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NetNewsWire Updates Solid But Fail to Impress

Like so many information junkies, I have spent decades refining my system for absorbing the latest online headlines and announcements with maximum speed.

In the old days, I navigated from Web site to Web site for news and information, but that approach became tedious and untenable. So, I began consolidating updates from my favorite sites in a centralized location for more efficient perusal. Using specialized software, I could subscribe to my favorite sites’ “feeds,” and thereafter get the latest news from all those sites in a single and easy-to-scan stream.

This was possible thanks to RSS, a standardized system for formatting site content in such a way that special “newsreader” apps can parse out each article separately and display it in a custom interface. Once a site offers an RSS feed, users can subscribe to it with any newsreader. New content then flows into the app automatically.

Newsreaders exist as both Web and native apps. The Web-based Google Reader used to dominate on the Web, but it was discontinued in 2013, setting off a scramble to fill its very big shoes (see “The State of Google Reader Replacements,” 27 June 2013).

In the native-app category, different RSS readers have attained prominence over the years.

NetNewsWire for Mac, dating back to 2002, was once said to be the most popular RSS reader on any platform. But after being purchased by NewsGator (now Sitrion), and later by Black Pixel, it languished for years.

Lately, the Reeder apps for Mac ($9.99) and iOS ($4.99) have become more prominent. The free Feedly is another favorite, with native apps on Apple and Android mobile devices, and a Web app that is arguably Google Reader’s legitimate heir.

Now, Black Pixel is trying to set NetNewsWire up for a comeback. After long periods of silence, the company released an updated Mac version of the app in September 2015, for $19.99, along with a new iOS version for $7.99, which initially supported only the iPhone. In October 2015, the company updated the iOS app to a universal version that works on the iPad as well.

NetNewsWire even has an app for the new Apple TV. This is an intriguing development, though the app is pretty limited.

I seized on all of the NetNewsWire variations, largely for sentimental reasons. After extensive testing, however, I concluded they can’t be my default readers. The likes of Reeder and Feedly are now leading the pack, with NetNewsWire playing catch-up. The NetNewsWire apps have also been glitchy in my testing, though Black Pixel appears to be working through these problems.

NetNewsWire for Mac — I had a particular interest in the revised Mac version of NetNewsWire because I do the lion’s share of my news reading on my iMac. That’s where Reeder has resided for years, and I’ll often also plunge into Chrome to take Feedly for a spin around the Web. I have played around with Leaf, another polished Mac newsreader.

The new NetNewsWire for Mac has broad similarities to Reeder and Leaf. My feeds, clustered into the custom categories I’ve meticulously curated over the years, are in the left-hand column. Individual articles from those feeds are listed in an area of their own, and a large reading pane displays the current article.

The app has handy though hardly revolutionary features, such as options to designate favorite feeds, bookmark individual articles, and limit the feed stream to just unread articles, or stories only posted on the current day.

But NetNewsWire is… lackluster. Its humdrum design is far from distinctive compared to, say, Reeder, with its highly customizable interface elements and careful attention to typography.

NetNewsWire’s article lists are a case in point. Users have two display options for articles lists: thumbnail imagery and text snippets in a middle column, with the feed list and the reading pane in columns on either side, or as a headline list (without thumbnails) above the pane. Regardless, the items are difficult to read at certain Retina-screen resolutions because there is no option to adjust text size (a feature that Reeder does provide).

On the other hand, NetNewsWire’s title and body text in the reading pane is adjustable via a pulldown menu that also offers seven typefaces – Avenir, Bitter, Georgia, Gill Sans, Helvetica Neue, Palatino, and Times Roman.

NetNewsWire lacks innovative features such as Reeder’s sophisticated gesture support, which is helpful to those using the new Magic Trackpad, as well as older Apple trackpads.

Importing feeds into NetNewsWire is a bit of a chore. I had to export my feeds from another newsreader in OPML file format, then import that file into NetNewsWire.

A once-mandatory maneuver, this is no longer necessary now that users can host their RSS feeds on a range of online services, and log in to those services using a favorite desktop reader. Login options in Reeder, for instance, include the aforementioned Feedly along with Feedbin, Feed Wrangler, FeedHQ, NewsBlur, and others. NetNewsWire doesn’t support any of these services.

NetNewsWire does provide its own CloudSync service, but that’s for syncing among its clients on multiple Apple devices, and not for pulling in feeds from other cloud services. On the upside, CloudSync is free, so I don’t have to pay a periodic fee to keep using NetNewsWire.

The app has some nice touches, such as a translucent dark theme (which other readers also have), and a tab system with page thumbnails on the far right for keeping track of multiple open articles.

But, overall, NetNewsWire doesn’t advance the state of the art in RSS reading. I can say this with confidence after downloading a long-ago incarnation of NetNewsWire called NetNewsWire Lite. It is one of the oldest items in my Mac App Store library, yet not all that different from the current app in appearance and functionality.

One stability note: Early in my testing NetNewsWire was alarmingly crash-prone, but Black Pixel seems to have licked this problem.

NetNewsWire for iPad — In its new iPad form, NetNewsWire is fairly inviting and readable. The app, which offers a familiar list column on the left and reading pane to the right, organizes news in a variety of useful ways:

  • Sites shows all feeds. If your feeds were already organized into themed categories, they also display as iOS-style folders. This is where you can manually pick through your feeds to find what you want. But the app awkwardly shows a blank reading pane in this mode.

Tapping a category populates the pane with… nothing. Instead, it drops you into the list of feeds for that category, and you have to move between feeds to catch up on the news. Wasn’t that the very problem RSS was supposed to solve?

  • Unread shows a stream of new, unviewed articles. This is your home base for finding new stuff while filtering out articles you’ve already seen.

  • Today shows only stuff that was published on the current day. For people like me who have lots of feeds and can get overwhelmed, filtering in this way cuts down on the volume (and the stress).

  • Bookmarks shows the articles you saved for later by tapping a bookmark ribbon button that appears on every article.

  • Favorites shows favorite feeds, another way to filter the article volume to just the stuff you most want to read.

The iPad app does a decent job of showing article images as well as text in the left-hand list views, with the pictures shown as narrow strips in an attractive fashion.

Unfortunately, although NetNewsWire’s Sites mode can display all my custom feed categories – such as Tech, Geeky, Coffee, and Comics – as folders, it can’t generate a stream of articles from those folders, forcing me to click through each feed individually to see the articles. This renders the reading pane awkwardly blank until I’ve picked an individual feed, and it makes switching between feeds unnecessarily clumsy. This interface misstep is a deal-breaker for me.

NetNewsWire supports the iPad’s Split View, and can be set to day (light) and night (dark) reading modes. I prefer dark mode.

Text size in the reading pane is adjustable. As with the Mac app, you’re given a choice of seven typefaces – Avenir, Bitter, Georgia, Gill Sans, Helvetica Neue, Palatino, and Times Roman.

When trying NetNewsWire for the iPad, I discovered one problem that could be significant for someone who didn’t also want to buy NetNewsWire on the Mac: I could find no straightforward way to import my existing feed collection.

NetNewsWire, like other RSS readers, lets its users subscribe to sites by entering a feed’s info in the form of a special URL. It also offers a directory of popular feeds in a range of categories for one-tap subscribing.

But, for RSS junkies who have long curated their feed subscriptions, and may have hundreds of them, the lack of a quick import feature is a major problem. I’m not about to re-enter every feed URL manually.

I got around this roadblock by using CloudSync to sync my feeds over from NetNewsWire for the Mac, but Black Pixel needs to provide a simple import approach for iOS-only users.

Black Pixel hinted at a workaround on NetNewsWire’s Twitter account, but doesn’t provide further details on its site.

For the life of me, I could not figure out the nature of those cryptic “few more steps.”. My workaround of using the Mac version is fine for those using NetNewsWire on both Mac and iOS, but iOS-only users will have trouble.

In my testing, NetNewsWire for iPad was sluggish, at times so much so as to render the app all but unusable. This was so bad at times I had to switch to other RSS readers just to make sure I was not experiencing a hardware problem. Nope. Other NetNewsWire users I’ve spoken with haven’t seen this sluggishness, so perhaps the app is stumbling over something in my feed list.

Though I like NetNewsWire for the iPad, it doesn’t come close to becoming my default newsreader. Reeder has an edge in design and functionality here, as it does on the Mac, but Feedly has been my top pick on the iPad for a while. That app has a variety of reading modes, ranging from a headline view to a richly visual list, plus card and magazine views that incorporate super-fast flicking-from-page-to-page navigation. For my tastes, Reeder and NetNewsWire simply aren’t as fluid or attractive.

NetNewsWire for iPhone — The app for iPhone is the same app as the iPad version. It’s a single, universal app, but reformatted for smaller screens.

In portrait orientation, the NetNewsWire interface is just a stream of stories, with buttons for the various viewing modes on the bottom.

In landscape orientation on the iPhone 6 Plus and 6s Plus, it transforms into a miniature version of the iPad interface, with a story list on the left, and a reading pane on the right.

NetNewsWire is, again, not my top choice (partly due to its sluggishness with my feed list). Feedly wins again on the iPhone.

NetNewsWire Today for Apple TV — Providing a new Apple TV app has, commendably, set Black Pixel apart from rivals (at least for now). Compared to Mac and iOS variations of NetNewsWire, however, the Apple TV app is a basic affair.

Its single view displays an article stream on the left and a reading pane on the right.

Select an article and it pops up in the pane. Select an article and it fills somewhat more of the screen.

That’s it.

There are more limitations. The app is at the mercy of how much article information the authors supply via their RSS feeds. Some provide articles in their entirety, and others only summaries along with links to the full articles.

In NetNewsWire for Apple TV, however, that option to click a link for a full article does not exist, since tvOS doesn’t provide any WebKit functionality. So if feeds have only abbreviated article summaries, that’s all you’ll see on your TV screen, with no option to read more.

Further, the Apple TV app can’t do simple things like play a video embedded in an RSS-feed article. In fact, such articles are often badly garbled.

Annoyingly, NetNewsWire also froze on me a couple of times, forcing me to reboot the Apple TV.

The app does have one feature that is extremely useful (assuming you also use the Mac and/or iOS variations of NetNewsWire): you can bookmark articles on your screen with a click of the remote. Once you’ve done so, the bookmarks appear in the other apps. You can’t, however, add any new feeds on the TV.

The app’s interface is attractive in a minimalist manner, with a highly readable typeface and colorfully rendered thumbnails for the feeds’ sites of origin. I do like the app, as a result, though I don’t think I’d ever depend on it. It’s just too limited.

NotNewsWire — I put Black Pixel’s NetNewsWire apps through their paces with great excitement as I recalled how NetNewsWire for the Mac was once my nerve-center for keeping track of the latest news.

I was saddened to find that NetNewsWire is now well behind the pack. It’s not completely out of the race, though, if Black Pixel moves quickly to address the design lapses, along with the reliability and performance hiccups I experienced.

Over the long history of RSS, after all, different RSS readers have dominated at different times. NetNewsWire led the way early on, with Google Reader later becoming the RSS heavyweight. Google’s decision to kill Reader may have been a blessing in disguise since it led to gems like Feedly that are arguably now in their heyday.

But who knows where the field will be five years from now? Perhaps Black Pixel will come up with some innovations that make NetNewsWire the darling of the RSS world again. Wouldn’t that be something, fellow NetNewsWire sentimentalists?

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