory footprints are nearly in the same range though GreatNews is better and there is no point comparing with Omea as it seems to launch only one news item in the pane (one can launch endless external browsers but that is a pain). That is Omea's biggest problem. It doesn't allow launching several news items at one go. There is a panel where all the titles are available but you can't launch many articles and read them at your convenience. FeedDemon and GreatNews lets you launch as many reading panes as you want though they are all tightly integrated with IE and FD does a better job. On a crash and restart, FD remembers and starts from where you left (though it truncates the number of panes you had opened). GreatNews simply forgets! Omea has but one to remember! That is big enough to push Omea to 2nd place when compared with FD. FD integrates well with Bloglines and Newsgator and has provisions for clippings and sharing but none for annotation, indexing and saving for offline reading. Still, FD is the best one can find as of now. If only Omea could manage multiple articles, it would beat FD by a huge margin. All of them have a feature similar to FD's Panic button, which lets you sweep over your feeds and mark them read based on chronology.

Browser-Based solutions tend to resemble the old email feeds or are merely wrappers around web-based readers. In spite of all the hype around Feedly, I find it largely useless. It hardly gives me anything more than a wrapper over GR though perhaps the "social feeding" might be its sole focus (and I am not yet interested in that. I don't have time to read my own feeds!). I like what Opera has (with 9.64) but again, it is just a table of news items. Snackr seems to do something interesting with randomising feeds but you need AIR for it and that makes things rather complicated for something as simple as what it provides.
Other interesting services include ClipMarks, EverNote, Voyage and ShareFire though not one of them is the answer (and Voyage is rather weird though looks cool). I think the best thing would be to have a marriage of some of these. I think I am going to sit down to develop one for myself (and I am surely going to use Flex+Flash for my UI!!). Any ideas welcome.
At the end of the day I am left disappointed and dejected with my options (I feel the same when in the poll booth going over the list of available parties). I think I will have to do with FD+NewsGator+Bloglines till my own solution comes up and is functional. Only those who give me damn cool ideas will get an account on that! ;-)


  1. What are you using now? I am currently using thunderbird for RSS. Its not fantastic, but its better than most of the stuff out there.

  2. Dear S,
    I was using FD+NewsGator+Bloglines. I am revamping my infrastructure to use a desktop reader + Evernote. Most likely Omea+Evernote... Not yet sure. I definitely need to trim my feed list or my discretion.

  3. Dear S,
    I have finally decided. I am going to use Beta Bloglines ( and Evernote (web clipper + desktop clipper). I think this answers my need really well as of now...

  4. Gokul2:00 PM

    You can try readefine.