January 2, 2007

infoRSS: An unobtrusive RSS feed manager for Thunderbird and Firefox

Author: Dmitri Popov

With so many RSS aggregators to choose from, you can pick the one that fits your specific needs. If you don't want to install anything on your machine and you need to be able to access your news feeds from anywhere, you can opt for a Web-based solution like Netvibes. If you prefer a dedicated desktop RSS reader chock-full of features, then something like RSSOwl or BlogBridge is the way to go. But if you don't want to get used to a whole new application, you might want to give infoRSS a try. Unlike other RSS aggregators, infoRSS is a Thunderbird/Firefox extension that runs inside your email client or browser.

On the face of it, infoRSS looks like a no-frills RSS tool that simply places a tiny newsticker at the bottom of the main window. But if you dig deeper, you will discover that this tiny tool offers an impressive set of features.

For starters, infoRSS offers several nifty tools for managing multiple feeds. If you are migrating from another RSS aggregator, you will appreciate infoRSS's ability to import OPML files. To do this, right-click on the infoRSS icon (or choose Tools -> Extensions -> infoRSS and press the Options button), then click on the Advanced tab and select Repository. In the Import OPML section, you can choose whether you want to import a local or remote OPML file and whether you want to replace or keep the existing feeds.

Figure 1 - click to enlarge

When installed in Firefox, infoRSS automatically detects RSS feeds in the currently viewed page and adds them to the menu. If you prefer to add feeds manually, you can do so in a number of ways. Copying a feed link into the clipboard makes it automatically available in infoRSS, and you can quickly add the feed by clicking on the infoRSS icon and selecting the link, as shown in Figure 1. Alternatively, you can drag the link's icon in the Firefox address bar onto the infoRSS icon, and you can do this even if infoRSS is installed in Thunderbird.

You can also open the Option window and add the feed manually using the New feed button under the Basic tab in the Feed/Group section. This section has a couple of clever tools that can help you to keep tabs on the feeds. Using the New group button, you can group the existing feeds by theme or other criteria. For example, you can create separate groups for feeds covering Open Source, Language, Research, etc.

Figure 2 - click to enlarge

Filters is another nifty feature that can be particularly useful to sift through hundreds of RSS articles. For example, if you want to view only OpenOffice.org-related articles in the Linux.com feed, press on the Filters tab, select the Linux.com feed from the top-most drop-down list, and specify one or several conditions. In this case, you might want to create at least one condition where RSS headlines must include the "openoffice.org" string (Figure 2).

Under the Settings tab, you can tweak the available options for each feed. Here you can specify how many news articles infoRSS should display and how often the feed should be refreshed, among other things. Besides that, the Headlines area and Headlines style sections under the Basics tab offer tools to customize the overall appearance of the newsticker area.

If you have several computers with infoRSS installed, you will appreciate the aggregator's ability to synchronize RSS data between them using a WebDAV or FTP server. To set up synchronization preferences, click on the Advanced tab in the Options window, select the Synchronization section, and enter the required connection info. To test the connection, press the Export to remote button, and if everything works properly, you should see a notification window. If you don't want to synchronize the data manually, you can enable the Auto synchronization option.

Once you've added the feeds and configured all the settings, infoRSS is ready to go. The newsticker displays all the articles in the currently selected feed or group, and you can view a summary of a particular news item by hovering the mouse over it. Click on the article, and it opens in a separate window for your reading pleasure. You can pause the newsticker as well as go to the next or previous feeds by using the buttons on the infoRSS toolbar. The Filter button allows you to quickly filter articles in the current feed using the specified criteria. This feature can come in handy if you want to create a quick-and-dirty temporary filter without fiddling with different settings.

Whether you find infoRSS useful or not depends largely on your RSS reading habits. If you prefer to have all of your RSS feeds in front of you, and you take your time going through them, then infoRSS is probably not the right tool for you. However, if you prefer to get a quick update on the latest RSS news when you check email or browse the Web, then infoRSS might be just the utility you are looking for.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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