Best of Today's Web: Greatest Hits and Hidden Gems
"You're not getting older, you're getting better."
While this ad slogan from decades ago may represent the height of
insincere flattery, it aptly describes the World Wide Web today. Daunting
economic conditions may have actually improved the overall state of the Web.
Sites that have always been good are getting better (see Google and Amazon),
and great new sites such as Safari Tech Books Online and the Qualys Browser
Checkup add to the Net's value. Our annual look at the Web's best destinations
highlights innovative and lesser-known features that make the tried-and-true
sites such consistent standouts, and it introduces you to some fresh Web stars.
The biggest change since last year is the increase in fee-based Web services.
We gave three
A list of the best Web sites must include Amazon. The site's continual improvement is the result of listening to customers' needs. Amazon's used marketplace is one of its best features. You can sometimes purchase used titles for less than half the price of new ones, though the Authors Guild objects to Amazon selling used books alongside new copies of the same title. Want to get rid of some old tomes? Amazon makes listing your goods and tracking sales easy. You get an e-mail once a book sells, and Amazon deducts a small commission before transferring the funds (including shipping costs) to your bank account. Beginning in November, Amazon shoppers can save time and shipping costs by picking up orders and returning items at Borders bookstores. And the company offers free shipping on orders over $99. This site does everything but turn the pages for you.
According to the founder of the Internet Archive, the average life span of a Web page is 100 days. But not here. The archive's Wayback Machine lets you surf through Web history for pages dating to the frontier days of 1996. Forget irritating "File not found" messages. The Wayback Machine has archived over 10 billion Web pages that otherwise would have been lost, encompassing the largest publicly accessible database in the world at 100 terabytes. (By comparison, the Library of Congress contains only about 20 terabytes of data.) The site's real gems are its special collections, such as the September 11 archive--a virtual time capsule containing hundreds of pages and television broadcasts--and the Prelinger Archives, which feature more than 900 digitized industrial, educational, and government films dating to 1903, including amateur films of the Golden Gate Bridge's construction and of the New York World's Fair of 1939. You can either view them (using Windows Media Player) or recode them for copying to a DVD recorder. Peabody and Sherman would be proud!
Readers of David A. Karp's technical books (published by O'Reilly & Associates) will recognize the Annoyances.org name as a trusted source for Windows information. The site has a dull mariner-gray look, but its singular focus on Windows makes it highly useful. It identifies which version of the operating system your PC uses, and lets you filter articles that aren't relevant. Most of the information is geared toward experienced users, but beginners will appreciate the site's glossary and Windows Roadmap, which summarizes Windows' capabilities and examines the differences between versions. Discussion forums are conveniently linked to articles, letting you jump to stories related to the topics mentioned. There are also links to Microsoft patches, as well as to freeware and shareware utilities that will add new luster to your Windows.
Superheroes may not exist in real life, but the Electronic Privacy Information Center does its part to fight for truth, justice, and your right to privacy. EPIC's site compiles news about recent privacy-related court cases and offers a Bill-Track feature that keeps you in the loop about legislation wending its way through Congress that could affect your privacy. Links give you access to downloads of popular privacy and security tools, such as cookie eliminators, snoop-proof e-mail, HTML filters, encryption programs, and firewalls. You can view a database of once-secret documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. Included are some recently released FBI files on the bureau's Carnivore initiative describing the plan for a keystroke-logging program known as Magic Lantern. Forewarned is forearmed.
The EBay community may have hit a cynical low when HP shareholders put
their Compaq merger votes up for bid, but the auction service still has no peer
in popularity--46 million users--or content, which ranges from Sony Pictures'
There have long been many reasons to love Google: the site's easy-on-the-eyes interface, the spot-on search results, the absence of pop-up and banner advertisements, and the Usenet archives. Why are we gaga for Google? If you follow a link to a page that is gone from the Internet, clicking the Cached button next to each URL will let you view archived material you would have missed otherwise. The Catalog Search link on Google's advanced-search page allows you to view scanned pages from hundreds of mail-order catalogs, from Dell Home Systems to J.Crew. (You still have to call to purchase items, though.) Google's Phone Book feature lists addresses and phone numbers for businesses and individuals. The search engine extends its reach by including Adobe Acrobat PDF files as well as Microsoft Office, PostScript, and Lotus 1-2-3 files, all of which you can view in HTML format if you don't happen to have the correct application on your computer.
The brand that for many people is synonymous with the Web hasn't been resting on its laurels. For example, Yahoo's free Web-based e-mail program now lets you re-mark read messages as unread or flag them for follow-up action. This feature contributes to Yahoo Mail's advantage over Microsoft's competing Hotmail service. Yahoo also gives you 4MB of storage space (that's less than in the past, but you can get more by paying a small fee); Hotmail provides only a stingy 2MB. Another useful service on the site is the Yahoo Briefcase, which you can use to share up to 30MB of files with friends over the Internet, or to provide yourself with access to the files when you're away from your home or office computer. This is an e-mail service worth shouting about.
Books on tape are a great way to catch up on your reading while doing
other things. Audible.com converts such audiotapes into digital files for
listening on MP3 players and other handheld devices. The site has more than
20,000 selections, including David McCollough's
They're not as witty as Click and Clack, NPR's Car Talk guys, but the WebTalkGuys--actually two guys and a gal--put on a good low-key show with interesting guests and lots of useful advice. Past shows, archived on the site, include tips for online stock trading and car buying, developing a community on your Web site, and photo trading. Issue-oriented discussions cover finding a tech job in tough times, navigating the domain name wars, using file-swapping services, and dealing with spam. When it comes to the Web, there's a lot to talk about.
Ever feel like shouting, "Stop the planet; I want to get off!"? (Who hasn't at some point in the past year?) NASA's Human Space Flight will give you the lift(off) you need. The site uses real-time data to plot an image moving across a world map that pinpoints the location of the International Space Station, traveling at 17,000 mph. It makes beautiful use of Flash to depict the people and events of the most recent space shuttle mission. There's a list of spacecraft-sighting opportunities in cities from Houston to Hanoi, and the Skywatch Web-based Java applet lets you predict when an orbiting spacecraft will be visible from your backyard; the information is presented in graphical form so you can see how the craft will look against the stars in your location.
Lots of personal and small-business sites are a little like the Internet at large: They're bursting with useful information that's nearly impossible to find. If that sounds like your site, sign up for Atomz Express Search, a remarkably potent free service that allows even the most impecunious Webmaster to add Google-style search tools for finding content within a site. Chameleon-like customization features let you mold the Atomz interface to match your site's design, and you get reports of the terms that visitors search for (be prepared for some surprises). The catch? Express Search is available only for sites with fewer than 500 pages. But big-time operators can opt for the site's fee-based service, which offers even-more-powerful tools starting at $15,000.
The Patriot Act, passed swiftly in the wake of the September 11 attacks, granted new powers to government agencies, disturbing many privacy groups. Numerous amendments to the act have followed, not all of which have been reported in the news. The Thomas site, named for Thomas Jefferson and run by the Library of Congress, helps you track congressional activity and stay on top of what your representatives are doing. The site's simple design makes it easy to find and read House and Senate committee reports, view roll-call votes to see how each representative voted on a bill, and search for bills based on bill number or on keywords. A link for legislation related to September 11 gives you a rundown on resolutions tied to that day's events.
You may be hearing less about the Web since the dot-com crash, but the Internet can still make plenty of noise. This search engine locates sound files in .wav, .aiff, and .au formats, ranging from splashing water to crying babies. You can use the files to liven up e-mail messages or Web pages. The site's directory divides sounds into 16 categories, including nature sounds (an earthquake, a waterfall, thunder), musical instruments, and a host of household noises (aerosol spray, a toaster, a lawn mower). A free audio player shows you a color graph of sounds as they play. Drag your mouse over any portion of the graph, and you can instruct the engine to find a similar sound.
Online photo-storage sites have come and gone, but DotPhoto is still standing. The free service lets you create online albums, with sound clips (using your computer's microphone) and captions to personalize your photo collections. Upload your digital prints, or send a film roll to DotPhoto and let its staff process and upload the pictures. The service's free editing tools let you arrange and crop pictures and add text and sound. A one-year nonpaid subscription gets you 30 free prints. Thereafter, 4-by-6 prints cost 19 cents each, and poster-size photos are $7. A $5 monthly subscription lowers your printing costs.
The collapse of the sports site Quokka.com left a dry riverbed in the streaming-video space, especially for adventure seekers looking to conquer the world. But AdventureTV.com steps in to fill the void with its own brand of high-quality streaming video that's more suited to virtual voyagers desiring a quieter, gentler pace. The site offers documentaries and travelogs of television quality from independent producers and tourism organizations. The seven categories of videos include mountains, desert, and safari. The videos are best viewed over a broadband link, but watching a Namibian bush healer slice the backside of photographer Peter Beard and suck the blood out of his elephant wound is enthralling even over dial-up.
If you're a hard-core PC enthusiast and you like to push your computer to its limits--and beyond--then HardOCP is the site for you. The OCP (Overclockers Comparison Page) is operated by Kyle Bennett, who runs popular seminars on overclocking CPUs. Bennett's good relationships with chip manufacturers mean that his site is usually among the first to overclock new generations of processors and to test new motherboards. The well-organized site includes helpful forums as well as a few cool tools, such as WCPUID, which tests how fast your machine is really running.
This brainteaser was an international obsession in the seventies and eighties (one German woman even cited the boxy toy in divorce proceedings). And now the fixation has taken to the Net, which has been co-respondent in some divorce cases itself. The site is immensely simple, but refreshingly well done with great graphics and smooth motion. Simply drag your mouse over the background to view the cube from any angle, then click and drag sections of the cube to move them left or right, up or down, until you manage to make every side of the cube a solid color. There's no danger of getting Cubist's thumb or Rubik's wrist with this version of the game--though carpal tunnel damage remains a risk.
Hunting for tech information just got easier with Safari Tech Books Online, a subscription site with the digital versions of more than 600 books from publishers such as O'Reilly & Associates and Addison-Wesley. The books are fully searchable, and you can annotate pages as you read them. Server-based bookmarks give you quick access to pages from any PC connected to the Net. You can run multibook searches with keywords and preview sections of any book before subscribing to it. You can save books to disk or print them out (though you can't download them to an electronic-book device). The best part: Every 30 days you can swap any or all titles in your account for new ones, so you can trade up from introductory titles to advanced ones, for example. Subscription rates are based on the number of books you buy. Each title is assigned a point value of one to three points, with a minimum five-point subscription costing $10 a month (pith helmet not included).
After years of toiling unrewarded in a dark lab, you've finally developed an ingenious method for defying gravity--shoes that let you lean forward 45 degrees without falling over. Quick, get thee to a patent office! Oops--Michael Jackson beat you to it. Before wasting energy on R&D, search the patents database at Delphion. The free service covers patents filed in the United States, Japan, and Europe, and it lets you find patents that are available for licensing. A corporate subscription gives you the ability to trace the genealogy of a patent and to determine the companies and technologies connected to it. While you're there, be sure to check out the Gallery of Historic Patents and the Gallery of Obscure Patents. The latter includes a patent for pants that separate at the crotch, allowing you to mix and match pant legs.
You upgrade from Windows 98 to Windows XP, and some of your peripherals go AWOL. It's likely that your new operating system doesn't contain an updated driver for your Rockwell modem or OPTi sound card. So where do you find the driver that will set everything right? DriverGuide saves your old peripherals and parts from obsolescence by providing nearly 70,000 downloadable driver files, including hard-to-find ones from vendors gone belly-up. The site has drivers for printers, scanners, digital cameras, and network adapters, among other devices. And if you can't find the driver you need, post a message to the request board. Just don't forget: Back up your system before installing any new device driver. Unless you like running in Windows' Safe Mode, that is.
The next time you find yourself stymied, take a break and clear your
head at Boxerjam, one of the oldest game sites on the Net. The site contains
game shows, word games, and puzzles at various levels of difficulty. For
instance, Know It All lets you match wits against other players in a
fast-moving, real-time quiz show that covers art, politics, and culture. And
Crossword Plus is a well-designed puzzle that lets you enter answers easily
from your keyboard and click for help letters and words when you get stuck. The
site has plans to begin charging a small monthly fee (perhaps $3 to $5), but
when the charges will take effect is uncertain. Boxerjam reminds us not to take
Want to create a professional-looking report or portfolio with pictures that anyone can view no matter what programs they own? Adobe's Create PDF site lets you convert up to five files to Adobe's Portable Document Format for free. You can make PDFs from files in Microsoft Word, Office, PowerPoint, Photoshop, and other popular formats. The files can be no larger than 100MB, and they must be processed in fewer than 10 minutes, but the conversion is easy to complete after a simple registration. You're sent a confirmation e-mail once the conversion is done. For $10 a month (compared with $250 for purchasing the Adobe Acrobat 5 software), you can create unlimited PDFs, tag your files, and transfer hyperlinks from your original file.
Do you feel that your online communication is a little lifeless? Then perk things up with the Animation Factory's colorful wares. A one-year, $60 membership gives you access to more than 150,000 animations, as well as to 3000 animated GIFs for use on personal Web pages or in e-mail messages. Your membership also entitles you to use any of the 150,000 designs in online newsletters or for other commercial purposes, and the site's 50,000 Media Builder designs to create Web page buttons and navigation panels. A $100 membership adds access to extralarge GIF designs suitable for PowerPoint presentations. The site's templates help you drop your animations into place.
So many software security warnings are published that keeping abreast of all the fixes and patches you're supposed to install is difficult. Internet Explorer has been especially rife with dangerous holes. Qualys, a network security firm, offers a comprehensive and free Web-based browser test that tells you whether your IE setup is making you vulnerable. The tests disclose cookie, clipboard, and hard-drive snooping; malicious executable programs; and Web spoofing (whereby hackers send you to what appears to be a legitimate site but is actually a front for collecting credit card numbers and other personal data stored on your PC). In cases where a patch will fix the problem, Qualys directs you to the latest cumulative download from Microsoft; if the software giant hasn't yet released a patch, the site provides a workaround solution until a formal fix is available.
If you were stunned by those magnificent pictures of gaseous, glowing nebulae and colliding galaxies that the Hubble Space Telescope recently captured, you'll want to check out the encore presentation appearing at the Space Telescope Science Institute's HubbleSite. "Nearly four hundred years after Galileo first observed the heavens through a telescope," we're still searching for meaning in the cosmos. This site takes you closer to the source than you've ever been before. You can view an animated simulation of the merging of the Mice Galaxies, take a close look at the Eagle Nebula, or choose from eight Hubble photos for your PC wallpaper. There's also a behind-the-scenes look at how the Hubble telescope works.
If you're more interested in creating streaming media than in watching it, Streaming Media World is your place. The site offers tips and tools for making animations, as well as tutorials on compressing files and shooting and editing video for streaming media. Also featured on the site are news reports and interviews with top creators and executives in the streaming-media field.
If the Internet Archive is preserving our Web history for posterity, it seems only appropriate that someone capture our condiment legacy for future generations. Thank goodness the Condiment Packet Museum has us covered. The site is a Warholesque tribute to the culinary equivalent of the fashion accessory. Over 500 individual condiment packets are on display, from Lucky "Year of the Sheep" Soy Sauce to Bojangles' Cajun Hot Sauce. The pages load slowly, but as they say at Heinz, the best things come to those who wait.
Stay on top of the action with
The Nexrad radar loops and stills available on the
I passed on RealNetworks' $10-a-month RealOne MusicPass, though. The service lists radio stations from around the world in a nice directory format, but I can find most of those stations on the Internet for free. MusicPass gives you 100 streams of music, news, and sports, as well as up to 100 music downloads. I'd rather buy CDs.