91 incredibly useful and interesting Web sites
- 10 October, 2008 13:39
Even as the Web has become more entertaining — and certainly better looking — over the past 15 years, it has also become much more useful and practical, as the 100 sites in this feature will demonstrate.
I've organized the sites in the list by the type of task they help you with. It is not a ranking; in each category I recommend sites that specialize in a different area than the others. I've also mixed in a smattering of sites that you might not use every day, but that provide ready answers to specific questions like "How can I learn to rumba?" or "Who should I vote for?" or "How do I make a wallet out of duct tape?"
8 Great How-to Web Sites
Because of sites like Yahoo Answers and Instructables, the Web has become the first stop for people trying to fix something, build something, or learn a new skill.
The "wisdom of the crowd" model works very well for how-to and advice sites like Yahoo Answers and Instructables. The content at these sites is created and contributed largely by the communities of people that frequent the sites. At some of the sites you can ask a question, and then read what informed members of the community have to say about it.
Yahoo Answers: One of the best examples of community participation on the Net. At Yahoo Answers, regular folks write in questions ("How do I get the ring around the collar off of my white dress shirt and make it white again?") and site users offer helpful answers. The answers are rated on usefulness by other users.
HowStuffWorks: The perfect site for the endlessly curious, it lifts up the hood on everything from carburetors to communism and explains in simple terms what they are and how they work. The explanations aren't very deep (most visitors don't want to read Das Kapital anyway), but it's the breadth of the topics the site explains that's so impressive.
Lynda.coml: To learn how to use new software, we used to sit in darkened hotel conference rooms watching a bored instructor drone on with a training demo and a laser pointer. Or we bought a manual to go it alone. Neither of those approaches works nearly as well as the subscription-based online videos offered by Lynda.com, which teaches you to use just about any creative, design, and development software you can think of.
Instructables: Learn how to make anything from a corsage to a catapult. Users write in about what they do or have invented, and how they did it. The site originated with guys at the MIT Media Lab who needed a place to demonstrate their latest inventions.
FixYa: Your iPod just flat-lined. Don't panic, and don't throw it. At FixYa, a team of experts and a large group of users address common tech and gadget breakdowns and how to fix them. You can get help by posting a message on the site or by having a Web chat with one of the experts.
Treehugger: Here you can find a lot of information on how to live greener every day. The site specializes in covering the "green" aspects of many parts of life-everything from food to business to recreation to fashion. You'll also find news and views on the Green Movement.
Livemocha: Livemocha (in beta) is a new, free approach to learning new languages, enhancing the process by establishing learning alliances with "language buddies" from around the globe.
7 Sites for Buying, Selling and Renting Almost Anything
The Web is a giant meeting place for buyers and sellers of all kinds; sites like CarsDirect and Greenzer offer helpful new tools to help the deals along.
Nowadays, it's hard to imagine the process of buying, selling, or renting without the Internet as a guide. Whether we are trying to find communities of people who buy and sell the same things we do, or are seeking "wisdom of the crowd" opinion on potential buys, the Internet is often the first place we look. The sites below, we feel, are best at bringing buyers, sellers, and renters together, and arming them with the intel they need to do the deal.
Craigslist: Want ads work so much better on the Web than in print that newspaper want ads are all but extinct. You can buy, sell, or rent just about anything, anywhere on this no-nonsense site.
Freecycle: This grassroots, nonprofit site organizes and connects (via Yahoo Groups) people who might like to trade items within their own communities. It works really well for finding someone to come over and get that one useless thing out of your house, but not into a landfill.
Zilok: Whereas Freecycle focuses on giving or trading, Zilok focuses on renting. The site hosts rental listings from people in your community for things you might need to use only once — a power tool, a picnic table, a warehouse space, a van — things you'd usually be far better off renting than buying outright.
CarsDirect: A great place to buy a car online — or at least to get a good starting point on a price — this is the only Web site of its kind that instantly shows you a buy-it-now price, with no haggling and no calls from snaky salespeople.
Zillow: From some of the creators of Expedia comes Zillow, which gathers in one place a bevy of information on properties and their prices in many parts of the United States. If a house is for sale, you can find contact information, read descriptions, and ask questions of the sellers. Plus it's just fun to see how much your neighbor's house is worth.
Greenzer: Greenzer brings it down to the local level by helping you choose products from companies that are really walking the walk, not just talking the "green" talk to help their bottom line.
HousingMaps: "Mashups," to me, have been largely an overhyped, unrealized concept. HousingMaps, however, is a notable exception. It's a simple mashup of Google Maps and Craigslist housing listings. Choose the part of town in which you want to live, and see what's available in your price range.
Find and Watch TV and Movies Online
Web video is everywhere online these days — and not just on YouTube. We've picked the sites that best aggregate, organize or host great-looking online video of all kinds.
Increasingly, content creators from NBC to Disney to Michael Moore are distributing their video online. That the amount of such video available on the Internet has increased dramatically is good news. The problem is, it's coming at us from a million different sites, in many different formats. My favorite video sites do a good job of organizing it all, linking to it, and pointing us to video content that you wouldn't expect to get for free.
OVGuide: This is the biggest aggregator of links to online video I've encountered to date. One caveat: Some of the video sites featured seem to contain pirated video ripped from DVDs. The company's stance? "OVGuide.com simply directs you to the site; it is not responsible for the content on the sites."
NinjaVideo: I heard about Ninja through word of mouth and assumed that, like most of the "awesome video sites" I hear about, it would list a bunch of great titles — none of which would play. Wrong. I downloaded a small plug-in and began watching just-released movies and premium TV shows in no time, for free.
Truveo: Using this all-video search engine, you can search for your favorite TV shows from any network or provider hosting online content, including ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, ESPN, and others.
SnagFilms: Documentary film heaven. The site hosts about 250 domestic and international documentaries right now, and is growing fast. The site also has a twist: It lets you "snag" the films you like and set up a little theater of your own at your MySpace page or Web site.
Healthy and Happy: 9 Sites for Fitness and Travel
FitDay and sites like it can help you find and follow a healthy routine. Sites like Kayak can help you book a trip and get out of town when its time for a change of scenery.
As we get older, we realize what a surprisingly big part of our happiness simple fitness and health habits play. A growing number of sites help people to manage their diet, exercize, and health issues, and give them a way to rap with others doing the same. Following are the best health sites we know of.
FitDay: This site helped me work off 10 pounds by forcing me to report honestly the foods that I was eating every day and their calorie counts. No more denial ("that donut couldn't have been more that 75 calories!"). FitDay isn't the only site that does this, but the breadth and depth of its food information and its easy-to-use layout lift it above the rest.
iMedix: Although social networking sites are everywhere, many are focused on little worth talking about. iMedix (in beta), however, helps people form communities around their health issues (cancer, depression, and so on), so they can network with each other and share relevant news and research information.
RealAge: Fill out a health questionnaire at this site, and it reports your "physical age" (the age of your body), which you can then compare with your chronological age. If you're in good shape, your body may be 35, even though your calendar age is 45. Or vice versa, if you aren't fit. Either way, the site produces a detailed health plan to lower your physical age.
Let's throw in travel sites and vacation planners here too, because breaking out of the routine and getting out of town is good for the soul.
Tripit: This beta site brings all the travel information you need to one place, and it works very well. So, before your next trip, use this tool to make a master itinerary, integrating every possible detail of your journey, from restaurants to rental cars to what the weather is going to be like.
Kayak: Here's the online travel agent de jour. Punch in your dates and destinations, and Kayak brings back price quotes from most of the major airlines; it also checks in with other aggregators (Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity) to capture the best deals they have. Kayak lets you view and compare fares in list, matrix, or chart views, and even provides a calender showing the best rates that other users have found for trips similar to yours.
TripAdvisor: Here's the "wisdom of the crowd" view for travelers. Reading its numerous negative reviews of a hotel I almost stayed at in Denver saved me from what would surely have been a bad experience. (A friend of mine who lives in Denver says the reviews were correct, too.) Besides hotels, the site also hosts reviews of flights, cruises, and restaurants.
RoadsideAmerica: Here's a wonderful tool for those who have a taste (and the gas money) for road trips. It's the definitive guide to crazy and offbeat roadside attractions. To test its completeness, I ran a check of listings for my Midwestern home state, and it turned up some cool spots I hadn't even known about, such as the "world's largest ball of stamps" and Ole's Big Game Bar.
PlanetEye: To plan a trip to Rome, I logged in to this beta site. It had just about everything I needed, including local news and blogs from an area expert, which clued me in to bargains and seasonal goings-on that would be happening during my stay.
Lonely Planet: Read this site's Thorn Tree Forum posts (organized by travel destinations around the world), and you'll find discussions among folks who have just returned from the place(s) you may wish to visit. Many of the posts are by people who have been to the destination a number of times — veterans who should have a lot of good advice to share with first-time visitors.
Sites That Find People and Their 'Sensitive' Information
We've selected the best people-finder sites out there, as well as select sites (like Glassdoor and CriminalSearches) for finding sensitive (public) information about them.
At one time or another, you might need to get the goods on a stranger, like a prospective nanny or a business contact. Public records and people-finder sites are often the place to look; we list the best ones here. These sites use cool, Web 2.0 techniques to help you locate people, then (if need be) dig deep to find the "sensitive" intel about them you need.
WhitePages.com: WhitePages and PeopleFinders are both good tools for tracking down people, their addresses, and their phone numbers, but the nod goes to WhitePages for its upcoming addition of voice and mobile capabilities.
FriendFeed: Many content sharing and social networking sites exist now — Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and so on — and my friends seem to be spread out evenly among them. I don't have time to visit them all. FriendFeed crawls more than 40 such sites to keep you updated on the Web pages, photos, videos, and music that your friends are sharing or commenting on.
Spock: This site looks for a person's school, work, and social affiliations, then displays photos, links to social network pages, Web sites, videos, and blogs about that person.
Facebook: I know, I know, recommending such a well-known standby as Facebook is like recommending that you wear sunscreen at the beach. But, really, what social networking site is more functional, more organized, and more populous than this one?
Glassdoor: This site invites you to log in and anonymously write what you really think of the company you work for, the culture you work in (here's where you gripe about your boss), and the salary you're pulling down. Then (and only then) can you dig for some dirt on current or former coworkers and, best of all, see how much they make.
Search Systems: Public-records sites do the legwork of collecting all kinds of public records from all over the country, and then sell access to them via the Internet. Search Systems, one of the oldest and most reliable of these companies, takes a no-nonsense approach to selling access to 36,000 public-records databases from around the country. You can access marriage and death records, property records, and business permits for a $5 monthly fee, or buy the "premium" service, which includes bankruptcy and criminal records.
NETRonline (www.netronline.com): For a somewhat more hands-on approach to accessing public records, NETRonline's free public records portal is a very useful tool, with direct links to the actual county and state databases that contain the data. NETR also offers background checks and criminal-record searches, for a price.
Criminal Searches: Do you really know the people in your neighborhood? Do some of them have criminal histories, including sex-related offenses, violent crimes, and theft (or just traffic offenses, as the site also details)? Criminal Searches provides their mug shots and even plots their addresses on a map, for free.
These Sites Let You Store, Share, Create and Publish Content
Sites like Drop.io and eSnips give you a nuetral space to store, access and share your documents. Sites like Photosynth help you create and publish your own content.
With better broadband speeds and advances in server center technology, sites that are willing to host large amounts of your data are popping up everywhere, and some are free. Other sites take your photos or other content and help you turn them into something fun to watch and listen to. We rate these sites on how secure and inexpensive they are, how much data they will store for you, and the quality of the product that results from working with your content at the site.
Storing and Sharing Content
Drop.io: Here, you can dump up to 100MB of pictures, video, audio, documents, or whatever into a personal folder, and then share the URL (it would look something like 'drop.io/yourname1') with family or friends. It's supereasy to use, and my favorite hosting and sharing site.
eSnips: At this center for social file sharing, you can store cool content, from documents to music tracks, online, and then easily access your "snips" at a later date and share the content with other users. But what makes eSnips different is that it's really a social network that provides users ample opportunity to discuss the things they're storing and sharing.
Publish Your Stuff
But storing and sharing is just one piece of it. A new breed of sites is making available to users some powerful tools that allow you to transform your content into cool new forms, like multimedia presentations, and then provide a platform on which you can publish the stuff to your Facebook page or your own Web site.
Picasa Web Albums: Flickr is so 2007. Google's Picasa Web Albums does the same kind of stuff (that is, organizing and sharing your photos), with a smarter and friendlier interface.
Lulu: You're a genius, and your book is brilliant — the world just doesn't know it yet. Go to Lulu, which will help you self-publish hard copies of your masterpiece at reasonable rates. Its services range from design to marketing.
Animoto: Animoto takes your still photos and stitches them together into a little animated film using cool effects, and then adds music. It's free and easy to use, and the result is well worth the small effort.
Photosynth: If you really want someone to experience what it's like to visit a place you've been to (a foreign city, an art gallery, a local pub, whatever) this site — developed by Microsoft's Live Labs research arm — assembles your digital photos to create a high-res 3D walk-through that people can enjoy via a Web browser.
Capzles: Here you can make digital slide shows on steroids. Capzles creates highly controllable and information-rich slide shows of your photos, complete with background images and music.
Vimeo: Vimeo is arguably the best video sharing and hosting site right now because of its generous file-size allowances, as well as its focus on professional-grade filmmaking from people who live and breathe it. Worth checking out.
5 Sites That Will Boost Your Political Awareness
Politics has become almost synonymous with spin and distortion of the truth. Sites like Politifact and OpenSecrets.org are helping voters keep tabs on government.
It's election time again, and there's no shortage of spin and distortion about candidates and issues. Fortunately, we have some very good political Web sites to help us make well-reasoned choices at the ballot box. And that's just the start: Some of our other favorite sites use the latest Web tools to bring a new transparency to governments, special interests, and campaigns — year round.
FedSpending.org: We all pay taxes. A lot of taxes. FedSpending.org gives you easy ways to see exactly where, and on what, your federal tax dollars are being spent.
OpenCongress: OpenCongress combines official government data with news coverage, blog posts, and commentary to give you the real story about what's happening in Congress-from bills to scandals.
PolitiFact Truth-o-Meter: You hear a lot of bluff and bluster, slips, spin, and even outright lies during campaign season. Every day the reporters and researchers at PolitiFact (a team effort of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly) fact-check every word of candidates' speeches, TV ads, and interviews to determine the amount of truth in the claims they make.
Project Vote Smart: Run by a bipartisan group of interns and volunteers, Project Vote Smart publishes the biographies, voting records, and other details about all presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative candidates.
OpenSecrets.org: All candidates for federal office must report the people and organizations that have contributed money to their campaigns. These revenue sources, of course, often serve as fairly accurate predictors of the decisions that a candidate might make once he or she takes office-because you don't forget your friends, right?
Yes, the Internet is becoming a central part of politics, and someday soon we'll cast our votes online too.
10 Great Sites for Local Content and Mobile Devices
Sites that help you access your world locally — like Yelp and OpenTable — are big, and they're especially helpful when you can surf them on mobile devices like the iPhone.
A movement is growing to encourage buying the things we need locally, cutting out the high shipping and marketing costs associated with products that travel long distances to get to us. A good number of Web sites have sprung up to help us do just that — buy locally — and many include reviews of local merchents. Some of these sites are accessible on mobile devices, and we suggest a few more that seem made for mobile.
Find Local Stuff
Yelp: Yelp has emerged as the leading destination for determining whether the launderette, restaurant, therapist, or manicurist across town or around the corner is worth a visit. Remember that virtually every business gets at least a couple of bad reviews, so factor that in, and try to gauge the general vibe of the reviews.
OpenTable: OpenTable is simply the biggest and best-connected site for making dining reservations online. It has wisely added a mobile app so that you can easily select and make reservations while you're away from home.
Chowhound: My foodie friends say this is the place to go to dig up great restaurants, recipes, cooking and dining stories and blogs, and good discussions about food and drink. Today's featured recipe: Smoked Duck and Cherry Pressed Sandwich. I think I just drooled on my desk.
Angie's List: Another great locally focused "wisdom of the crowd" site. How in the world do you know if this contractor or that auto shop is reputable and competent? Angie's List at least gives you some solid clues, and as anybody who's had work done on a house or car knows, some serious money is on the line. A small monthly membership fee applies.
StubHub: StubHub is the alternative to TicketMaster for sports, concerts, and theater tickets. Stubhub, in effect, took ticket-scalping off the street and put it on the Internet by providing a secure marketplace for fan-to-fan ticket sales. In fact, it's better than Ticketmaster, because it doesn't charge ridiculous fees, and you still have a shot at buying tickets for events that are officially "sold out."
Great Sites for Your Mobile
NextBus: Nextbus is a site for mobile devices that tells you exactly when your bus or train will arrive. It's powered by a system of GPS devices planted on the buses and trains themselves. It can even plot their comings and goings on a Google map. No more standing at the bus stop cursing.
Zeer: Zeer (beta) effectively utilizes input from readers to deliver ratings and the nutritional low-down on all sorts of foods. It's a natural as a mobile application — you can load it up on your cell phone and shop smarter at the supermarket.
New York Times: The Old Gray Lady looks fetching on the small screen. "All the news that's fit to print" in the palm of your hand.
Google News: The simplicity of Google News' design makes it the fastest and easiest way I've seen to organize and read news on a cell or smart phone.
Google Maps: Compared with other mapping sites, I find Google Maps to be simpler, more versatile, and easier to use on mobile devices. When you're moving around, on foot or on wheels, such attributes become very important.
MizPee: This one's kinda funny, but undeniably useful. You're in an unfamiliar city, and you need to find a bathroom. MizPee finds one and plots it on a map for you.
7 Great Sites About Music and Literature
Life's a lot better with good music and books. If you're in need of some fine literature or some rocking new tunes, sites like Pandora and Powell's Books will keep you on a steady diet of
We are overloaded with media, both Web-based and hard copy. We need solid tools to help us sift through all of it, and to clue us in on the stuff that's worth paying attention to. The following sites employ user communities and new Web tools to help us do just that — and also provide forums where we can offer our own opinions.
Pitchfork: One the first independent-music Web sites, and arguably still the best. Not too much about Justin Timberlake here, but plenty on new indie releases. Be sure to check out the PitchforkTV beta for fresh documentaries on music legends.
Amoeba Music: This music chain's site gives you a pretty good flavor of the music that people are listening to on the Left Coast (the chain has stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley, California). The site is full of reviews of new releases, staff picks, music blogs, and video from in-store concerts. MP3s, too. Other Music: And here you can find the view from the East Coast — Greenwich Village, to be exact. This eclectic little neighborhood record shop, it turns out, has a wonderful online store, divided into a digital downloads section and a CD/LP mail-order site. Both sections include reviews, articles, and in-store video.
Metacritic: At this site you can read fresh criticism about new (mainstream) films, DVDs, music, TV, and games. The content selection is broad, and the reviews are well written and fair.
Pandora: Pandora is still one of the coolest music sites around, largely because of its uncanny ability to help you form a Web-radio playlist tailored to your tastes. Try it while you still can; the RIAA is doing its best to kill off sites like this.
Last.fm: This site is another example of a social network formed around something that people want to talk about: music. I've been hipped to several new bands (Battles, Iron and Wine) as a result of lurking on Last.fm. While Pandora may still have an edge at helping you discover new music, Last.fm really became a contender last January, when it began allowing users to stream full songs (not just low-quality samples) at its site.
Powell's Books: Big, diffuse Amazon is fine, but Powell's is the best online bookstore in America. Why? Powell's focuses primarily on books and offers superior reviews of volumes new and old by super-bookish staffers and Powell's customers alike. The site is easy to navigate and search, too.
7 News Sites That Keep You Dialed In Every Day
Mixx gives you better control than Digg over the news you see at the site every day. Sites like Slate dish their own selection in a way that gets you up to date quickly.
With the advent of Web 2.0, news sites have changed, and stayed the same. "Social news" sites like Digg and Mixx let members aggregate their own favorite lists of stories, and vote stories up or down. Also included are some traditional news sites that deliver news faster, and in more compelling fashion than any newspaper ever could.
Mixx: Mixx is a social news site similar to Digg; users vote on stories, moving them up and down in the rankings. But Mixx splits the news into narrower categories than Digg does, so you can set up the site to display only news "voted up" by people who have interests similar to yours.
Techmeme: Techmeme aggregates the best articles from a sea of tech sites, focusing on new, clever, or game-changing software, services, gear, and gadgets. It's a fast and accurate way to get a read on the day's top tech stories.
Slate: In general, I find Slate to be a bit fresher and more plugged-in than Salon, though both have good collections of online news and views. But Slate has a killer section that I make a point of reading every day: Its "Today's Papers" section gives a clear and concise roundup of the news stories the major national newspapers are running on their front pages. You can have this sent to your e-mail inbox daily, with links to the full stories. (Now you have no excuse for sounding stupid at cocktail parties.)
NPR: If you like listening to your news, NPR's site is a great free resource. I usually check out the "Hourly News Summary" first — it's updated throughout the day. The site includes sound files for a wide variety of commentary and special features on everything from Detroit's independent-music scene to U.S. foreign policy on China.
Free Republic: It's not the prettiest site you'll ever visit, but if your news tastes run to the conservative side of things, you may quickly get accustomed to Free Republic's sharp daily aggregation of news and commentary on all the hot-button conservative stories and issues of the day. You can post your opinions in the site's active forums, too.
Drudge Report: Drudge's right-leaning news aggregation site has found the formula for delivering online news, and millions of people hit the citizen journalist's site to get the latest stories each day.
BBC News: The view from across the pond can be very helpful for seeing U.S. news in a different light; and, of course, the BBC's coverage of international news is fast, comprehensive, and first-rate.
15 Specialty Sites You Should Know About
Of course the Web doesn't fall into neat categories, so we picked 15 great sites, like TeensReadToo.com and Archive.org, which do a specific thing and do it very well.
The Web is far too various to fit into neat categories. It's filled with sites, like the ones below, that provide good information on how to accomplish a specific tasks — things you don't need to do every day. Keep them in mind for that special day you need to learn to foxtrot (ballroomdancers.com), or make a wallet out of duct tape (wikihow.com).
Your teen loves video games but won't touch a book. Solution: Find some great titles for young adults at this site: teensreadtoo.com Tonight's the night you'll finally learn how to play the "Stairway to Heaven" guitar solo. www.vanderbilly.com
Watch cheeky videos that help you discover the differences among dry German Riesling wines. tv.winelibrary.com
"I've seen people do it on TV, and I really want to photocopy my buttocks on the Xerox machine at work. Is this considered appropriate?" www.emilypost.com
Darn it all, you want to learn to rumba. But not in public. From the foxtrot to the cha-cha, this site will teach you all the great dances in the privacy of your own home. www.ballroomdancers.com
They all sound the same! Who should you vote for in '08? ABC's and USA Today's Match-o-Matic can help.
What did eBay's home page look like on May 14, 1997? Hop in the Wayback Machine to find out. www.archive.org
You'd like to donate to charities just by clicking around the Internet as you always do. GoodSearch is a search engine that splits its advertising revenues 50-50 with charities and schools. www.goodsearch.com
Want clear instructions on how to throw a wicked curve with a Wiffle ball? What about steps to make a duct tape wallet? www.wikihow.com
So you want to learn the 'Star-Spangled Banner' in Spanish. Babel Fish translates whole paragraphs of text into and out of English. babelfish.yahoo.com
You want to read James Joyce's notoriously difficult Ulysses, or Finnegans Wake, but you're afraid, very afraid, and you need someone to help you through it. www.trentu.ca/faculty/jjoyce
You want to hurl insults just as the Bard did, as in “Thou mammering swag-bellied yard ape...” Zing! To learn, visit the Shakespearean Insulter .
Just want to turn on some Pink Floyd and gaze far out into the universe? See it though the lens of the Hubble Telescope (Pink Floyd not included). www.hubblesite.org
‘I need to get the real story on the mysterious Chupacabra (goat-sucker). And why are they still covering up what happened at Area 51? Homeland Security is not returning my calls.' www.occultopedia.com
You heard someone in the lunch room say 'murketing.' Then, just a couple of hours later, someone explained how they've started ‘fampooling'. You need to know what these fresh entrants into the lexicon mean. www.wordspy.com