Over the years, the proliferation of news sites, weblogs and other sites
with daily updates has made it nearly impossible for the average user to
visit every site of interest in a timely fashion. For those of us who want
or need to keep informed on a variety of topics, RSS, RDF and Atom feeds
have become a nearly indispensable tool to skim the headlines for many
sites at once without having to spend more than an hour per day clicking
through bookmarks. However, this raises the question of how to manage
news feeds effectively.
There are a fair number of RSS aggregator projects on Freshmeat, but we
decided to limit our scope to applications that are fairly mature, have
been updated recently (many RSS aggregator projects listed on Freshmeat
have not been updated in years) and run on the desktop. In particular, we
were looking for aggregators that handle a large number of feeds, make it
easy to manage feeds and integrate well with the Linux desktop and the
average user's workflow.
For some time now, this writer has used the Bloglines service to browse RSS
feeds. For this article, the feed list from Bloglines, containing about 130
RSS/RDF and Atom feeds, was exported as an OPML file and imported that
into each of the aggregators to see how they performed.
The first aggregator we'll look at is RSSOwl. This aggregator is written in
Java, using the SWT graphic library. RSSOwl has a fairly flexible
interface, and opens up tabs for each new feed that the user opens from the
list of "favorites."
There are a few interesting features in RSSOwl. First, RSSOwl has an export
feature, which can be used to export a feed or individual article to PDF,
Rich Text (RTF) or HTML. This might be handy for saving feeds and entries
for later. RSSOwl also supports AmphetaRate, a
centralized ratings service for rating articles found in news feeds.
Oddly, it seems to display feeds as plain text rather than rendering the
HTML. We're not sure if this is a glitch in RSSOwl or if we missed a step
in setting it up. Otherwise, RSSOwl's performance was very good, and it
handled a large number of feeds without any problems.
aggregator is unique in this list, because it's not a graphical
application. Snownews is a console-based feed-reader that uses ncurses, and
is a fairly straightforward application with few frills.
Snownews does not support OPML directly, but there is an "opml2snow" script
that comes with Snownews to convert OPML into the format that Snownews
likes. It's a little more of a hassle than the easy-import offered by other
readers, but it gets the job done. Snownews displays headlines and feeds
inline. To follow the feed URL, one must use an external browser. It works
fairly well with GUI browsers, but works best (at least in this writer's
opinion) with a text-mode browser like w3m or Lynx.
It's probably not going to be the first choice for most users, but those
who prefer browsing in w3m or other text-mode browsers should definitely
check it out.
One reader that seems to be getting a lot of attention at the moment is the
Linux Feed Reader, Liferea. This is a
nicely-designed newsreader that's easy to use. It imported our OPML file
with no problems, and gives the user the option of rendering HTML with
Mozilla or GtkHTML2. It spawns an external browser for full articles rather
than displaying them within the Liferea window. This works well if you
prefer to browse content in Firefox, Epiphany or another browser, but we
would like it if Liferea would give the option of displaying the entire
article inside Liferea itself.
One interesting feature with Liferea is the ability to create a new feed
from a Feedster search. This can be
quite handy if you're interested in finding feeds on a specific topic from
a variety of sources.
If one wishes to be alerted, or interrupted, with updates from subscribed
feeds, Liferea has a feature that will pop up a notification window at
regular intervals with new headlines. We enabled this feature briefly, but
turned it off after an hour or so, finding it quite distracting.
We also found Liferea to be a bit less than stable, at least the 0.9.0
release that is available in Ubuntu Hoary. Liferea crashed a few times when
doing something as simple as deleting a feed. Overall, its performance was
quite good, and the interface is excellent -- but it might need to
stabilize a bit before being our first choice of the available aggregators.
Blam is a aggregator
written in C# using Mono and GTK#. It's a little more basic than Liferea or
Snownews, but it serves well as a basic newsreader. Headlines and summaries
are displayed within Blam, but it requires an internal browser to follow
At first, Blam would not import the OPML from Bloglines. We tried
subscribing a few feeds manually and then exporting Blam's list to OPML to
find out what was different. The difference was that Bloglines uses "title"
for the name of each feed, and Blam expects "text" -- after doing a quick
search and replace in Vim, changing "title" to "text," Blam imported the
list of feeds just fine.
Blam is a good choice for users who want a very basic newsreader that's
fast and light.
KDE users are probably already familiar with Akregator. This reader uses
KHTML to display full articles in tabs within the Akregator interface, at
least by default. Akregator can also be configured to use an external
browser for those who prefer Firefox or another browser to
For users who prefer Konqueror for Web browsing, Akregator is an excellent
choice. Konqueror auto-discovers feeds on pages, and makes it easy to add
those feed subscriptions to Akregator. Akregator has fewer frills than
Liferea or RSSOwl, but it integrates very well with KDE and performs well.
Firefox and Thunderbird
We should also mention Firefox and Thunderbird. While not dedicated
aggregators, both applications allow users to read and manage
news feeds. However, they lack a number of features that many users would
want, at least natively. The advantage of using Firefox as an aggregator is
that Firefox makes it very easy to create a "Live Bookmark" to subscribe to
feeds, when the browser discovers the feed in a page.
If Firefox doesn't detect the feed, that complicates things
greatly. Firefox supports adding a bookmark manually, but does not support
adding a feed manually. The Live Bookmark also doesn't allow the user to
preview the content or full text, just the headlines from a feed. Firefox
doesn't support importing OPML files natively, so users with large
subscription lists would have to go through a lot of work to re-subscribe
to sites using Firefox.
Of course, it is possible to extend Firefox's capabilities with
extensions. We tried the Sage
extension with Firefox, and were quite pleased with it. The Sage extension
adds a sidebar to Firefox much like the Bookmarks and History
sidebars. There are two panes in the sidebar, a list of subscriptions and
lower pane that lists headlines from the selected feed.
The integration with Firefox makes it a convenient aggregator for those of
us who use Firefox exclusively or extensively. Sage had no problem
importing the OPML list exported from Bloglines, and its performance was
quite acceptable. There are a number of other news
reading extensions for Firefox for those who are interested.
Thunderbird, by itself, is also limited in its abilities to import and
manage feeds. For users who spend a lot of time in their e-mail client, and
who have a fairly limited number of feeds, it would work well -- but this
writer would not like to have to import 100 or more feeds using the "Manage
Subscription" dialog for Thunderbird. The advantage to using Thunderbird
for feeds is the ability to mail links from subscribed feeds.
We found the Forumzilla extension
for Thunderbird, which adds OPML import and other features to
Thunderbird. Unfortunately, it consistently crashed Thunderbird when trying
to import the OPML exported from Bloglines.
After spending time with each of these aggregators, this writer prefers
Liferea and Sage, though any of the aggregators would do in a pinch. Given
the variety and maturity of the various options, Linux users should not
have much trouble finding an aggregator that works well for them.
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