Productivity

The Web-Based vs. Desktop-Based Newsreader Showdown

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Newsgator’s recent announcement that their popular line of cross-platform newsreaders were now free had many of you asking why you would ever give up the web-based bliss of Google Reader for desktop-based readers; still others were wondering why anyone wouldn’t ride the desktop wave now that these best-in-class readers have hit the free market. Today we’re comparing the most popular web-based newsreader, Google Reader, with the freeware, desktop-based readers from Newsgator. If you think you’re running the perfect reader for your needs, take another look—you might be surprised at what you’re missing.


Off the bat, it’s worth noting that all of the newsreaders I’m going to compare are excellent at what they do. But by virtue of what they are (web-based vs. desktop-based), they do some things differently. The real purpose here isn’t to claim that one is ultimately better than the other, but to understand what those differences are to help decide which will work best for your needs.

There are tonnes of newsreaders on the market, both web-based and desktop-based, but for the purpose of this comparison I’m going to focus on the (arguably) most popular in each class. For web-based RSS, the obvious leader of the pack is Google Reader. For desktop-based RSS, I’m focusing on the newly freeware FeedDemon (Windows) and NetNewsWire (Mac), both made by Newsgator.

Rather than pointing out everything that’s great about each, I’m going to try to stick to highlighting differing features between the two options differ to avoid overlap. So let’s get started.

Desktop-Based Contendors: FeedDemon and NetNewsWire

  • Speed: One of the first and most obvious pros for desktop readers is that they download the content to your desktop in one fell swoop, meaning that when you’re browsing your items, you get desktop-quality performance. It’s not that Google Reader isn’t fast, but its desktop counterparts are faster.
  • smart-list.pngSmart Search: If you subscribe to a lot of feeds, you’ll inevitably end up with a lot of noise in your reader, when sometimes all you want is to keep an eye on several sources for a particular topic. Both FeedDemon and NetNewsWire allow you to create advanced smart searches (sort of like iTunes smart playlists) that scour your feeds for matches and pull those matches into one easy to access smart feed. For example, I can use this feature to create a feed that returns all articles on Lifehacker written by me, or keep a close eye on all iPhone-related developments across all of my feeds.
  • refresh.pngManual Feed Refresh: With a desktop-based reader comes the ability to refresh your feeds whenever you want to, ensuring you’re looking at the latest news available. I’ve found it much easier keeping up with content knowing that what I’m looking at is up-to-date. Google Reader does offer a Refresh button, and though they’ve drastically improved their indexing time, it’s still not as real-time as a desktop reader. (As I write this, for example, Google Reader is one post behind NetNewsWire on the Lifehacker feed.)
  • Quick search: As fast as the internet is (and Google especially) at searching content and providing quick results, you’re still going to be hard-pressed to search and retrieve content from your subscriptions using a web-based reader as quickly as you can from your desktop. NetNewsWire was quicker to return results in my tests every time—but there is a catch (see Google-Powered Search below).
  • sync.pngCross-Platform Sync: One major reason I chose the Newsgator readers over other desktop-based readers is that they offer a lot in terms of synchronisation. If you grab a free account on Newsgator’s web site, you can sync FeedDemon with NetNewsWire, NetNewsWire with NewsGator Go (for Windows Mobile, BlackBerrys, and phones supporting Java), and all of them with Newsgator’s web interface. The web portal doesn’t hold a candle to Google Reader, but since a very common criticism of desktop readers is that they don’t handle multiple locations well, the many synchronised points of access for the Newsgator products are worth pointing out.
  • Separate Buckets: I love reading my feeds in a separate place from the rest of my internet work. It’s very possible that this has more to do with the nature of my work, but since so much of what I do happens in the browser, keeping feeds in another application altogether can be very useful. Either way, you can tell these desktop apps whether you want them to open links in your default browser or inside the reader app, so you can customise it to fit your preferences.
  • customize.pngCustomisation: Overall, customisation is one of the biggest pros of the desktop reader. If there’s something you don’t like about its behaviour, there’s a good chance you can tweak it within the program’s preferences. Most web-based readers (GReader included) don’t offer nearly as many options for customising the layout (preferences, look and feel, etc.)
  • Offline Reading: Yes, Google Reader supports Google Gears for offline reading, but it’s currently very limited compared to the offline archiving abilities of a desktop reader.
  • desktop-app-int.pngIntegration with Desktop Apps: Desktop-based readers can determine how they interact with other desktop-based applications, meaning you can determine where links open, how to post an item to your blog, how to bookmark an item in Del.icio.us, and where to import new podcasts or other enclosures (e.g., a playlist in your iTunes library).
  • Sort Feeds by Attention: One particularly useful feature in NetNewsWire (it doesn’t seem to be available in FeedDemon) is the ability to sort feeds based on the attention you give to their items, meaning that after using them over time the sites you read the most crop to the top of the list so the cream of your subscriptions naturally rises to the top. Not only is it useful for auditing your feeds, but it also presents you with the news first that you’re most likely going to want to read first.

The Web-Based Contender: Google Reader

  • Access from Any Web Browser: One major advantage of web-based readers is that by definition they can be accessed from any computer with a modern web browser and an internet connection. There’s nothing to install (unless, of course, you want to use Reader offline with Google Gears), and your feeds will always be synced because web-based readers don’t care a bit about where you’re accessing them from—it’s all the same account to Google Reader.
  • gmail-ing.pngIntegration with Other Google Products: If you’re a fan of other Google products, Google Reader offers integration with Google services like Gmail (for quick emailing of items) to Google Talk (for the shared items feature). It also embeds YouTube videos and streams podcasts with Google’s default audio streamer.
  • gread-short.pngIncredible Keyboard Shortcuts: If there’s one thing Google’s been doing well lately, it’s building products with a robust system of keyboard shortcuts, and no where is that better exemplified than with Google Reader. You can do virtually everything in Reader without leaving the keyboard, and frankly, that’s a beautiful thing. One of my biggest complaints about NetNewsWire is that its shortcuts pale in comparison to Reader’s. Windows users may be happy to know that FeedDemon has much more GReader-like shortcuts.
  • Shared Items: If you like an added social element to your reader, Google’s recently added Shared Items feature provides an excellent way to share your favourite items with your Google Talk friends. This feature came with a little controversy, but if it’s your cup of tea it’s simple and useful.
  • show-updated.pngShow Only Updated Items: When you’re following a lot of feeds drowning out the noise is crucial, and Google Reader’s Updated view, which displays only feeds with unread items, is an excellent way to drown out the noise of feeds that aren’t offering anything new. This feature is available in FeedDemon but not NetNewsWire.
  • greader-search.pngGoogle-Powered Search: While Google Reader’s search isn’t as fast as the desktop offerings, it is spry and very accurate. It’s also in the fortunate position of having indexed absolutely everything you’ve subscribed to, probably before you even subscribed to it, meaning that searches will be able to go back much deeper. Indexing all of that content for your desktop reader would be impractical if not impossible. Which brings us to the final point.
  • No Storage Required: This rests very much on the line of the “no installation required” feature, but the fact is that if you want to archive a lot of your subscription content on your desktop, you’d better have some space to store it all. With Google Reader, all that information rests in Google’s omniscient cloud.

Which Do You Prefer?

We’ve polled you on this question once before, but given the Newsgator announcement I’m curious once again:


Gawker Media polls require Javascript; if you’re viewing this in an RSS reader, click through to view in your Javascript-enabled web browser.

Finally, I’ll admit to being most familiar with NetNewsWire and Google Reader, but if I’ve left any killer feature out on any front, let’s hear about it—along with your reasons for going with web-based or desktop-based readers— in the comments.