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Few features are as essential to modern Web browsing as feeds. With the rise of social networking and file sharing sites, feeds have become the only way for many people to keep up-to-date with all the sites that interest them. Certainly feeds are more efficient than resolutely clicking dozens or hundreds of bookmarks one after another. To satisfy the need to feed, developers have written dozens of Firefox add-ons to help you view both classic feed formats and sites that lack a feed.
By default, Firefox treats feeds as bookmark folders in which you must open each item separately, with only the first 40 or so characters of the title visible. Some extensions are designed to work directly with these live bookmarks (as Firefox call them), such as Feed Sidebar, a button that lists all unread items in your feeds in a side panel, and RSS Ticker, which creates a scrolling marquee of all your live bookmarks. You might also consider installing Reliby, which updates all your live bookmarks at the click of a single button.
However, if you continue to rely on live bookmarks, the must-have extension is Liveclick, which expands the basic functionality of live bookmarks by allowing you to mark them as read and to set alerts for updates. It also allows you to preview live bookmarks, and to create them by right-clicking anywhere on a Web page.
Even with all the available extensions, live bookmarks suffer from one major problem: They give little sense of what any item is about. This problem alone explains why the most popular type of feed extensions is aggregators or feed readers that give you enhanced browsing and reading of your feeds. At least two dozen are available from the Firefox Add-on site, all of them working with with Atom and RSS feeds -- the most common formats -- and all of them allowing you to read the first paragraph or view a thumbnail of any photos.
Beyond these basics, a variety of feed reader extensions offer something for everybody. Those who prefer simple feeds might try one of several extensions that feature a minimal but adequate feature set, such as Sage, Beatnik, or 22Pixels Sidekik. Another relatively simple feed reader is Brief, whose display filters can come in handy when you view active feeds.
If you don't want to take up space in your browser window, you might like rssPlayPen. Opening from a nondescript button in the lower right corner of the Firefox browser window, rssPlayPen works out of a floating window to which you can drag feeds for display. The extension then displays each item in a second floating window, with a pair of arrow keys for navigating between items. The add-on's simplicity of design is appealing, but to avoid difficulties you'll either want to keep your Firefox window small compared to your total desktop or make sure that the floating windows are set to float on top.
For those who want more features in their feed readers, NewsFox is a popular choice. With its three-pane format -- the list of feeds on the left, the current feed on the top right, and the current item on the bottom left -- NewsFox resembles a mail reader, and is especially easy to navigate.
But perhaps the most elaborate reader is Wizz RSS News Reader. It comes with its own toolbar and extensive online help, along with display filters, feed search, a watch list, and several tabs' worth of configuration options. The extension is so extensive in its features that you can even configure it to read email and respond with a message that includes an automatic signature.
The convenience of feed readers is so obvious that many extensions create pseudo-feeds for sites that lack true feeds. For instance, you can configure Google Reader Notifier or Google Reader Watcher to enjoy feeds from your Google Reader account. Alternatively, if you prefer Yahoo! services, you can add such extensions such as Yahoo! Toolbox or Yahoo! Mail Notifier to read your Yahoo mail. Strictly speaking, none of these sources are true feeds, but they show how the concept of feeds is expanding from its roots.
You can find extensions to handle feeds for many other online services too, including Feedbackfox, which tracks feedback on eBay users, and SynapseLife Tool Extension, which provides RSS feeds for registered users as part of SynapseLife's integrated package of online applications. There is even Scorewatcher, designed to keep avid cricket fans up-to-date on the latest match results.
For other pages that don't have feeds, you might also want to consider Update Scanner. Resembling many feed readers with its sidebar, Update Scanner allows you to manually scan all the pages registered with it by clicking the Scan button, or set the interval between automatic scans. You can also set by character count the size of small changes to ignore. When you are ready to view updates, you can open all updated sites with a single click.
As with any Firefox extensions, you may run into incompatibilities between different extensions. However, the extensions available for reading Web feeds can quickly help you add customization, enhance efficiency, and save time.
Every Monday we highlight a different extension, plugin, or add-on. Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us about one that you use and how it makes your work easier, along with tips for getting the most out of it. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your chosen topic recently or have one in hand.)