Fairly recently, I bought an HTC Universal (the O2 XDA Exec version–see the unboxing here. I fluctuate pretty wildly on whether I love this device (“God, this screen is nice!” “I love surfing the internet from my PDA!”) or hate it (“F($%& Windows Mobile!” “D#@*$ slow download speed!”), but one thing I continue to enjoy is surfing the web.
However, I have found that surfing on a PDA can sometimes be a pretty frustrating experience, given that all web sites don’t have versions for mobile users, and not all web pages are clever enough to detect that you’re browsing on a small screen. I’ve also noticed that the fonts on some web pages can be frustratingly small, no matter how much you bump them up in your browser. What to do, what to do?
Well, what I did was research RSS and aggregators, in the hopes that this would help solve the problem, at least a little. (And the quick answer is, it does! Some, anyway.) This is a brief comparison of two popular aggregators for the WM platform: SPB’s Insight, and Ilium Software’s NewsBreak.
Boring, pedantic part o’ the review: for those who don’t know (like I didn’t), an RSS feed is a piece of software that takes articles or pages from a web page or portions of a web page, and makes them available–usually in a simplified form (with no fancy formatting, for example)–for an aggregator. The aggregator is the piece of software that you run locally, on your PC or (in my case) on your PDA, which gathers together the various pieces that are created by the web sites and squooshes them together.
There are a couple of nice things about aggregators (although not the name which, let’s face it, sucks): they can be set to automagically pull in new material (that is, material that is new since your last update), which saves you from having to go back and check web sites over and over again. Aggregators also download the articles to your device locally, so when you pull them up, there is not nearly the amount of delay associated with surfing to a web page. And finally–and this was a big draw for me–aggregators have a consistent interface, so that just because FredsLiquorBarn.com has lots of exploding Flash ads and tons of font variation, thankfully their RSS feed articles don’t, which means you aren’t constantly having to zoom in and out to reduce eyestrain.
Unfortunately, not all web sites enable full articles for aggregation, forcing you to click through to their site to read the full article. Judie, bless her heart, doesn’t do that, but a lot of sites (for example, Brighthand) do. Nothing’s perfect in this world.
Insight and NewsBreak work in essentially the same way; during the setup phase, you create the list of feeds that you want the aggregator to poll. You can generate these lists either by giving the aggregator the exact URL of the feed, letting the software search for the feed (if you are hooked up to the internet at the time), or going through the software’s list or index of existing feeds.
Here are the initial setup windows in NewsBreak and Insight; they’re essentially the same:
I found that a combination of searching, using the index, and entering the exact URL was generally the best bet. For that reason, I would suggest that, if you are setting up on your PDA, that you do so while sitting next to your internet-connected PC. That way, you can quickly search for the feeds you want on your PC, and enter them on your PDA.
Here’s the how the indexes looked in NewsBreak and on Insight:
In the setup process, Insight was superior. Insight had a much larger and more complete index of existing RSS feeds, and also seemed to take in multiple RSS feed types; not just RSS, but Atom as well. In addition, when I did a “search” of sites, NewsBreak appeared to only be searching RSS feeds, but Insight was searching RSS and Atom feeds, which means I got hits more often with Insight than with NewsBreak.
From the perspective of continuing use, NewsBreak has one big advantage over Insight; it polls regularly, and then displays the results in the Windows Mobile “Today” screen.
This is helpful if you are the type of person who uses the Today screen to check that info–if you check for new messages, emails, Calendar data, and so forth. Since I do most of that kind of bookkeeping on my PC desktop, this was not a big draw for me, but I am sure that a lot of people will find it an important feature.
Interface-wise, both utilities are very similar. Once you have completed your setup, opening the application presents you with a list of your feeds (Insight and NewsBreak both call them “channels;” I find this nomenclature haplessly wedded to Old Media, but make your own judgements). You can then select a feed/channel, which opens a list of articles (Insight calls them “articles,” NewsBreak calls them “Headlines” even when they’re full articles). Articles in bold are ones that you haven’t read; articles that are not in bold have been read.
For comparison, here are the NewsBreak and Insight main “Channel” windows:
I personally find Insight’s interface to be a bit prettier, but I really believe it’s a personal-preference kind of thing; I honestly can’t see any reason to recommend one over the other.
Both applications allow you to either update automatically at given intervals (hourly, every 6 hours, or what have you), or update by hand. The feature set for both is very similar as well, and reminds me very much of threaded online newsreading software: “Mark all as read,” “Delete,” “Delete all,” and so on. From the standpoint of functionality, there is not a whole lot to choose between the two of them, in my view.
The only major difference I found between the two was that, on my device, NewsBreak appeared to be a little more robust and lest prone to crashing and hanging. If I neglected to make sure I was connected to the Internet prior to firing up Insight, or if I tried to download new articles while I was connecting to my home wireless network or some such, Insight sometimes hung, requiring a reboot of the device. This was pretty intermittent, and I have a known tendency to make my software behave badly, so no one should take it as a sign that SPB has created a “bad” piece of software.
On the flipside, NewsBreak, since it wants to provide the Today menu with an updated number of new articles, tries to poll the internet immediately whenever you open a channel, and becomes extremely upset if you have (e.g.) disabled your wireless connection or are not connected to the internet somehow. I don’t keep my wifi running all the time, as it sucks my battery, and I live in an area where my GPRS connection isn’t all that reliable, so I personally find this piece of functionality irritating, but it may not bother you. Again, I think it’s a matter of taste.
Given that the two applications are similar in most ways, the bottom line for you will probably come down to this: is having the notification feature in your Today menu important? If so, then NewsBreak is probably the application you want. If not, then I would suggest you try both of them out, and decide which one has the interface you prefer. I personally prefer Insight, but that is a personal preference.
Ilium Software’s NewsBreak is priced at $19.99. It is available directly from the Developer as well as from other retail sources.
Spb Software House’s Insight is priced is $19.99. It is available directly from the Developer as well as from other retail sources.