September 10, 2003

AmphetaDesk: A hopped-up RSS reader


- by Lee Schlesinger -
Having researched RSS and RSS readers, I was eager to put one to the test. I tried a few and stuck with AmphetaDesk, a Perl-based package that displays entries on a Web page. It has a few quirks, but it was relatively easy to set up -- and it saves me time over the alternative of visiting the various
sites I now monitor.

AmphetaDesk's Readme file contained all the information I needed to get the application running. The process uses CPAN, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network, to download and install some necessary Perl modules. I had to install an additional module, Compress::Zlib, which was not documented in the installation instructions, but it was easy to figure out what to do based on the error messages I received. Once all the Perl modules were in place, executing the program was a snap.

While the AmphetaDesk Perl script is running, opening up a browser and pointing it to port 8888 on localhost brings up AmphetaDesk's main interface. Its Home page displays the entries for your subscribed feeds, or channels in AmphetaDesk parlance. Another page lets you add new channels by specifying the URL of their RSS XML files, or by checking a box next to entries from an extensive list of feeds it already knows about. Other screens let you remove channels to which you subscribed and tailor certain program settings.

AmphetaDesk's default look is a little too bright and busy for me. The main color is orange peel with thin horizontal lines running through it. Luckily, you can easily change AmphetaDesk's look if you don't like it. I found two nice skins. AmphetaOutlines changes the flat display of every item into a collapsable view of channels, items, and descriptions. It's great for saving screen space, but doesn't do much about the egregious color scheme. For that I turned to Joe Gergorio's dynamic skin, which not only mutes the color scheme, but displays all but the first line of each item in tiny type. By combining the two, and tweaking the color assignments, I came up with a look I can tolerate.

Another nice feature of AmphetaDesk is that it runs on Linux, Windows, and Macintosh platforms, so if you have to run one operating system at work but prefer another at home, you can still run the same familiar application.

Some of the other RSS reader products I tried were Java-based. If you don't already have a Java virtual machine running, you have a couple of extra hoops to jump through to install the VM or the Java Runtime Environment before you can use them. The Java-based clevercactus beta software looks quite promising. It displays feed in a three-pane view as part of a larger application that offers email, contact management, calendar, and task list functions. Another interesting application is BottomFeeder, which is written not in Java but VisualWorks Smalltalk. It too offers a three-pane view, but only for RSS feeds. However, you can add plug-ins to the application for other tasks, including MSN Messenger and an IRC client, which lets you stay in the BottomFeeder application for more tasks.

There are also a number of RSS readers for Windows as well. But RSS is one application for which, thanks to open standards, the operating system isn't of primary importance.


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