Like many people, I get almost all of my news online. To get it quickly
and efficiently, I use a newsreader to skim the RSS or Atom feeds from
sites (like LWN) that I find useful. Until recently, I'd been using Google
Reader as the best option to manage and read my feeds — but after
hearing about the Mutt of
newsreaders, I decided to skim the open source options for news reading to see if I could make the switch.
The first on my list was Newsbeuter. The name is a play on "Wildbeuter," which is German for "hunter-gatherer," which seems apt enough for how one forages for information today. Newsbeuter is a text-based newsreader that bears more than a passing resemblance to Mutt, not just in appearance but also in configurability. I also found it interesting because it offered synchronization with Google Reader — meaning that it should be a simple thing to maintain my existing feeds without any real hassle.
The 2.3 release of Newsbeuter was released in June, so I compiled that and set to work. Note that 2.3 is packaged for Fedora, but not for Ubuntu which still carries the 2.2 release. That release has some issues with Google Reader sync, so if you're on Ubuntu or an Ubuntu-derived distribution and want Reader support you'll need to compile from source. Note that Newsbeuter also supports Bloglines, but I don't have an active Bloglines account.
I started with my Google Reader account and found that Newsbeuter works as advertised — albeit with a bit of work. The release notes for Newsbeuter say that it supports not only syncing with Google Reader, but also the sharing and starring features in Reader. If you share an article in Google Reader it can be seen by any of the people "following" your account (an attempt by Google to dip into social networking). Starred articles are saved for later. These work, but it requires editing the Newsbeuter configuration file and setting up "flags" for starring and saving. Newsbeuter doesn't support commenting on articles through Google Reader, however, but truly dedicated users can follow this guide by Aaron Toponce to use Newsbeuter and Mutt to add comments to items shared through Google Reader.
The display for Newsbeuter is much like Mutt — when you open Newsbeuter, all the feeds are displayed in a long list that includes the number of articles available and how many are read/unread. You drill down by feed or using tags (more on that shortly) to sort the feeds or articles you want to display. Everything, of course, is keyboard-driven and once you have the keystrokes down you can skim through feeds very quickly and efficiently. Even when managing hundreds of feeds and syncing with Google Reader, Newsbeuter was always speedy.
Want to save something for later? Newsbeuter will save any article as a text file, with URLs from the article saved as footnotes in the feed. If you've used Mutt, Pine, or another text-based mail reader, Newsbeuter will feel quite familiar.
Newsbeuter does more than just fetch, display, and save feeds, of course. It has advanced features that let users filter, tag, bookmark, and even script interactions with their RSS feeds. You can set up tags for one or more feeds and use those tags to show (or not) specific lists of feeds. This is done automatically if you're importing feeds from Google Reader — Newsbeuter sets up tags for each folder (if any) that you have used to organize feeds in Google Reader.
Newsbeuter supports a "killfile" for feeds, so users can weed out specific topics. This works by feed or across all feeds. For example, you could set up a killfile to ignore any articles from LWN's RSS feed that contains the name of a distribution that you don't care about.
It also supports "query feeds," which are special feeds created from running a query on one or more feeds. This is a filter that is created from the cache of downloaded articles. For instance, you could set up a query feed that shows only unread articles, or groups the articles from two or more feeds. Queries and other filters can be built using the filter language for Newsbeuter, which is fairly expressive.
Since Newsbeuter is a text program, it leaves something to be desired in displaying feeds that feature much in the way of graphics. Since I subscribe to several picture of the day feeds, such as the Astronomy Picture of the Day feed, I needed to find a way to open certain items in a regular browser. Newsbeuter, of course, has a command to open feeds in an external browser — and this can be configured to work with any browser from Lynx to Firefox.
Newsbeuter even features a limited command mode so users can modify Newsbeuter's configuration on the fly, save articles, and jump through article feeds.
In short, Newsbeuter can be configured every which way from Sunday. The color scheme, how feeds are displayed, how articles are bookmarked or saved for later — it's one of the most flexible feed readers that you'll encounter. It's also one that requires a certain amount of dedication — configuring Newsbeuter to work just right can take quite a lot of experimentation. Like Mutt, this pays heavy dividends for users who spend a great deal of time skimming feeds. For casual users, Newsbeuter is probably overkill.
For podcast fans, Newsbeuter also includes a podcast manager called Podbeuter. It handles downloading podcasts and can be configured to pass podcasts on to helper programs to play the podcasts. Not being a podcast fan, this isn't something I've made extensive use of, but it's a vital feature for many users.
Newsbeuter source is available from Github, and is under an MIT/X license. If you're compiling from source, it requires Structured Terminal Forms Language/Library (STFL), SQLite 3.5 or newer, libcurl, and several other dependencies that might not be available by default.
Aggregation and mail readers
Newsbeuter, like Mutt, is swift, efficient, and highly configurable. But Newsbeuter isn't actually integrated with Mutt. For users who want to tie feeds into their mail client, Linux offers quite a few RSS/Atom-friendly mailers.
For users who want to tie feed reading with their email, Evolution, Thunderbird, and Claws Mail can all handle the task. Thunderbird has built-in support for feeds, whereas Evolution and Claws Mail require a plugin to be able to consume RSS. Claws actually requires two plugins for feeds if you want to render HTML properly, as Claws doesn't handle HTML without enabling an HTML viewer in addition to the RSSyl feed plugin.
For processing RSS feeds, Thunderbird seemed to handle importing and fetching feeds faster than Claws or Evolution. Evolution was by far the slowest to import the feed list I exported from Google Reader. As for reading feeds, it's really a matter of taste — and if you choose to read feeds from within the mail client, it's probably because you've already settled on a mail client. The main complaint I had with Thunderbird was that it didn't respect the folder hierarchy when importing my feed list from Google — it choose to import more than 100 feeds into separate folders for each feed, rather than recognizing the folder organization that was set up in Google Reader.
Aside from GUI mail clients with aggregation features, you'll find quite a few standalone GUI clients as well. The offerings are far too numerous to describe each in depth, but some of the most popular are Blam, Liferea, Akregator, and RSSOwl.
Blam is part of the GNOME Project, and ideal for users who want a minimalist approach to feed reading. It provides all the basics that users would need to manage and read a set of feeds — but that's about it. For instance, unlike many readers, Blam has no way to save an entry for later use. It also is limited to one entry at a time — most GUI readers allow the user to open multiple entries in new tabs or a new window. It's a decent choice for users who have just a handful of feeds, and don't want to save feeds for later, but if configurability is desirable, Blam isn't the best choice.
Liferea is a more flexible GTK-based option. It offers several modes to view feeds, a tabbed interface (to view multiple entries/feeds) and integrates with external services to bookmark items from feeds that users would like to save for later or share on social services. Liferea supports everything from Delicious to Twitter, and quite a few more.
Another bonus for Liferea is integration with Bloglines and Google Reader. You can manage feeds locally, or just hook Liferea into a Google Reader or Bloglines account and go. Its rendering of Google Reader feeds is another story. Liferea ignores folders, so all Google Reader feeds are displayed as a flat list. Liferea also gets bogged down a bit when handling hundreds of feeds — so it may not be the best choice for power users who have a long list of feeds to manage. When using Liferea connected to my Google Reader account it was very boggy, and had problems parsing some of the feeds.
Akregator is a full-featured feed reader that integrates with the Kontact suite for KDE, or runs as a standalone application. Like Liferea, it supports several views and has a tabbed interface. It's fast and doesn't choke on a large set of feeds. It doesn't offer integration with online newsreaders, but it does import Google Reader's OPML export properly — that is, if you have feeds organized by folders, Akregator recognizes and creates those folders when importing feeds. You can save feeds in Akregator by marking them "important," but it doesn't really give any way to export an entry.
RSSOwl is a multi-platform newsreader based on Eclipse. Unlike Liferea, Blam, and Akregator, it's not packaged with most major distributions — so if you want to give RSSOwl a shot you'll need to get it from the RSSOwl site. The project does offer Linux-specific packages, so it's not hard to install. Since it's based on Eclipse, you'll also need to have a Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to use it.
While RSSOwl doesn't support Google Reader integration, it will import feeds directly from Google Reader without requiring you to export an OPML file. You'll need to provide your username and password, and RSSOwl provides an import wizard that gives the option of importing one, some, or all feeds from Google Reader. It also has a tutorial that runs on startup to walk through all of its features. Overall, it's a very well-polished application. In addition to reading and saving feeds, it supports saved searches — so you can create a special feed that consists of results for a search against one or more feeds. So, for example, you could create a special feed from a search for "Linus" against LWN's RSS feed and check that daily for kernel updates.
RSSOwl also has features to help discover new sources of news that might be of interest. Go to Tools -> "Find new Feeds" and enter a search term. RSSOwl turns up a list of feeds, and their descriptions, that you can opt to subscribe to. The quality of the results vary, of course. A search for "Linux kernel" turned up everything from Greg Kroah-Hartman's blog to some relatively obscure feeds of comments related to posts about Linux on some random Web sites. If Blam is a minimal feed reader, RSSOwl is a maximal reader — very capable, but a bit complex. If you spend a lot of time in the feed reader, it's worth spending the time to learn. The only real complaints I have about RSSOwl are that it doesn't actually sync with Google Reader, and that its sharing features are a bit primitive. When sending to Twitter, for instance, it just opens Twitter and pastes the URL for the original news item in the update form. It'd be nice if it included the post title and shortened the URL.
Finally, it's worth noting that RSSOwl is probably the best documented of all the options — not only does it have extensive help, but it also has a fairly useful tutorial that is displayed on first run that explains its features.
Or you could just turn your Web browser into a newsreader. Firefox, of course, has native support for feeds as "live bookmarks." For users who have a few beloved feeds or a select few that they'd like to keep close tabs on, the live bookmarks are useful. This simply creates a folder of virtual bookmarks that link to entries from an RSS or Atom feed. Firefox simply lists the headline/title for each feed and then opens the source in the browser — so it's not much faster than just going to the site directly.
The Sage extension for Firefox turns Firefox into a full-blown feed reader. Sage has its own stylesheet, so all feeds look alike when using Sage, even though Firefox would be fully capable of displaying the full site. The Sage stylesheet can be modified, though, so users can tweak the output to their liking.
Feeds are displayed as a set of folders in the left-hand side of the Firefox window, much like the Bookmark or History sidebar. Note that only one sidebar can be in use at a time. Overall, Sage is a usable reader and handy for Firefox die-hards who just want to keep track of a few feeds. Sage will handle larger numbers of feeds, of course, but it becomes a bit unwieldy.
The other downside to Sage is that it's not necessarily available for
the latest releases of Firefox. It tracks the stable releases OK, but Sage
is not up to date for the Firefox 4.0 betas. Since I usually track the
latest Firefox betas, it means that Sage is not an option.
Your very own Planet
Another way to go is to create your own Web site from a set of feeds, or
create a "Planet" site for sharing a set of feeds so people can easily
browse all the posts from news feeds specific to a project. This was made
popular with the original Planet
feed reader. It uses Feed Parser
to consume feeds and a templating engine to produce static pages. However, Planet's development seems to have slowed considerably — if not entirely stopped. The last updates in Jeff Waugh's repository are dated early 2007.
Development seems to have carried on, somewhat quietly, with Planet Venus. It's not reflected on the Planet site at all, but digging through the mailing lists one finds development has continued under the name Venus or Planet Venus. Venus is "a radical refactoring of Planet 2.0," and development discussions continue on the old Planet mailing lists.
Another popular, and currently maintained, project is the RSS Aggregator Without Delusions of Grandeur, or rawdog. Like Planet and Venus, rawdog takes feeds and creates a static "river of news" that's suitable for a single user to keep track of her favorite feeds, or for publishing a planet Web site. Planet KDE, for instance, is based on rawdog.
The downside to Planet, Venus, and rawdog, is that they require the user to configure not just the aggregator software, but also to maintain a Web server. For publishing a project planet this is not particularly onerous, but for personal use it's overkill for most users. The planet-type aggregators are also a bit less flexible in terms of adding feeds, and they tend to be sensitive to malformed feeds. Whereas Thunderbird or Newsbeuter might just skip over a feed with errors or unrecognized elements, planet type aggregators tend to choke on malformed feeds and unrecognized elements.
It's safe to say that any Linux user will be able to find at least one feed reader that fits their needs. Even with all the newsreaders mentioned here, this isn't a comprehensive list of newsreader alternatives. Which one is best? That depends almost entirely on the user. Most any of the newsreaders would be adequate for users with a small (less than, say, 50) collection of feeds. But if you spend a fair amount of time skimming feeds for work or pleasure, a couple of newsreaders stand out.
Newsbeuter is the best for those who prefer keyboard-driven, text-based options. It's flexible, fast, and pays dividends for users who are willing to spend the time customizing it to fit their feed-reading habits. For those who prefer GUI apps, RSSOwl is the application with the most features and flexibility. Users who don't want to maintain a separate application for newsfeeds should look at Thunderbird.
It's interesting to note, though, that of all the options available none are really a competitor to Google Reader itself. Though one can find several Web-based aggregators that will build static "river of news"-style pages out of a feed collection, I couldn't find any real Web-based clients that allow feed management via the browser, or the same kind of feed organization (folders) and navigation that Reader offers. The closest option here would probably be Sage, for users who want to handle all their reading via the browser.
That aside, Linux users are not hurting for choice. The crop of newsreaders for Linux is plentiful, you only need to decide how you'd like to manage feeds and then select from several excellent options.
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