Overwhelmed by online news? Instead of wearing out your Web browser's "refresh" command to check for the latest updates, a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) program can fetch the news for you.
RSS lets Web sites publish free "feeds" of their content, which a program called a newsreader collects on a set schedule, displaying new headlines and links for you to read within the newsreader or, with one click, in your Web browser.
This Web technology, once restricted to a small set of Web logs and news sites, is now mainstream enough to be supported by both President Bush's and Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign sites. (The Post's washingtonpost.com was scheduled to begin offering a set of RSS feeds this weekend.)
Thousands of sites with RSS feeds are listed on sites such as Syndic8 (http://www.syndic8.com/) and NewsIsFree (http://www.newsisfree.com/). They usually advertise their feeds on their home pages with a small orange button labeled "XML," short for the "eXtensible Markup Language" used to publish the feed.
Unfortunately, you can't just click that button to subscribe. You must right-click it -- on a Mac, hold down the Ctrl key as you click -- to copy the link's address, then paste it into your newsreader.
The tricky part about choosing one newsreader is how similar they tend to be, despite the relative youth of the technology involved. Most look like an e-mail program, listing RSS sites on the left (sometimes grouped in folders called channels), each site's headlines at the top right and the current headline and story at the bottom right. The differences among them usually come down to what options they support and how fast they run.
ADC Software's NewzCrawler (Win 95 or newer, $25 at http://www.newzcrawler.com/) is perhaps the most flexible newsreader around. Beyond RSS, this fast, easily customizable program also collects and presents newsfeeds delivered with a newer protocol called Atom and postings from Usenet newsgroups. You can even view Web sites that don't offer newsfeeds at all.
Another "payware" newsreader, Bradbury Software's FeedDemon (Win 98 or newer, $30 at http://www.feeddemon.com/), runs even faster and includes an "auto-discover" feature that can find a site's feed based only on its Web address. But instead of displaying each RSS item in its entirety, it only shows a summary; click on that, and the Web page in question should load in FeedDemon's window -- except that some pages aren't presented correctly, requiring lengthy back-and-forth scrolling.
RSSReader (Win 98 or newer, free at http://www.rssreader.com/) leaves out FeedDemon's price tag, but also its performance. It was easily the slowest newsreader we tried -- partially because it runs on Microsoft's .Net Framework, an inefficient bundle of code that lets developers add Web functions to their software.
SharpReader (Win 98 or newer, free at http://www.sharpreader.net/) also relies on the .Net Framework, although it wasn't as slow as RSSReader. It feels unfinished in some ways: Instead of an installation routine, you have to unzip a downloaded file, then move that folder into your Program Files directory. On the other hand, it supports Atom as well as RSS and offers the most attractive, simplest interface of any Windows newsreader.
Wildgrape's NewsDesk (Win 98 or newer, free at http://www.wildgrape.net/), a third newsreader that uses the .Net Framework and suffers the attendant performance penalties, may offer the easiest introduction to RSS, with a simple installer and more than 50 news channels already set up.
Mac users, meanwhile, have a much simpler choice: Ranchero Software's NetNewsWire Lite (Mac OS X 10.1 or newer, free at http://www.ranchero.com/; scroll down the page for the $40 pay version of NetNewsWire for the link). Besides offering a pleasant, elegant interface, it includes a helpful "subscribe" function, akin to Feed Demon's auto-discover feature, that can sign up for a site's feed automatically.