News on Demand

Illustration: Campbell Laird
Most of us keep a mental list of our favorite Web sites--perhaps 10 to 15 destinations that we swing by every day. But usually only a few of them contain new stories that are worth reading immediately, so a habit of loading and scanning each of these sites daily can waste a lot of time.

Fortunately, you can make such time sinks a thing of the past, thanks to a Web standard called RSS. This standard lets sites publish a simple listing of headlines and story summaries (for more background, see "RSS: Hot Fix for Info-Junkies"). Using a simple program called an RSS reader, you can subscribe to different news feeds and rapidly sift through condensed news. When you find an item you like, you click the headline to open the Web page containing the full story.

Along with breaking-news headlines from online versions of publications like the New York Times, feeds can deliver everything from Weblogs and weather alerts to listings of new arrivals at your favorite record store or auction gallery. Feeds arrive in various formats, but the most common are RSS (which can stand for a number of things such as Really Simple Syndication or RDF Site Summary) and a new standard called Atom that expands on the capabilities of RSS. Both can be read by most available readers.

Also called "feed readers" or "RSS aggregators," RSS readers are one of the biggest new categories of software in recent memory. A quick online search will find more than 50 programs designed to scan subscription news feeds, and each one works a little differently than the others. Some are stand-alone applications; others plug into your e-mail client or your Web browser; and still others act as Web services, permitting you to access them from any browser. The type that will suit you best depends on your work style.

Most of these applications work very similarly, but a few go above and beyond the call of duty. After rounding up 18 RSS readers for this article, we picked the best representative of each type; there are five in all (see the features comparison chart). Go to our expanded chart for brief reviews of the other apps. After you've selected a reader, click here to subscribe to PC World's own RSS feeds.

Icons to Look For

How do you find out whether your favorite site has an RSS feed? Simple: You look for an icon like those displayed here. Some link directly to a feed; others go to a feed list.

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