April 26, 2005

Firefox news readers run the gamut

Author: Kevin Quiggle

Mozilla's Firefox browser includes a built-in capability (Live Bookmarks) for working with news feeds. However, there are numerous news reading extensions available that provide a full range of additional capabilities, from "just the basics" to options for managing and using collections of news feeds.

First, a few words about news feeds, which are a relatively new option on many Web sites. A news feed provides a specially formatted list of current articles, together with summarized article text and other information. The availability of a news feed on a Web site is typically signaled by the presence of a small orange RSS or XML icon. Whether you use it or not, Firefox always signals the presence of a news feed on a Web page by displaying a Live Bookmark icon.

To use a site's news feed effectively, you need a news reader to display the information. The news readers reviewed here fall into three broad categories: The lightweights, which provide only basic news reading features; the heavyweights, for managing larger news feed collections; and specialty news readers designed for a specific type of news feed. All are available via the Firefox extensions option, or directly at the News Reading Extensions Web page.

Lightweight news readers

Live Bookmarks is the easy-to-use built-in news reader for Firefox. The browser tells you when a news feed is available by displaying a special icon in the status bar at the lower right side of the browser; just click on the icon to add a feed to your bookmarks list. The best way to use Live Bookmarks is to have the Bookmarks Sidebar open; it is then a simple matter to see a list of headlines and select the ones you want. You can click on a headline to see the full article.

Live Bookmarks is easy to use because there is nothing to configure and no options to choose. Unfortunately, this also means that there is no way to customize it to your particular needs. Still, it's a painless introduction to news feeds, and a good way to get started.

InfoRSS is a simple news reader on the surface, but it offers numerous options for customizing it to your needs. InfoRSS installs initially as a scrolling list in the status bar at the bottom of the Firefox window. You click on a scrolling headline to view the related article in a browser window, and right-click to start or stop the scrolling. This is a nice method for displaying headlines from a specific site, but if you have more than a few news feeds to monitor, switching from one feed to another is somewhat unwieldy.

InfoRSS is easy to install and use as is, but if you want to change something, just right-click on the scroller icon to set options, including the size and location of the scrolling window, the scrolling speed, background color, and numerous others.

Heavyweight news readers

FeedView is actually a sort of "light heavyweight" news reader. It works somewhat like Live Bookmarks in that it uses its own bookmarks folder together with the Bookmarks sidebar. You select a news feed from this folder, and headlines and article summaries will display in a browser window. FeedView uses CSS style sheets to format the displayed headlines (it comes with four built in) so you can choose the style of the display, and if you know CSS, you can also create your own style sheets. In addition to styles, there are two basic options -- show or hide article dates, and adjust the article length displayed. This is a nicely done extension, but it would be easier to use if some instructions were provided for first-time users.

Habari Xenu is in my opinion the best Firefox news reader available today. The name, the author explains, means "What's up?" in the Kiswahili language. Habari Xenu starts up with a configuration wizard that walks the first-time user through the initial setup options. As with some of the other news readers, it uses the Bookmarks folder to store your news feed links, but it displays the links in a special sidebar that shows only your news feeds. You can create your own subfolders within the Habari Xenu folder to organize your news feeds. As a further aid to use, news feeds in the folder are shown in bold if you have not yet accessed them during the current viewing session. If you have many news feeds, this is a great help in keeping track of which ones you have already checked.

On first use, Habari Xenu provides a short list of sample news feeds. You can add to, change, and delete items in the list. First-time users will also find built in "how to" instructions for getting started. Other useful features include the ability to add a toolbar icon (using the Firefox option to customize your toolbar); alternatively, you can activate Habari Xenu from the Tools menu. More advanced users will like the option to import or export news feeds as OPML files; this makes it easy to share news feed lists with others, or to migrate a list of news feeds to another Firefox installation. Habari Xenu development is ongoing, so expect to see more features and improvements in the future.

Sage is also an excellent news reader with much to recommend it. Upon installation, it adds a "Sage" option the View/Sidebar menu; the Sidebar displays only the relevant news feeds folder, making it easy to select and manage your news feeds. Sage has a number of advanced features: It will autodiscover any news feed links in the currently displayed browser window; it is integrated with the Firefox Live Bookmarks feature; it uses customizable style sheets; and it offers OPML import and export. Many people will find this a worthy alternative to Hebraic Xenu, although it is handicapped by a lack of basic instructions for new users.

The Wizz RSS News Reader offers some unique features: A built in "public list" of news feeds (which the user cannot change or delete), and "personal lists" hosted on the Wizz server. The idea behind the hosted lists is that users can access their list from anywhere in the world, on any system, just by entering their account name and password. Unfortunately, I found that in actual use this news reader was not as easy to use as some others. I also found the inability to remove or change the public list somewhat annoying -- after all, one of the best features about Firefox is that I can customize it to my liking.

Specialty news readers

AlphaTicker is basically a "demo extension" with few usable features unless you purchase a more full-featured version. Unfortunately the demo version was so crippled, I could not effectively evaluate it.

StockQuote is supposed to give you access to stock information from financial sites of your choice. However, I was not able to install it in Firefox 1.03, as the installer reported it as "not compatible with this version of Firefox."

StockTicker displays stock information in the status bar (or in the toolbar -- your choice), one stock at a time from a rotating list. You can select the list of stocks you want to view, and click on a quote to launch a Web page of detailed information. The detail pages default to Yahoo Finance, but you can change it.

Last words

News readers belong to that list of ideas (like tabbed browsing) that are so simple in concept that you can't fully understand the benefits until you actually experience them. Like tabbed browsing, news readers allow you to do things you could already do, but with greater ease and speed. With such a range of worthwhile news readers for Firefox, any user ought to be able to find something suitable, and begin enjoying the benefits of custom news feeds.

Click Here!