Aggregator Adoption

Friday, March 26, 2004

Choosing a news aggregator is a lot like choosing a pet—it’s all about personality. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with this thing; You’re going to want it to do what you say. If your personalities are too different, things will go one of three ways:

  1. You’ll keep it, feel frustrated and resentful toward it, and probably make both of you miserable.
  2. You’ll take it back and trade it for a different one.
  3. You’ll flush it down the toilet and never try another one again.

Since I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the RSS kennel, I thought I would share my experiences, in the hope of saving some poor aggregator from being brought home and needlessly neglected.

The first aggregator I tried was Syndirella. I liked it immediately—I was instantly sold on news feeds. Unfortunately, it was still an early version. It had few features, but lots of bugs. Development on it stopped shortly after I started using it, so I decided to try some different aggragators.

I used SharpReader after that. A much more robust and mature application than Syndirella, I liked its ability to automatically open the page of news items that only contained a link. I also liked being able to use the space bar to advance to the next unread item.

Unfortunately, those two features did not work well together. When opening a news item page, SharpReader sets focus to the browser window. From that point on, hitting the space bar advances you through the page, not your unread items. If it’s a Slashdot article with a thousand comments, you might not want to do that. And, of course, once you are in the browser window, there is no way to get out without using your mouse.

This finally got irritating enough that I decided to try FeedDemon. FeedDemon is easily the most well-designed, feature-rich aggregator available for Windows. The tabbed browsing and the news bins make it especially useful for bloggers.

I had almost decided to purchase it when a couple of things started bothering me about it. The first was a problem all my previous aggregators had: Default listing order. By default, all these applications list the newest items first. When you think about it, this really doesn’t make any sense. A newer article may relate back to a previous article, and reading them in reverse order can be confusing. Of course, on a web page you list articles in descending chronological order so people can see something new is on your site; That’s not necessary in an aggregator. What is so frustrating about this is there’s no way to change it. There should at least be a personal preference to indicate how you want to sort items.

The other thing I didn’t like about FeedDemon was the Channel Groups. Now, I like being able to categorize my feeds into logical groupings, but in FeedDemon this has undesirable consequences. FeedDemon only automatically updates the last Channel Group you were on. Unless you manually check all your Groups all the time, you are going to miss something. I’m sorry, but this is not how an aggregator should work. Once I realized this was happening, my search for a good aggregator continued.

I think I found it: Bloglines. I had tried Bloglines once before, and for reasons I can’t remember didn’t like it. Now I’m hooked. The interface is intuitive and easy to use. I can save items I want to refer back to later. Since I’m using it in Firefox, I have tabbed browsing. My subscriptions are all in one place, so I can read them from any computer with an internet connection and pick up right where I left off. They have a small utility you can download that will let you know when there are new items to read. The Bloglines server is checking my subscriptions for updates every hour, so there is no chance of my missing anything, even when my computer is turned off. And, I can set the order I want items to be listed in.

Bloglines also plays fetch, walks on a leash, and doesn’t bark all the time. I think I’ll keep it.