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We look at a selection of tools for finding and reading RSS and Atom feeds
by Huw Collingbourne


In relation to RSS there are currently two types of web user:
1) the person who uses it all the time and
2) the person who can’t figure out what those orange buttons are anyhow…

That’s all about to change. When Microsoft starts integrating RSS in its applications - particularly Internet Explorer - RSS will finally emerge out of the dark realms of geekdom and into the bright daylight of the world at large.

MS & RSS - Better Late Than Never

Microsoft has been slow to respond to the emergence of RSS. However, it seems that they have finally got the religion and are all set to evangelise it with a proselytizing fervour. Internet Explorer 7 will automatically sniff out RSS 2.0 feeds on web pages. A web feed button in IE will ‘light up’ when it finds a feed. Microsoft say they’ll be adding a similar feature to sniff out Atom feeds in a later release of IE.

Moreover, Microsoft is also building support for RSS into the next version of its operating system, Windows Vista (‘Longhorn’) due for release towards the end of 2006. There will be some RSS APIs to allow application developers to find feeds and extract information programmatically so that a variety of types of program (such as email readers or appointments schedulers) will be able to interrogate RSS feeds. While this may sound like a good idea in principle, some people are concerned that Microsoft might be planning to subvert the RSS standard for its own nefarious purposes. In the past Microsoft has ‘adapted’ existing languages and technologies including Java, JavaScript and HTML and the company has already stated that it will be adding some new features to RSS 2.0.

However, you don’t need to wait for Microsoft to get its act together. RSS and Atom feeds are all over the place at this very moment and there are plenty of tools available for finding and reading them. I’ve taken a close look at a few alternatives below…

Also see...
Our step-by-step guide to subscribing to a feed
Our brief guide to RSS and Atom
Reviews of some feed creation applications

Supports: RSS/Atom
Platform: Windows

FeedReader has a straightforward interface: a categorised tree of feeds at the left, feed headlines (items) at the top right and the text or web page in the pane below. Here an alert has popped up to tell me that a new item has arrived.

FeedReader is a simple, straightforward and effective RSS and Atom reader. It can also import and export OPML (Outline Processor Markup language - an XML format which specialises in hierarchical information). OPML is not as widely used as some formats and it tends to pop up most frequently on more technically aware sites - for example, Borland uses it as one way of grouping team blogs http://blogs.borland.com.

Note: For more on OPML see http://www.opml.org/

You subscribe to an RSS feed by copying and pasting its URL into a field in a dialog box. FeedReader then adds the feed to a tree-structured list in one of its windows. You can’t add feeds by dragging them directly from a web page and dropping then into FeedReader, which is a pity. Feeds can be grouped beneath user-defined categories. The frequency of feed updates can be set as a default and adjusted for specific feeds so that, for example, most feeds are updated hourly but the BBC and CNN newsfeeds are updated every ten minutes. When new items arrive, an alert pops up from the Windows Taskbar and you can click an item to view it in FeedReader (alerts can be disabled if you don’t like them).

Item headers are shown in a pane at the top right and the text of the item is shown in a pane beneath. Double-clicking an item header causes the associated web page to appear in the bottom pane.

You can alter properties globally for all feeds as well as individually for specific feeds. Here, for example, I am picking a ‘refresh interval’ for a feed.

One of the deficiencies of FeedReader is its help system (there isn’t one) and documentation (online and sparse). It also lacks easy customisation. While a number of its features can be customised - including its icon, splash screen and menus - this is not straightforward. So while it’s generally a capable and easy-to-use application, it still has that distinctive ‘under development’ feel to it.

FeedReader is written in Delphi Object Pascal and its source code is freely available under the GNU General Public licence.

Supports: RSS and Atom
Platform: Windows .NET

SharpReader 'cross references' some items (or lets you view them 'in a threaded fashion'). For example, here an entry about the Rants and Raves column in the Bitwise feed; it links to a sub-item which has been found in the separate RSS feed on the Rants and Raves site itself.

The user interface of SharpReader is broadly similar to the interface of FeedReader. Feeds are displayed in a categorised tree at the left with item headers shown to the right and item text show below. Double-clicking the item header causes the associated web page to replace the item text.

The item headers have an additional trick. They show linked items from other feeds in the form of nested sub-headings, like sub-branches in a collapsible outliner. This is the author’s description: “Advanced threading support [allows] you to view connected items together in a threaded fashion. SharpReader detects and shows connections between items if they have same link, if one item links to another, if two items both link to the same external webpage, or if an item has comments (for feeds supporting the <wfw:commentrss> standard).”

To take a concrete example of this, if the Bitwise feed has a link to the Rants and Raves site and this itself has a feed, then the matching item in the Rants and Raves feed (this month’s column) will be shown as a subheading of the Bitwise feed. Personally, I must say that I often find the threaded view to be quite confusing. Frequently when I click a sub item I end up at a page which has no obvious connection with the item I was originally reading.

SharpReader has a Properties panel (bottom left) which makes it easy to alter features such as the refresh interval of the selected feed

Properties for each individual feed, such as the maximum time to display unread items and the refresh interval, can be set in a Properties panel (similar to the one used by Microsoft’s Visual Studio). As in FeedReader, alerts pop up from the Windows toolbar when new feed items are detected. One feature which sets it apart from FeedReader is its ability to add feeds by dragging them off a web page and dropping them straight into SharpReader in order to subscribe automatically. It can also import and export OPML. Note that SharpReader requires the .NET framework 1.1 SP1.

You don’t have to install software locally to read web feeds. There are also online aggregators which display feeds in your web browser. For example, Newsgator http://www.newsgator.com/, NewsIsFree http://www.newsisfree.com and Bloglines http://www.bloglines.com/ let you create a free account and add feeds to your own customised web pages.

Supports: RSS and Atom
Platform: Windows
Free (or $25/$45 for Advanced and Professional Editions)

Awasu is a well organised, good-looking reader. Notice the bottom-tabs which provide a simple way of displaying multiple feeds on separate pages

I thought I’d seen everything there was to see in a feed reader. Then I loaded Awasu. The first thing that struck me was, quite simply, how good it looks. This is the only reader I’ve used that seems to have a real pride in its appearance. From its dockable toolbars to its 3D shading and gradient-fill tabs, Awasu clearly has a sense of style.

It’s not all surface gloss, however. Purely in terms of its functionality, this is a good program. You can view multiple feeds, or web pages in tabbed, tiled or cascading windows. If you want to save links to visit later, you can add them to a ‘read me’ list in a small pane. It has a useful reporting tool which can create pages of links and item information to be viewed on screen, saved to disk or printed. For example, you could create a report of all the items in a certain category, all the unread items or all the links which you have saved into your ‘read me’ list.

Good though it is, Awasu isn’t perfect. For example, its drag and drop support is, frankly, a bit odd. You can’t drag an RSS link directly from a web page in order to subscribe in a single step. But you can drag a web page containing a feed into Awasu at which point it blinks an XML button to show that it has autodetected the feed. You can then click the button to subscribe. Another curiosity is that, while you can assign categories (such as ‘News’ or ‘My Favourites’) to feeds, these categories are not displayed as outline-headers or ‘folders’ as in many other feed readers. Instead they are used solely as ‘filters’ so that, for example, you can optionally choose to display only the feeds in the ‘News’ category. The company tells me that both these features will be added to the next release of the software, expected by the end of the year.

You can optionally tile or cascade the feed-pages in Awasu. Notice the XML button at the top-right. This flashes when a page contains a feed and you can click it to subscribe to the feed itself

I also encountered one other curiosity. I discovered that the items displayed by Awasu from the Bitwise feed were not in the same order as the items in the feed itself. I reported this to Awasu and was informed that the item order “ depends what order items were *first* received be Awasu. What's probably happened is that some items were received and then you've edited some of them or your publishing software has altered the order of items in the feed. If you create the channel anew, the item order matches what's in the feed. ” While I am not aware of having altered the order of items in the feed, deleting the existing feed in Awasu and subscribing afresh did fix the problem.

Awasu has a good many useful options available. For example, it can not only disable the display of notification popups (‘balloons’) when new items are detected but can also selectively disable them at program startup (when there may be dozens) but enable them subsequently. The application is also ‘skinned’ and you can change the style and colours of the buttons, bars and menus by loading up a new skin or ‘visualization’. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these available (just four at present).

As with FeedReader and SharpReader, Awasu can import channels from OPML. There are also a few optional third-party plugins available which can add new features to the program such as the Web Scrape plugin which extracts information from web pages that have no feed.

The Awasu Personal Edition (the one I’ve been using) is free. The Advanced Edition costs $25 and the Professional Edition costs $45. The Advanced and Professional Editions add certain features such as the ability to auto-refresh channels more frequently (the free edition does this once an hour) and the ability to load more plugins. A table of the differences can be found here: http://www.awasu.com/comparison.php

My initial impressions of Awasu were so favourable that I really wanted to be able to recommend this software. However, due to deficiencies in certain features I am unable to do so - yet. But I plan to keep an eye on future releases. This is definitely a program that shows potential.

News In A Box
Supports: RSS 2.0
Platform: Windows
$19.95 (Free 30 Day Trial)

News In A Box displays a digest of some of the best newsfeeds around. It’s easy to get up and running but doesn’t give the user much control

If you want to be able to read news from around the globe without having to search for and subscribe to a whole load of RSS newsfeeds, News In A Box might be the program for you. I say ‘might be’ for the simple reason that I’ve decided that it isn’t the program for me…

The basic idea is that it automatically subscribes to newsfeeds from a host of major providers such as the BBC, the New York Times and CNN. When you launch News In A Box, items from those feeds are arranged together on a page in a fashion somewhat resembling a page in a newspaper. To view the entire content of the linked page, you double-click the item and the page is loaded into your web browser. So far so good: it’s easy to use, it doesn’t require any special configuration and it auto-subscribes to some useful newsfeeds. If you want to add more feeds you can just drag and droop the feed direct from an RSS button into the News In A Box window.

It's easy to put a feed into an existing category, but to add a new category such as Computing (seen here), you have to create a categorised link in a HTML page (as shown above the Feed Administration dialog) rather than simply adding it using the News In A Box program itself

So why don’t I like it? In a word, configurability. Or lack thereof. You can adjust the page layout by selecting varying numbers of columns or a ‘headlines only’ view and you can categorise feeds beneath predefined category headers such as ‘Business’ and ‘Culture’. But you can’t easily add new categories or change the names of existing ones. At present new categories can only be added by creating a category name in the web-page link to the feed. The developer of News In A Box tells me that built-in category addition and editing will be added to a future version of the software.

Going Further...

There are, of course, lots of other feed reading programs too. Here are a few that you may want to try out. FeedDemon (http://www.feeddemon.com/) a popular RSS reader for Windows $29.95 with a free 14 day trial; Straw (http://www.nongnu.org/straw/) a free program for GNOME Unix/Linux; Netnewswire (http://ranchero.com/netnewswire/) an RSS/Atom reader for Mac OS X which costs $24.95 and has a 30 day free trial.

Moreover, there are alternatives to dedicated feed reading programs. While Microsoft Internet Explorer will ‘soon’ support RSS, some other web browsers such as Firefox, Opera and Apple’s Safari already offer varying degrees of support.


When Firefox detects a feed in the curent web page it lets you click a small 'detector' button in order to subscribe

Subscribed feeds are added to the menu of bookmarks and the list of items pops out on a submenu

Free (shows ads); $39 to buy (no ads)

Opera provides a context-sensitive menu to let you subscribe to an RSS feed

Opera provides a fairly traditional feed-reading interface which is integrated with the web browser

Tip: In order for a web browser such as Firefox or IE 7 (when available) to be able to detect the presence of a feed on a web page, you need to add a <link> directive inside the <head></head> tags of the HTML page containing the like to the feed. For example, this is the Bitwise link tag:

<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="Bitwise Magazine" href="http://www.bitwisemag.com/rss/feed.xml">

In your own pages, just substitute the actual title and href link to your feed.

Recommended Feeds

To get you started, here are a few interesting feeds (note, the links are not 'active' - just copy and paste them into an RSS reader) …

BBC News Headlines: http://newsrss.bbc.co.uk/rss/newsonline_uk_edition/front_page/rss.xml
BBC Technology Headlines: http://newsrss.bbc.co.uk/rss/newsonline_uk_edition/technology/rss.xml
CNN Top Stories: http://rss.cnn.com/rss/cnn_topstories.rss
Washington Post Technology: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/rss/technology/index.xml
NormBlog (political blog): http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/index.rdf
Slashdot (news for nerds): http://www.slashdot.org/slashdot.rdf
Not forgetting Bitwise: http://www.bitwisemag.com/rss/feed.xml

If you are searching for interesting feeds, take a look at the Radio Community Server’s list of the 100 Most-Subscribed-To RSS Feeds http://radio.xmlstoragesystem.com/rcsPublic/rssHotlist and the syndic8 directory of RSS and Atom feeds http://www.syndic8.com/

August 2005


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