NetNewsWire 4 Beta — a Giant Among Mac Apps Has Returned

If you’ve been using the Mac before the App Store was around, and even before the iPhone was released, it’d be virtually impossible to not have heard of — or tried out — NetNewsWire. Developed by Brent Simmons, lately of Vesper fame, NetNewsWire was the original RSS reader app, all the way back in 2002 before most of us were blogging or had even heard of RSS. It was later bought out by NewsGator, as the Mac counterpart to their FeedDemon on Windows, and was designed to sync with NewsGator’s RSS synchronization service. Then Google Reader came along, and NetNewsWire and FeedDemon jumped ship to the search giant’s reader for sync, just like everyone else.

Google Reader’s impending death on July 1st spelled death for FeedDemon, and could have well done the same for NetNewsWire if it hadn’t been sold to Black Pixel in 2011. It took a while for any news to come out, other than that when NetNewsWire first sold to Black Pixel, Brent Simmons said “NetNewsWire’s best years are still to come.”

This week, at long last, we get to see what the future holds for the Mac’s most storied RSS reader app with the long awaited NetNewsWire 4 beta. And the future looks pretty good.

Rebuilding a Legend

MacNewsWire, the precursor to NetNewsWire's 1.0 release (via carpeaqua.com)

MacNewsWire, the precursor to NetNewsWire’s 1.0 release (via carpeaqua.com)

The Black Pixel team had their work cut out for them, trying to deliver on our collective expectations for the new version of an app that has, if anything, been a trendsetter. Look through the history of NetNewsWire, and you’ll see how the design has changed through the years, often in advance of other apps. It’s hard to imagine an app like the one pictured above being a beloved Mac app these days, but Brent commented that the first version “got the most compliments on being a beautiful app”.

NetNewsWire Lite, the closest we’d come to NetNewsWire 4 before now

Looking towards version 4, we already had some idea of what to expect from it thanks to NetNewsWire Lite from back in 2011. NetNewsWire 4 was supposed to take that design torch, run with it, and add in Google Reader Sync and more, but it took a lot longer to come than we could have expected then. Now, Google Reader is all but dead, and NetNewsWire grew beyond the expectations from the previous Lite version into a standalone RSS sync tool for your Mac. Along the way, it picked up a number of design touches we’ve come to expect in modern Mac apps, with a few tricks of its own.

NetNewsWire 4 Beta

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NetNewsWire 4 Beta

NetNewsWire 4 is immediately familiar, with a 3-column interface showing your feeds on the left, your article list in the middle, and your current article on the right. There’s no Google Reader-style keyboard shortcuts, but you can read through your articles and jump to the next one with your space bar or arrow keys, or jump between the Unread, Today, Bookmarks, and Favorites sections with CMD+1 through 4. You can choose to have feeds organized manually or automatically by name, and can have articles organized by oldest or newest (the default) as you’d expect.

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If you’re still using Google Reader, you can still sign in to your account in NetNewsWire 4 beta to download your current subscriptions and save them to NetNewsWire. It won’t keep syncing with Google — that wouldn’t do much good anyhow, past this week — but it will let you keep your feeds from being lost when Google Reader is shut down July 1st. Alternately, if you’ve already exported your data, you can import an OPML file to bring your subscriptions into NetNewsWire.

And that’s when you’ll notice how fast NetNewsWire is. It’s really, really fast, syncing my subscriptions from Google Reader far quicker than I’ve ever seen any other app. If there’s one thing you can say about NetNewsWire today, it’s that it is fast and works great for syncing and reading feeds on the Mac. There’s absolutely no complaint there.

NetNewsWire's special features

NetNewsWire’s special features

Overall, if you’ve ever used a feed reader app, you should be right at home in NetNewsWire 4, but there’s a few extras you should make sure to take advantage of to get the most out of the app. On the top left, there’s an All Unread “smart folder” that shows all your unread articles, as well as a Today view that shows everything that’s come in today (complete with an icon that shows today’s date). Further down, you’ll see your All Sites list, where you can select an individual feed or folder of feeds and see what’s new on those sites. Both of those should obviously be familiar if you’ve used NetNewsWire before.

The two extra things are the Favorites list, which shows all updates from the sites you’ve marked as favorite, and the Bookmarks list that shows all articles you’ve bookmarked. When you’re reading an article, you can add an iBooks-style bookmark to the right edge, then quickly find all of your bookmarked articles here in this list. That gives you a way to make a Mac-only read later list from your RSS feeds, perhaps, or just a way to find the best stuff in your RSS feeds. Combine that with a fast full-text search, and you shouldn’t have trouble finding anything you want.

It’s the Little Things

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Simple iBooks-style font controls

There’s a number of extra touches in NetNewsWire as well. If you jump in the settings, you can set any font and size you want as the default, but right from the toolbar you can pick from a number of nice font choices, change the size, and enable a dark mode (one that only changes the reading area, though, not the whole app). There’s also a nicely styled share menu that lets you send articles to Instapaper or share them via Facebook or Email, but there’s no way to add share services. Then, if you want to find more sites to subscribe to, you can add popular sites to your subscriptions directly, a feature that harks back to the first version of NetNewsWire.

A neat side-tab view for browsing

A neat side-tab view for browsing

Or, you can add your own extra sites to NetNewsWire, either directly or through the built-in browser. You’re only a CMD+T away from a new browser tab anytime you’re using NetNewsWire, and you can open any site or links from articles directly in the app. The tabs load on the side, letting you preview the content even when a tab isn’t open, and if an RSS feed is available on a page you can add it from the address bar. It’s a convenient little extra that’s nice to have around.

But then, if the little things matter, it’s worth mentioning what’s not there. You won’t find any syncing, though Black Pixel is working on building their own online sync system right now. That still means that it won’t support 3rd party sync services going forward, so if you’ve found an online alternate to Google Reader you like, the new NetNewsWire might not be for you. Then, there’s no way to collapse columns, something you might be used to from apps like Sparrow and Reeder, but perhaps that’ll be added going forward. Finally, there’s no current iOS counterpart app yet, but that’s coming soon as well — and will get a new look that’s more inline with iOS 7′s design.

It’s Worth Trying if You’re Not Committed to an RSS Service Yet

The current beta of NetNewsWire is works very, very well, and it’s absolutely worth trying out if you don’t already have a web-based RSS sync service you’re committed to; otherwise, you might want to give ReadKit a try for syncing Fever and NewsBlur to your Mac, or wait for the promised update to Reader. Its yet to be seen how NetNewsWire’s upcoming sync service will work, or what its redesigned iOS apps will look after their new iOS 7-focused rewrite, but for now, if reading your RSS feeds on your Mac in a fast, modern app is enough for you, then you’ll likely fall in love with the new NetNewsWire. It’s free while in beta, but if you really like it, you can go ahead and preorder a license for $10; it’ll cost $20 after its fully released.

I can’t help walk away from the beta feeling that something’s missing, though. NetNewsWire hits most of the spots you could want, and yet, it doesn’t do more. It’s new on its own, but not unique to the Mac. Perhaps it’s too much to wish for, but it would have been nice to see NetNewsWire push the status quo further, and perhaps be a leader, again, in UI design. But then, just having NetNewsWire back is nice on its own, and with Reeder’s update yet to be seen, it’s the best full-featured Mac-only RSS reader right now.

And perhaps, one can hope, the next version (or the finished beta, if they slip us a surprise) will push NetNewsWire even further. We’d sure like to be surprised with something fully new.


Summary

The original Mac RSS reader is back, with a modern UI and promises of a new feed sync engine

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