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The UK's 50 best free online tools

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Webmail services

Yahoo Mail - Recommended
With two- or three-pane views, unlimited storage a mobile version available and the fact that you can open and easily switch between
multiple messages in the same pane, Yahoo Mail is well featured.

Yahoo resembles traditional desktop email programs, allowing you to sort mail by date or sender, resize fields, keep detailed contact information, scroll through messages with keyboard shortcuts, and create rules to sort messages. It's powerful and elegant, although slower than Gmail.

Windows Live Mail Boasting two-column, three-column, or three-pane views, but with only 2GB storage, Windows Live Mail also has a mobile version available. We particularly like the safety bar at the top of messages that warns of phishing emails and blocks images from unknown senders Microsoft's

Live Mail is feature-packed. There's on-the-fly spell-checking, skins and the ability to send and receive from multiple accounts. You can drag-and-drop, as well as rely on ticking boxes. Long-time webmail users and novices will feel comfortable with Live Mail, but the banner ads and calendar integration feel dated.

Googlemail has only a two-column view and 2.8GB storage, although there is a mobile version available. Googlemail can play MP3 audio attachments and open Excel spreadsheets. Gmail is also lightning-quick, lets you chat with other online Googlemail users, and integrates nicely with Google's calendar. But its limitations – the inability to add new folders, to open multiple messages in one window, to filter emails, or to right-click on anything – will surely frustrate power users.

AOL Mail AOL Mail enjoys a two-column view and up to 2GB of storage. There's no mobile version available, but you and 99 friends can get email addresses at any available domain. AOL Mail lets you drag-and-drop messages and gives you a handy pull-down menu next to every message. But that's as far as the recent upgrade goes. The service lacks mail-sorting rules and keyboard shortcuts, it loads interminably slowly and messages open in external windows, creating clutter.

Web2Mail Lite Web2Mail Lite is a limited program with only a one-column view and unspecified amounts of storage. There's no mobile version available but you can track when a website changes and send you an email alert. Web2Mail Lite lets you check a POP3 account and send and receive mail, but beyond that, the site lacks folders, drag-and-drop capability, and even an address book and a sent-item folder. It also has an abysmal spam filter.


Yahoo Mail is our webmail service of choice

Web operating systems

The idea of a web operating system harks back to the model of dumb terminals reliant on a central server that runs every program. That setup was largely supplanted by PCs, but powerful server farms, such as the one feeding Google's search, easily surpass any home system. A web OS, paired with a PC's ability to install specialised programs locally, may well be computing's future.

YouOS - Recommended
Launched in 2005 by refugees from Oracle, but still in alpha form, YouOS lets you surf the web via a browser-within-a-browser window, read RSS feeds, create text documents and use a Nintendo game emulator. Running Zoho Writer inside a web browser that sits on an outside server through a browser on your PC is oddly thrilling.

EyeOS EyeOS is a free open-source application that comes with full-featured word processing, a basic calendar, a rudimentary web browser and an RSS reader. You can use the hosted version or install it on any web server. As with YouOS, it runs slowly.

Desktoptwo Desktoptwo, by contrast, relies heavily on Flash and Java to pull off its desktop imitation. Although there's no browser, the desktop includes a full suite of OpenOffice applications, an MP3 player and Adobe Acrobat Reader, and it offers a 1GB virtual hard drive.

Desktoptwo is the most useful of the three services, thanks to its full-powered applications and its potential role as a document and music-storage centre. But its reliance on Java and Flash puts most of the computing burden on your computer while the others rely on the computing power of servers.

Desktop widgets

Widgets, gadgets or gizmos – call these small applications what you like, but they transform your desktop into a cockpit, complete with analogue clocks, performance meters and calendars. Vista users will be familiar with Widgets from the new operating system's Sidebar Gadgets. However, you need neither stick with these if you're using Vista nor forgo widgets if you aren't. Yahoo, Opera, and Google have widgets of their own.

Few of the 500-plus Google Desktop Gadgets are visually stunning, but the low-key approach is perfect for alerting you to messages. The RAM hit on our test system with a few gadgets running seemed high at 35MB, but that included desktop search.

Yahoo Widgets offers a much wider selection. Many of its nearly 3,200 gadgets are quite flashy. They can sit under, over or around other application windows. Pressing F8 brings them up in a single pane. Memory usage varies, but budget about 12MB per widget.

Opera Widgets require only that the Opera browser be open. You can add widgets from the browser's toolbar. The selection is heavy on games and light on productivity tools. RAM usage varies from minuscule to truly obscene.

Widgets we rate

Google Calendar For Google Calendar users, this gadget with a default monthly view allows you to see your scheduled events for the day, to quickly view another day's appointments, and to create new events. The current version offers no reminder function, however.

Informer This Yahoo widget keeps track of 21 key PC performance indicators, including memory and Wi-Fi signal strength, all in a bar that docks above the taskbar.

PasswordMaker This tool generates secure passwords by combining a URL and your master password, then applying a hashing algorithm. It doesn't store the password, but you can recreate each password.

Mini iTunes Remote This handy Yahoo gizmo resembles a silver version of the controls on a Shuffle player, but lets you rate tunes, change songs and adjust the volume.

Opera dotooThis simple to-do list creator lets you create multiple lists then check off items.

Quick links

Best online word processors

Best online bookmark managers and password managers

Best online instant-messaging services and answer sites

Best online to-do lists and video aggregation websites

Best online mashups and user review sites

Best webmail services, online operating systems and desktop widgets

Get the latest broadband internet news, reviews, downloads and tutorials at PC Advisor's Broadband Advisor website

See also, Office 2007 alternative: best free online office software

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