The Web’s Most Useful Sites: Mashups Make the Most of the Web

December 22, 2006

By Ryan Singel

Mashups are the online equivalent of dunking a cookie in a glass of milk: The combination of data from one Web site with that of another is so-o-o much better than each is on its own. The best tend to use maps, such as one of the earliest–and still outstanding–mashups, HousingMaps. The site plots Craigslist’s homes for sale and apartments for rent on a Google Map and allows you to preview a listing by simply clicking on one of the pushpins. It was so good, Google hired its creator, Paul Rademacher.

Here are five more of the best mashups we found:

Pubwalk: This site combines bar listings and reviews from Citysearch with a Google Map. Each pushpin has a pop-up window with bar or restaurant information, including a rating and a thumbnail picture. You can use the service to plot out a bar crawl and either print out directions or see them on your phone.

Weather Bonk: Here you can see detailed local weather reports, traffic data, and weather cameras for cities around the world on a Google Map. While Weather Bonk is far from the prettiest mashup, the traffic data in car-centric cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta could save you hours of frustration, and the Web cameras let you see weather conditions from Seattle to Paris.

Pandora FM: This homebrew site allows you to submit the songs you like to listen to, through Pandora’s music categorizing and suggesting service, to Last.FM, a site that monitors the songs you play on your computer. Pandora is a fantastic way to discover new music: You first create a radio station of your favorite bands or songs, and then the service suggests and plays artists in the same vein. The mashup permits you to tag and remember the songs, and later have Last.FM play back just your favorites.

Google Transit: This mashup, cooked up in Google Labs, lets users plan public transportation trips in Eugene and Portland, Oregon; Honolulu; Pittsburgh; Seattle; and Tampa, Florida. After you supply two addresses, the planner will give you directions that combine walking, buses, and trains, and will approximate travel times and fares. You even get to see a handy comparison of what it would have cost you to drive instead.

Mappr: Hackers have done wonders with the open interface of image-hosting site Flickr (even building a Sudoku game). But Mappr, the most attractive of these mashups, lets you choose a tag and see the results plotted on a map of the United States using geo-tags embedded in the photos. While a little slow, searches like “beach” or “Route 66” show the hidden patterns buried in metadata.


The Web’s Most Useful Sites: To-Do Lists

December 22, 2006

By Ryan Singel

The old-fashioned to-do list, which lets the brain concentrate on the task at hand rather than on others in the future, remains one of the world’s best productivity tools. These fresh new sites let you keep track of your obligations and prompt you to keep up the pace.

Winner: RememberTheMilk reinvents the to-do list in a snazzy interface that lets you make lists in configurable categories, all laid out on the front page as tabs. Adding to-dos is easy, though adding deadlines, notes, and time estimates is unintuitive.

You can add to-dos using natural language such as “Call Ted next Thursday,” sync with your calendar via the widely supported iCalendar format, and set tasks such as “Pay credit card bill” to recur. RememberTheMilk sends reminders through instant message, e-mail, text message, or a combination of these. You can also upload tasks via a special e-mail address that the site gives you.

It’s a tremendously well-rounded free product, with neither more nor less than you need to get and stay organized.

Runner-up: Hiveminder is a bit prettier than RememberTheMilk and relies on tags, rather than categories, to group tasks. While you can’t set the time and date for tasks using natural language, you do get a nice drop-down calendar, and you can easily edit or add tags to a group of tasks.

Hiveminder syncs with external calendars, publishes RSS feeds, and lets you e-mail tasks, but the only notification it offers is a once-a-day e-mail. In addition, tags are more difficult to track than categories, and while Hiveminder has a more intuitive interface than RememberTheMilk, it doesn’t feel as useful in practice.

Also-rans: Those who prefer minimalism will love 37 Signals’ Ta-Da List, where you can build multiple to-do lists. It allows no tags, categories, or time elements–just lists of tasks with check boxes. You can make the list public or subscribe to it as an RSS feed, but it won’t send you reminders.

Backpack, Ta-Da List’s older sibling, lets you create five shared pages that can include to-do lists, notes, and a shared wiki-style document. It will send you up to ten reminders via e-mail or text message, but these are oddly separate from tasks, which, as in Ta-Da List, have no time element.

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Web-based Calendar Compared


The Web’s Most Useful Sites: Event Calendars

December 22, 2006

By Ryan Singel

Finding something to do on a Friday night has long been a process of searching your local newspapers or subscribing to e-mail lists of bands or theaters. Now a trio of startups are attempting to make finding events and adding them to your busy social schedule easier.

Winner: Yahoo’s Upcoming.org has listings from around the world thanks to its devoted users, who add tons of local events, as well as to the recent inclusion of events from Yahoo Local’s listings.

Upcoming has a social networking feel, and every event has a listing of users who say they plan to attend. You also can click on a user’s name to see what other events that person plans to attend. While the site feels both basic and cliquish, it is the most active events site on the Web.

Despite the addition of millions of Yahoo Local listings, Upcoming found only 28 listings for San Francisco art openings on the weekend we checked (Zvents found more than twice as many). Still, adding events to your calendar is simple, and Upcoming offers e-mail and text-message reminders.

Runner-up: Zvents has the most full-featured and user-friendly event service on the Web. The site offers a search engine that understands terms such as “this weekend,” descriptive listings, and an embedded Google map.

With just a simple click, Zvents’ great interface permits you to add events to your Zvents calendar, or to your AOL, Google, Outlook, or Yahoo calendar. Users also can invite people to events, add them to a group calendar, and easily post events to a blog.

A search for “art opening” in San Francisco on one weekend showed 68 relevant matches. Unfortunately, Zvents relies mostly on user-submitted events in most cities, and few users comment on events. Expect Zvents to take off once it automatically populates listings in other cities.

Also-ran: Eventful, another San Francisco Bay Area-based startup, has deep listings, but the search function is too literal: A search for “rock” in San Francisco over a whole week uncovered merely eight listings, only one of which was actually a rock-and-roll performance. One plus: Eventful supports Microsoft’s innovative Live Clipboard service, which allows you to cut and paste event data between Web sites.

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The Web’s Most Useful Sites: User Review Sites

December 22, 2006

By Ryan Singel, PC World

While professional critics can be great guides, there’s much to be said for the wisdom of your neighbors–if you can tap that wisdom. Sites such as Citysearch and Yahoo Local have struggled for years to get people to submit reviews of restaurants and local venues, with mixed success. But a newcomer may have solved that problem by striking the right note with users and thereby generating the needed participation.

Winner: Yelp, a San Francisco-based startup with a focus on food reviews, seems to have figured out the magic formula. It combines a pretty interface; social networking features that, for example, let you send kudos to other reviewers; and a sense of community that brings food lovers together. Each listing displays a map and, in the cases of popular restaurants in major urban areas, 50 to 200 detailed reviews with star ratings.

Anyone can read the site’s reviews, but registered users (membership is free) can bookmark their favorite restaurants and assemble a network of reviewers with tastes similar to their own.

Though mostly focused on restaurants, Yelpers have started to add reviews of mechanics, furniture makers, dentists, and even car washes. Even smaller cities like Poughkeepsie, New York, now have some local reviewers.

Runner-up: Angie’s List, by contrast, charges users $6 a month to read and write reviews of home contractors. The number and quality of reviews varies in the 80 cities Angie’s List covers, but larger metros have some very good recommendations, and the $6-a-month fee can easily be recouped if you save $100 on a plumber.

The site feels dated and could use some interactivity. For instance, it gives you no way to rate another person’s recommendation, subscribe to their reviews, or ask other people for suggestions.

Runner-up: Given Yahoo’s millions of users, Yahoo Local is a bit of a disappointment. The site nicely interweaves snippets of restaurant reviews from local newspapers and professional review sites with user reviews, but simple ratings are more common than full-fledged reviews. The site, which includes reviews of mechanics, restaurants, dry cleaners, and a wide range of other services, allows you to vote on other people’s reviews, bookmark pages, and send information to your cell phone.

All that may sound appealing, but Yelp’s energy puts Yahoo Local’s personality-free site to shame. Yahoo Local reviews tend toward nondescriptive tags such as “good and cheap,” while Yelp users may spend a paragraph describing an appetizer.

Runner-up: Citysearch.com, the oldest player in online reviews, combines paid professional reviews of a wide range of businesses, including restaurants, spas, and hotels, with user opinions. Its best feature is the inclusion of handy insider tips, such as which tables to grab for people watching. While Citysearch lets users bookmark sites, you have no way to bookmark your favorite reviewer. And though the breadth of listings is good and user participation is fairly high, it lacks the community feel and vitality of Yelp.