News reader shootout

As many of you will probably have seen, a new news reader called PulpFiction was released last week. I've been a long-time user of NetNewsWire Lite, and have dabbled with Shrook, so I decided the time had come to do a comparison of the two new kids on the scene. NetNewsWire 2 is in beta, and seems to have a lot of great new features slated for development, but since I don't have access to it I won't include it in my comparison.

Both applications are modelled on existing Apple applications which serve other purposes, and therefore have a slightly different approach to the task of reading feeds than the one that has traditionally been used. PulpFiction mimics Mail, with all of the subscribed feeds showing up in an 'inbox'. For those of us who subscribe to more than half a dozen feeds, inbox can get pretty crowded, which is where Filters come in. Just as with Mail, Filters can be set up to divert feeds fulfilling particular criteria (words in the title or the URL, the date or so on) into another folder — more on this filtering concept later. In contrast, Shrook takes some ideas from iTunes, and keeps all your subscriptions in a Library, with playlist-like containers to separate out particular kinds of feeds. Again, you can collect feeds into playlists on the basis of attributes of the feed, but — crucially — you can also set up the equivalent of a static playlist by dragging feeds from the library. In this respect, I much prefer the behaviour of Shrook. You can drag individual articles into folders in PulpFiction, but not whole feeds. Filters are all very well when there is some attribute common to the feeds you want to group together, but for a category like 'blogs' there is nothing I can think of that would pull all the feeds into the same filter. And yet 'blogs' is a useful subdivision for me. PulpFiction can be set up to collect together an arbitrary collection of named feeds, but you have to add each one individually, and using a dynamic filter for this purpose just seems mad.

Both applications allow you to mark or flag items to read later, and provide easy ways for you to view them. Both also seem to allow you to hang onto articles (PulpFiction certainly does, and I think Shrook does too). This can be important because most feeds only show you the last 15-20 articles. If you're away from your computer for a few days, several articles might have come and gone by the time you get around to checking again. I don't know whether I would want to hang on to articles indefinitely (news feeds aren't quite like email in that respect, in my opinion), but it is useful for them to stick around until you've read them.

The Windows are laid out quite differently in Shrook and PulpFiction. The latter uses the Mail model of a main window divided horizontally, with the list of articles at the top and a preview of the content below, and the filters/folders in a drawer to the side of the window. Shrook has a rather wide window with up to 6 columns showing the playlists/sources on the left, then the channel, the article and the content. When I last tried Shrook, this window would resize itself as you paged through all the new articles, which was really distracting. I'm happy to say that it doesn't do that any more. Furthermore, if you are concentrating on one playlist/source, you can use a keyboard shortcut to simplify the display to just the articles and the content (or the originating web page if you choose that option). PulpFiction lets you view web pages within the application too, but uses a separate window.

I must just mention a feature of PulpFiction that I think is really innovative; you can use custom CSS stylesheets and HTML templates to view the content of articles. For example, you can use the template to display the date, author, and URL of the web page in the content itself. This goes a long way to address one of the big problems of reading content via RSS or Atom feeds; you can get a bit disorientated without the visual signature that the design of the web site itself provides, and forget whose writing you happen to be reading right now. It's very slick and clever.

Overall, I think that I much prefer the Shrook way of doing things, even though PulpFiction has some nice features. I can see the thinking behind the Mail analogy of PulpFiction, but that isn't how I view or use RSS, and so it just doesn't seem to work for me.

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