November 8, 2006

Web Stars: Best Of The Best

Where should you go for news, research, shopping, and more? We compare Goliaths of the Web to lesser-known upstarts--and discover some surprising results.

The Web has been around long enough that even the most adventuresome surfer might end up in a rut, always using the same sites to get work done. So we put up the periscope to scan for the best newcomers and compared them to the Net's stalwarts. In each category, one site emerged as the Best Bet--but that shouldn't dissuade you from exploring the other contenders, all of which offer innovative and useful features you won't find anywhere else.

# Search Engines
# Driver & Patch Sites
# Browser Toolbar Plug-Ins
# Auction Sites
# Blog Sites & Aggregator Tools
# Tech Support & Help Sites
# Travel Services
# Media Players
# Reference Desk Sites
# Tech Enthusiast
# Maps & Traffic
# Web Conferencing
Search Engines

Google Google remains the default choice for fast, accurate searches of the Web, reaching deeper into the corners of the free Internet, fighting the good fight for relevant results with no muss or fuss. Behind the seemingly simple facade of its home page, Google abounds with ever-improving Web-based tools, browser add-ons, and international variations. Expect better blog searching soon, thanks to the company's purchase of Web-log phenom Blogger and to geographic searches that tie the physical location of a Web server to the results. Learning how to use Google better can yield a richer payoff than switching search engines.

Dogpile It's a long drop from No. 1 to No. 2, but Dogpile can work its canine charms even on users who are happy with Google. Every search on Dogpile combines results from several engines and Web directories, including Google, Teoma, Overture,, and many more. Unfortunately, the output is not markedly superior to single-source results. Dogpile's main benefits are the smart 'Refine your results' links, which let you winnow your results using additional search terms that the site guesses (often correctly) in an effort to help you find what you're looking for. Convenient White and Yellow Pages tabs let you use the same search window to track down people and businesses.

AllTheWeb www.alltheweb.comAllTheWeb delivers a minimalist, Googlesque user interface and an intuitive advanced search that makes honing results easy. The site's indexes compete head-on with Google's and Yahoo's for both relevance and speed. Looking for a hard-to-find download? Give AllTheWeb's FTP Files search a try. Parents and everyone else sick of Net porn will appreciate the default 'filter out content likely to offend' setting. English-only speakers will like the default filtering of non-English-language Web pages from searches.
Driver & Patch Sites

Windows Update's face it: Windows is full of bugs, and it's no fun having to keep up with the myriad Windows patches that sprout like briars. If you must perpetually patch your OS, Windows Update makes the experience as painless as possible. The site scans your local copy of Windows (without divulging your computer's contents) to tell you what patches you need; then, at your command, it downloads and installs them. A companion site for Microsoft Office--Microsoft Office Update--does the same thing for the ubiquitous application suite.

Version Tracker Downloading patches is a necessary evil for just about anyone who uses a PC. VersionTracker assembles announcements and downloads of patches for thousands of applications. The focus here is on what's new, particularly in shareware, rather than just on what will fix your program's ills. The site covers apps for the Mac OS and Palm as well.

The Driver Guide www.driverguide.comWhether you're looking for a hard-to-find driver for a discontinued product or just want to explore the strangely compelling back alleys of unsigned, performance-enhancing driver updates, this is the place to go. A free database of driver files, company information, and links is fed by a community of enthusiastic Driver Guide members. The site's sensible--though slightly ramshackle--approach gives it the feel of a volunteer project, but the meat and potatoes are there.
Browser Toolbar Plug-Ins

Dogpile Search Toolbar's toolbar has almost everything a searcher could ask for, wrapped in cutesy canine metaphors (like the search button labeled 'Fetch'). Run Web searches, White and Yellow Pages queries, and Merriam-Webster's dictionary, thesaurus, and antonym finder lookups from your toolbar. The built-in pop-up blocker works well, and we like being able to highlight search terms on the page we're visiting. News headlines, which scroll across the toolbar by default, can be distracting, but turning off this feature from the Toolbar Settings menu is easy.

AltaVista Toolbar's Web search engine may not be as popular as Google's, but AltaVista's translation service, Babelfish, is second to none. If you need to know what's on some German message board, or if you're trying to decipher a love note from your Mediterranean sweetheart, you can instantly translate words, phrases, or the currently open Web page from any of eight languages into English, using AltaVista's browser plug-in. The toolbar also lets you search AltaVista; highlights search terms in results pages; calculates currency and metric-to-U.S.-unit conversions; looks up area codes, zip codes, and weather reports; and blocks pop-up ads.

Google Deskbar's newest search tool, which plugs right into the Windows desktop, allows you to search Google's directories without opening a browser. Search results appear in a Deskbar-controlled pop-up window that you can quickly slide out of the way when you don't need it. Though the Deskbar lacks some features of the standard Google toolbar (it doesn't include a pop-up blocker, for instance), the convenience of browserless searching makes this latest addition to the Google pantheon well worth trying.
Auction Sites

EBay www.ebay.comEBay is by far the largest auction site out there, and its search engine remains a strength--which is fortunate since the sheer volume of results can overwhelm just about anyone. High volume and reputable sellers make an auction site great, and EBay has them both.

Auction Sniper www.auctionsniper.comIf you are frustrated about losing too many online auctions, Auction Sniper (which monitors bidding, then tops the high bid in the final seconds) can level the playing field and help you win that coveted laptop (or signed Harry Potter book). Your first three auctions are free; after that, you pay Auction Sniper a fee ranging from 25 cents to $5 for each auction you win, based on the final price. www.bidz.comTrying to squeeze into the world of Internet auction houses is only slightly easier than making your own operating system and taking on Microsoft, but Bidz gamely gives it a shot. The site's promise of "satisfaction guaranteed" simply means that you have some protection from shady sellers--but you won't be able to squirm off the hook just because you suffer a case of buyer's remorse.
Blog Sites & Aggregator Tools

Feedster www.feedster.comIf you'd like to sample what the bloggers are writing about, step up to the Feedster trough. With a simplicity that's visually evocative of Google, Feedster allows you to search blog postings for a phrase, then see who's writing about that topic (and of course, what they have to say). Results vary dramatically from hour to hour, but a Feedster search is the fastest route to instant zeitgeist. Feedster's nearest competitor,, searches thousands of Weblogs, too, and it serves up user-friendly lists of the top news and blogs being linked to, or of the most popular words appearing in the blogosphere. But Daypop's performance problems--it gets unbearably slow at times--boost Feedster's lo-fi appeal. Coolest Feedster feature: If you're a true news junkie using an RSS aggregator (see SharpReader below), you can turn any Feedster search into a feed itself, which means that you get the latest results automagically.

Memigo Memigo ranks the quality of individual news items according to the clicks and recommendations of registered Memigo users (as well as to your own clicks as you surf through the site). A fascinating and constantly changing compilation of news stories from an eclectic range of sites and feeds around the Web, the site delivers its content enjoyably fast. Memigo holds a lot of promise as a news aggregation service, but it's still an experiment, so expect a few rough edges. It aims to "cut through the infoglut" by delivering high-quality content through group consensus, but a few out-of-place stories occasionally float into positions that give them top billing.

SharpReader www.sharpreader.netAmong the many small free applications summarizing the latest news or blog postings from any site that offers news feeds (abbreviated links and descriptions of new content on a given site), SharpReader earns our nod because it's simple to install and straightforward to operate (it integrates into Internet Explorer). You can pop in the URL of a new RSS feed (the home pages of many sites already have the telltale orange XML icon that denotes a feed), view the results, and subscribe in one click. If you don't like using a tool that's been fused into Internet Explorer, take a look at FeedDemon this stand-alone equivalent program is still in beta testing, but it has a lot going for it.
Tech Support & Help Sites

AVS Forum A support site for anything related to home theater or consumer electronics, AVS Forum has exactly what a tech community needs most: smart, loyal users who offer outstanding advice to novices and enthusiasts alike. Before you call a repairperson for any home theater device, check with the folks here. We won't buy a product without seeing what the AVS Forum users have to say about it. The site receives more than 3000 posts a day on topics ranging from hacking your TiVo to optimizing the picture on your new plasma TV. If you are fed up with pesky Windows behavior and you're not going to take it anymore, turn to the online component of O'Reilly's Annoyances series of books. With good humor and clever tips, the site explains how to eliminate (or at least deal with) the frustrating, the repetitive, and the unnecessary in your computer's operating system and applications. A discussion forum lets users of specific Windows versions ask other users, as well as the authors of the Annoyances books and O'Reilly editors, how to fix new problems as they arise.

Hoaxbusters hoaxbusters.ciac.orgMost hoax e-mail is blatantly phony (got any from the son of a retired general in Zimbabwe lately?), but some messages are harder to spot. HoaxBusters' running tally of dire warnings (and other late-breaking, full-of-hot-air bulletins) also makes a great reply to correspondents who forward e-mail you can't believe they took seriously: Respond with a link to this site.

Tech Support Guy www.helponthe.netMichael J. Cermak, Jr., may have the most thankless job on the Internet. As self-appointed Tech Support Guy, he helps answer the thousands of computer-related questions in his Web archive. Cermak and a legion of volunteers help countless flummoxed PC users through the thorniest computer woes. We're just glad he's on the job.
Travel Services

Expedia Far easier to navigate than most airport security lines, Expedia is the best travel-booking site on the Web. Besides being easy to use, Expedia simplifies building a package combining airfare, hotel, and car rentals. The site offers a terrific range of discount hotels, with Web-shopper-friendly cancellation policies; Priceline and Hotwire don't let you cancel at all. Even though Expedia charges a $5 booking fee for plane tickets, you're still ahead of the game.

Orbitz www.orbitz.comFinding flights is what Orbitz does best. When you look for a flight, Orbitz lists the most likely candidates in an easy-to-read table that's organized by carrier. If you check a box on the search page, Orbitz will point you to flights into or out of alternative airports within a 70-mile radius of your starting point or destination. Overall, we found the site slightly sluggish compared to Expedia and the design not quite as welcoming.

Travelocity www.travelocity.comTravelocity's Last Minute Deals tab at the top of its crowded home page is the first thing you should click when you visit this comprehensive site. You can almost always find a combination package of airfare and hotel or airfare and car rental that's as good as, if not better than, the price of each purchased separately. In addition, the Guides & Advice tab, packed with information from travel guide publisher Frommer's, provides good general guidance about traveling to cities throughout the world.

TripAdvisor It's not designed for booking a hotel room, but we find TripAdvisor indispensable for researching hotels, especially when we don't have a guidebook handy. The site offers links to reviews from myriad publications, including the New York Times, Fodors, and Frommer's, as well as posts by TripAdvisor users. You'll also find links to major travel-booking sites, though occasionally the links won't return any results--especially if you're looking at smaller inns. The only risk with TripAdvisor: The profusion of information can induce planning paralysis.
Media Players

Quintessential Player www.quinnware.comThe ultimate customizable, universal, ad-free media player, this one can play (and record) Real, Shoutcast, and Windows Media streams, as well as almost every audio or video file format. Just download the right plug-in for the task.

JetAudio JetAudio delivers built-in CD burning, streamed audio broadcasting, and a timer to start or stop playback or recording.Aside from being able to rip and play MP3, OGG, and WMA files, JetAudio delivers built-in CD burning, streamed audio broadcasting, and a timer to start or stop playback or recording.
Reference Desk Sites

Your Library's Web SiteFrustrated by the growing number of pay-per-view Web archives? Your local library's Web site might be able to help, though you may need a library card to enjoy full access. For example, New York Public Library cardholders can read issues of The New York Times online for the past year, and anyone in the world can ask the librarian any question. You'll find encyclopedias, community information, and more than enough reasons to ensure that your library card is up-to-date.

Acronym Finder www.acronymfinder.comWhen you need an acronym PDQ, check Acronym Finder. If you're caught in a snafu over instant-messaging jargon like ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing) or technical specifications like kbps (kilobits per second), Acronym Finder can track it down, ASAP. While we respect the site's owners' desire to generate revenue, the automated links to don't make a whole lot of sense. Just because we might wonder what SCUBA stands for doesn't mean we want to buy Jacques Cousteau's memoirs.

OneLook www.onelook.comOne word describes OneLook: comprehensive, as in covering completely. This site collects definitions from more than 100 dictionaries, ranging from garden-variety Merriam-Webster's to the (who knew?) Yiddish-Hebrew-English-German-Russian Picture Dictionary. We love being able to see definitions from such a variety of sources (and it frees up a lot of bookshelf space).
Tech Enthusiast

Tom's Hardware Guide www.tomshardware.comIn many ways, Tom's Hardware has evolved with the needs of its PC-using audience. Initially a site dedicated to news about the latest processors, Tom's has expanded its scope in recent years to include mobile devices, tech business news, and even gaming. Factor in its excellent tutorials and forums, and Tom's remains one of the best tech resources on the Web for novices and experts.

Slashdot www.slashdot.orgOnce you know what's going on, come here to find out what the self-appointed arbiters of good tech think about the issues du jour. Members of this extended community post items linking to news of the day (it's free to join, and anyone can submit a story), and others comment on their posts. Some messages border on hysteria: To see some real fireworks, post anything critical of Linux.

AnandTech www.anandtech.comBest known for its news and analysis of the latest processors, chip sets, and motherboards (and for its founder, Anand Lal Shimpi, who--though it's hard to believe--is still in college), AnandTech's forums are a boon for users of any proficiency level seeking advice before cracking open the case on their PC.
Maps & Traffic

MapQuest A bit more intuitive than most map sites, MapQuest remembers recently entered addresses, so you can select them from a drop-down menu. You can also copy directions over to a Palm or Pocket PC device, though you must install AvantGo (a free download) to take advantage of that service.

MSN Maps and Directions mappoint.msn.comThough we admire the clean design of MSN's site, it does not remember addresses used in previous searches. The Microsoft connection does have its advantages, however: Pocket PC users can copy a map to their PDA without additional software (sorry Palm users, you're out of luck).

AccuTraffic www.accutraffic.comNeed to know whether an accident or heavy snow threatens to turn your road trip into a road trap? This handy portal links you to local and state traffic agencies' sites from around the country. The one downside isn't Accutraffic's fault: The quality of information varies dramatically from state to state.
Web Conferencing

WebEx www.webex.comIf you've used Web conferencing, chances are you've heard of WebEx. The site allows you to share an application--usually a PowerPoint presentation and a whiteboard--on the computer screens of participants across the Internet. The cost savings had better come out of the travel budget, however, because WebEx ain't free: Charges range from 45 cents per minute per person to $200 per user per month.

Centra www.centra.comCentra adds integrated voice-over-IP to standard meeting features at no extra cost. In addition, it integrates with Lotus Notes and Outlook, and your conference's audience needs only to download a slim browser plug-in.

Live Meeting www.placeware.comAfter acquiring PlaceWare in 2003, Microsoft rebranded the Web conferencing service as an alternative to WebEx and tied it in with the Office application suite. The site covers the essentials: shared screens and whiteboards, and live chat. Better pricing than WebEx, integration with Office, and Microsoft's backing make Live Meeting formidable.