Feed reader shootout

Since restarting this fascination with feeds, I’ve struggled to find a feed reader that I truly love. A lot of feed reading software is just plain dismal, and not even worth mentioning, but I’ve found three that are pretty good. They’re not great. They have some really good features, but they’re balanced by some quirks and idiosyncrasies that are just maddening. Here are some brief reviews, followed by a more direct comparison of features.

FeedReader

A screenshot of the feed reader named FeedReader. It is displaying snippets of blog posts in a column, while a single post is opened the read.
The feed reader named FeedReader.

Of the feed readers I keep using, I probably use FeedReader the least. I really want to like it, because the article view, seen in the image above, is very aesthetically pleasing. But the view above is more or less the only view there is. In the left column is the menu with the feeds. To the right of that is a column showing all the articles in a given feed, and the rest of the window is taken up with an article that the user has chosen to read. There are no options to change the views. It’s annoying, and if the view weren’t so nice looking, it might be a dealbreaker.

When the software is first run, it asks if the user wants to add a feed reading service, such as FeedBurner or Google Reader. I choose local RSS, so I can keep track of the feeds locally, without needing to subscribe to yet another service.

It’s easy to add and remove feeds in FeedReader. They can be added individually or by importing an OPML file, which is sort of a standard file format among feed reading software. Feeds can also be removed individually, or in groups, but I haven’t found a way to delete all feeds at once. This is a useful feature to have when one wants to delete all feeds before importing a new set of feeds via OPML. Also, although it’s possible to import OPML files, it isn’t possible to export them. What’s the point of making the software understand OPML files, but not be able to export such files?

Probably the most annoying issue with FeedReader is that apostrophes, quotation marks, and some other punctuation are used in titles, they get rendered as diamonds with a question marks in them. It’s as if the software doesn’t recognize punctuation marks, and doesn’t know what to do with them. This hasn’t been an issue with other software on my computer, so it’s unlikely the computer is the problem.

Feedbro

A screenshot of Feedbro showing many articles arranged in a table with three columns. Each article displays the headline, a snippet of text, and an image. On the left side of the window is a menu showing several other feeds the can be selected for reading.
A view of a feed in the Feedbro plugin for Firefox.

A feed reader I use fairly often is Feedbro, which is a plugin available for most major desktop browsers. The fact that it’s a plugin is slightly annoying, but it undoubtedly helps when it comes to importing bookmarks to look for feeds. On the other hand, it easily handles all the problems I have with FeedReader, and has some additional features to boot.

First of all, it has several different viewing modes, so the user can choose how they want the feeds presented. My personal preference is to have it show each article in a card, as in the image above. It’s very neat and tidy, and there’s a blue line to call attention to the latest post. Clicking on the card will open the post in Feedbro, but clicking on the headline will open the post in a new tab in the browser.

Although adding a service like FeedBurner doesn’t seem to be an option, I’m not sure it’s necessary. Feedbro has a feature that allows users to search for feeds without needing to use an outside service. I’m not sure where they get this information, but it’s pretty good for finding feeds that might otherwise escape notice. It’s not exhaustive, because there have been a few instances where I couldn’t find a feed in this search, but was able to find it by going to the website where the feed originates.

Adding feeds is slightly more involved in Feedbro than it is in Feedburner, because Feedbro offers more options, such as choosing to get snippets or full text. That said, it’s not as if adding feeds is cumbersome. I usually get the feed URL from the website, then add it in Feedbro. Feedbro then fetches the information from the website and offers the chance to edit the name of the feed, decide how often to check the website for new posts, and how many entries to save. It also offers the chance to enter a username and password for feeds that require an actual subscription. Fluent Reader

Feedbro can import bookmarks via OPML files, and export OPML files as well. It also offers the option of deleting all feeds and folders at one time, which is something I like to do before importing an OPML file. Because I use more than one feed reader on more than one computer, I keep the feeds I like in a single OPML file. A few months ago, when trying out the different feed readers, I would have some feeds in one feed reader, while other feeds would be in a different feed reader. Consolidating them in a single OPML file has made things much simpler. I use Syncthing to keep the file update on all computers.

In the image below, it’s easy to see that Feedbro also has an aesthetically please article view. It’s hard to say whether FeedBro or FeedReader has the upper hand when this feature is compared.

A screenshot of Feedbro showing an article from an RSS feed. It shows the article headline at the top of the page, an image beneath that, and several paragraphs of text below the image.
An article viewed in the Feedbro plugin for Firefox.

Fluent Reader

A screenshot of Fluent Reader showing many articles arranged in a table. Each article has an image associated with it and the article headline is superimposed over this. On the left side of the window is a menu showing several other feeds the can be selected for reading.
A view of a feed in Fluent Reader.

Fluent Reader is the feed reader I use the most. It isn’t without its quirks, but I’ll get to those in a bit. Like Feedbro, Fluent Reader has a few different views that can be used to present feeds, though I prefer the card view shown in the above image. It’s very neat and tidy, though if a user hovers the cursor over the card, it will show a snippet of text from the article. Clicking on that will open the article in Fluent Reader.

As with FeedReader, Fluent Reader has the ability to connect to feed reading services like Google Reader, though they’re still not something that interests me. This also means it lacks Feedbro’s ability to search for search for feeds, which is one of this app’s few flaws.

The most annoying quirk is how difficult it is to add new feeds and groups, which has to be done by going into Settings. FeedReader and Feedbro both make it easy to assign a feed to a group when the feed is being added, but in Fluent Reader the feed has to be added first, then the user has to go to the Groups page to assign the feed to a group. The process of adding feeds and groups, and getting them to work together, seems almost Byzantine in its complexity. It would be much simpler if the menu had a + button to allow users to add feeds, and a way to assign them to groups without needing to go to a different page.

The complexity of adding feeds and the lack of search are probably the only reason I use multiple feed readers. If Fluent Reader had those features, I would probably use it exclusively. Because it doesn’t, I use three readers instead of one. While I tend to favor Fluent Reader, its foibles make me keep using the other readers as well.

A screenshot of Fluent Reader showing an article from an RSS feed. It shows the article headline at the top of the page, an image beneath that, and several paragraphs of text below the image.
An article as seen in Fluent Reader.

Feature comparison

Here’s a table with more direct feature comparisons:

Feature FeedReader Feedbro Fluent Reader
Open source license Yes No Yes
OPML import Yes Yes Yes
OPML export No Yes Yes
Connect to feed services Yes No Yes
Use local feed service Yes Yes Yes
List feeds individually Yes Yes Yes
List feeds in groups Yes Yes Yes
Multiple layouts No Yes Yes
Search for feeds No Yes No
Themes Yes Yes Yes

There are other features that could be listed, such as ease of adding feeds, but such things are relative, and the table is mainly for listing features I think others will want to consider.

I think most feed readers are a bit too basic and focused on reading text, as if blog posts were emails. The feed readers presented here take a different view and treats each blog post as something to be presented in an aesthetically pleasing way. Each does a good job of this, though none of them are full-featured enough to make me want to use them exclusively. Maybe future developments will change that, and I look forward to such changes in the future.

In a week or so I’ll finish this series on feeds with a post about how creators can get the most out of the feeds on their blogs.

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