Fresh off the press: NewsGator, now freeware

Newsgator just made its entire suite of RSS-managing clients fully-powered freeware. Do they stand tall or fall short? Take an in-depth look at what you can make out of this 'Gator.

Checking Web sites by typing in the URL feels like firing up a rickety 56k baud modem and logging on to CompuServe. It gets the job done, but really should only be used under extreme duress or nostalgia. Syndicated feeds bring the Web site to you, and when NewsGator made all its RSS clients free on Wednesday, they suddenly made a top-notch suite with tools for Windows, Mac, mobile, the Web, a podcast manager, and a Microsoft Outlook extension incredibly appealing. And by appealing, I mean you might not be able to imagine feeds the same way afterwards. It's that good.

The Windows interface for NewsGator includes an optional Most Popular list of your feeds on the right. (Credit: NewsGator)

I've been using Google Reader, and even Mozilla Thunderbird's strong RSS tools couldn't pull me away from the appeal of having my e-mail and feeds coming from the same place. Throw in the some of the recent Google Reader changes, such as faster loading, being able to share items, and marking a previously read item as unread, and I was looking very skeptically at all other feed clients.

NewsGator makes a great pitch. Whatever operating system you want to use, it offers up a top-notch client. Throw in synchronization to its mobile client and Web-based tool and you've got one heckuva sweet suite.

In addition to a standard view, the Mac-based NetNewsWire offers an appealing wide-screen view. (Credit: NewsGator)

I tested the Windows, Mac, Webware client, and podcast manager today, and the differences were not substantial. Installation on both doesn't require a free NewsGator account, but during the setup process it asks you if you'd like to register for one. The account gives you access to the NewsGator Web client, which has a similarly intuitive interface to the software versions.

Both the Windows and Mac version come with the podcast manager bundled, although you can opt out of installing it. The layout is uncluttered, with major tools living in the customizable toolbars at the top. The keyboard shortcuts are also customizable, and you can have a second set specifically for newspaper reading. There are also search boxes, report generators so you can obsess over what you read, and a plethora of tools that make it easy to fine-tune your reading habits.

The built-in reports tools are worthwhile, with Dinosaurs showing you old unread items, and Attention indicating what you spend the most time reading.

NewsGator Web features most of the key features of its downloadable cousins. (Credit: NewsGator)

Other features include formatting for newspapers, simple font-size changes, items with images or video will have the media aggregated at the top of the feed, you can prefetch items for offline reading, and there's even a panic button that will go through unread items and decimate their numbers. There's also a built-in browser, complete with tabs, if you don't want to use your default browser to open links. If you don't want to get a particular feed, but don't want to delete it, changing the settings to Do Not Update is just as easy as setting up a brand-new feed.

The Windows version has two toolbar skins and six feed-view skins, while the Mac features two dozen options for spicing up feeds. However, Windows users can preset different ones to each feed, and it's much easier in the Windows version to tweak settings as you read a post. Helpful links right at the top of the post change sorting and reading methods, and marking and sharing tools.

FeedStation is a podcast manager integrated with both the software and Webware versions of the NewsGator clients. (Credit: NewsGator)

Syncing worked less like an old modem and more like a T3 line: I changed settings in the Windows version, hit the sync button, hit refresh on the Mac version, and the changes were instantly downloaded. I then checked the NewsGator Web-based version, and the changes were already implemented there, too. Surprisingly, you can also manage your podcasts from the Web version.

Without a doubt, this is the most powerful, comprehensive, and responsive RSS manager I've ever used, so it shouldn't surprise you that I strongly recommend whichever of the NewsGator apps best suits your needs.