Checking your favorite Web sites and blogs for new content can be a chore. Check too often and you see the same items over and over. Check too rarely and you risk missing out on great articles or posts.
That's where RSS comes in. RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication (or Rich Site Summary or RDF Site Summary, depending on whom you ask), is an XML format for news or content syndication. Put simply, it brings headlines and summaries to you, as they're published.
Subscribe to your favorite sites' RSS feeds -- or news feeds, as they're often called -- and you'll never have to remember to check those sites again. You'll always know when new items appear on any of the sites because they're all collected in your RSS reader, a.k.a. news reader or aggregator.
That's not the only advantage to RSS. RSS allows you to bring a lot of Web content into one place and format the content the way you want it. You're free from the tyranny of pierced 22-year-old Web designers who think red text on a blue background is cutting edge.
Likewise, you don't have to wait for slow-responding Web sites to load. RSS brings you all the new information from your favorite Web sites, presents it in a standardized format, and allows you to step through the information with a few mouse-clicks. You don't even have to wait for an e-mail newsletter to arrive; RSS works in real time.
For more about the wonders of RSS, see my colleague Mitch Wagner's story I Came, I Saw, I RSS'd. If you want to get started RSSing now, read on for step-by-step instructions.
Choose Your Weapon
You can have RSS feeds delivered to you in several different ways:
Via a standalone desktop aggregator. Readers such as FeedDemon, SharpReader, RssReader, and NetNewsWire (for Mac OS X) are programs you download to your computer and run independently of other software.
Via your e-mail client. NewsGator Email Edition plugs into Outlook Express, Eudora, Entourage, Apple Mail, or other POP3 e-mail clients and lets you receive RSS feeds right in your e-mail window. The same company's Outlook Edition integrates RSS with Microsoft Outlook. And Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail client comes with RSS-reading capabilities built in.
Via a Web browser. Sage is an RSS add-on to Firefox, while Pluck adds on to Internet Explorer. Bloglines, NewsGator Online, Pluck Web Edition and My Yahoo are online services you subscribe to that let you view your RSS feeds in any Web browser.
Many of these RSS readers -- including all of the Web-based services listed above -- are free; others charge a one-time or monthly fee.
Which method of RSS delivery is the best? That depends on your own preferences. E-mail junkies will probably opt for an e-mail plug-in. Those who value simplicity might choose an online service because there's no software to download, install, or update -- just point your browser at the service and go. This is also a good option if you hop from computer to computer, because you can sign in to your feeds through any browser anywhere. Serious newshounds might choose a standalone reader, so they can simply leave that program running without risking closing the wrong browser window.
Many who opt for a mobile RSS service for their cell phone might also choose one of the other methods for their PC. Yahoo Mobile and NewsGator Mobile Edition are designed to complement their Web-based services, so you can use the Web interface to specify which feeds will be sent to your mobile phone or PDA. NewsGator even offers synchronization, so if you're checking multiple devices you'll never read the same headline twice.
My advice? Try out two or three different readers. Some excel in certain areas, while others have different strengths -- and they all have their little quirks. The reader you choose will depend on which features are most important to you.
For simplicity's sake, I'll walk you through the easiest way to get started RSSing: with a Web-based service, which requires no additional software on your desktop, or modifications to your Web browser.
Of course, if you decide to use a desktop RSS application (such as FeedDemon) or plug-in for your e-mail or browser (such as NewsGator for Outlook, or Sage for Firefox), you'll have to install and configure that software before you use it. For mobile RSS accounts, you usually set up and control your feeds through a Web interface or software you download to your computer. This article won't cover any of those steps.
The most popular RSS reader today is Bloglines, so I'll use that as my example. The steps are more or less the same no matter which reader you use. Throughout these instructions you'll see boxed Bloglines Tips; however, many other RSS readers offer similar extras. Once you've got the basics down, spend some time clicking around your newsreader to find out all it can do.