Choosing an RSS reader may seem like a daunting task, but it's actually quite easy, and a very low-risk proposition, as most feed readers are free to try.
Over the past couple of days, I've written about why RSS is important and also described the various options for searching for RSS feeds. The final piece of the RSS puzzle is to make the feeds you want to read on a regular basis easily accessible via an RSS feed reader (sometimes called aggregators).
Most RSS feed readers bear a striking resemblance to email clients. The most fundamental difference is that RSS readers are designed to handle feeds, pulling in appropriately formatted content from a variety of sources, rather than email messages from other net users.
All of the RSS readers I'm going to describe are top-notch products, and all support similar basic features. Each program has unique features that may or may not appeal to you. Choosing an RSS reader boils down to finding one that fits with your own working preferences. The good news is that all of these readers are free to try and use. If you don't like one, simply move on to another.
A fundamental difference between feed readers is whether they are stand-alone clients or are web-based services accessed through your browser. Stand-alone clients are useful if you want to access your feeds even if you're offline. And one feed reader, News Gator, even integrates into Microsoft Outlook, making your feeds virtually indistinguishable from your email.
By contrast, web-based services require you to be online to access your feeds. But they also offer other features such as feed search, the ability to integrate feeds with other sources of information in a portal-like fashion and so on.
In the end, you may find yourself using more than one feed reader for different purposes. For example, I use Bloglines as my primary RSS reader, but I also have feeds integrated into my My Yahoo account and the new Google Desktop.
Here's a look at some popular and useful feed readers. As with yesterday's look at RSS search engines, this is not a comprehensive listing. Rather, these are all tools I've tried and found worth a mention.
If you're interested in researching others, check out Peter Scott's excellent AllRSS.com, a site devoted to all manner of RSS resources.
An RSS Reader Roundup
Ask Jeeves' owned Bloglines is my primary feed reader because it offers a variety of useful features in addition to aggregating all of my preferred feeds in one place. The feed reader itself is basic but easy to use. Your feeds are stored in folders that you can label with relevant names. A number of options let you control how feeds are displayed, updated and so on.
Unlike many stand-alone feed readers, Bloglines doesn't save posts from feeds that you've read. However, Bloglines offers two tools that allow you to save and organize what you've read. You can keep clip excerpts from a feed post that are stored in your "clippings" tab, along with the source URL of the post. Also, when you open an account, you automatically get your own Bloglines-hosted blog, and you can also save clippings to this blog to share with the world.
In addition to being a feed reader, Bloglines offers a feed search capability, and the ability to share what you've found with others.
Bloglines is free and works with most popular web browsers.
FeedDemon is a standalone feed reader with an Outlook-like interface. The program comes pre-configured with a number of popular feeds, making it a good choice if you're just starting out with RSS and wondering exactly how all of this stuff works. FeedDemon also has a built-in podcast receiver that automatically downloads the newest versions of your subscribed podcasts (such as the daily Search Engine Watch podcast).
FeedDemon is a stand-alone application that requires Microsoft Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP or 2003, and is free to try; $29.95 to purchase.
Gary Price wrote a great review of the new Google Desktop 2 when it was released last week, so I won't go into a lot of detail here. One of the unique features of Google Desktop is a feature called "web clips" which is essentially a very basic feed reader.
It's not designed to be used as your primary feed reader, but instead "watches" what you do on the web and automatically adds feeds if they are found on web pages that you visit. If you don't pay attention to the feeds, they go away, while those that you do end up following stick around. Some people may find this creepy; I find it a fascinating and easy way to discover new feeds I might not otherwise come across.
Google Desktop 2 is a stand-alone application that requires Windows XP or Windows 2000 service pack 3 or higher, and is free to download and use.
MSN Start is a "preview" site for new features from MSN. Although it's primarily a web search engine, you can also select news or feeds, and if feeds turn up in search results you can easily subscribe simply by clicking a link.
MSN Start is web-based, runs in both Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers and is free to use.
My Yahoo is a customizable version of Yahoo that's been around for a long time, offering a variety of cool features. It's easy to add feeds to your My Yahoo page.
If a feed turns up in Yahoo search results, all you need to do is click the "add to My Yahoo" link; you can then use the editing controls to move the feed display to your preferred position on the My Yahoo page.
Due to the popularity of My Yahoo, many feeds include an "add to My Yahoo" button that allows you to add the feed directly from the original source.
My Yahoo is web-based, runs in most popular browsers, and is free to use.
NewsGator offers both a free online feed reader, and a desktop-based version that integrates into Microsoft Outlook. Most people I've spoken with who rely heavily on Outlook swear by NewsGator due to its seamless integration with the program.
The Outlook version is subscription-based, with several different levels available. The standard version costs $19.95 per year, and offers similar functionality to the online version. Gold, Platinum and Ultimate versions cost more, and offer access to premium content and "smart feeds" which pull information from a variety of sources based on keyword or URL based searching.
NewsGator online works with most major browsers and is free. NewsGator Business is a desktop-based application that requires Microsoft Outlook to be installed.
Pluck is a different kind of feed reader. I reviewed it in detail in the SearchDay article Swiss Army Knife Meets the Kitchen Sink. It's a very attractive option if you're looking for a feed reader that's integrated with all kinds of other features, such as a search toolbar, online bookmark manager and others.
Pluck is web-based, works with most major browsers, and is free.
SharpReader is one of those increasingly rare tools created by a single individual to solve his own information needs. The program seems to be in perpetual beta (current version is 0.9.6.0), but it's been around long enough to be stable, and sports some powerful features not found in other programs.
SharpReader will appeal to serious RSS users more than casual feed readers. The program supports plug-ins based on the IBlogExtension standard, which means you can hack new features yourself, if you're so inclined.
SharpReader is a stand-alone application that requires Microsoft Windows XP and the .NET framework installed on your system. It is free to use, though the author of the program does accept donations if you find the program useful.