50 Coolest Websites 2005: In A Class By Themselves

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You might be wondering why Google, Yahoo, The Microsoft Network and America Online (the Web version, that is) were nowhere to be found in this year's Coolest Websites roundup. We didn't forget about them—we simply collected all our favorite new features for this bonus section. Here are some cool things you can do at the four of the biggest planets in cyberspace:

Google
Desktop Search
Download the free desktop search application and you'll be able to search your hard drive the same way you search the Web.

Gmail
To snag a free Google email account you must be invited by a current user. (Each new member gets 10 invites; I've got a few left if you're interested.) The service keeps message threads together, so you get the full conversation under one tab. With 2 gigabytes of free storage (the cap on an individual message, with attachments, is 10 megabytes) and a speedy Search feature, you won't ever have to clean out your inbox.

Picasa
Download this free piece of software and it will organize all the digital photos on your hard drive, arranging them in neat folders (just the way you named them) and making them more easily accessible. Everything you might want to do with your images—view, edit, email, print, post to your blog—is within easy reach. You can fix red-eye, adjust color and contrast, or add special tints or a switch to sepia tone. The Order button gives you a short cut for placing a print order with websites such as Shutterfly and Snapfish. The email button automatically downsizes the file before sending it to make it easier on the recipient to view at the other end.

The Labs
A pre-launch look at several new features that are in the works, including:

Maps
The maps are draggable, which means you can use your mouse to move north, south, east or west; you can also zoom in or out, get driving directions and find local points of interest (there's a Local Search button on the top of the page). Plug "pizza" into the local search field, specify where (or just keep it as "map area below") and markers pop up instantly on the screen. You can click the markers to find out more. Google Maps also offers satellite images of the area you're viewing, if they're available; the Satellite link is in the upper right hand corner of the screen. Related blog: Google Sightseeing

Suggest
This feature reacts to what you type into the search field by trying to finish your thought for you, generating a list of possibilities that changes with each stroke. It works like a married couple that finishes each other's sentences—but far less annoying. Tip: you won't see a link to Google Suggest on the Google home page, or even on the "More, more, more" list. Use the link above. GO here for more info.

Personalized Home Page
There's been so much co-opting in the portal wars that we're not surprised to see Google offering custom home pages, a la My Yahoo and My MSN (and soon there will be My AOL too—see below). But Google's version manages to maintain a streamlined design, even with a busier page. You can elect to display news headlines from a few different sources (the New York Times, BBC News, Wired), plus local weather, a Quote of the Day and a snapshot of your Gmail inbox. You must register for a Google account.

Yahoo!
Music
With this service, you don't have to purchase individual tracks before transferring them to your portal music player. Rather, you pay a flat subscription fee—$7 a month or $60 a year—for unlimited downloads. (Of course, if you close your account, the files will no longer play.) Napster To Go and RealNetworks' Rhapsody To Go both work the same way, and like Yahoo's service, cater to the same crowd—namely, consumers who own an MP3 player made by a company other than Apple (like Dell, iRiver, Creative, etc.). You'll need to check the list of compatible devices to see if it includes yours. And while each has more than one million songs in its catalog, selection varies. Our advice: take advantage of the free trials before you commit. And if you have an iPod, stick with iTunes.

My Web
Better than bookmarks, this new service within Yahoo Search allows you to create your own personal web archive that you can search from your desktop and share with others. While you surf, the program saves pages you view for easier access later, and files them under Search History. Click My Web from yahoo.com or download the My Yahoo toolbar.

News
The best place to get all the day's top stories just got better. The new-and-improved version uses the popular tab approach to organize articles into categories: U.S. News, Business, Entertainment, Sports, Tech, Politics, Health, etc. Users can create a My Sources list so those stories appear first, or flip through headlines from several sources. You can also sign up to get RSS feeds.

Storage
Briefcase securely stores your files so you can access them from any computer. Simply log into Briefcase using your Yahoo username and password from any PC to upload, access or share up to 30 MB worth of content for free. More space will cost you: 50 MB runs $3 per month or $25 per year, 100 MB more is $5 per month or $35 per year. If that's still insufficient, try Streamload.The service offers up to 10 GB storage for free with access to 100 MB of it per month; or, for a $10 monthly fee, you get unlimited storage and up to 10 GB worth of downloads.

MSN
Virtual Earth
All the major portals have been busy beefing up their search features, but MSN's Virtual Earth looks like it might top them all. It's due to launch mid-summer, so we haven't been able to test it out first-hand. But if the features work as advertised, you'll get the same navigation and manipulation tools that you get with Yahoo and Google's maps, but with an interesting twist: you will also have the option of viewing an aerial photograph of the local area, or select Hybrid View to see the photo with streets and major places labeled. Going forward, the company says it plans to give users the ability to add points of interest and other details to maps of neighborhoods they know—wiki style—and to add a filtering tool so that you can control how much and what type of data appears on your map. MSN's main search page has already been revamped. When you search keywords, you can click through different sets of results: Web links, news items, images and Encarta encyclopedia entries, as well as a desktop option (which requires a separate download) that lets you search for relevant files stored on your PC. Starting this week, you can select Local to conduct a local search, map the results and view satellite images, all features that will be tightly integrated with the upcoming Virtual Earth.

America Online
AOL.com Portal
For years aol.com essentially functioned as a log-in page for AOL subscribers who wished to check their email when they were away from their home PCs. Not anymore. In an effort to better compete against rivals Google, Yahoo and MSN, AOL is busy reinventing its public page as a portal, unlocking the gates to most of its members-only Web properties and making the content accessible to everybody. The official launch of the new aol.com portal is scheduled for sometime in July, but parts of it are already being rolled out on a test basis. You can view an early version by clicking a link from beta.aol.com. News, Internet Radio (including XM satellite radio stations), Shopping, Travel, Food and other channels will retain an AOLian look and feel; "Maps" will take you to AOL partner site Mapquest.com, Movies to Moviefone.com and so on. A new video hub, complete with a separate search tool, will feature music and comedy performances, news, sports and celebrity gossip, plus exclusive content streamed live and on-demand (Aolmusic.com, for example, will webcast live on July 2 the Live 8 concert series and keep the programs in the archive for six weeks.) A new My AOL feature will let users construct a personalized home page, which, like My Yahoo, can include RSS feeds.

AIM Mail
AOL's new free email service—named for (and promoted alongside) the company's hugely successful AOL Instant Messenger program, which is also free—debuted earlier this month, offering 2 gigabytes of free storage and a clean, straightforward interface (save for the banner-style ads). You don't have to download anything to register—just choose a screen name and password and you're good to go. If you have an existing AIM screen name, you can use that as your email address too.

AOL Explorer
You might call it window dressing for your browser: AOL Explorer (on aol.com, click BETA-AOL Product, or go to http://beta.aol.com/projects/aolexplorer) is an add-on to Internet Explorer—an overlay of sorts designed to steer you to specific AOL features, such as your AIM email account, tabbed browsing and desktop search features. It also adds a layer of spyware protection.