Personal computing is full of habits. Often as computer users we adopt a certain application or workflow because it is what we have learned, or what we are used to. A big part of being a computer enthusiast means getting the itch to reevaluate how I use my computers. Exploring different options, different technologies, throwing what I know, and what I haven’t tried against my desktop wallpaper to see what sticks.
RSS is one of those technologies I thought I knew. As an early adopter of RSS I found myself constantly evangelizing the benefits of syndication to all of my coworkers. “Why visit the web’s content when the web’s content can come to you?” Since the very beginning NetNewsWire has been my messenger for the web’s daily deliveries. I started using it when I first heard about RSS in 2002. Continued using NetNewsWire when it gained the ability to sync unread subscriptions through MobileMe and FTP, then NewsGator, and now Google Reader. I used it when it cost money, and when it was supported by advertisements. All the time never looking for a better solution because my experience and the popular Mac opinions of the time told me NetNewsWire was the best for RSS. I am still sure NetNewsWire is the most full featured syndication client on the Mac today, but what gave me the itch to throw it against my wallpaper was whether NetNewsWire is still the best RSS client for me.
NetNewsWire offers the most comprehensive feature list of any syndication client I have ever seen. First there’s the subscription management. The ability to file feeds into folders. Filter feeds into smart folders. Subscribe to protected private feeds, customize the persistence of feed entries. Export feed lists. Validate feed files. Isolate feed dinosaurs. Find feeds you give the most attention too. Find feeds you give the least attention too. Track feed bandwidth, and automatically download feed enclosures while sorting audio files into iTunes. And all of that is just subscription management. NetNewsWire also contains a full tabbed, 64-bit web browser with Flash and plugin support. The ability to locally archive feed items as Spotlight searchable HTML files. And the ability to export feeds or the contents of its browser to a variety of third party services such as Email, Instapaper, Delicious, or even a web blog. It is safe to say NetNewsWire has one of the most comprehensive feature lists of any applications I have ever owned, and best of all it performs each one of its hundreds of features extremely well. But if NetNewsWire is so great, with so many features why is it suddenly not sticking for me?
A lot has changed since NetNewsWire first delivered the web to my doorstep in 2002. Since then Google Reader has become a dominant force in web syndication. Taking RSS back to the web by centralizing feed management on a Google webpage, and allowing mobile devices to effortlessly tie into the rich subscription collections previously isolated on user’s desktops. The role of a desktop feed reader has become less about subscription management, NetNewsWire’s killer feature, and more about the convenient and tasteful presentation of feeds. NetNewsWire is no slouch in the presentation department. It offers customizable CSS templates to display feeds. But having customization is not always the best answer for me when a truly minimal solution will do.
Reeder a syndication client that originally started its life on iOS has now brought its fluid stripped down formula for easy RSS reading to the Mac. The first few betas of Reeder for Mac have even neglected to include traditional subscription management. Reeder relies on Google Reader to provide the feeds while concentrating on what it does best, displaying content. Reeder brings its dynamic multi-column interface from the iPhone and the iPad onto the Mac. It excels at showing the user the selected content while hiding the rest. Its feature set may be limited when compared to giants such as NetNewsWire, but it gets the job done with all of the essentials. A list of subscriptions including groups. The unread, read, and starred items for each subscription. An elegantly designed third column that dynamically displays each feeds content and loads direct links seamlessly in the background. The ability to share individual feed items to a variety of internet services including Email, Instapaper, Delicious, Pinboard, and Twitter. Although still not complete Reeder does everything a good feed reader should, display and share content. After throwing both NetNewsWire and Reeder against my desktop’s wallpaper it is easy to see Reeder is the more streamlined minimalistic RSS client of the two. Exactly the kind of stickiness I am looking for in a new feed reader. Of course having no dedicated RSS reader would be a much more minimalistic solution especially if its replacement turned out to be an application I already have sitting in my Mac OS X Dock.
Apple’s Mail has been my email client of choice long before version three when it gorged down such extraneous functionality as personalized stationery, notes, to-dos, and a built-in RSS reader. By concentrating on what Mail does best, sending and receiving email, I have ignored such amenities keeping my workflow mostly unchanged. It wasn’t until two weeks ago while writing the Egg Freckle Declaring Bankruptcy that I remembered Mail’s built in RSS reader and decided to see what I was missing. RSS in Mail is a lot like email in Mail. Subscriptions are like inboxes and appear in Mail’s source list to the left. RSS articles are like messages and appear in Mail’s message lists. The contents of each item shows up in the preview pane just like email. In Mail you can do anything to an RSS article that you can do to an email except reply. You can forward, print, file, and sort your RSS by rules or smart mailboxes. Thankfully Mail does not have a built in browser, but you can open the source of any RSS article in Safari and forward it to Instapaper or Delicious. Mail does not benefit from Google Reader integration, but I have found it is basically a non issue for people like me that stay up to date on their feeds. Whenever I sit down to a different client that is out of sync I read the most recent items until I find something I have already seen and mark the rest of the items as read. If you have a MobileMe account you can get the functionality of keeping your read items in sync automatically. Surprisingly Apple’s Mail takes the best of NetNewsWire’s powerful subscription management, and Reeder’s elegant presentation and combines it into an application and workflow I am already using.
After throwing veteran NetNewsWire, newcomer Reeder, and underdog Mail against my wallpaper I found it was the underdog that integrated into my existing workflow and stuck the best. Mail may not be perfect, I long for a dedicated Instapaper button, and the experience of having my phone and iPad out of sync with my iMac may tire. But I have one less application in my Dock, and the tech enthusiasts itch has taught me something I wouldn’t have otherwise learned from the opinions of others.
Brent Simmon’s just released NetNewsWire Lite 4.0 to the Mac App Store. This new installment addresses the feature bloat I had with previous versions. The lite version requires a 64-bit processor to isolate Flash instability, and doesn’t support syncing, starred items, AppleScript, or searching. The starred items and AppleScript I can do without, but searching is key. Syncing can be accomplished by symbolically linking the
~/Library/Application\ Support/NetNewsWire\ Lite folder with Dropbox. It will be interesting to see if NetNewsWire Lite replaces Mail as my default news reader.