David Szpunar: Lead Engineer, PC Help Services

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June 4th, 2007 at 12:34 pm Print This Post Print This Post

Mozilla Thunderbird vs. Google Reader for Feed Reading

I’ve been using Mozilla Thunderbird for quite some time for reading RSS feeds. The RSS functionality has improved in each new version, and there are a couple of features that have kept me from changing (I tried a bunch of feed readers, web-based and thick client, before settling on Thunderbird, which I also use for some personal email accounts). It’s been very good, but I have missed the ability to read the same feeds on my Treo 650 (I’m too cheap for QuickNews and didn’t like the older version I tried) or on other computers besides my laptop. Google Reader is a nice setup for Palm-based feedreading, but I have issues with it on the desktop.

Mozilla Thunderbird: Version 2 has a mostly nice newsreader features. I have my feeds sorted out into folders and it has good new item notification, starring of good items, and color-coded tagging options. The main feature I like, however, is that for feeds that don’t include full content, it automatically loads the original post URL in the reading pane. This is huge. No opening up a new window or tab to view the full text of a post, it loads just like an HTML email would in a preview pane (which is basically what it’s doing, given that Thunderbird is first and foremost and email client). This is really nice for branding, so I see the original site design while reading the article, and it’s nice for reading comments since they’re live from the site right after the post. It’s not nice for reading offline (not that I do that often), since nothing will load at all in that case as opposed to pre-downloaded full text.

Google Reader: I’ve tried this over the past week, importing my feeds using an OPML file that Thunderbird exported. The export/import process worked flawlessly and all folders and such were maintained in Google Reader. The reading interface is nice, but very different than what I’m used to in Thunderbird. Full text feeds are great, I can read them easily and in one tab. I don’t like it to mark items read automatically, so I turned that feature off. I can star items, like in Thunderbird, and then easily see one list of all starred items (across all feeds) in a “virtual” folder view, which Thunderbird lacks to my knowledge. But there is no tagging feature, which I use to mark items Important, To-Do, Work, Personal, Later, etc. in Thunderbird, which color-codes the items for easy visual reference in the future, in addition to the starring feature that both share. But feed items that don’t have full content show a small snippet and I have to click to open the original source in a new tab. Then I have to remember to go read it. And with my Firefox instances tending towards 20-120 tabs open at any given time, the last thing I need is to open more tabs! I just want to load the source page in the reading pane (scripts can be stripped out; Thunderbird does this).

Reader also has a nice mobile web interface that works well on my Treo 650. However, I’d like a separate list of feeds marked “mobile” that are the only ones that show up on the mobile interface, because some feeds aren’t worth taking the time to load and read on the Treo. The full-content issue shows up again here, as loading a new page is painful on the Palm browser, so I don’t want to see partial content at all, another reason for separating out a subset of feeds for mobile use. I’d also like to see the mobile interface provide checkboxes for marking read and unread, and starring, because each time I click the links for these options, the browser has to redisplay the post, and then I can return to the feed list or go to the next feed item. And a link to the Reader mobile home at the top would be nice, so I don’t have to wait for the full page to load every time just to go back (yes I know I have a browser back button).

Because of the issues I have with the partial content feeds on the full and mobile versions of Reader, I’ve pretty much trimmed out all the partial feeds from my subscription list, while leaving my full feed list intact in Thunderbird. This duplicates my read-feed management, but makes Google Reader feasible for mobile and on-the-road use. I currently have 51 subscriptions in Google Reader, while I have 70 feeds from Thunderbird. For the mathematically challenged, that means I’ve pared out 19 feeds from Google Reader that I still want to track but I don’t want to read partially or via mobile. I’m still working on this so Reader may get pared down even further. I do like the Reader Trends view, which made me aware of a few feeds that haven’t been updated since the middle of last year that I’ve removed from my subscriptions altogether.

Reading feeds, at least the full ones, offline, used to be one reason I stayed away from an online reader. It hasn’t been much of an issue, with wireless at home and work and showing up more places, but it is nice for traveling, especially car rides and airplanes, and hotels that charge for internet access. Ever notice that cheaper hotels are more likely to provide free internet access compared to higher-end hotels, which tend to charge around $10/day for the privilege? This isn’t just something I’ve noticed; a company that we’ve worked with that does a lot of hotel WiFi installations told me this based on their client base. There are obvious (yet annoying) reasons for this, but I digress. Offline use isn’t usually important to me, but can be useful. Google just fixed this problem by releasing Google Gears, initially using Reader as their test service. You install the browser add-in, and Reader can then be taken offline, using Google Gears to synchronize and store the data offline. I have yet to try this, but I’m going to install it in the next couple of days. I expect possible hiccups, being a beta service, but it’s a bonus feature anyway. Gmail support for Google Gears will be much more interesting! As long as they address security issues first. Ross Hollman has some good additional Google Gears info, as does David Berlind at ZDnet; I won’t rehash here for now.

Those are my thoughts. I don’t have any conclusions yet. I also just found some new-ish software called FreeRange WebReader. I’m running the beta on my Treo now, and for reading full content posts, it’s very nice! It’s a service, through their site for management, and you can keep your feed list in your account with FreeRange or you can link to your Google Reader feeds. So far it’s caused my phone to reset twice, but it is in beta, and it’s a nice interface. It also doesn’t download full posts until you want it to, which saves memory card space. Navigation is a bit buggy but is fast and easy, and it’s well-formatted for small-screen use. The downside is that for more than 10 feeds, there’s eventually a cost (although so far I haven’t been asked to pay, perhaps it’s a beta thing?). This might be a useful alternative to Google Reader Mobile, but less than an hour’s use is too soon to tell.

Interesting side note: you are the reason I decided to try Google Reader after using Thunderbird for so long! How’s that? FeedBurner tells me more subscribers to my blog use Google Reader than any other feed reader of any type! I figured, there must be a reason! Bloglines is second most popular, but I’ve already used them in the past without being fully impressed. They were the first feed reader I ever used, now that I think about it. If you think your reader is better, leave a comment and let me know! Or if you know something I missed about Thunderbird/Reader, etc. feel free to chime in.