oreilly.comSafari Books Online.Conferences.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Everything You Wanted to Know About Safari RSS, Part 2

by FJ de Kermadec
What are Syndication Feeds

Editor's note: In part one of this series, F.J. provided a solid overview of the Safari browser and the RSS specification. In this article, he focuses on viewing and customizing your news feeds in Safari RSS.

Viewing Options: An Introduction

Now it's time to examine the actual interface for viewing your RSS news.

Article Length

The "Article length" slider is a nice feature, allowing you to see more content on the page. As many sites only provide excerpts of their content on an RSS feed, though, its usefulness can at times be questioned and will depend on whether the feeds you check can actually be shortened without losing all meaning.

Sort By

Sort By is the first option you'll want to explore. It's in the right nav bar, as shown below. Indeed, what would be the point of collecting information if you didn't know where on the page that information is? In a single feed, sorting articles by title, source, or date each have their advantages. Sorting by title is a great way to find something in a directory's feed.

The first place to look for organizing your feeds is the Sort By option in the right nav bar.
The first place to look for organizing your feeds is the Sort By option in the right nav bar.

Sorting by Date and New have more or less the same effect in a single-feed context, as one would expect you to read posts as they arrive. That ceases to be true in a multi-feed context, though, and I lost many posts at first for failing to realize that. Conflicts between the time at which posts are written, feeds are posted, and then downloaded by Safari can sometimes cause unread feeds to fall at the bottom of the list--because, technically speaking, they are "old." Additionally, some feeds improperly tag their posts or don't honor time zones, and you can rapidly end up with a fine mess.

Sorting by Source can be very useful if you pull a custom feed from a web-based aggregator and wish to better separate out its contents. There does not (yet) appear to be a way to sort by author or contributor within a feed, but hopefully we'll see that soon.

The side bar, even though it does not feature any real "buttons" actually acts on the feed display and, therefore, in pure interface logic, could probably follow the Aqua guidelines to better signify its belonging to the "application" side of things. For now, though, clicking on the words that behave like web links, complete with underlining and coloring, will do the trick. Keep in mind that the result may not be instantaneous, as Safari may need to do a bit of work to reorder all of the feeds and display them. In my testing, it's occasionally necessary to click a couple of times on a link to make the change happen.

A nice feature, though, is the ability to only display the titles of feeds, which can be useful on some sites that provide descriptive headlines--or for those "I just keep them in my bookmarks to say that I read them" sites, which I won't name, but I am sure you know.

The feed pages behave like regular web pages, meaning that pressing the space bar to jump to the "next screen" (to speak in very DOS terms) will work, much like the Apple-arrow key combinations to jump to the top or the bottom of the page.

A Few Keyboard Commands

Thanks to the improved text handling in WebKit, triple-clicking on a paragraph now selects it whole, making copying and pasting content a lot easier than it is with many RSS readers. Apple-clicking on titles and links will allow you to open full articles in new pages, while you keep on reading your RSS summary, without the need to open an extra application or switch between windows. Of course, this implies that Safari is not set up to automatically switch to new tabs as soon as they are open or you are in for both retina problems and carpal tunnel issues.

This, for now, should give you a good start around the page. In my experience, Safari is great at loading even complex feeds and rarely chokes on them. When it does, though, expect to pause for a few seconds before resuming your work, as it tends to freeze the application as a whole--but that's uncommon and far from an annoyance.


If you look at the address bar while Safari displays an RSS window, you may notice that our http:// URL, the one commonly accepted by news readers everywhere, has changed to a feed:// one, along with a cool scrolling effect--which, in typical Apple fashion, is also available in slow motion if you hold down the Shift key while clicking on the RSS button. What does this mean?

Well, the feed:// URL is a way to tell your Mac "This is a feed. Now, go grab the application that handles feed on that machine and open it quickly." If Safari is your default RSS reader--you can specify that in the preferences, as we are going to see in a few seconds--then opening a feed:// URL will cause it to launch, switch to the appropriate view, and display the feeds. If it is another application, it will cause that application to do the same. You could pick Chess or iTunes as your default RSS reader, but that wouldn't bring much, except a good laugh or a horrendous crash.

The RSS url

The feed:// URLs, even though they aren't what one would yet call a widely accepted standard, have one advantage: they will allow you to specify different applications as your news reader and use them at the click of a button--much like a dict:/// URL will launch Dictionary.

When fed a feed (got it?), Safari will automatically understand that you expect it to enter the RSS view and will change the URL for you. Should you decide to bookmark the feed--there is a handy link in the right-hand column for that--save it as a web shortcut on your Desktop or put it in your Dock, your Mac will automatically recognize it and will pick the appropriate application and view to open it at a later date.

The downside of feed URLs is that they make importing any feeds you might already have bookmarked in Safari more difficult. Indeed, having Safari do the conversion every time not only is a bit silly and will slow you down but, in a context where you open multiple feeds at once, leaving http:// URLs in the middle has a potential to confuse our beloved browser and open, side by side, feeds and pages--which is more of a fun bug than a really problematic one, but it does feel a bit messy nevertheless.

Real RSS feeds and Atom feeds are also given the same URL, which might confuse some applications. For example, your news reader of choice may not include Atom support, but it would still be passed Atom feeds by the system because of the URL choice. There are workarounds--as the two feeds are definitely different--but that might raise an issue for older applications that aren't aware of that new feature.

Setting Up the RSS Preference Pane

Now that you have a feel of what an RSS feed is and how it behaves on your system, it's time to to tell Syndication Agent to do what you want. In true Apple fashion, this can be done directly through the Safari preferences, in the (drumroll) RSS preferences pane.

You choose your RSS reader here in the Safari preferences pane.
You choose your RSS reader here in the Safari preferences pane.

As mentioned, your default RSS reader can be whatever application you like. If you decide to use Safari as an RSS reader, you're probably going to keep your bookmarked feeds in your Bookmarks bar, right where you can see them. That way, you'll immediately be notified of updates.

Keep in mind that the more feeds you have, the more your Mac will have to go onto the network and download information. If you wish to have a feed "cold storage" area where you put interesting links that are not part of your daily checking routine, you might want to keep them in the Bookmarks menu and disable the automatic updates there. For this very reason, I tend to delete the Apple-provided feeds first thing when I launch a fresh copy of Safari. This is not because they are bad--some of them are actually excellent--but keeping so many feeds and setting them to auto-update in addition to yours is probably going to be more than both your connection and your neurons can handle.

Keeping your RSS feeds on the Bookmarks bar is an easy way to monitor new items.
Keeping your RSS feeds on the Bookmarks bar is an easy way to monitor new items.

Automatically Check for Updates

Updating time is a very touchy topic. While some users (me included) would like to update our feeds as often as possible so that we can calmly read one or two posts at a time instead of the dozen that seems to restlessly crop up every half hour, we have to think of the poor webmasters who need to pay bandwidth costs every time Syndication Agent queries their server.

In this aspect, Safari lacks granularity, and the impossibility to set different refresh times on a per-feed basis--at least through the interface--has made many webmasters unhappy. For now, the best compromise between speed and kindness of heart seems to be the "30 minutes" setting.

An alternative is to set Safari up so that it does not automatically check for updates and to refresh the list manually. Even though this is a lot less interactive, it's nice to know the option exists. And it's useful for those times when you are stuck on a dial-up or UMTS link.

The Remove Articles Option

The "Remove articles" feature in the Preference pane allows you to choose how long you retain the news you've downloaded. Sure, the size of the feed database will grow, but this can be a very quick and easy way to build up your very own personal library. Of course, this option will be of most use to users with roomy hard drives. This database, in SQLLite format, lives snugly and happily in your Library/Syndication folder--it might be a file to back up if you rely on your saved feeds for work.

Deleting this library will cause Safari to re-download all of your feeds, which can be a slow and tedious process--not to mention that it will completely delete any records of what you have read and haven't, which can cause serious organizational problems. On the other hand, deleting the database can help clear feed-related issues and sluggishness if, for example, Safari saved an unusually large or corrupted file that was distributed by a feed.

Color New Articles

The ability to color new articles is a must, and it's even surprising that it's presented as an option--but, hey, it cannot hurt, can it? While my profound dislike for orange and blue combos would push me to suggest you pick a more creative shade, the choice is ultimately yours. Even better, the whole palette of Apple's colors is at your disposal so you can get creative. The important thing is that the color can be spotted easily in a long list of feeds.

A Note About News and Updates

Before switching full-time to Safari RSS, I would like to point out that RSS readers are sometimes strange beasts. They all rely on some kind of parser, no matter how evolved, to make sense out of the great many flavors of RSS that are out there. Therefore, it can happen that the same feed will be handled differently by two different news readers.

Running Safari RSS along with another RSS reader on my test machines for a few days led to some very unexpected results. Both applications saw posts that the other didn't, showing that, despite the many, many means we now have at our disposal to obtain information, the battle isn't won yet--far from it. Whether these idiosyncrasies are due to bugs in the readers or malformed feeds (and, actually, where does one end and the other start?), we will probably never know but you might want, should you rely on the content of a truly mission-critical site, to also subscribe to a mailing list or, at the very least, refresh a "news page" they may have from time to time to be sure you do not miss anything.

Pages: 1, 2

Next Pagearrow