June 26, 2006

Reading feeds efficiently with Akregator

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Information overload is a serious problem for most users. We all have so many sources of information to deal with, it's hard to keep them under control. One way to help deal with information glut is to use a good RSS and Atom feed reader, such as Akregator.

One of the reasons I decided to start using Akregator is that I noticed the Sage extension for Firefox would throw an "XML Parse Error" on a few feeds that other readers -- like Akregator -- handle just fine. For example, Sage gives me an error on the Kubuntu feed, but Akregator parses it just fine. (In fairness, the Feed Validator shows that the feed has some issues, but they don't seem that serious.)

I tried Google Reader for a while, but it's slow and its management tools are lacking. At one point, I decided I'd like to delete all of the feeds I read and start fresh, since I'd gotten to more than 200 feed subscriptions. Unfortunately, the only way to zap all of the feeds is to do it one by one. Using the Google Reader interface, this would be an all-day project -- but I can do it in about 10 seconds with Akregator.

Akregator handles RSS and Atom feeds, and hasn't had any problems with the feeds I subscribe to so far. Akregator acts as a Web browser as well. You can open articles in tabs within Akregator (or in other browsers) and view them as you would in Konqueror or Firefox.

Importing feeds into Akregator

Akregator can parse standard Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML) files, and export them as well. So, if you've been using another feed reader for any amount of time, you can usually just export the OPML file and slurp it into Akregator.

To import a feed, just go to File -> Import Feeds, and tell Akregator what feed you want to import.

If you don't have an OPML file, or just want to add a single feed, the easiest way to do that is to browse a site in Konqueror. At the bottom-left corner, you'll see an orange icon if Konqueror detects a feed. Click the orange button and select the "add feed to Akregator" button. Some sites have multiple feed formats, such as RSS 2.0 and Atom. I usually select RSS 2.0, but I haven't seen any evidence that indicates either is superior.

Finally, if you have the URL for a feed, but Konqueror doesn't detect it, you can add the feed manually by going to Feed -> Add Feed, or just press the Insert key, which is the Add Feed shortcut by default. You'll be prompted for the feed URL, and then Akregator will give you the properties dialog for the feed. Click OK, and the feed will be added to Akregator.

Using Akregator

The user interface for Akregator is like that of any feed reader. Feeds are listed on the left side, and clicking on one of the feeds brings up the list of posts from the feed. Akregator has three modes -- a normal mode, a widescreen mode, and a combined mode. You can choose one by going to View -> View Mode and selecting whichever mode you prefer.

The normal mode has a three-paned view with the list of feeds on the left, the list of posts in the top right pane, and the post content in the bottom-right pane. The widescreen mode puts feeds in the left pane, posts in a middle pane, and content in the right pane. Combined mode has feeds on the left side, and shows all current posts in a feed on the right side. I prefer to use the normal mode, because it allows you to skim through posts more quickly and skip posts that don't look interesting.

What if you want to browse sites in Firefox rather than Konqueror? No problem. Go to Settings -> Configure Akregator and then select Browser when the Configure Akregator dialog opens. You can configure Akregator to open links in a tab within Akregator, in KDE's default browser (usually Konqueror), or in another external browser.

To make things more convenient, you can configure Akregator to open links in a different application, depending on whether you click the link with the left mouse button or middle mouse button. I have Akregator set to open links in a Akregator tab when I left-click, and in Firefox with a middle-click.

Akregator also archives feeds. The default setting is to keep all archives, which might get a bit unwieldy if you subscribe to dozens or hundreds of feeds. You can configure Akregator to expire articles after a certain amount of time (I use 30 days), limit the feed size to an arbitrary number of articles, or simply disable archiving all together. To configure Akregator's archiving settings, go to Settings -> Configure Akregator and choose Archive.

Akregator has an option under Archive to keep articles marked "important." Akregator allows you to tag an article as important -- the default shortcut for this is Ctrl-i -- and you can view feeds marked important by selecting Important from the Status drop-down menu on the right side.

Navigating Akregator

To make feed reading faster, Akregator supports keyboard navigation shortcuts, so that you don't need to touch the mouse to move through feeds and articles.

Moving between folders is as simple as using n to get to the next feed, and p to navigate to the previous feed. If you want to skip through unread feeds, use Alt-+ for the next unread feed, and Alt-- for the previous unread feed.

For article navigation, use the right arrow to move to the next article, and the left arrow to move to the previous article. To move between unread articles, use + for the next article and - for the previous article.

To mark all of the articles in a folder as read, use Ctrl-r.

If the shortcuts seem a bit unintuitive to you, you can modify them by going to Settings -> Configure Shortcuts.

Customizing individual feeds

Some feeds may be more important to you than others. For example, who can get through a day without an update from Cute Overload? If you want to be notified as soon as there's an update to one of your favorite feeds, right-click on the feed folder and select Edit Feed to open the feed properties dialog. On the first tab, General, you have options to configure a custom update interval, and to enable notifications when new articles arrive.

One of the reasons I prefer a feed reader is to save time -- I can skim through the text of a bunch of articles much more quickly than by loading the entire site. But some sites just need to be viewed in full. For example, 3hive.com is much better when viewing the full site rather than just the feed -- viewing the full site preserves the links for the MP3s, whereas the feed doesn't show links for the MP3s.

To enable the full site view, go back to the Edit Feed dialog and select Advanced. Check the "Load the full website when reading articles" radio button, and you'll get to see the site in its full glory. Of course, this also means you'll see the ads and have a longer download time, so I'd recommend sticking with the feed view for most sites.

Maybe you have a site you'd like to keep archives for indefinitely, or maybe you want to disable archiving for a particularly active site? The properties dialog allows you to customize the way the feed is archived as well. Just go to the Archive tab, and customize the settings to your heart's content.

Summary

I really like Akregator, but it's not perfect. In particular, I have a few gripes about the combined mode -- I don't see any way to mark individual articles as important when reading in that mode. Also, if you try to read a bunch of feeds in combined mode, it usually takes Akregator a few seconds (or more) to generate the combined page. If you've been out of town for a few days and try to read a bunch of feeds in combined mode, the wait is noticeable. Finally, Akregator doesn't provide any method that I've been able to find to mark a single article as "read" when reading in combined mode. You can mark the entire feed as read, but not a single article.

It's a shame that combined mode doesn't work better, because it's a really convenient way to skim through a bunch of feeds at once.

Overall, though, Akregator is one of the best free software feed readers that I've tried. It's a particularly good choice for KDE users, since it integrates so well with Konqueror and other KDE applications.

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