The Web has been around long enough that even the most adventuresome surfer can end up in a rut, always using the same sites to get work done. So I put up the periscope to scan for the best newcomers and compared them to Internet stalwarts. In each category, one site emerged as the Best Bet, but that shouldn't dissuade you from exploring other contenders. Read the full PC World story, "Web Stars: Best of the Web," to learn about dozens of additional sites.
Best Search Engine: 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 phenomenon Blogger and to geographic searches that tie the physical location of a Web server to the results. Learning how to use Google more effectively can yield a richer payoff than switching search engines.
Best Driver and Patch Site: Windows Update
Let's face it: Windows is full of bugs, and it's no fun having to keep up with the myriad patches that sprout like briars. If you must perpetually patch your operating system, 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.
Best Browser Toolbar Plug-In: Dogpile Search Toolbar
Dogpile Search 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 I like being able to highlight search terms on the page I'm visiting. News headlines, which scroll across the toolbar by default, can be distracting, but it's easy to turn off this feature from the Toolbar Settings menu.
Best Blog Site: Feedster
If you'd like to sample what the bloggers are writing about, step up to the Feedster trough. With a simplicity that's visually evokes 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. Coolest Feedster feature: If you're a true news junkie using an RSS aggregator, you can turn any Feedster search into a feed itself, which means that you get the latest results automagically.
Best Tech Support Site: 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. I 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.
Best Media Players: Quintessential Player and JetAudio
The ultimate customizable, universal, ad-free media player, Quintessential Player 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.
In addition to 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.
Best Tech Enthusiast Site: Tom's Hardware Guide
In 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 cover 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.
Best Web Conferencing: WebEx
If you've used Web conferencing, chances are you've heard of WebEx. The site allows you to share applications--usually a PowerPoint presentation and a whiteboard--with 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.