Alan Ralph

Wearer Of Many Hats

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Using Mozilla Thunderbird As An RSS Reader

Around Christmas time, I decided to try an experiment. I cleaned up all the RSS feeds I’d collected in NetNewsWire, then transferred them into Mozilla Thunderbird.

At the this point, some of you are probably saying “Wait, Thunderbird does RSS feed reading too?”

Yes, it does. That has some advantages, plus a fair few downsides, as I’ll explain.

The Upsides

The biggest potential advantage to using Thunderbird as an RSS reader is that you can use Message Filters on the contents of your feeds. So if you want to skip various sponsored messages, or subjects that don’t interest you, that’s a plus.

It’s not particularly easy to set up, however, and it’s even less easy to see if your filter is working.

Another potential advantage — but one that’s very hidden — is the ability to set post retention limits. You can do this either at the account level (Thunderbird treats RSS feeds as a special kind of email account) or at the folder level by right-clicking and selecting Properties. Useful? Maybe, it will definitely make short work of trimming feeds that go back a long way.

The Downsides

Unfortunately, there are a lot more of these.

First, and potentially the biggest one, is that Thunderbird doesn’t grok JSON feeds. At all. If it’s not RSS or Atom, no dice.

Secondly, if there’s anything in the feed that Thunderbird doesn’t like, then again no dice.

Third, while you can organise feeds into folders, it’s not particularly easy to do so. Worse, there isn’t a way of moving a feed to another folder that I could find.

Fourth, there’s no way to have a ‘river of news’ in Thunderbird — you can only view one folder at a time.

The Meh Sides

Mozilla Thunderbird’s user interface has been improved a lot in recent years, but it remains pretty opinionated about how you should use it. You have a fair amount of control over text appearance, for instance, but the layout options are limited.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad email client. In many ways, I prefer it over either Apple Mail or my previous email workhorse, MailMate, in the control it gives me over how email displays, particularly HTML flavoured ones. But it’s worth noting that embedded media won’t display, leaving a gap where a YouTube video may have been, for instance.

Back To NetNewsWire

I’ve now returned my feeds to NetNewsWire. In the process, I found another ‘gotcha’ in how Thunderbird handles RSS feeds. It has an OPML export option, albeit hidden under Subscribe…, but it includes all the folders along with the feeds. The result was a fair bit of work moving feeds around in NetNewsWire after import.

Was It Worth The Effort?

In one respect — for me — it was. I was forced to confront the excessive number of RSS feeds I’d accumulated in NetNewsWire over the preceding few years. That decluttering has cut down my daily reading quite a bit.

With that said, however, using Thunderbird added a fair amount of extra time to my daily reading, but from the folder-only viewpoint mentioned above, plus the fact that I had emails coming in while I had Thunderbird open, leading to distraction and side-tracking.

Would I recommend Thunderbird as an RSS reader to anyone? Probably not, unless their needs were very limited and they were only following a few feeds. Still, at least now I can say with hand on heart that I gave it a thorough tire-kicking.

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