Newsboat: CLI Meets RSS

I don’t remember the brand or model of my first computer. I do recall it had dual fat floppy drives and ran some version of DOS. The most I ever really figured out how to do on it before we upgraded to a Windows 95 machine was to change directories and hide files using -h. I think we mostly kept it around for a spreadsheet application. But what stood out to me was the classic green-n-black display. Whenever I see it evokes a soft nostalgic glee that I can’t fully explain. It’s one of the reasons I love the Fallout game franchise and why I prefer running htop to Activity Monitor on my Mac.

From time to time I’ve tried to integrate a few text console apps into my workflow. I’ve run Lynx in Docker, I’ve tried a few task managers, and even tried taking notes in Nano. Mostly though there’s enough sacrifice in functionality that it ends up being not worth it. But I recently found a RSS reader that might keep me coming back. It’s called Newsboat.

Newsboat is actually a fork of another project, Newsbeuter, which is no longer maintained. I installed it via Homebrew, and there are tarballs that will work with Linux and FreeBSD as well.

I was surprised to find that there’s more than just a sheen of nostalgia to keep me using it as an RSS reader. Once installed, running Newsboat initially greats you with a hostile warning that it can’t find any sources:

Error: no URLs configured. Please fill the file /home/ak/.newsboat/urls with RSS feed URLs or import an OPML file.

If this is your first time using an RSS reader, the process to get started is painfully manual. You have to go into a text file and manually paste in each RSS feed URL. It’s not exactly elegant. That’s the major limitation of Newsboat (aside from being text-only), there’s no way to search and subscribe to a feed from within the app. Luckily, if you’ve been using another RSS reader, importing your OPML file is a simple process. I’ve been using Feedly for years and once exported from that service had no issues getting my feeds loaded.

Given the text-based nature of Newsboat, it’s not surprising that it has an extensive array of keyboard shortcuts to help you navigate and read your feeds. Once you have your feeds loaded into the app, the entire app runs extremely quickly. It basically caches all unread sources as text locally, so access and search are almost instant. The only issue is that it doesn’t automatically search for updates in a feed. You can either refresh per feed or ping them all at once. The former is rather quick but piecemeal, the latter can take quite a while depending on how many feeds you’re subscribed to.

The reading experience is surprisingly great. I find the combination of a dark background and high contrast text really makes for an enjoyable read.

What do I miss compared to Feedly? Not having any rich media isn’t all that bad. I generally don’t miss the featured images of most of these posts. Some sources that are more graphically driven (FiveThirtyEight for example) can become a little annoying, as you end up missing important context. And if a feed only posts excerpts, you have to punt out to your regular browser, which kind of defeats the purpose.

But for most news and analysis, it generally let’s me focus a little better. Probably the biggest detriment to me using it long term is the lack of sync and mobile support. Not that I read even close to all my subscribed feeds, but I can image becoming annoyed at having to wade through old articles to find fresh content. Luckily Newsboat supports easily filtering of results, so as long as I keep new items up top it shouldn’t be an issue.

We’ll see if Newsboat has more staying power than some of my other larks into text console apps. But at least initially I’m surprised by how functional it is as a reader.

About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.

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