Chapter 2. Grabbing RSS with Readers
So now you know there are many thousands of RSS feeds you can subscribe to and read. So what if you want to start reading? Say you want to read specific feeds from The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Postor from any of the thousands upon thousands of other feeds. This chapter is all about subscribing to and reading those feeds.
RSS readers are sometimes called aggregators because they aggregate items, or gather data from various RSS feeds. But whether you call them RSS readers or aggregators, they're your primary RSS tools. They grab news items for you and display those items in a format that's easy to handle. This chapter gives you an overview of readers so you can select the one that's right for you.
Using an RSS Reader
There are hundreds of RSS readers these days, and they all have different features. Most of them, including the highly popular RSS-Reader (Figure 2.1), share the same basic way of handling RSS feeds.
Figure 2.1. Using a reader of some kind is the basis of reading any RSS feed.
But first you need to subscribe to an RSS feed, and the next section describes how that works.
Subscribing to a Feed
Start by targeting an RSS site you want to subscribe to. A site with RSS content usually displays blue or orange icon buttons (Figure 2.2).
Figure 2.2. Sites with RSS feeds display one of these buttons.
Why three different buttons? The RSS button is clearly for subscribing to an RSS feed. The XML buttonfor subscribing to XML feedsis becoming more prevalent on RSS sites, probably because RSS is an XML format. (See Chapter 4,"Creating RSS Feeds from Scratch," for a discussion of XML.)
Most people looking for an RSS feed expect to find an RSS button, not an XML button. But XML buttons are starting to take over some sites with RSS feeds, such as USAToday.com (Figure 2.3).
Figure 2.3. USAToday.com provides RSS feeds for almost every section of the paper.
Atom feeds, discussed in more depth in Chapter 3, "Creating RSS Feeds," and Chapter 4 are marked with Atom buttons (Figure 2.2) and indicate an Atom version 0.3 feed.
How do you find feeds you're interested in? Take a look at the section "Finding RSS Feeds" near the end of this chapter. You can use your RSS reader to search, look at RSS directories, browse the Internet, and so on.
After you've found a feed you want to read, how do you tell an RSS reader that you want to subscribe to the feed? There are a number of ways.
Click the XML Button
One way to subscribe to an RSS feed is simply to click the XML button on the feed's site in your browser. That's not usually the most helpful approach, however, since doing so usually displays the raw XML code that makes up the RSS feed (Figure 2.4).
Figure 2.4. Viewing RSS data from a browser will usually display XML code.
So how do you convert the mess of XML code into an RSS feed you can read? Just select the URL displayed in your browser and copy it to the clipboard, where your RSS reader will find the feed.
After you've captured the URL for the RSS feed, you can add the feed to your RSS reader. Different readers let you do this in various ways; for example, in RSSReader, clicking the Add button in the toolbar (the button with a plus sign, as shown near the top in Figure 2.1) opens a dialog to add a new feed. RSSReader then copies the RSS feed's URL automatically and displays it.
To give the feed a title, click the Next button. In this case, RSSReader automatically enters and displays the feed's title, "Congress.org - Space Action Alerts," from the feed's XML (Figure 2.5). Click the Next button again.
Figure 2.5. Displaying the feed's title is automatic with RSSReader.
RSSReader then asks you where you want to add the new feed, and has the default group, My Feeds, automatically selected. In RSS readers like RSSReader, you can group feeds into various categories; in this case, just click the OK button, and the new feed is added to the My Feeds group (Figure 2.6).
Figure 2.6. Not much going on in the Space Action Alerts feed today.
Other RSS readers accept the URL of an RSS feed in other ways. Say, for example, you want to subscribe to the top news stories in the world from USA Today. In SharpReader, you would enter the URL of USA Today's feed by selecting the File > Open RSS Feed menu item, thus opening the dialog that lets you subscribe to the feed (Figure 2.7).
Figure 2.7. Subscribing to a feed is easy in SharpReader.
In the Feed Demon RSS reader, you select File > New > New Channel. Leave the "I will enter the URL of the feed" radio button selected, click Next, and then enter the URL of the feed (Figure 2.8).
Figure 2.8. Subscribing to a feed in Feed Demon takes just a few steps.
Although entering the URL varies from reader to reader, most readers are easy to figure out. What's important is getting the URL of the feed in the first place. Clicking the XML button is one way to get the URL, but an even easier way is to right-click (Control-click on the Mac) the XML button instead.
Right-Click the XML Button
Clicking an XML button usually displays the RSS feed's XML data, but the whole point of using an RSS reader is to avoid reading XML directly (usually an unedifying experience). It's a better idea to right-click the XML button: Instead of XML code, a menu appears in your browser. In this example, I'm subscribing to a feed from the British BBC (Figure 2.9).
Figure 2.9. Right-click to access the shortcut menu to subscribe to a feed.
To copy the URL for the RSS feed, choose Copy Shortcut in Microsoft Internet Explorer, or choose Copy Link Location in Mozilla Firefox. After you've captured the URL (which is stored in the clipboard in Windows), you can add it to your RSS reader in the usual way. Some RSS readers can read the URL directly from the clipboard and display that URL when you open the dialog to add an RSS feed. With other RSS readers, you have to paste the URL into the appropriate dialog.
Type in the URL
Some RSS readers, such as SharpReader, display an Address box for you to enter the URL of a feed, just like the kind you see in standard Web browsers (Figure 2.10).
Figure 2.10. Enter a URL in the Address box to subscribe to a feed.
After you enter the URL in the Address box, just press Enter to read that feed.
Drag and Drop
Some RSS readers, such as SharpReader, let you drag and drop an RSS feed to subscribe. All you have to do is drag the XML button into the RSS reader and drop it. Drag and drop is a handy technique, and you can expect more RSS readers to support it in the future.
Use Feed:// Links
Another way to subscribe to RSS feeds in RSS readers is to use feed:// links. This is a relatively new prefix for RSS feed URLs, much as a standard URL starts with http:// (Figure 2.11).
Figure 2.11. To subscribe to a feed using a feed:// link, all you have to do is click a button.
When you find a feed that can be added to your RSS reader using a feed:// link, you usually see a button to click that says something like "Subscribe now using feed://." Only a few RSS readers support feed://, however, including the following:
Use the Universal Subscription Mechanism
There's yet another way to subscribe to RSS feeds: the Universal Subscription Mechanism, or USM. For example, go to USA Today's feeds page at http://asp.usatoday.com/marketing/rss/index.aspx and open an RSS feed, such as the Health feed (http://rssfeeds.usatoday.com/UsatodaycomHealth-TopStories). You can subscribe to this feed by clicking the button marked "Subscribe now using USM."
Clicking the USM button opens the RSS feed in your RSS reader, if it supports USM. Using Juice, after you click the USM button on a Web site, Juice opens the feed (Figure 2.12).
Figure 2.12. Opening an RSS feed using USM in Juice.
However, at this point in time, very few RSS readers support USM. Most people just grab the URL of the feed they want and enter it into their RSS reader.
The next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will have built-in support for RSS. Although Longhorn isn't available yet, Microsoft claims that Windows will have special features that will let users discover and create RSS feeds and be able to read RSS feeds directly in Internet Explorer.
Reading Feeds in Your RSS Reader
So, how do RSS readers work and how do they let you read RSS feeds? To start, take a look at RSSReader (Figure 2.13).
Figure 2.13. RSSReader, like most readers, has three main windows.
Let's take a look at RSSReader's three main windows.
The Feeds Window
The feeds window, on the left side of the opening screen of RSSReader, lists the feeds you've subscribed to (again see Figure 2.13). You'll see a vertical list of clickable RSS feeds, usually preceded by an icon. By default, the icon displayed for a feed in RSSReader is a small eye-shaped image, but a feed can also have its own icon, which RSSReader displays (see the icons for the Boston Globe and BBC feeds in Figure 2.13).
With RSS readers that refer to an RSS feed as a channel, this window is called the channel window.
When you select an RSS feed, that feed's current items appear in the titles window, located on the right in RSSReader (again see Figure 2.13). When you right-click a feed in the feeds window, the RSS reader presents you with a menu of options, which vary depending on the reader. Most RSS readers offer a Properties item in this menu. The Feed Properties dialog tells you about the feed you've selected. RSSReader's Feed Properties dialog shows the RSS feed's URL, the last update time, whether the feed is active, and more (Figure 2.14).
Figure 2.14. Use the Feed Properties dialog to get information about the feed.
By default, most RSS readers automatically check an RSS feed hourly while the RSS reader is running. You can usually see the most recent items in a feed by right-clicking (Control-clicking on the Mac) the feed's name in the feeds window and selecting the menu option that checks for new items to read. That menu item is often named Refresh, Update Channel, or (in RSSReader) Get New Feed Headlines.
Although RSS readers usually grab new items from RSS feeds hourly by default, you can change the amount of time the reader waits before it fetches more news from a particular feed (Figure 2.15). You can usually set a time interval by selecting Tools > Options (or Tools > Preferences) to open an options dialog.
Figure 2.15. Most RSS readers let you set the refresh rate of a feed.
You can also set the amount of time the RSS reader stores item titlesalso called headlines in some readersfrom the feed. In Figure 2.15, that time is set to one month, which means that RSSReader will store headlines for a month.
That's how it works: The RSS feeds you've subscribed to appear in the feeds window, and your reader automatically fetches new items periodically. If you want to check the new items from a feed, just select that feed in the feeds window. To configure that feedsuch as reading new items immediatelyright-click the feed name in the feeds window and select from the items in the menu that appears.
How do you unsubscribe from a feed? See the topic "Unsubscribing from a feed" later in this chapter.
The feeds window shows the RSS feeds you've subscribed to, but what about handling the actual items that your reader fetches from those feeds? That's coming up next.
The Titles Window
The window in the upper-right part of the opening screen in RSSReader is the titles window, which displays the titles of new items, or headlines, fetched from an RSS feed (again see Figure 2.13). When you check an RSS feed, all the titles of the new items in that feed are added to the titles window.
So when you want to check the new headlines from an RSS feed, you select that feed in the feeds window, and the RSS reader displays the current headlines from the feed.
RSS 0.91 has a limit of 15 new items per refresh when you check an RSS feed. That limit was removed in subsequent versions.
You can scroll the feed's new headlines to look for item titles that interest you. When an item title piques your interest, just click the title in the titles window to see the item's content which appears in the description window.
To indicate previously read items, most RSS readers change the appearance of the item title. Unread titles are usually displayed in bold in the titles window, and titles that have been read change to plain text. You can see examples of both in Figure 2.13.
Most RSS readers let you mark multiple item titles as already read. In RSSReader, for example, you can choose titles in the titles window and select Edit > Mark as read menu item to indicate the selected titles have been read. Converting titles to plain text is a good way to mark the titles you're not really interested in so you don't have to bother with them.
The whole process is a little like working with newspapers: You select the newspaper you want to read in the feeds window, scan the headlines in the titles window, and then read the stories in the description window.
The Description Window
Say you've just checked your favorite RSS feed from Fish-R-Us, and you notice an enticing item title, "New Bali Flying Fish Are In!" No one can resist that, you think, so you immediately click that title. The content of this interesting item appears in the description window, at the lower right part of the RSSReader screen (Figure 2.13).
The description for a particular item will vary by RSS feed. Most feeds don't display the whole story in the description window. Instead, you typically see some text introducing the item, and two links below the text: Read More and Open in Browser. Some feeds, however, display the entire article in the description window. Others might show only a title from an RSS feed, although that's rare.
If the text in the description window makes you want to read more, click the Read More link to open the full item in the description window (Figure 2.16). In this example, the description window's content only describes an article on the Boston Globe Web site; clicking the Read More link opens the full article from the Boston Globe Web site, for you to read in RSSReader.
Figure 2.16. Clicking the Read More link opens the item in the description window.
Another way to get the full Boston Globe article is by clicking the Open in Browser link. As you would expect, the article opens in your browser.
You can navigate forward and backward in an RSS reader, just as you can in a browser: Just click the back and forward buttons that appear in the toolbar above the description window. If you are looking at a full article and want to go back to the item's description, just click the back button.
Many RSS readers display a pop-up alert when a new item appears in the feed it's reading. In Windows, the pop-ups appear from the system tray (the bar at the bottom of the screen).
Depending on how you feel about your screen being cluttered with alerts periodically, you can leave the alerts on or turn them off. Personally, my system tray shows too many alerts as computer manufacturers and Windows itself are now adding more and more unwanted popups, so I like to turn off the alerts.
You can turn off the periodic alerts usually by selecting Tools > Options in an RSS reader to open the Options dialog. To turn off alerts, change the setting for "Default option; show new headlines in pop-up window" from Always to Never.
Sending an Item Through Email
See a particularly juicy item that you just know a friend would appreciate? Many RSS readers let you email items. In RSSReader, you simply select the Tools > Email to Friend menu item, and the current item is passed to your email program. The title of the item appears in the email's Subject line, and the description appears as the body of the email.
Grouping Feeds Together
Some RSS readers let you create your own groups of feeds to better organize your incoming news. To create a new group of feeds in RSSReader, you click the Group button in the toolbar to open the Add New Feed Group dialog, which asks you to name the new feed group (Figure 2.17). The new group appears in the RSS Feeds window.
Figure 2.17. In this example, the new feed group Newspapers is being created.
To put a feed into a new group, all you have to do is to drag it into the feeds window. In this example, I've dragged the feed from the Boston Globe into the Newspapers group (Figure 2.18).
Figure 2.18. The Newspaper feed group now appears in the titles window on the right.
After you've used RSS readers for a long time and you've built a dozen feeds or more, organizing the feeds into groups can be very useful, especially if you have a set of specialty feeds that you check infrequently (such as holiday sales).
Unsubscribing from a Feed
Are you sick of a feed? Or has a feed gone dead? It's time to unsubscribe. As usual, how you do that varies by RSS reader. In most readers, you right-click a feed in the feeds window and select the menu item that will unsubscribe the feed. That menu item can be called Unsubscribe, Delete Feed, or Delete Channel, depending on the RSS reader. In any case, the item name is usually recognizable.
Want to resubscribe to a feed you've unsubscribed from? Just grab its URL and subscribe to it again, as usual.
Getting RSS on Your PDA or Phone
After you get truly addicted to RSS, you might never want to be out of touch. And now, if you have a Web-enabled PDA or cell phone, you can stay in touch. For example, here are a few RSS readers for the Pocket PC:
Want to see RSS feeds on your PDA? Try www.mobilerss.net, which converts RSS feeds into HTML that you can view on your PDA. How about an RSS reader on your cell phone? Take a look at www.dace.fi for a reader that you can download to some cell phones and use to read RSS.
For more RSS readers designed for PDAs and cell phones, take a look at http://directory.google.com/Top/Reference/Libraries/Library_and_Information_Science/Technical_Services/Cataloguing/Metadata/RDF/Applications/RSS/News_Readers/Handhelds/.