This website covers topics on knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

RSS Bandit - exploring a new RSS reader

RSS_Bandit_final.256.logoI've known about RSS Bandit for many years, and even reported my impressions on it four years ago (here and here).  Happily the developers have continued pursuing this open source project and have added a few new capabilities.  Here are some of my thoughts from experimenting with RSS Bandit once again after a couple years of using Google Reader.

The biggest feature that keeps me intrigued about RSS Bandit: threading of other items within my feeds that reference one another.  (It also threads in articles from outside my feeds, but I haven't figured out the algorithm for how it decides links that should be threaded in or not.)

There are a couple other features that caught my eye when I went to see if RSS Bandit was still alive.  One, you can synchronize with Google Reader.  This makes it even easier to switch between the two readers for testing - it synchronizes both the reading status AND any subscription changes.  Two, just as you can sync with Google Reader, there is also the capability to sync with NewsGator Online, Microsoft Feedlist (Outlook / Internet Explorer feeds), and even with Facebook.  I'm sure there are other cool features that I have yet to explore or find interesting.

So, what are my impressions thus far?

First off, the threading.  It works.  In one instance, the threading even brought in a post that wasn't in any of my feeds but that was referenced in a couple.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well as I would like it to do, and I think this has to do with a couple of factors.  The biggest factor has to do with the amount of blogging people do these days: there is just less blogging happening in general, so there are fewer common links between the articles.  On a technical side of things, scanning content for links and deciding what should be threaded isn't easy, so there has to be a trade-off in how far RSS Reader goes with this.  That said, RSS Bandit leans to the limited depth side.  (I have the sense that SharpReader pulled in more at the cost of speed.)

The synchronization with Google Reader is pretty good: my feeds and folders copied from GR into RSS Bandit, and I made a few changes in RSS Bandit and they appeared in GR.  Unfortunately, the synchronization does not include my "Friends Shared Items."  I think that's because Google doesn't publish an RSS or OPML file of that set of Shared Items, so that I could use it in RSS Bandit.  I think the only way to make it work would be to manually copy the feed of Shared Items from each of the people I follow - far too much work, and not synchronized with Google Reader.  The other nice-to-have would be an integration with the Google Shared capability, so I could share items directly from the reader, as I can in Google Reader.  (There are plugins for sharing to Delicious or blogging tools, so this could probably be written.)

I tried the sync with Facebook, and after a couple authorization issues, it worked okay.  It pulls in the Facebook news feed, including application updates that I've set to "hide" in Facebook proper.  I also like to wander around Facebook at random, so the News feed by itself probably doesn't make sense for me.

The other big benefit of stand-alone readers is that it's much easier to use them in an offline mode.  Just download all the new content and put them into "offline" mode, and you can catch up on the latest news while you are in the train or flying or the like.

The user interface in any new application take some getting used to (standards!).  There are some unusual keyboard shortcuts, but at least they are available - and customizable for those who wish to do so.  If I had the energy, I would make a number of shortcuts much more Windows-standard.  (Can I set a shortcut for "Email This" that appears when I right-click on an article in the list view?)  Very important shortcut for threaded discussions: I just discovered the shortcut for "expand thread of active article": when a threaded article is highlighted, the right arrow expands the thread and the left arrow collapses it. 

There are a few user interface items in RSS Bandit that surprise me more than I would hope.

  • Space bar-to-next item gives you items in chronological order, even though the default sort in the list view and the newspaper view is reverse-chronological.  In other words, if there are 20 items in a listing, space bar takes you to the "last" one in the listing, which happens to be the oldest.  I recall this from my previous experience with RSS Bandit.  This is an explicit design decision in RSS Bandit.
  • Space bar-to-next item doesn't always keep me in the same list view.  I might be in the "all unread" view, hit space bar and RSS Bandit will jump me into the view of a single feed and select the oldest unread article there.  This appears to be a conflict between the "newspaper" view which shows all unread in one stream vs. the list view, where you pick one article at a time to view.
  • The number of unread items displayed (for my Google Reader Feeds) is not consistent with the number of actual unread items.  If I am on the Unread Items list and hit space bar after reading the (apparently) last unread, RSS Bandit takes me to yet another article in a feed that isn't mentioned.
  • It does not appear to be possible to turn off "toasts" the alerts that appear when RSS Bandit downloads new items.  Oh, wait, I can turn off Alerts in the right-click options on the RSS Bandit icon in the Notifications area.  No mention of this option in the Options window, and not in the individual feed properties either (as described in the Help).  Alerts are a definite no-no for me: I don't want anything that purposefully pulls me away from the task at hand.
  • One can customize the column views in the article listing, which is good (I like to see the author name, for example).  However, when I jump away from one of the category views and then come back, that customized view vanishes.  And when I restarted my computer, the view customizations for categories had vanished entirely.  The customizations for feeds was still there.  Frustrating.
  • I would like there to be a "all feeds" view, which doesn't seem to exist.  I can see all feeds in one folder or category, but I can't see all of the feeds together.  This isn't critical since there is an "all unread" view. 
  • The folders and feeds within them are listed alphabetically.  I like to rearrange the folders to emphasize which folders I like to peruse first when catching up on news.  This is not a critical issue, but certainly a nice-to-have.

I have asked a number of these UI questions in the RSS Bandit forum, so maybe I'll get a better understanding there.

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