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Features - Review of AmphetaDesk Syndicated News Aggregator

By Steven Cohen, Published on August 14, 2002

Steven M. Cohen is Assistant Librarian for Rivkin Radler, LLP in Uniondale, New York. He is also the creator/webmaster of Library Stuff, a library and information science weblog. In addition, he is a contributing editor of the Internet Spotlight column for Public Libraries Magazine.

After the recent publication of my article, RSS for Non-Techie Librarians, I received a numerous number of e-mails describing other news aggregators that were not mentioned. The article was not intended to be a review of the many aggregators that have surfaced over the past few years, but a practical way for librarians (and everyone else for that matter) to use RSS feeds for keeping current. While I haven’t had the time to peruse every one of the aggregators sent to me (and there were many), I do feel that it is necessary to try out many aggregators and find the one that fits your needs as a receiver of content.

One such aggregator is AmphetaDesk (AD), run by Morbus Iff, the most requested free feed reader that readers mentioned. I had seen the AD web site before, but had not had the chance to download and install the software. I was not disappointed. What followed was a love affair with one of my favorite aggregators to date. In fact, I still fluctuate between Newzcrawler and AD as the primary resources to carry the ever-growing number of RSS feeds to which I subscribe.

The most important aspect of aggregators for use by those with a minimal amount of computer skills is ease of use. Are they easy to set up? Can feeds be added and removed in less than one step? The “mainstream” software (i.e., Newzcrawler, Radio Userland, Headline News, and AD – all of which I have tested) has this down pretty well. RSS feeds, since they are relatively new to most users, and the software on which they are displayed, need ease of use to be the number one priority. After that, customization, interface design, and tech support come into play. As more and more people discover RSS, many will develop new ideas and new software that will improve on the tools already in existence (not to mention the increasing number of feeds available).

Getting Started with AmphetaDesk

Regarding ease of set-up, AD scores high remarks. Simply choose the operating system of your choice, download the .zip file (be sure to have an unzipping program, such as Winzip, installed, and the software practically installs itself. For those who need step-by-step instructions, those are available as well, at http://www.disobey.com/amphetadesk/README.txt. Once the software is installed and shortcut created, AD is ready to go.

The user is always informed of the progress of the feeds via a “pop-up” type interface progress box, which scrapes all of the feeds that are subscribed to and places them into the aggregator. The load time may be long depending on the number of feeds in the aggregator, the type of web connection, and obviously, the processor in the PC. I have DSL, a semi quick processor, and 105 feeds, which takes about 4 minutes to load. After the feeds are ready, a browser will launch with the main interface of AD. Because AD runs on a browser (unlike Newzcrawler, but like Radio Userland), many will find that they become familiar with the program quickly.

AD only has four pages: The main interface, the “My Channel” section (which displays the current subscriptions), the “Add Channels” page (which acts as a both a library of over 5,000 feeds and the place where one can add them), and the ever popular options page (where one can play with the various settings available. That’s it. Most aggregators are filled with too many options that sometimes get in the way of the true nature of feed subscription. AD cuts through this and provides a no-nonsense way for users to obtain and read content.

The main interface displays all of the feeds to the current subscriptions and lays them out in newspaper-style format. The most current feed available will be displayed first, with all of the content from that feed listed. Thus, even older content from that feed will be provided here, because the feeds from each site are not broken up. All content from each site is displayed at once. This is a feature that I hope will change with the next version of AD. It takes time to look at content from over 100 sites, and it would be easier if I were able to peruse through only the new content without having to glance at writings that I have already read the day (or even hours) prior. The essence of aggregation (from this librarians view) is the ease of which they enable one to “keep up” with stories and web sites that are gleaned from the numerous amounts of available resources without having to read the same stuff twice. I have it on good authority that this option will be added in the next release (Thanks Morbus).

While I am on my “What would make AD better” high horse, it is also worth mentioning that users do not have the ability to delete posts that have already been read. If time is of the essence, many readers do not want to read the same posts from the same resource twice. By providing the ability to delete content, readers of RSS feeds will be able to both subscribe to more feeds (more time equals more time to read content) as well as save old stories or web sites in the aggregator for future use. As mentioned in the above paragraph, I also have it on good authority that this option will be in the next release.

The “My Channels” section is very useful in that, from this page, AD lists all of the feeds to which the reader is currently subscribed. This is an easy way to manage the content. From here, one can unsubscribe to these feeds, as well as add more feeds if a valid feed URL is provided.
The most impressive section of the software lies in the section labeled “Add a Channel”. On this page, one can enter in a valid feed URL (as in the previous section), or browse through the numerous amount of feeds that have already been collected and listed alphabetically. Simply check off the feeds that seem interesting (this can be done to multiple feeds at once) and click “Subscribe”, and the checked feeds will automatically be added to the aggregator. The reader only has the ability to browse through these feeds, however. It would be helpful if one could search through this large collection to easily find feeds of interest. Also, for those who like to browse, a subject directory of the feeds could be useful as well.

The programmer has also set-up a page on how to find more feeds from various sources around the Web. Here, the reader is shown creative ways to retrieve feeds, such as those from Moreover and Yahoo Groups. I have found this extremely helpful in limiting the content to subjects that I am particularly interested in.

The “Options” page provides a few ways to set the readers preferences. While not extensive, there are a few options that are useful. Two are worth mentioning here: First, one can set the links to open up in the same browser as the software, or a different one. Second, the amount of time that AD checks for new data from subscribed feeds can be set here. The default is 180 minutes, but I would suggest that this be changed to 60 minutes. This allows for the reader to keep constantly up to date, plus the more feeds that are subscribed to, the more content will be displayed. A 30-minute interval makes it easier to stay afloat.

Some Odds and Ends

As mentioned previously, tech support is key with new types of software, either to deal with potential bugs or new users that are unfamiliar with the subject. Morbus is well aware of these hazards and provides the fantastic of his product. During the initial phases of my entry into aggregation, I had many questions and he always returned my frantic e-mails with calming advice. He has even created a discussion/mailing list for those who would like more information and help from actual users of AD. To this day, Morbus and I are in constant communication about his wonderful tool.

Also, adding new feeds has become easier with the release of version .93 (released on June 13th). RSS autodiscovery is an easy way to add feeds to your news aggregator and is described in detail in the “finding more” section of AD. Simply drag a java-based application to your toolbar and if you come across a site that supports the script (such as Newsisfree or Syndic8), and has an RSS feed available, you can subscribe to the page by clicking on this button.

Last, the software that runs AD is customizable, so if you are a hardcore programmer or just someone who likes to fiddle with already existing code, this is the place for you.

Conclusion

AD is highly recommended for those who are new to RSS feeds and aggregators. Its ease of use and incredible tech support available, make AD one of the highly regarded free software currently in use for aggregation. Also, for those who like to play around with different schemes and options, AD will not disappoint. Turn off that television, gather the kids around the PC, download this software, and spend hours upon hours in RSS heaven.