RSS feed reader comparo

Giant RSS feed iconI’m a pretty heavy RSS user: pretty much everything I read regularly on the Web I read via RSS, some 300 feeds. (I don’t read everything in all of them every day.) I’ve used Bloglines for a long time, and it’s worked pretty well for me: I’m used to its interface, it performs pretty quickly, it’s in the browser, and all sorts of other features I like.

Last night I went to move the LiveJournal friends I read regularly into Bloglines, since I’d found that I had been missing a lot of their posts because I don’t read far enough back on my friends page sometimes. Bloglines supports HTTP auth, but only after importing a couple hundred feeds did I learn that it doesn’t support digest auth fails to authenticate against LiveJournal. Without auth, I can’t see friends-only posts, so that’s no good. A deal-breaker, in fact.

So I set about finding a new feed reader, and am trying four: NewsGator, a Web-based reader like Bloglines; FeedDemon, a standalone Windows application from the NewsGator people; and Sage and Brief, two Firefox extensions. Below the cut you can find my thoughts on those four plus Bloglines.

My requirements for RSS readers are pretty specific. They must work in newspaper format (when reading a feed, all of the articles shown together in one pane), not in email format (a list of subjects, and you can read one at a time). They must support OPML import and export. They must let me store feeds in folders. They must support some sort of authorization that lets me read LiveJournal friends. They must handle hundreds of feeds and thousands of unread items without grinding to a halt.

On top of that I’ve got a bunch of things I prefer but don’t require: reading a feed should mark it as read without having to click on individual articles or a “mark all read” button. Clicking an article should open it up in its own browser tab. Feeds that don’t have any new articles should still appear in the feed list.

Bloglines

Bloglines screenshotPluses: Very fast. Since it’s online, checks feeds for you even when you’re not there. Designed for newspaper-style reading. Handles opening originals in new tabs intuitively. Good subscription-editing tools. Nice simple easy-to-read layout. Frames and AJAX make it work like an application instead of a series of webpages.

Minuses: Doesn’t support any kind of authorization other than Basic Won’t authenticate with LiveJournal, which is a deal-breaker for me.

Summary: If it weren’t for the authorization problem I’d still be using it, and this whole effort is to find something like Bloglines but better. It’s like throwing out a favorite pair of jeans.

NewsGator

Newsgator screenshotPluses: Works very much like Bloglines: online, newspaper-style, sensible handling of opening new articles. Authentication support is explicit, with username and password fields for feeds instead of just having to supply a http://user:pass@hostname URL.

Minuses: Slower than molasses. Not frame- or AJAX-based, so every click on a feed forces the entire page to reload, and scrolling down to read a busy feed makes the list of feeds scroll off the top of the screen. Doesn’t mark a feed as read when you display all unread articles in it. (What else could “read” mean?) Feeds with no unread articles don’t appear in the feed list.

Summary: The performance problems are a deal-breaker. The navigation issues can be worked around in part by GreaseMonkey. Maybe if it loaded faster the complete page loads would be a non-issue, but it doesn’t.

Sage

Sage screenshot Pluses: Browser-based, so it’s always right there. Can use Firefox’s own cookies for authentication. Updates feeds pretty fast for a local reader (and even faster if you pair it with Live Bookmarks, I’m told). Feed editing done via Manage Bookmarms panel. Minimal featureset, very much in the “do one thing well” vein. Allows restyling of article view with user-supplied CSS. Marks a feed as read as soon as you bring it up, in newspaper style. (Also supports email style if that’s your kink.)

Minuses: Sits in the sidebar, so while it’s open, it’s open in every browser tab. Since it’s browser-based, it has to update when you open it instead of showing up ready to read. Doesn’t show number of posts unread in feed list.

Summary: Pretty darn close to Just Right, but having it stick around in all tabs is a real pain. Browser integration makes a lot of things easy, particularly feed management and authentication. There’s apparently a patch that makes it display number of unread posts, but I haven’t found it yet.

Brief

Brief RSS reader screenshotPluses: Browser-based, so shares most of the benefits of Sage — but this one is its own XUL page, so it doesn’t have the sidebar-everywhere issue that Sage does. Shows number unread. Accepts user CSS styles for newspaper view, but not the same styles as Sage (sigh). Provides total number unread in the status bar.

Minuses: Very, very slow; about a minute just to display 300 feeds with 3000 or so unread items. Folders don’t collapse. No “mark all as read”. Since it’s the other Firefox feed reader, there’s a better chance it will fade into obscurity at some point in the future.

Summary: The performance issues and having to click a button on every single post to mark it read make this a non-starter, which is a shame because the single-XUL-page interface worked out very well.

FeedDemon

FeedDemon screenshot

Pluses: Standalone application can sit there updating while I use my browser for other things; even then, it handles 300 feeds with 3000+ unread with ease. Newspaper view is intuitive. Shows number of unread posts. Accepts user styles (but not CSS). Supports digest authentication, with a separate config panel for passwords.

Minuses: Many, many features I’ll never use, like podcasting, synchronization with Outlook, and a built-in browser. Synchronization with Newsgator doesn’t seem to maintain folder structure. Doesn’t mark a feed read when viewing it. Commercial software with trial period. Feeds and folders will only sort alphabetically. Built-in tabbed browser is IE.

Summary: I can see why a lot of people consider FeedDemon essential, and it’s close to what I’m after, but a standalone application takes second place to something that sits in the browser. That might just take getting used to, though.

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So as it stands I think it’s going to be a battle between Sage and FeedDemon, although I’m also considering writing a Digest Auth proxy and pointing Bloglines at that to get it to read friends-locked posts I’d be able to see on LiveJournal itself. I’m sure I’ve missed an option or two I should check out, though — if any readers have a favorite Windows RSS reader which works newspaper-style, handles digest auth, and meets the rest of my requirements, or if anyone has any input on the ones I’ve listed above, let me know!

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