SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - Okay, so we're not the first to publish an article with this title. News magazines, finance magazines, family magazines--everybody's gotten into the act. Even your local newspaper has probably ventured to pick the Best of the Web. But how many of these articles have really said which site is the Web's very best? Call us crazy, but we're gonna do it. We won't ruin the surprise--skim ahead if you must--but in this article, we name the single best site on all the Web. Along the way, we pit dozens of great sites against each other and name our favorites in 32 categories, including news, sports, travel, music, and lots of tech-related areas.
We began our search by dividing sites into four general classes: e-commerce, information, services, and recreation. We subdivided each of these sections into 8 categories, from auctions to Webmaster tools, and picked the 2 best sites in each of these 32 categories. That adds up to 64 outstanding sites, which we went on to rate on four criteria that apply to any Web site:
* Ease of use: How good are the site's navigation tools? Is it easy to find stuff? Fancy features aren't of much use if a site is a chore to navigate.
* Breadth of content: If it's a news site, does it cover everything you'd expect a news site to cover? Sites that are one-trick ponies may suffer here.
* Usefulness versus the Real World: Is a given search engine a better way of finding data in a sea of sources than, say, your local library's card catalog?
Is Homestead a better way of sharing information with friends and family than photos, letters, and phone calls?
* Gee-whiz factor: Does the site do something interesting and new? Before EBay, for example, who would have thought that a Web site could be used to auction off unwanted knick-knacks to bidders around the world?
Using these criteria, editors named a winner in each category. We took those 32 winners and threw them into a tournament draw. A fresh panel of editors then picked their favorites, based on the same four criteria.
In the end, we narrowed 64 of the finest sites on the Web down to one winner.
But enough with the nuts and bolts. Read on and follow our quest for the Best of the Web.
Books & Music
Amazon.com Inc. vs. Bn.com Once upon a time, all Amazon.com did was sell books and music. Today, plumbing supplies and power tools intrude upon the simple pleasure of browsing its copious aisles. But Amazon is still the leader in customer service. When a product shows up damaged, Amazon doesn't blink before sending a replacement, along with a prepaid label for returning the defective item. Amazon shoppers post lots of helpful reader reviews; for some reason, such evaluations are far sparser at Bn.com, Barnes & Noble's online arm. Bn.com does beat Amazon for out-of-print books: It stocks them for instant delivery, while Amazon must search and get back to you.
Autoweb.com vs. CarsDirect.com You still can't kick tires or take a test drive on the Web, but the Net is great for car research. While Autoweb.com is good, CarsDirect.com is better. You can spin cars 360 degrees to view them from every angle, and the site's helpful links explain features and costs. We also like the up-front way it tells you when a popular model--say that PT Cruiser you have your eye on--is likely to be on back order.
CDW.com vs. PC Connection When you're ready to buy computer stuff, why head for the Web instead of your local superstore? Two reasons: better selection and lower prices. Both CDW.com and PC Connection (www.pcconnection.com) do well in those areas, and each provides a shopping experience that puts many competitors to shame. And both offer tech support for the products they sell. CDW.com's site is easier to navigate, but in the end, we slightly prefer PC Connection, mostly because of its low overnight shipping fees and superfast delivery: You can place an order at 2 a.m. ET and have it in your hands later that same day.
Crutchfield.com vs. Outpost.com Crutchfield.com is one classy online electronics retailer. It offers free lifetime technical support, and if you send an item back for a refund, the company will foot the bill for return shipping. But here at PC World we're freebie fans. And Outpost has one of the hottest freebies around: free overnight delivery on consumer electronics products of all sorts. The flashing ads are annoying, but if you can ignore them, you'll find helpful information.
Quicken.com vs. Charles Schwab Charles Schwab invented discount stockbroking, and his eponymous Web site (www.schwab.com) is a standout, especially coupled with Schwab's national network of field offices. But in a close race, Quicken.com wins for the sheer array of financial services that it provides.
You can get a loan, buy insurance, pay bills, and plan for retirement. And a cool utility called Quicken Shopper automatically scouts out deals while you shop online.
EBay Inc. vs. Yahoo Inc. Auctions How many sites can go head-to-head with a Yahoo offering and come out in front? EBay (www.ebay.com) does. When we checked, the site claimed over 4.5 million items. Our editors say they've bought things they would not have found in years of searching offline--and sold stuff they wouldn't wish on the Salvation Army. And EBay's buyers and sellers are a mostly honorable lot. Yahoo Auctions (auctions.yahoo.com) is also well stocked, but it lacks EBay's lively community. The auction halls often seem dead, with pages of listings and no bids.
Evenbetter.com vs. MySimon If you're shopping for a book, CD, or movie, Evenbetter.com will quickly tell you which Web stores have it, at what prices.
But MySimon (www.mysimon.com) takes the prize by covering far more ground. You can sniff out deals on everything from PCs to furniture. It's clear that merchants pay to pop up at the top of search results, but that's a minor inconvenience given the huge number of merchants MySimon sifts through. The fact that site mascot Simon looks like a character out of Toy Story in no way influenced our review.
Expedia.com vs. Trip.com Leave it to a Microsoft site to start strong and then adopt a rival's ideas to help make it the best of its kind. Expedia.com was great even before it offered name-your-price deals on plane tickets and hotel rooms, à la Priceline.com. Articles about cruises, golf vacations, and more are often fun and nearly always useful. Because the site has such clout, special deals seem to grow on trees. Trip.com is also full of excellent travel facts, and its IntelliTrip feature hunts down special fares at major airlines.
In the end, Trip.com has less information and is a bit harder to use than Expedia.com. But its deals still provide a useful reality check.
Craigslist vs. Monster.com Craigslist (www.craigslist.com) is the best job resource for what may be the hottest market in the world: the San Francisco Bay Area. This site has the best leads to employers and employees in dot-com heaven. But overall, Monster.com rules. It's easy to search for jobs that match your interests, and there's lots of career advice (easier to swallow from a Web site than from a nagging relative). With 400,000 job listings, there's a good chance you'll find several that interest you.
CNet.com vs. Tom's Hardware Guide We're naturally biased in favor of PCWorld.com, so we've disqualified ourselves. CNet.com gets our nod on the strength of News.com, its first-rate tech news channel, and Download.com, its shareware site. Do CNet's e-commerce features, such as auctions, affect its reviews? They don't seem to, and users can post reviews, too. Tom's Hardware Guide (www.tomshardware.com) has a narrower focus, with in-depth looks at PC components. It's aimed at geeky types, but the info is superb.
Deja.com vs. Productopia At Deja.com, you can find out what real people think of the DVD player you're considering, or uncover the top-rated men's razor blade. Navigation is easy, considering the enormous range of products reviewed.
And the origins of ratings are clear, down to the number of reviews the scores are based on. Productopia (www.productopia.com) mixes its own reviews in with user ratings; the evaluations are helpful, but user reviews are much scarcer than at Deja.
Britannica.com vs. Encarta Encarta (encarta.msn.com) is a fine online encyclopedia, but much of what it offers is available only to owners of Encarta on CD-ROM. Britannica.com, by contrast, gives you the entire contents of the standard-bearing print encyclopedia for free. There's a free download for using the site with a Palm VII, and a fine search engine for taking your quest to the Web at large. In short, if you think encyclopedias are dull, you haven't visited Britannica.com lately.
Mayo Clinic Health Oasis vs. WebMD Mayo Health (www.mayohealth.org) has long been a favorite of ours; WebMD (www.webmd.com) has not. But WebMD's recent redesign has made it easier to find information and cranked up the quality of its articles, search tools, and community features. Now it's the health site to beat. Still, when you need a second opinion, jump over to Mayo for its readable, in-depth articles.
Learn2.com vs. NoWonder Learn2.com is both educational and fun. Tutorials on everything from caring for a rabbit to finding a financial planner are free; you pay a fee for in-depth classes on PC-related topics like using Microsoft Office. Computer help is also on tap at NoWonder (www.nowonder.com), which lets you pose queries to a network of tech experts. The question that dogs us: Is this help desk really better than your PC maker's support line?
CNN.com vs. the New York Times CNN.com (a partner of our parent company, International Data Group) remains the best online news source, thanks to first-rate reporting and plentiful video clips. Sister sites like CNNfn.com (for financial news) are also tops. The New York Times on the Web (www.nytimes.com), another online news titan, has some of the country's best journalism. But it doesn't match CNN's scope and multimedia appeal.
MSN MoneyCentral vs. The Motley Fool As always, The Motley Fool (www.fool.com) is one of the Web's very best sources of commentary and education on all things financial. But MSN MoneyCentral (moneycentral.msn.com) has quietly become king.
Its writers are insightful and engaging, and the services rival those of Quicken.com. The deluxe stock analyzer requires a download, but it may be the Web's most powerful free research tool.
My Favorite Site: The Ultimate Band ListWho needs Napster? For my money, the best music site on the Web is still the Ultimate Band List (www.ubl.com). Along with music news, interviews, and concert info, it lists Web pages for about 100,000 artists. Covering everyone from Pavement to Pavarotti, it's the Yahoo of music sites.--Eric Dahl, staff editorTournament ofWeb ChampionsCall it midsummer madness. After our panel of judges picked the 32 best sites, we began to whittle them down to just one. Winning sites in each category were placed in the tournament draw at random within their general categories. Our final four? Out of the E-Commerce division there's EBay; our favorite Recreation site is Homestead; the best Information site is Britannica.com; and Yahoo trounces the competition in the Service category. Of those four, EBay and Yahoo move on to the final showdown. Turn to page 106 to learn which site went home with the trophy.
EBay versus Yahoo
And the best site on the Web is...
The Best Site on the Web: EBay
The face-off between EBay and Yahoo is a double-overtime thriller. Yahoo is more practical, and its emphasis on function over flash is worth celebrating.
But while Yahoo isn't really exciting, EBay is. So you heard it here first:
EBay is the Web's best site. No other site is quite as innovative, fun, useful, and addictive. It's also one of the few Net destinations that appeals to everybody from tech-savvy twenty-somethings to acquisitive grandmothers. PC World staffers have bought everything from telescopes to tanning beds, and sold off fountain pens and paragliding equipment. Despite the occasional disappointing deal, we keep going back for more.
EFax.com vs. Onebox.com Do you want your free fax and voice-mail number to have an area code different from your own, or do you want it to have the same area code but require a four-digit extension number? After trying to figure out when to dial an extension when sending a fax, we prefer an extensionless area code.
That's what EFax.com provides. We also like EFax's intuitive interface and the way it forwards faxes and voice mail to any existing e-mail account. Onebox can only route everything to its own Web-based account.
Hotmail vs. Yahoo Mail Both of these services have tons of features and are easy to use. Hotmail's (www.hotmail.com) ability to scan incoming attachments for viruses is a useful feature that Yahoo Mail lacks. But Yahoo Mail (mail.yahoo.com) wins by a nose because it lets you collect mail using any POP3 e-mail package. Hotmail integrates only with Outlook Express 5.0. Yahoo can also notify you of new mail by sending an instant message if you have Yahoo Messenger installed.
My Docs Online vs. X:drive X:drive (www.xdrive.com) gives you 25MB of storage space on the Net for free (more if you refer friends or visit often), and its cool desktop utility lets you drag and drop files between your virtual drive and your PC. However, we're more partial to My Docs Online (www.mydocsonline.com). The service is much like X:drive's (20MB of free space, a virtual drive utility), but you can access files you store online from wireless devices like the Palm VII. You can't open or use the files, but you can send them to friends and colleagues as e-mail attachments. That's the kind of innovation that makes a site stand out.
My Docs Online
MSN vs. Yahoo After a slow start, Microsoft's MSN (www.msn.com) has evolved into a fine destination, thanks in part to tight links to other Microsoft sites such as MSNBC. Still, no other portal measures up to the one that started it all: Yahoo (www.yahoo.com). Is there anything you can't do at Yahoo? Get a credit report? (You can do that.) Print business cards? (That, too.) Pay your bills? (Sure.) Auction off jewelry? Manage your stock portfolio? Search the Web? (We think you get it.)YahooSchedulersAnyDay.com vs. Excite Planner We admit that we're dubious about whether most folks need to put their calendar online. But AnyDay.com (recently bought by Palm Computing) is a sleek, highly functional online PIM, with a utility that synchronizes calendar and contact information with a range of PC programs and palmtops. It takes the crown because of extras such as a slick event planner and bountiful printing options. Excite Planner's (planner.excite.com) attractions include its ability to remind you of events by e-mail or pager, and a notepad feature for jotting down ideas. Very nice, but we like AnyDay a bit more.
Fast Search vs. Google Many a former search engine now wants to give you everything from free e-mail to a home loan. Not so our two favorites. Fast Search (www.alltheweb.com) uncovers links that other engines overlook. But sometimes its first results aren't the most relevant. So we prefer the uncanny accuracy of Google (www.google.com). The site even has an extra search button called "I'm Feeling Lucky" that takes you to the one site Google thinks is most pertinent to your query. More often than not, it's a good match.
BCentral vs. MyComputer.com Microsoft's BCentral (www.bcentral.com) is a powerful resource that can help you submit your site to search engines, advertise it with banner ads on other sites, and more. But the site is busy, making it tough to figure out what you can accomplish. MyComputer.com's streamlined interface, by contrast, makes beefing up your Web site a snap. It includes the same tools as BCentral, plus features such as polls, message boards, and chat rooms. Many features are free; others are fee-based. Either way, it's a near-painless way to improve your growing Web site.
HotOffice vs. Huddle24-7 Newcomer Huddle24-7 (www.huddle247.com) is promising, but HotOffice (www.hotoffice.com) is still our favorite Web collaboration tool.
It's now available in a free, ad-supported version that gives you 40MB of server space--almost as much as the 50MB provided by Huddle24-7, which charges $10 a month plus $5 per user. And while both services offer calendaring, e-mail, message boards, and document sharing, HotOffice has a few tools that Huddle24-7 lacked at press time.
CitySearch.com vs. Digital City Stop by the city-specific home pages at either of these two sites, and you'll get restaurant and entertainment reviews, weather, maps, sections for singles, and online auctions. CitySearch gets the nod over Digital City (www.digitalcity.com). It's a sister service of Digital City Ticketmaster Online, giving visitors easy access to local event tickets, and it lets you make hotel and restaurant reservations (golf tee times will be next). What's more, CitySearch has absorbed the content of Sidewalk.com, Microsoft's venture into city guides.
IMDb vs. Mr. Showbiz Now that the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.c0m) is owned by Amazon.com, it's harder to tell whether it's a great fan site or a portal for selling DVDs and videos. But the remarkable film database remains, plus a load of pithy TV and movie news. So IMDb remains our favorite entertainment site. Of all the PR-driven Hollywood sites (that's most of them), we like Mr. Showbiz (www.mrshowbiz.com) best. It's less glitzy than the others but more informative.
Feed Magazine vs. Salon.com Despite a redesign that has some readers carping, Salon.com delivers first-class journalism and criticism. Along with thoughtful, often quirky articles on politics, people, entertainment, and more, it makes excellent use of photos and video. In April, the site was showing the award-winning documentary Regret to Inform. Feed Magazine (www.feedmag.com) is another collection of insightful essays on news, arts, and history. Topics range from Hitler to the Napster controversy. It's superb reading but lacks the breadth of Salon.com.
GameSpot vs. GameSpy.com If you'd rather spend your free time with a joystick than a good book, you will love GameSpot (www.gamespot.com). The reviews are top-notch, the tips and tricks insightful, and the free downloads plentiful. We also like the behind-the scenes articles on game design. Above all, GameSpot is well designed and easy to get around. The similar GameSpy.com can be sluggish and hard to navigate. Still, it's another essential bookmark for game fans. (So is GamePro.com, which we disqualified from this tournament because it's a sister site of PCWorld.com.)GameSpotMusicMP3.com vs. Spinner Spinner (www.spinner.com) is part radio network, part music library. Its potential grew exponentially when its mama company, America Online, agreed to merge with Time Warner, home to some of the biggest music labels around. Using the downloadable Spinner Plus 3, you can listen to preprogrammed music on over 120 channels--from opera to rockabilly. You can download customized playlists to load on your MP3 player or listen to from your hard drive. MP3.com also has a wide variety of music, all organized in a simple Yahoo-like directory structure, but who's ever heard of most of these artists?
Personal Web Pages
Homestead vs. Tripod If you've never tried Homestead you should give it a whirl right now. Seriously. We'll wait. Homestead (www.homestead.com) has always made creating a site as simple as dragging and dropping elements, and now it has even more tools and templates for shaping your site, whether you're building a family scrapbook or a small-business storefront. Tripod (www.tripod.lycos.com) also has a lot going for it, especially if you're a savvy Web designer. But it won't appeal to everyone because it's not nearly as straightforward as Homestead.
Live365.com vs. Yahoo Broadcast Why listen to radio on the Web instead of via a $10 clock radio? Because the Web gives you broadcasts from around the world.
That's cool. And it's also where Yahoo Broadcast (broadcast.yahoo.com) comes in. The site has exclusive rights to programs from thousands of radio and TV stations. Brazilian music, British news, German soccer, and endless stuff from the good old USA--it's all here. Live365.com is a different proposition, but a neat one. Using tools provided by the site, regular folks can create their own online radio stations. It's fun, but finding something you want to listen to is a trial-and-error process.
ESPN.com vs. The Sporting News When ESPN.com is acting sluggish (a rare happening, actually), head for the timely, comprehensive reporting at The Sporting News (www.sportingnews.com). But ESPN.com is still the sports site to beat. It's got all the news when you want it, plus some of the most insightful sports commentary around. It makes good use of video and audio, and its fantasy sports games are fun and competitive. Recently, the site's 3 Play sweepstakes has been reason enough to log on. There are daily and weekly cash prizes.
My Favorite Site: AVWeb
As a budding pilot, I needed all the help I could get. And on AVWeb (www.avweb.com), I found it. No superslick Web graphics here--just a cornucopia of information for people who own and fly small planes. I've enjoyed this informal yet informative site so much, I'm now a contributor.--Yardena Arar, senior editorMy Favorite Site: Cheap TicketsSomeday I'll buy plane tickets at MoneyIsNoObject.com. But until the lotto balls fall my way, I'll shop at Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com). Besides great prices, it's got an easy interface, tons of flights, and free two-day delivery. Now, if I could only find FreeGuinness.com...--Dennis O'Reilly, senior associate editor.