PulpFiction 1.1.1, Shrook 2.12, NewsFan 1.6.0, NewsMac 3.1.3

Introduction

The popularity of news-reader applications has grown exponentially over the past year. These programs (also known as news aggregators), which download XML-based content from online publishers to your desktop, have rapidly proliferated, and a once barren product category on the Mac platform has become a field full of exciting contenders.

We examined four popular desktop news readers: Freshly Squeezed Software’s PulpFiction 1.1.1, Graham Parks’s Shrook 2.12, Maki Enterprise’s NewsFan 1.6.0, and ThinkMac Software’s NewsMac 3.1.3. (We did not include two other popular news readers – Ranchero Software’s NetNewsWire 2 and David Watanabe’s NewsFire – in this review, as both are still beta releases. However, they’re worth a look; NetNewsWire 2 looks particularly promising.)

Importing feeds
There are two formats that sites typically use to publish feeds: RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary) and the newer Atom. RSS is controlled by a single developer, who has locked the code to prevent the addition of new features and to keep RSS simple. Atom was created as a more richly featured alternative. Although RSS remains the most common format, more and more sites are publishing Atom feeds, especially since Blogger and Movable Type now support it.

A good news reader should handle both types of feeds equally well, and almost all the products we looked at do just that. But NewsFan had some trouble displaying Atom feeds, noting in error messages that they were not in RSS or Atom 0.3 format.

We began by importing a list of 50 feeds into each reader from a file in OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language), a format used to exchange subscription lists that read RSS and Atom files. This was easily accomplished in each reader. We wanted to see if each feed loaded properly, and here we ran into some problems. NewsFan was the only reader that consistently failed to display certain feeds.

Managing feeds
When you’re working with a large number of feeds, it helps to be able to set different rules and groupings for each. In some cases, you might want a certain feed to refresh more frequently than others; for example, you might want your Slashdot feed to update every half hour, while you want a friend’s Weblog to refresh only once a day. It’s also helpful to be able to group feeds into categories so you can check them based on subject matter, such as job listings or news stories, without having to sort through all your subscriptions.

PulpFiction’s feed-management features are by far the easiest to use. The program’s separate window for subscription management lets you easily set different refresh rates for each feed. PulpFiction also uses filters to sort feeds into various folders based on rule actions similar to the ones in Apple Mail. Shrook was a close competitor, thanks to its ability to create both static folders for organizing feeds and dynamic Smart Groups – similar to iTunes’ Smart Playlists – that automatically sort feeds by a variety of user-determined factors, such as subject matter, category, and date updated.

Although it offers support for various groups and categories, NewsMac was a weak performer in this area. Organizing feeds into groups was difficult, and removing the app’s preset channels was complicated. Presets can be removed via preferences, but NewsMac doesn’t let you add new ones.

Interface
News readers are all about delivering content in a highly accessible form. The readers we looked at vary greatly in interface, ranging from simple two- and three-panel views to NewsMac’s six-panel view, which felt like overkill.

Shrook has a four-column default view that can be customized in all sorts of interesting ways, or easily converted into a two-column view with just headlines and articles. We liked this layout immensely, particularly the way the program displays complete Web pages in one pane if you so desire. Like NewsFan, Shrook will display feeds in the Dock: Ctrl-clicking on the icon displays a list of feeds that shows which have been updated.

NewsFan uses a three-panel display: one pane lists feeds, another lists headlines, and the third displays articles. We found this style to be very accessible, with everything laid out in a logical manner. One aspect of NewsFan we didn’t like was its default news ticker, which flashes headlines across the bottom of your desktop – this feature is distracting and of little value. Fortunately, you can turn it off via the Preferences menu.

Like NewsFan, PulpFiction has a three-panel display. But it also lets you collapse the pane showing the list of feeds, so you can stick to a two-panel view with the top window dedicated to headlines and the bottom displaying articles. In addition, PulpFiction lets you store articles indefinitely, until they’re moved to the Trash – a nice way to hang on to older stories.

NewsMac uses a complex, six-panel layout; it features a collapsible pane that displays a list of feeds in various channels or categories. This interface is cluttered and unintuitive. Clicking on a feed in the channel pane, for example, does not result in a display of the article or headlines in the main viewer windows – the view doesn’t change.

Each reader allows for some customization of how feeds are displayed. Most let you set at least fonts and type sizes. PulpFiction incorporates style sheets that let you easily set feeds to display in various eye-pleasing ways.

iPod syncing
An exciting new feature several readers have added is the ability to download news to an iPod. Shrook, NewsFan, and NewsMac can automatically sync news to an iPod (NewsMac can also sync to Palm OS devices), storing articles in the Notes folder so they can be read offline later. NewsFan can even convert items to audible news, using the Mac OS speech utility to read articles and play them back on an iPod in MP3 format. While none of the readers we tested support podcasting – automatically downloading embedded MP3 files to an iPod or iTunes – we look forward to seeing this function in future versions.

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