Read RSS Newsfeeds In Style With “Times”

From Google Reader to NetNewsWire to Vienna, RSS readers have become somewhat of a commodity, with all of them providing a similar feature set and the same approach to getting your fill of feeds. Then, along comes Dustin MacDonald who – not content with the status quo – cooks up a little application called, simply enough, “Times” that takes a whole new approach to syndication perusal.

The Basics

Times has three obvious goals: first, it wants to make RSS scanning feel more like reading a newspaper or magazine through distinctive and visually appealing layout and typography; second, it highly encourages you to choose your feeds carefully, thus eliminating what has become the inevitable backlog (as an example, since I broke my right ring finger last week, I have over 10,000 unread items in NetNewsWire, which is up from the normal 5,000 backlog); and, third, the way in which you highlight and save individual posts definitely has effect of the application being a solid research tool or blogging aid.

When you start Times you are greeted with a clean slate but have a very clear idea of what your options are:

Your feeds are on “pages”, with each “page” having three panels where you can insert your feeds into. Each panel can have more than one feed, and you can add and remove pages as your interests change. For example, you can have an “Apple” page where you can have all your Apple-related feeds displayed:

From that application image, the aforementioned first two goals should be quite clear. The detailed attention to layout and typography very surreptitiously make you take RSS reading more seriously since it’s not some list you’re scanning through like e-mail. You’ll pay more attention to each headline and will, almost by default, consciously not add too many feeds to any given page.

Reading items is also a visually appealing task since Times makes use of very modern and Apple-like visual styles:

(Purists can, however, choose to open articles in Safari)

RSS reading is fine in-and-of-itself, but quite often you probably like to highlight an item to come back to later. Where other applications let you “star” an item, Times gives you a shelf where you drag and drop posts-of-interest to for later perusal, giving it the feel of tearing out an article and leaving it on your desk:

Feed Management

Let me caveat this section with the full acknowledgement that I was working with beta software where there is an expectation of kinks and quirks that will no doubt be fixed in the full release version.

You need to get your RSS feeds into times Times, just like any other RSS reader and it comes with a pre-populated list (that I promptly deleted). Despite having gone through at least 3 betas during my testing, I cannot report on how well it imports OPML files or how well its “import from NetNewsWire” feature works since they just did not work at all for me. Thankfully, there are other ways to get your feeds into the program. By selecting “New Feed” from the File menu, you can enter either a feed URL directly or enter a site URL and Times will try to find a feed for you:

If it finds more than one type of feed, you can choose what you want to add:

Unfortunately, Times does not add the feed title information until it appears in the feed list panel, forcing you to either trust that it will do so correctly or do some needless typing.

The feed list itself (above) makes it very easy to drag and drop feeds to pages and selecting the “+” sign gives you direct access to Safari bookmarks where you are a click away from adding feeds from bookmarked sites or the Safari RSS database. Given the way the feed panel works, I’m not sure I would have wanted it to import my whole NetNewsWire list since it would have added an overwhelming number of buttons to the panel. Pages are the obvious equivalent to groups and I’ll be curious to see if Times automatically creates pages from OMPL feed groups when that feature works.

I was able to drag individual feeds out of NetNewWire into Times, which did save me from a great deal of copy/paste activity, and it will pick URLs from the clipboard as the default entry to “File->New Feed…”.

For each feed item, you can copy the post URL to the clipboard or send the link to Digg, or Facebook. Hopefully that list will either be extended by Dustin or be made extensible since I’d definitely like the ability to send to Twitter or – more importantly – MarsEdit.

Beta Blues

Feed importing was only one of a quite a few beta bits did not work for me. Multiple crashes made it difficult to really put the app through all of the paces I normally would have. Those same crashes were manifest in such simple areas as choosing between the page curl and slide effects in the preferences then trying to read a feed post.

One major bug was how Times lists pages. You can re-order the page list by dragging the page titles around, but whenever I deleted a page, the list was rearranged via some sort order that I could not determine. This could be a seriously annoying feature if it creeps into future releases, especially if one has a decent number of pages.

When you check for new articles, the only visual indicator is a small pie in the page bar that is easy to miss. A small status bar or activity window would be a great addition for those of us used to more determined feedback mechanisms. There is also no indication within a page when you’ve read a story. A small checkmark or some other visual style change would make it much easier to remember when you’ve read a feed item.

Those with a flair for scripting will be disappointed to learn that there is no obvious way to access Times via AppleScript, save for GUI scripting.

A Fine Addition To The Field

Despite some beta quirks feature misses, Times definitely has a place alongside your primary RSS newsreader. I can see myself using it to hit all of my must-read sites and then hitting NNW to crank through the rest of my list. I can also see Times bringing RSS newsreading to – for lack of a more tactful word – the masses. Statistics show that only a small portion of Internet users actual use RSS feeds, despite the inclusion of RSS tools into default browsers on all popular operating systems and a good number of fee client and web-bases RSS apps. Times makes RSS reading feel less like an über-geek activity through it’s well-crafted user interface and also removes the e-mail feel, which also turns off many average users.

When Times is released, you should grab a copy for yourself and encourage your non-RSS-wielding friends to do so as well. With this much detail and care put into a 1.0 release, one can only imagine the goodies that we’ll be seeing in the future from Dustin & Acrylic Software.