Three Web-Based RSS Readers

Google Reader is only the latest addition to the pantheon of Web-based RSS readers. How does it rate compared to Bloglines and Newsgator?

October 23, 2006

12 Min Read
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There are an increasing number of Web-based RSS readers out there -- and if you think of RSS as a tool for helping you to drink from the fire-hose torrent of information on the Web, you'll find a lot to like in them. They're always available, no matter what machine you're on; it's one less application that you have to install (and upgrade) on your system; and they keep your feeds as up-to-date as possible.

However, just being a browser-based application can put these products at a disadvantage. They don't offer the flexibility (or the complexity) of apps installed locally on your hard drive. They don't offer anything fancy in the way of user interface, either -- you don't realize how accustomed you are to drag-and-drop, for example, until you spend time trying to use applications that don't support it. (Newsgator is the exception: You can drag and drop feeds and folders in its navigator bar.)

The other big disadvantage is customization. With Web-based readers, what you see is pretty much what you get. Locally installed apps like Feed Demon (from Newsgator Technologies, the same company that offers -- surprise! -- Newsgator), offer such interface niceties as s a three-panel interface and let you individualize the display of the feed entries.

In this roundup, I look at three of the top Web-based RSS readers: Google's updated Google Reader, Bradbury Software's Newsgator Online, and Bloglines from IAC Search & Media, the parent company of All three are available for free, although Newsgator is also offered in a fuller-featured paid-service version called Newsgator Online Premium.

Keep in mind that there are three things that a good RSS reader must do well. First, it must make it easy to find RSS feeds and subscribe to, manage, and display feed entries in ways that make sense to you. Each of these three readers handles read and unread items differently, for example. There isn't any right way or wrong way, but one of them may work better for you, and it's easy to try them all out.Second, an RSS reader must provide knowledge management tools to help you prioritize and categorize entries so that information can be put away and found again. This can be as simple as marking an entry "Keep New" so it doesn't disappear from the feed, as Bloglines does it, or the much more complex and useful tagging features of Google Reader.

And finally, an RSS reader should support collaboration by giving you a variety of ways to communicate both the information in the entries and the metadata: the blogroll (the list of subscribed feeds), the original URLs of the source entries, any categories and tags you apply, and comments.

These are the standards by which all RSS readers must be judged. I took a look to see how these three Web readers measured up.

BloglinesIs Bloglines an RSS reader with features especially tailored to publishing a blog, or an online blogging tool that's particularly strong on RSS features? Either way it's one of the older Web-based readers, having been launched in 2003 and bought by in 2005.

Bloglines builds on its RSS reader functions by allowing you to publish a blog from within the application. Its blog-creation tools give a whole new meaning to "basic:" it lacks almost every control over presentation and formatting of your blog entry. But it includes a number of nice features for creating a blog entry from an item in an RSS feed: You can publish a blog item directly from the feed entry, or add it to a workspace labeled "Clippings" and work on it there before you add it to the blog.

Adding a subscription is easy. Bloglines can locate RSS feed URLs in Web pages and offer a selection of what it finds. You can also import an OPML file to set up your subscriptions, and add a subscription bookmarklet to your browser toolbar.

Because Bloglines is a Web-based app, all users' subscribed feeds pass through its servers, and it takes advantage of this to add a couple of very powerful features. A "Related Feeds" button helps you discover other RSS feeds that cover similar topics. Click it and you'll see a list to preview and choose from. The other is a search engine that's focused on blog entries.

You can install a notifier application (there's a variant for most operating systems) that will pop up to notify you when new items are added to your feeds. You can also set up e-mail subscriptions, so that as Bloglines finds new items they are sent to your e-mail.

Once you've subscribed to a feed, you have some control over the display of its entries, but only some. You can set read/unread status, and choose to display the entire entry, a summary, or just the title. If you want to see text but not pictures, for example, you're out of luck. Particularly frustrating in Bloglines is the inability to display the entry's permalink or original URL.

A "Clippings" feature allows you to copy an entry to a separate navigation pane labeled "Clippings" and even sort clipped entries into folders as a way of categorizing them, but there is no categorizing feature to equate with the flexibility of Google Reader's tags.

Bloglines seems almost overloaded with features. There is a mobile service available, for example, for the tiny, tiny screen of your cell phone, and you can subscribe to a package delivery service's waybill just the way you subscribe to a blog, and track your package from the navigation bar just like the other feeds.Bottom line: Bloglines is good on the input side. It makes discovering and subscribing to an RSS feed very easy, and provides better-than average help in suggesting feeds. It is feature-rich, with things like package tracking and notification, but pays for this with a cluttered look. It is weak on the display of feed entries, and it doesn't give you much room for tweaking its UI. It's on the output side that Bloglines does best, with its integrated blog.

Google Reader
If you like Google's Gmail, you'll probably love Google Reader. It looks very much like its e-mail cousin, mostly because it uses the same cool blue color scheme, same intelligent choices of type sizes, and same uncluttered interface.

In fact, the interface is so clean it sometimes doesn't adequately indicate the power of the application. Adding a feed is a case in point. Clicking on the "Add feed" button brings up a dialog box that asks for a URL or a search term. Very vanilla. But what lurks behind the box, of course, is Google.

Enter a search term and Google Search gives you back a list of hits that contain RSS feed links. Unfortunately there's no "Preview" button, but a single click subscribes you. If you can't think of a search term there's a "Browse" link that expands into a collection of packaged sets of subscriptions to blogs on various topics. The reader also offers the tools you would expect for easy subscription creation, such as the import and export of OPML files, and a "Subscribe" bookmarklet for your browser toolbar.

RSS Readers

•  Introduction•  Bloglines•  Google Reader

•  Newsgator Online

Google Reader presents feed entries in two formats: a list of one-line headline entries or an expanded item format. You can't do much with the screen display except switch between the two views, but there's a lot of clever help for working your way through feed entries here nonetheless.

The application assigns read and unread status differently depending on the way an entry is displayed. In the list view, an entry is marked read when you open it, or you can mark all the entries in the feed as read. In the expanded view, entries are marked read only as you scroll down the list, so items off the bottom of the screen that you haven't seen yet remain unread. And in either case, you can clear the "read" mark on any entry to keep it in the feed listing. (Bloglines has a similar "mark new" trick to keep entries in view.)In list view you can expand any entry by clicking on it, and close it up again to see the list by hitting Enter. There's also a nice list of keyboard shortcuts for navigating the entries and using the reader's categorization tools.

Google Reader gives you many more ways of slicing and dicing the information you're seeing than the other two readers. You can display individual feeds in the navigation pane, or sort them into folders. You can categorize feed entries by adding a star to the list entry, adding the entry to your "Shared Items" page, or tagging entries with keywords -- and you can use multiple keywords on an entry. The tags show up in the navigation pane as virtual folders.

Google Reader gives you a couple of ways of communicating the results of your knowledge-management activities. One is the "Shared Items" page, built automatically as you mark feed entries as shared. This page has a Web address you can share with others (it can be subscribed to via RSS, as well). The other way uses the tags and some knowledge of HTML. In the Settings menu for tags you'll find that if you make a collection of entries (not only the "Shared Items" but starred items, tagged items, and folders) public, you can grab JavaScript code that, when added to a Web page, will display a linked list of entry titles. You can configure the title, color scheme and number of items displayed -- and it's available for any number of collections.

Bottom line: Google Reader is the winner for helping you cope with the flood of RSS-delivered information in its intelligently designed interface. While it lacks the blogging integration of Bloglines, its unlimited sharing of collections via embedded JavaScript in other Web pages is very powerful.

NewsGator Online
Newsgator Online is a product of Newsgator Technologies, the same company that publishes the FeedDemon RSS reader application. Newsgator Online offers the most limited feature set of the three readers reviewed here, probably because it is obviously intended to serve as a free sample of the fuller-featured Newsgator Online Premium, available for $19.95 a year. (In another sense, Newsgator may be the most customizable of the three readers -- it's the only one to offer an application programming interface.)

The free version of Newsgator offers a full set of services for finding and subscribing to feeds. There is a "Subscribe" bookmarklet, and you can install a "subscribe to this feed" function that appears on Internet Explorer's context menu and is accessible with a right mouseclick. The reader offers extensive browsing and recommendations for discovering feeds. There is also a "Smart Feed" option: You can set up a search of the feeds that pass through the Newsgator servers, and display the search results as another feed in Newsgator. Uniquely among the three readers, Newsgator Online will manage credentials for feeds that require a login and password.However, Newsgator's user interface is the least customizable of the three readers. It shows each entry in an expanded view along with a row of icons for actions you can take -- mark it as read, add it to a Clippings folder, email it, IM it, or view or add comments. It also displays a set of ratings stars which work only for items rated in Newsgator's own rating system (you can install the ratings applet on your blog or Web site from the Settings menu.)

Newsgator Online has features that let you use it as a communication and publishing tool, but not as flexibly as Google Reader's shared lists or Blogline's blog. Your Clippings page is automatically formatted as an RSS feed that you can make public, accessible to anyone, or keep private, requiring your login and password for access. If you want to share your Clippings page, just make it public, copy the link that appears at the bottom of the page. and e-mail it to whomever you like.

Other output methods are available if you search for them (they're semi-hidden under the "Edit Locations" tab in the Settings menu). In addition to a standard OPML export function, you can publish your subscription entries as a "Headlines" list in other Web pages in a manner similar to Google Reader's list publication feature -- you format the list in Newsgator Online's settings menu. (The entry format is written in HTML and uses tags for objects like the entry headline and description, and because it's HTML you can include text and images to the limits of your coding skills.)

You don't have much control over which entries get published other than to select a number of entries to include, and the number of characters of the text of each entry that is included. To make the list appear in a Web page embed a line of JavaScript code in that page. You can publish your blogroll in the same manner, with the same formatting controls.

Bottom line: If you like to fiddle with your feeds, Newsgator's subscription features and drag-and-drop interface for the navigation bar will be to your liking, but the lack of a customizable entry display and limited information management and collaboration options put Newsgator Online at a disadvantage compared to Bloglines and Google Reader.0

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