The ideal Firefox RSS plugin. Also, why Firefox may be driving me back to IE8.

Everybody loves Firefox. It’s the best web browser in the history of history. Especially compared with IE, which sucks so badly the only reason anyone uses it at all is because it comes with Windows and the great unwashed don’t know any better. It’s the worst web browser in the history of history.

But for as much as IE’s recent browser releases may have aped Firefox in the same way its Windows releases since 95 have aped Mac, in aping Firefox IE7 may have leapfrogged it in the area of RSS feeds, at least for novices. Microsoft, incredibly, went from “no RSS support at all” to “better than Firefox, at least without plugins”.

(Depending on your point of view, IE8 may have done the same thing in other areas.)

In my review of Sluggy Freelance, I found a blog post from 2006 wondering when RSS’ “killer app” would come along, and suggested it may have turned out to be IE7. Now I think I can safely add, “And not just because most people don’t use Firefox.” FF’s RSS reading model is the idea of “live bookmarks”. Each RSS feed is essentially treated as a special type of folder amongst your bookmarks; each individual entry is a bookmark within that folder. It’s a nice metaphor, but I think it kind of misses the point of RSS, especially when FF has no native way to easily see when there are new items. You have to install plugins for that. (Perhaps FF’s model was designed for sites that completely clear out their RSS feeds on a regular basis because they have such a high density of posts.)

IE, on the other hand, gets RSS. Feeds are placed on a separate “feeds” panel, but otherwise can be organized in much the same way as ordinary favorites. Feeds you’ve saved are regularly checked (as often as 15 minutes if you set it that way, although annoyingly some sites arbitrarily set feed times for less often and IE treats those as the minimum instead), and if there are new items, the feeds turn bold. When you open a feed it opens a sort of web page displaying every item in the feed (if there are new items it displays only the new items) along with their descriptions.

I think that if Firefox had a plugin that showed a simple alert whenever your feeds were updated, perhaps by making them bold or something to set them apart from feeds with no new items, and carried that bolding to the folder level (so if a folder contained feeds with new items it would turn bold as well, again aping IE but something that neither the Boox or LiveClick plugins do), something like that would probably spark a larger wave of people deserting IE for Firefox. Ideally such a plugin would work from within the existing Live Bookmarks system, just to set a limit so people wouldn’t have to wade into the wide, wild world of independent RSS readers, as well as to prevent confusion and later frustration when subscribing to a new feed, and to ease feed input. The best plugin I’ve seen for someone transitioning from IE is probably the Feed Sidebar, which does a pretty good job of capturing the benefits of the Firefox model of feeds in a form familiar to IE users, but I would like the ability to sort feeds into folders that alert in the same way as individual feeds, or at least tweak the order feeds update and have some control over what order feeds are listed. I don’t know if that would be possible without leaving the Live Bookmark system, however.

In any case those issues aren’t as big of dealbreakers as I originally thought, and I probably would be using the Feed Sidebar long-term for my RSS-checking needs… if I were sticking with Firefox at all. But I’m not. You know how, to hear from many Firefox partisans, “oh, once you try Firefox you’ll never go back to IE!”? Well, I’m running screaming back to IE. Even after the issues with IE that led me to leave in the first place.

Here’s the thing. When Firefox partisans tell you how much faster it is than IE they’re not telling you the whole story. There are two components to speed of a web browser. There’s the speed with which it surfs the Internet… and there’s the speed it takes to run. And Firefox – I don’t know if this is just because of plugins (every RSS reader I tried at least partially makes Firefox freeze temporarily while checking feeds) but sometimes it will slow down for no apparent reason – is a huge resource hog. I think it might be using something like 300 MB memory regularly, depending on how you interpret the Task Manager, something IE only achieved when it was really reaeeaaalllly taxed. My computer was basic in 2006, so Firefox is as slow as molasses. Maybe one day I’ll install Firefox on my desktop once I get a real job and a real Internet connection I can hook it up to, but for now I’m re-setting up IE8 as my default web browser the instant I post this post.

Now, of course, I still have some issues with IE8, so: any Chrome or Opera users out there? I’m looking for a web browser that will operate reasonably well in Windows XP on a 1.7Ghz Pentium processor with 504 MB RAM. (I sometimes have 10-20 tabs open in a single window with pages loaded but mostly not being used.) Preferably, I’d like something that browses the web faster than IE, but actually running faster than IE would be a big plus as well. (IE has had no shortage of random freezes of its own, but FF randomly freezes several times a day.) I’d also like an IE8/FF-style favorites bar, but could go without several FF features I like because this is almost unusable. Nice but not required: an FTP system that works better than Windows’ built-in one. I think I have one or two other issues with IE8, probably holdovers from IE7, but damned if I can think of them right now.

I may take Chrome out for a spin as soon as next weekend unless I hear that it’s not suited to my computer or browsing habits.

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