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Pulped

The latest contender for NetNewsWire’s throne, PulpFiction, is a mere three days from launch; and if you weren’t able to tell by the lengthy diatribe of yesterday’s post, or by the discussion over at Erik’s place, I’ve been sent an advance copy. It’s still in beta, and in places it shows, but the bulk of it is there and ready for the taking. So, while the pre–release rush and bug–squash festival keep everybody busy over at Freshly Squeezed Software, we’ll take our grains of salt and dive right into it.

PulpFiction’s icon, quite possibly the best feed–reader icon I’ve seen to date, actually makes use of the “reading” metaphor. Who’d’ve thought?

The first thing you’ll notice about PulpFiction is its interface — it’s just like Mail. In almost every conceivable way, this application mimics Mail’s UI, and in many ways this is for the best. List columns are configurable and sortable; there’s a drawer with an inbox, trash, and room for user–defined folders; there’s an activity viewer; and you can even double–click the main window’s separator chrome to hide the preview pane… it’s just like mail. Dozens of keyboard commands make a direct transition and, just like Mail, you can flag, filter, and live–search your entire permanently–stored article archive. If you know how to use Mail, you already know how to use PulpFiction.

But you already knew that.

Those features, along with labels, custom stylesheets, custom refresh intervals, a built–in browser, and AppleScript support, are the headline features. They’re what every company wants you to see in their product launch —the great stuff— and having me harp on about all the great stuff in PulpFiction doesn’t really help anyone; you can get a feature report anywhere, so we’re gonna get right to the part that I like… the part where I say everything sucks and make suggestions as to how this insanity can be overcome. It’s a grand tradition, indeed.

Speed and stability

Stability is the kind of thing you just have to say “beta release” to and it vanishes; you can’t expect it to be stable when there are still bugs lurking, so I won’t really go into it here. Using the application, however, is mad slow.

Searching articles, filtering them, or even just reading them, is like wading through molasses; and this isn’t really something I expect from my three–month–old PowerBook. It’s the most debilitating when feeds are being downloaded, since the app has a tendency to hang (read: pinwheel) during refreshes, but the overall responsiveness is, well… not very.

But… if you move all your articles to the Trash, the speed problem disappears! Bring ‘em back out and you’re back to square one. This suggests that the persistent–storage database is the key; and though I’m told this problem has already been fixed internally, I’ll be interested to see just how fast the final release is. Speed is paramount in the great crapfiltration race, after all.

Built–in browser

Generally speaking, I don’t care much for the idea of built–in browsers on the best of days, but FSS have done a pretty decent job of theirs. It allows you to view the full article in all its regalia without leaving PulpFiction, which I’m sure is a boon for those who detest command–tab, but it has one serious downside: browser windows launch in front of the main PulpFiction window.

Even if your preference is set to “Use default web browser”, new windows are launched in front… which is massively distracting when the task at hand is “skimming through feeds, finding interesting stuff to read later”. I’m the last to suggest more preferences in any application, but the launch in front/launch behind argument has been settled already; in an ideal world, there is either a preference for it, or there is a modifier key, or both. Me? I prefer behind.

Filterizenationing

Filterization describes the process of creating a new folder in the drawer, naming it after the selected feed, and adding a new filter rule that will filter incoming articles from that feed into the folder; and it’s all done by clicking a button in the Subscription Manager window labeled “Filterize”. Simple, right?

Initially, my contention here was that “Filterize” was too difficult a word to use as a button label. It’s not a real verb (though the morphology would suggest that it’s a possible English verb), making it impossible to guess what the button actually does. Thinking about it, I’ve convinced myself that it’s actually the function behind “Filterize” that shouldn’t be there. Besides the fact that it’s already more than possible to do the same thing using filters manually, there’s one simple method that does away with toolbar icons and naming difficulties altogether: drag–n–drop.

Drop a subscription from the Subscription Manager window to the drawer, and the aforementioned folder/filter combo is set up. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Better yet, forget creating a folder and a filter… just put “the feed” (complete with favicon) into the drawer. Filters are for filtering content, they’re for distributing articles amongst folders; they’re not for throwing all the articles of a single feed into a folder.

Repurposing filters this way is like setting up a Smart Playlist for all songs from the album “the White Album” from the artist “the Beatles” instead of just setting up a static playlist— it doesn’t make sense. Is there anything simpler than direct manipulation?

Keyboard accessibility

Now, I’ve been told I’m overly biased towards accessible applications (it’s my hobby horse, apparently), and I’ve been told I’m a hypocrite for acting as though accessibility (for the disabled) matters to me personally (because I’m not disabled, and I’m also selfish), so I’m gonna go right ahead and write this part from the perspective of a man who doesn’t care at all about accessibility, but is a fresh arrival from the shores of NetNewsWire. Here goes:

As I’ve said, PulpFiction carries a full complement of keyboard shortcuts that often translate directly from Mail; flagging is Command–Shift–L, ”Mark All as Read” is Command–Option–U, checking for new articles is Command–Shift–N, and that’s all cool: it means even less of a learning curve. But there’s just one problem: super–quick–keybash–article–skim.

In NetNewsWire, when you want to skim through a bunch of new headlines you just keep hitting the space bar until you’ve seen them all. Hitting space (or clicking “Next Unread”, in you’re inclined) will always take you to the next unread item, no matter what the case. In PulpFiction, this just isn’t possible.

Command–] is the PulpFiction shortcut for “Next Unread” (fair enough), and you can hit that key combo as much as you like, but once you’ve read all the unread items in the current folder, give up. If there’s an unread item in another folder (perhaps one of your filters put it there), all the Command–]–ing in the world won’t take you to it. There just isn’t a keybash method for skimming through hundreds of headlines in separate PulpFiction folders.

The solution (doy) is to just not use folders, and not use filters, so everything stays in your inbox where you can Command–] your way through the lot of them. Simple, but not very smart.

In fact, there’s no way to access another folder from the keyboard at all. It doesn’t exist. You can’t do it in Mail (discounting Command–1 to Command–6, which access the predefined Inbox, Outbox, Drafts, Sent, Trash, and Junk folders, respectively), so you can’t do it in PulpFiction, because Freshly Squeezed Software’s motto for this project was do it like mail.

I’ve discussed this with Andrew Ruess, part of the FSS team, and he says it will probably get added, whilst commenting that nobody else thought of that. Nobody else thought of that. My God. Maybe I am a keyboard–interface wonk.

Naw.

Custom stylesheets

Let’s begin this frankly: custom stylesheets rock. More than that, custom stylesheets with custom templates rock harder. But I do have to correct an oversight I made earlier. Customization is not per–feed; I was mistaken and I was, perhaps, projecting just a little. Nobody will be putting links on their website to CSS files with the text “customize my feed in PulpFiction”. And now I’m crying.

Keyboard accessibility²

Now that the “I don’t care about keyboard interface” NNW user has had his say, I’ll move back into my own skin for just one more piece of keyboard fun: Shift–Space

Open up Mail and move to a folder with a few emails in it that are fairly long; long enough for scrollbars to get involved. Now, hit space bar… quite a few times. You’ll notice that with each email, Mail will scroll down the length of the email and, once it has reached the end of that message, move on to the next message. Convenient. PulpFiction does the same thing.

Now, imagine that you accidentally scrolled past something you wanted to look at, and since your hands are already all over the keyboard from all that space bar keybashing, you’d like to keep them there. There is a way. Hold down Shift this time, and hit the space bar. Mail scrolls up now. And, like before, once it reaches the scrolling–limit of the message (this time the limit is at the top, rather than the bottom) it moves up the message list into the next message. Space performs a function… Shift modifies that function. It’s a modifier key.

In PulpFiction, this Shift–Space behavior doesn’t work as expected. Instead of scrolling up in the current message, it simply selects the previous message, in a behavior that is unlike any other application I’ve seen. To FSS’ defence, NNW doesn’t respect the Shift modifier at all; if you hit Shift–Space in NNW you’ll just keep moving down… not so cool. And further to their defence, this bug is on their radar… albeit low priority.

All in all, I have to give the guys at Freshly Squeezed a high mark for effort — they’ve been busy bees, even if there are a few things that still need to be put under the microscope. The problem in posting this writeup is, of course, the fact that I’m using a beta copy of PulpFiction. In three days I could be proven wrong, which would please me greatly, but three days is an awfully short amount of time to squish all the bugs on their radar and pay attention to a curmudgeon like me.

I’ve long been a supporter of a release philosophy I believe belongs to BareBones Software: don’t work to a deadline — squish all the bugs and commence two–week beta trial. If new bugs are discovered, squish them and restart the trial. Better may be the enemy of done, but I like to see a rock–solid product ship; because frankly, nobody likes to see a 1.0.1 release just a few days after the 1.0.

So now we wait for the official release…

Update

Erik has responded appropriately, and I’m glad to see that the majority of my actual “concerns” (things I regard as bugs) have been addressed. Speed, launch–browser–window–behind (with modifier key), and shift–space behavior… they’ve all been fixed.

I understand his reluctance to implement per–feed (user–defined! not author defined!) custom stylesheets, particularly given that it doesn’t really “fit” their interface model, but it’s still on my ultimate feed–reader wishlist.

Inter–folder keyboard navigation isn’t mentioned, which may be a little problematic for me… but not for most people. I still use Mail, after all, but the volume of mail I receive tends to be a lot less than the volume of news headlines I download. Once Smart Folders are implemented (rumored for 1.1), it’ll be a cinch to set up an “unread items” folder, whilst also managing feeds hierarchically through filters.

And finally, while I must concede defeat on the topic of Filterization (it’s hard to argue with anyone once their minds are made up. Remember the draconian/liberal feed parsing polemic?), I’ll still cast a stone and say that the drag–n–drop behavior of the Subscriptions Manager window is broken. Well… nonexistant. If you could highlight a bunch of feeds, drop them into the drawer, and have a filter/folder set up to accommodate the grouping; I’d consider it done.

After all, we have a toolbar icon for “Delete”, don’t we? People aren’t expected to drag–n–drop items into the Trash… but between toolbars and direct manipulation, we cover all the bases.