The best of the internet's free websites and online services can help organise everything from your workload to your weekend. And we've collated the 50 best free tools on the web for UK users.
Your web browser could well be the most useful – possibly even the most powerful – element of your computer. Despite the promises of chip makers and PC manufacturers, a web application such as Googlemail, running on a massive server farm thousands of miles away, can often be faster and more reliable than the best client-based program.
Developers are pushing browsers by creating even better online alternatives to desktop applications, ranging from spreadsheets to instant-messaging clients to full-blown operating systems.
But innovative and genuinely useful web services are blooming across the internet. Google is probably the best known web-application company – and it's snapped up some of the most promising tools on the net. But a Google badge isn't always indicative of the best tool of its type.
We've tried out a vast number of internet tools – from online office suites and applications to help you get organised, to sites that exist to recommend places, services and other sites. Some of these online applications are shining examples of exactly what's now possible online, while others are less successful but nonetheless a great indication of where the brave new web is bound.
We'll let you know which ones we rate (and why) and suggest alternatives
to some of the better-known online tools. We've also researched and assembled a collection of useful desktop widgets – small desktop applications that pull data from websites.
Online word processors
Google, Zoho and ThinkFree offer the only truly collaborative online office suites, with word-processing applications at their centre. Google combined Writely, an online Ajax-enhanced word processor it bought last spring, with its online Spreadsheets to create Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Ajax is a technique used to make web pages interactive and often 'live', meaning that changes display without reloading the page.
Zoho, meanwhile, unites logins for its online Ajax-based spreadsheet, word-processing and presentation software, and will soon offer them as a complete suite called ZohoX. It'll be free for individuals.
Each of these web suites offers significant functionality, but none will allow you to back up all of your files at once or store copies at a third-party site. You may therefore want to keep a local copy of each document in case the service goes down or you find yourself without a web connection.
More: download the PC Advisor podcast 'Windows versus the Web: Best online apps compared'
Zoho Writer - Recommended
Zoho Writer features a hideable list of documents – separated into private, shared and public documents – plus templates. As with Google Docs and ThinkFree, Zoho Writer can publish directly to a blog and it can save and import a range of text document formats, from Microsoft Word to HTML. A plug-in for Microsoft Word allows you to save to and from that application to your Zoho account.
Zoho includes most of the word-processing features you'd expect, including multiple undo, find-and-replace and extensive text formatting. You can edit the HTML of a document, but the feature is so hidden you must use the search box to find it.
Beating both Google and ThinkFree overall, Zoho handles multiple documents in a single window via tabs and lets you embed a Zoho spreadsheet in a Writer document. Modifying the spreadsheet automatically updates the Writer files.
Zoho also offers a version of its software that runs on your own server; it's free for up to 10 users. This may alleviate security concerns about hosting sensitive business documents outside the office firewall.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets The new face of Writely has a clean, sterile, blue-and-white interface with a single row of icons across the top of the text window. Strong points include automatic versioning and easy access to HTML code. You can upload documents via email and, if you and a colleague collaborate on the same document, changes made on either system immediately appear on the other.
The most common word-processing functions are here, but Google Docs & Spreadsheets has no built-in functions for text search or find-and-replace. Also multiple documents appear as separate web pages rather than side by side.
Recently ThinkFree announced a beta version of its office software that enables users to work offline or online for $7 (£3.50) a month. We like the fact that ThinkFree is available as both a light version (hardly worth bothering with) and a Java-based power editor that looks and feels like a full-blown desktop application.
You need a large Java applet to run this worthwhile application, but it supports almost every feature in Microsoft Word, including AutoCorrect. However, ThinkFree gives no way to open multiple documents or to simultaneously collaborate with a colleague when editing a document.
Zoho Writer is our favourite online office software
Accessing your internet bookmarks on any PC is handier than emailing links to yourself. But what makes an online-bookmarking site useful is its social-networking aspect: the ability to share bookmarks with anyone.
Del.icio.us - Recommended
The most popular page on the original social-bookmarking site, Del.icio.us features the latest and geekiest tech news as bookmarked and tagged by the site's one million-plus registered users. You can use the site to find recipes, podcasts or the most relevant pages on a topic of interest.
While it may be hard to remember how to spell the name, using Del.icio.us simply requires two toolbar links – one for your list of links, the other for adding and tagging pages. It uses a Craigslist-style interface with one field for notes and another for tags.
To make things easier, Del.icio.us suggests tags for a bookmark based on other users' tags. Since tags are the only organising method, it can be hard to find a link later if your tags aren't consistent. Del.icio.us lets you import and export bookmarks, keep tabs on other users' links and mark certain links as private.
Magnolia Del.icio.us' younger, prettier sibling requires only a single toolbar link. Conveniently, Magnolia grabs a web page's description from the underlying HTML and automatically adds it, so you need only to tag the item. Other useful features include a quick five-star rating system and a Keep Private button which is displayed by default.
Like del.icio.us, Magnolia easily imports and exports bookmarks. But with a smaller user base, its library isn't as useful.
StumbleUpon This is an odd social-bookmarking site whose real purpose is to show you new sites without you having to search for them. To use StumbleUpon, you have to install a toolbar with a button that, when clicked, takes you at random to cool sites in categories that you select.
You can then vote the site up or down, review it and choose to add it to your bookmarks list. You can bookmark a site without leaving the page via the toolbar, although this isn't intuitive.
You have to hunt in StumbleUpon's preferences menu to turn on its best feature, Search Links, which appends user ratings and reviews to search-engine results in Ask.com, Live.com, Yahoo and Google.
StumbleUpon's main drawbacks are its busy interface, its continual insistence that you join its social network and the necessity of installing yet another toolbar.
Fortunately, you can minimise the toolbar and use keyboard shortcuts to stumble and vote sites up or down. Unfortunately, there's no shortcut to simply bookmark a page. How (or whether) the site will change now it's been bought by eBay is anyone's guess.
Furl Furl saves a local copy of every page you bookmark on its site, and it's the only site here that indexes the full text of these pages so that you can search them. Nevertheless, Furl's relatively drab interface makes it feel like a mid-90s tool for librarians.
Magnolia is younger and better looking than Delicious
New web services have inevitably led to an overflow of logins and passwords, which many people foolishly cope with by reusing passwords or creating an unencrypted password file. A better solution is an online service that can help you organise your passwords for access at a moment's notice.
Just1Key This is the only online password-storage service with real security. To prevent hackers grabbing your passwords Just1Key uses a Java applet in a browser window, into which you enter your central password; the applet encrypts the password before sending it to the server. Just1Key sends your passwords list back to you in encrypted form; the applet then decrypts the list so you can read it.
You can cut-and-paste passwords as needed, but the software is barebones. Passwords are kept in a single list, which can be unwieldy. There's no search, import or export functionality, but you can access your passwords on a mobile device so long as its browser is capable of an SSL-based login.
It's a great way to store passwords for non-sensitive sites, but that's it.
Agatra The creators of this beta site claim it encrypts passwords using the Blowfish algorithm, but it asks you to log in to an unsecured home page. Agatra sends your passwords via an SSL connection to your browser. For the most popular sites, Agatra will automatically log you in.
For many, IM has become an indispensable tool for collaboration in the office and an informal way to make plans. Unfortunately, IM has no agreed standards. If your kids use MSN and your boss uses Yahoo, you'll have to create multiple accounts and run multiple clients on your PC. A couple of new IM web clients can help you sidestep those issues.
Meebo The best of the new web-based IM services, Meebo allows you to sign into AIM, ICQ, MSN, Jabber, Google's GTalk and Yahoo Messenger simultaneously. While the site is open to anyone, registered users can store all their logins and passwords and be logged in to all the services automatically.
Meebo has a graceful design that lets you run multiple chats inside a single browser window, or you can open the contact list and chat in small pop-up windows.
In single-window mode, a contacts list clings to the righthand side of the browser. Chat windows can be rearranged or minimised inside the browser. Meebo supports basic font formatting, chat logging and emoticons, although we found the lack of a clickable send button rather odd.
Security is a concern; you may not want to share your passwords with a third party, and Meebo lacks support for encrypted chats. But as long as you aren't discussing your company's top-secret strategy, it's a great alternative to running multiple desktop instant-messaging clients.
KoolIM KoolIM opens new browser windows for your contacts list and for each chat session. When someone messages you, a chat window pops up.
However, KoolIM's beta version still lacks some basic features, such as chat logging, time stamps telling you when a message arrived, and buddy icons; the service also has the same security issues as Meebo.
Web-based services from the four main networks let you chat without their desktop clients, but only to users of the same service.
We like Meebo for its graceful elegance
The internet has sites where you can ask nearly any reasonable question, such as 'What's the best way to schedule backups for Windows XP?' (or whether to break it off with a flaky boyfriend). You can then get multiple useful answers from strangers within hours – if not minutes.
Free advice is supposed to be worth what you pay for it, but some of these may have you rethinking that old adage.
Yahoo Answers The best developed answer site is Yahoo Answers. Anyone with a Yahoo ID can post or answer questions. These are funnelled into categories ranging from amusement parks to taxes in India.
A rudimentary points system deducts points for asking questions and rewards you for answering questions.
Answers come astonishingly quickly and are surprisingly good. A question about whether to overclock a new Intel processor garnered three answers in five minutes.
Windows Live QnA Beta Microsoft's tag-based answers site is called Windows Live QnA Beta.
Although answers were somewhat tough to find, we found that QnA users responded nearly as quickly as the Yahoo Answers users had done.
Not surprisingly, queries about Microsoft products brought out the best in QnA members. One about how to schedule backups and disk defragmenting for Windows XP got four answers, including suggestions of how to use Windows XP's built-in tools, run a defrag multiple times via a batch file, and a suggestion for an automated web-backup service.
But even the non-technology focused questions we asked concerning magazine recommendations and lime-tree fertilisation returned relevant and timely answers.
This is a metablog site with some very clever people answering quirky questions, but it will cost you $5 (around £2.50) to join Ask Metafilter.
Yedda Yedda is an Israeli startup that lets you sign up for keywords and be emailed when a question matching your expertise hits the system. As with all these services, you can both ask and answer questions.
The old-fashioned to-do list, which lets the brain concentrate on the task at hand rather than on ones in the future, remains one of the world's best productivity tools. These sites let you keep track of your obligations and prompt you to keep up the pace.
RememberTheMilk - Recommended
This reinvents the to-do list with 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, although adding deadlines, notes and time estimates isn't.
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 via IM, email or text message, or a combination of these. You can also upload tasks via a special email address that the site gives you.
It's a well-rounded free product.
HiveMinder This site relies on tags, rather than categories, to group tasks. While you can't schedule tasks using natural language, there's a nice drop-down calendar and you can easily add tags to a group of tasks.
HiveMinder syncs with external calendars, publishes RSS feeds and lets you email tasks, but the only notification it offers is a once-a-day email. Tags are more difficult to track than categories and, while it has a more intuitive interface than RememberTheMilk, it doesn't feel as useful.
Ta-Da List Those who prefer minimalism will love 37 Signals's Ta-Da List, where you can build multiple to-do lists. It allows no tags, categories or time elements; just lists of tasks with tick boxes. You can make the list public, but it won't send you reminders.
BackPackIt BackPackIt 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 10 reminders via email or SMS, but tasks, as in Ta-Da List, have no time element.
Never forget a thing with a RememberThe Milk to-moo list
Video aggregation sites
Although YouTube is the best-known video-sharing site, plenty more sites feature free clips of crazy lipsynching, pratfalls and even the odd useful how-to video. People are uploading hundreds of thousands of clips every day. These sites find the best and coolest for you. Some let you bookmark and categorise favourites. RealPlayer 11.0 lets you download and share them.
VideoSift - Recommended
VideoSift is a video site based on community submissions and voting. It caters mostly to the taste of the geek-and-college crowd, but that should change with time. You can mark favourites, comment, vote on and share videos.
You can't become a fully privileged user until you submit a video that gets at least five up-votes – and probationary users don't get as many voting rights. But finding a good submission shouldn't be too hard a task, and this site is certainly cool enough to warrant putting in a little extra effort.
VDiddy VDiddy is the perfect first stop for some post-lunch entertainment. There's no login, bookmarks or commenting, simply a front page with the top 12 videos of the moment from 11 video-sharing sites. Hover your cursor over a thumbnail to enlarge it; click on it and it'll play in an embedded player.
Dabble Dabble lets you organise, collect, comment on and share video clips from around the web. Using a toolbar link, you can bookmark clips from any video site, tag them and make or view shared playlists. But Dabble can't bookmark videos embedded in a web page or bookmark a video before it ends.
Digg and VideoBomb Digg is also worth an honourable mention. It has a very active video voting site, but the top videos tend to linger for too long. VideoBomb accepts QuickTime, Flash and Windows Media video files.
Mashups are the online equivalent of dunking a biscuit in your tea. The combination of data from one site with the data of another site is so much better than each is on its own.
Most of the examples here are still unashamedly US-centric. San Francisco is the centre of the online mashup world, but we're hopeful it won't be long before contributors discover and start catering for the rest of the world.
Microsoft recently launched an alpha version of its Popfly service that should make it easy to build mashups of your own.
The best mashups tend to use maps, such as one of the earliest and best, HousingMaps.com. The site plots Craigslist's homes for sale and apartments for rent on a Google Map and lets you preview a listing by simply clicking on one of the pushpins.
WeatherBonk - Recommended
Get detailed local weather reports, traffic data and weather cameras for cities around the world on a Google Map from WeatherBonk. While it's far from the prettiest mashup, the traffic data could save you hours of frustration, and the webcams let you see weather conditions.
This site lets you submit to Last.fm songs you like to listen to (Last.fm monitors the songs you play on your PC). Pandora FM is a fantastic way to find new music: create a radio station of your favourite songs, then it suggests and plays artists in the same vein.
Pubwalk PubWalk combines bar listings and reviews on to a Google map. Each pushpin has a pop-up window with information, including a rating and a thumbnail picture. Then you can use the service to plot out a bar crawl, print out directions or see them on your phone.
This mashup, cooked up in Google Labs, lets you plan trips by public transport in several US states. Given two addresses, Google Transit will give you directions that combine walking, buses and trains. It even approximates travel times and fares.
Mappr Hackers have done wonders with the open interface of image-hosting site Flickr. But the prettiest of these mashups, Mappr.com, lets you choose a tag and then see all the results plotted on a map of the US using geotags embedded in the photos. While a little slow, searches such as 'beach' or 'Route 66' show the hidden patterns buried in metadata.
Pub Walk can help with the tricky business of finding a watering hole
User review sites
The ultimate recommendations may be the items that come up when you type in keywords about a product type, a service or a destination. There's a lot to be said for popularity. But sheer volume of commentary isn't enough on its own – you need some sort of modifier to make clear whether people are endorsing an item.
This is precisely how sites such as Digg work. A thumbs up or a thumbs down can send an item speeding up the rankings or hurtling to the back of beyond. And you'll notice more and more websites – from Amazon to PCA – including options to rate both comments and products. PCAdvisor.co.uk/reviews encourages user reviews precisely because readers place great store by other readers' opinions.
And while professional critics can be great guides, there's much to be said for the wisdom of your neighbours. Sites such as CitySearch and Yahoo Local have struggled for years to get people to submit reviews of local venues, with mixed success.
If you're heading to the US this summer, we'd thoroughly recommend Yelp.com for its food reviews. 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 comes with a map and, in the cases of popular restaurants in major urban areas, 50 to 200 reviews with star ratings.
Similar sites exist in the UK. Some, such as Toptable, have user reviews alongside menus, seating plans and discount vouchers, but aren't wholly independent.
Angie's List - Recommended
Angie's List charges US users $6 a month to read and write reviews of home contractors. The number and quality of reviews varies in the 80 cities covered by Angie's List, but larger areas have some very good recommendations. The monthly fee can easily be recouped if you save $100 on a plumber. Unfortunately, nothing of this sort seems to exist in the UK – yet. Word of mouth may be your best bet.
As with other ranking sites, what the UK and Ireland Yahoo site offers in comparison with the US equivalent is poor. Type in 'restaurants' with Chester as the location and, rather than a nice mix of local and national newspaper reviews alongside customer comments, the first three results were for a little American bistro called, er, McDonalds. You can search by proximity or alphabetically, but not by ranking.
CitySearch.com The oldest player in online reviews, CitySearch.com 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. There's nothing yet listed in the UK, but it's easy to sign up and started adding comments for places you visits – as long as you've got a US zip code, that is.
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.
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.