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FlashUSAmap: Put Your Website On The Map

FlashUSAmap rebranded and expanded their service. It’s now Simplemaps and covers more map areas.

There are many oddities about the human race. In particular, how we assess our fellow man is sometimes not the most logical of activities. One quirk we all have in common is how much emphasis we place on one’s geographic origin. Whenever we venture out into other parts of the world the first question is often, “Where are you from?”  Based upon this we’ll immediately make judgments about that person. We’ll size up their character, habits, intellect, and how much we may or may not like them. Geography is so important to how we see ourselves that many of us go to great lengths to find out where our ancestors were born.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to where you are on the map- literally. In the United States, we focus on the division between states. There are red states, blue states, the North, the South, East, and West. Of course there’s my favorite state, the one everyone thinks is going to fall into the ocean. We view people from other states and regions in a certain light; sometimes positively, other times negatively. Sometimes it’s fun to perpetuate our own geographical stereotype. When I was thirteen, I went to Baltimore on a trip. When I told people that I was from California they would ask me about surfing. I guess on a map and on television, California looks like one big coastline. At first I would correct them and tell them I’d never surfed. Later in the trip I gave up and began saying that everyone in California surfed. We surf to school or work I told them- every morning in fact. This revelation no doubt inspired wonder and jealousy in my impressionable peers. And it was all because of where I was from on the map.

In the online world maps play a crucial role. If you’re a real estate agent, a nice map can visually show people what areas you serve. Or let’s say you own a chain of restaurants and need to illustrate where they’re all located. At this point you have to call your web developer and ask them to build such a tool. Either they’ll fall over because it’s a rather complex project, or you’ll fall over when they tell you the price. Such an endeavor is non trivial. Fortunately, FlashUSAmap provides an interactive map of the good ole US of A, for exactly this purpose.

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FlashUSAmap offers a fully-customizable map, rendered in Flash, that can easily be installed on any website. It works by pulling data from XML files, (pronounced my-ex-smells), that can be edited with a standard text editor. Each state acts as a separate link and can have its own target URL. While hovering over it the state can create a pop-up that reveals more information and also an image. Or, if you don’t have any information to convey about a particular region, it can be deactivated. It’s completely resizable, and links, colors, and text can all be customized. It’s supported on multiple platforms, including PHP, ASP, Python, Ruby and Perl. The Examples link shows more details about the various options.

The price of the map is a staggeringly low $59. Graciously, there’s a free trial version to take this map out for a test, er, cartography ride. From a web development standpoint this map not only saves you money, but precious sanity as well.

FlashUSAmap honed in on solving a specific common problem for the benefit of web developers and site owners around the world. As a result of their effort web developers can install and configure this map, and then move on to other pressing tasks.

promotional video paid for by the Sponsor

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FindTheBest: You Decide What’s Best

I love to shop; I do it all the time. From clothes, to tools, to buying books online, I’m always looking for good deals. And the best way to shop is to be able to compare things side-by-side. This allows you to evaluate items by contrasting similar features and real, hard numbers. It makes it so you can clearly identify pros and cons, compare price-versus-value, show other people (co-workers, a spouse, etc.) exactly why you’ve decided on a particular product. It’s the way I like to shop.

While there are many websites out there that allow you to do this, they only let you compare tangible products and some services. What if you’re not shopping for a product, but trying to decide which breed of dog is right for your family? What if you want to compare colleges? Or technology blogs? Or airports? How about only airports in Spain? Or dinosaurs? You can compare all these things and more, at FindTheBest.

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Did you ever wonder how tall the tallest carnivorous dinosaur was? (Seismosaurus – 84 ft.) Or did you ever want to know what the healthiest thing is to eat at Popeye’s Fried Chicken? (Sadly, not chicken: corn.) Yes, there are many more important things to compare. What I like about FindTheBest, isn’t that it helps you compare products and cost. It’s that it helps you reach a conclusion based on what you want. It’s about being able to make an informed decision and decide what’s best for you.

FindTheBest is an unbiased search engine specifically designed to help you make comparisons and, ultimately, decisions. The array of options for narrowing your search is dizzying and comparison “apps” are designed to help you make comparisons that might not otherwise pop out at you. The site is community-driven and users can add/edit listing, suggest new apps, and post reviews and comments.

The website is divided in to nine categories with multiple subcategories that cover a slew of topics you might want to compare. You can compare ski resorts, celebrities, cheeseburgers, dog breeds, pizza nutrition facts, soccer stadiums, and much more. Each entry under the categories is an app that gathers specific information together to answer a question. It’s a way to parse the raw data and present facts in a way that lets you make an informed decision.

After typing in a search term, you’ll find a list of app pages that offer ways to compare aspects of your keyword and also a list of informational pages so you can learn more. Typing in “dogs” for instance, will pop up comparison app pages for dog breeds and dog runs in New York City, as well as information on various dog-related organizations, books, films, and websites. Choosing a comparison page will open up a chart containing information that relates to the subject. Following our example, choosing “dog breeds” brings up images, maximum height and weight, groups of breeds, life expectancy (in years), and temperament. By clicking on a column heading, you can sort the information into groups, and by adjusting the sliders at the left side of the screen (or typing in more information) I can further narrow my comparison. I can choose to see only dogs that weigh less than ten pounds, are hypo-allergenic, and are good with children. So you can hone in on just what you want and then compare those few options side-by-side.

The sign-up process is simple and allows you to participate in the community, which is really where the website begins to differentiate itself from other comparison engines. If there is any missing information that could potentially influence why one product/service/place/thing is superior to another but isn’t listed, you can edit that listing or provide a review on subjects so that another user won’t make the same mistake you did. Things might look good on paper but end up another story after you’ve committed to it. At FindTheBest, you’ve got a voice.

In addition to being able to do your own comparisons on FindTheBest, you can also share your research with the rest of the world. FindTheBest has a share button that allows you to share your findings with Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit, and a number of other social networking sites. Also, you can embed apps in your own website or customize a widget for showing information on your blog, website, or HTML email messages.

In an ideal world, it would be a boon to have a way to create your own apps, rather than just be able to suggest them. I’m hopeful this will be integrated into the site sometime in the future. Also, some apps are difficult to understand because if the first column of a group of entries is left blank, it will show up first in the app. Most notable is the “Cell Phone Reception” comparison page, which sometimes lists all of the blank entries on the first page, depending upon how you get to it. It should be noted that the site is only in beta right now, but still has a ton of features and is entirely usable.

FindTheBest is easy to use and share, and it will continue to grow and offer more functionality. I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops in the future. There are already a variety of search options and ways to look at and compare information that puts the site head and shoulders above regular search engines. FindTheBest isn’t just a comparison engine; with reviews and facts from a growing user base. It’s a real, unbiased, decision-engine. The best things about FindTheBest isn’t that just that it tells you what’s best. It’s that it allows you to define what you think is the best, and then find it.

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CoupRecoup: Luxury On Any Budget

Have you ever gotten a great discount but then ended up not needing it? Or maybe you won it as a prize or corporate give away. Now there’s a place where you can both buy and sell these so called Groupons.

CoupRecoup is a website that allows people to buy and sell good deals that can be used at restaurants and businesses in your local metropolitan area. The CoupRecoup website works in conjunction with several other websites (such as Groupon, Tippr, and Social buy) that offer deals (a $100 massage and facial for $50, for example) that a limited number of users can purchase. If a user purchases a deal and then realizes they won’t be able to redeem it before the expiration date (a change of plans, sickness, etc.), they come to CoupRecoup to try to offload the deal and recoup at least some of their money. So users at CoupRecoup can find some pretty great deals or, alternately, they can purchase some highly sought-after deals they missed the first time around.

couprecoup

The website doesn’t charge any fees for buy or selling, and no real sign-up is required to participate in any transactions. Sellers provide a link to the webpage upon which the deal was found, the asking price, and an email address, while buyers need only provide an email address, an offer (if possible), and a message for the seller.  (THe message is presumably to persuade them into lowering their asking price). Sellers can then sit back and watch the offers from potential buyers show up in their email inboxes.

The website has two main parts: a page that lists all of the deals available to buy and a page that allows sellers to post deals. It’s simple and effective, without a lot of fluff getting between the user and the purpose of the website. The website is pleasantly-designed and you can sign up for a weekly email alert so you can stay on top of those deals. Right now the service is only applicable if you live in or around a big city, but there are plans to add more cities in the future.

The first thing you might notice while browsing the available deals on CoupRecoup is that they are primarily geared towards luxury items/services. You’re not likely to find deals for local chain eateries and mini-golf and more likely to find things like “90% off tandem skydiving” and “60% off an hour-long relaxing float session”. I can’t really imagine exactly what a float session might be, but it sounds magical and restorative. And at a discount of 60%, I have a chance of actually being able to afford it.

This is the best thing about CoupRecoup: the system brings luxury down to a practical level. If you’re planning a night or weekend out on the town (or in the city) but don’t have a lot of money to burn, you can experience the same exotic, adventurous, or decadent pleasures as someone to whom caviar is a necessary food group. If, you plan ahead and visit CoupRecoup.

And if you still have trouble spending money of yourself, many of the deals can make great gift ideas. Certainly a massage certificate might be just the thing to get a stressed-out spouse. And what sort of person could possibly say no to a haircut at an upscale stylist? Of course, certain deals should only be kept for oneself, namely the gym memberships, cooking classes, and bikini-waxing deals. Those might send the wrong message.

I saw many deals that could be an excellent find for a man (or woman) looking to impress their next date with something that might otherwise be out of their price range. The next best thing to being able to actually afford dinner and drinks at a ridiculously up-scale restaurant is appearing to an attractive member of the opposite sex as if you’re able to afford it. A good first-impression could be well within your budget if you know about CoupRecoup.

At a time when people are trying to rein in their finances, CoupRecoup makes the finer things in life more affordable, which is something I can get behind. I’ve always said that it’s important to occasionally treat oneself and the people around us to great things to remind everyone what life is all about. Most of us become so mired down with the depressing repetition of work and life at home that we forget the world is full of exciting tastes, sounds, and smells and memories waiting to be made.

An evening that includes tandem skydiving followed by cocktails at a swanky uptown lounge qualifies as a “night out” writ large. This sort of thing, along with a variety of tamer but still inspiring deals, is what you can find at CoupRecoup.

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Web-Based Software: Find The Right Web App For You

With mobile broadband connections now being as common and ubiquitous as digital watches, we find ourselves waist-deep in a software revolution called SAAS, or Software As A Service. Essentially, it’s web-based software for which you pay a monthly subscription. SAAS eliminates the burden of having to run the software from your own servers. Data is stored online and updates are handled by the software provider. If we ignore the glut of hype coming from the software industry about how much cheaper, smarter, and easier it is to subscribe to software than it is to own and run it, we find that, well, it really does make sense. Companies seem more project-based than ever these days and they fold up quicker than a lawn chair if success isn’t beating down their door within the first few months of launching. Ask a web developer, but only if you want a rant.

SAAS allows you to use the tools that you need to run your business, from anywhere, for a minimum cost. It doesn’t make sense to invest loads of money in the antiquated software architecture of yesterday, particularly if you only have a tenuous notion of what the future may hold. I’m not trying to be a pessimist here; SAAS is just good business for many companies right now. There’s a reason it’s gaining so much ground and increasing numbers of software developers are opting to develop subscription-based software.

Once you decide to go with SAAS, though, you have to pick the right programs. It’s impossible to test each piece of software and most of the time you only have one chance to make the right decision, especially when it comes to project management software. No one wants to start over and learn something new after a few months of trying to get a program to work. It means lost time, which means lost money. So you want to choose the best software right from the start. This is where Web-Based Software can help you.

webbasedsoftware

Web-Based-Software is a web-based project management software directory. They make the process of finding the right SAAS simple: start off by browsing the website by category and reading a few lines about each program. Then, if you think the program will be a good fit for your business, simply click the provided link(s) to visit the program’s website. The website layout is clean and intuitive, so you can get to where you need to go quickly. Multiple screenshots accompany each program in the software directory, which provides a helpful preview of the software, and there is usually more than one link to the program’s website so you can cut right to the “sign-up”, “about”, or “features” pages.

The categories available for browsing include a wide range of software categories, from general project management software to human resources and payroll programs. More than a few financial, accounting, and billing software options can be found that will handle the money side of your business, while issue/bug tracking software can be a boon to any application developers, especially if your development team is spread out across the globe. You can make sure everyone is working on what they should be, when they should be, with time tracking software and scheduling programs.

Not everything is geared only toward SAAS. You’ll also find software for creating your own social network site, dating site, and forum. I found a few programs that, while probably aimed at small businesses, sparked my curiosity about using them for my own extremely-small business needs. Specifically, I’m thinking one that would allow me to do billing from any computer, which would be great since my laptop was made in 1998 and weighs as much as a baby elephant.

You can browse by category, which is probably the easiest way to find what you’re looking for, or you can browse through only the in-house reviews of software. There’s also a search engine you can use if you don’t want to browse.

What I value the most on the Web-Based-Software website are the in-depth reviews written by the staff. As someone who writes a lot of reviews, I know what I’m looking for when I read one. Give me the key features, an overall impression of the program, and a big, shiny link to the program’s website. Most review companies simply parrot the ad-copy available on the program’s site, but Web-Based-Software gives each review a unique spin.

There are really only one small problem I’ve got with the Web-Based-Software website: no side-by-side comparisons between programs. Being able to quickly compare features for different program that provide similar functions saves me some brainpower that I’d rather put toward thinking about the other million stressful aspects of launching/restructuring my company.

Web-based Software is a useful and time-saving website if you’re looking for on-demand software. SAAS appears to be the next logical step in the evolution of software, so we can safely bet on this website continuing to grow in popularity and depth. The site is easy to navigate and by having an architecture that encourages browsing you might just find a program that you didn’t even know you needed. This might be the very definition of a helpful, informative website.

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WebClip: Save Only What You Want

I remember about a year and a half ago I saw the funniest online video that I’ve ever seen. It was from a sketch comedy group and it involved two detectives at a crime scene and they were trying to do that move you see in movies where you close the eyes of the deceased person by moving your hand in front of their face. Only instead of closing the dead person’s eyes something strange would happen. One detective would try to close the eyes of a dead woman laying on the ground and the eyes would not only remain open but the face would be contorted into the most horrific grin. Or the face would be painted like a clown. Or the person lying on the ground would inexplicably become the other detective. It sounds a bit macabre, but let me assure you it was hilarious.

I’ve tried explaining the sketch to friends and they laugh but then they want to see the video. That’s a problem. I don’t know the name of it. Nor do I know which sketch comedy group made the video. Also I don’t remember much else about the video. In fact, the only thing I really remember is that it literally made me fall out of my chair laughing. I’ve searched for it but my search terms (detectives + dead girl + funny) don’t yield the most pleasant results. I do remember, though, that I bookmarked it in my web browser. The problem now is that since I watched the video, I’ve gone through three computer and two laptops. And, of course, I never remember to back up my browser bookmarks.

webclip

WebClip (WebClip.in) is the kind of website idea that makes you wonder why other companies haven’t come up with it before now. Instead of just being a place to store your favorite web stuff, you can clip out just the part of a webpage you want to keep and store it with the click of a button. It doesn’t matter what it is you want to save; it could be text, pictures, video, links, WebClip saves them all.

You can sign up for a WebClip account through your Facebook or Twitter account, or click on “Sign Up” if you like. After that, you drag the “Webclip this” bookmarklet button up to your favorite/bookmarks bar and you’re ready to go. Once you see something online you want to save, highlight it with your mouse by dragging over the object and press the button. A pop-up window will appear where you can choose a category, what content you want saved, and any notes or tags you want to include with the content. Click “Save” and your content is stored at WebClip.

WebClip lets you create you own personal repository of favorite items, organized by category. The feel of the site is like your own personal Digg!. Other users can comment on your finds or “Like” them or mark them as a favorite. There’s a sense of community and the WebClip website is well-designed, and there’s sharing going on. You can share from WebClip to other social media sites and comment on other people’s finds. But that’s not really why I like WebClip.

I like it because it stores the stuff that I like somewhere reliable, i.e. nowhere that I can mess it up. If I want to share something I found today with a friend next year, I can do that. As long as I post it to WebClips, I don’t have to worry about not being able to find that great video or link or photo, because it will be there, in its assigned category, ready to share.

If there’s one thing that WebClips doesn’t have that I want, it’s the ability to search through only MY posted favorites. As I continue to use the service, I’ll end up with thousands of favorites and it would be great if I could search through only my favorites or a single user’s favorites, instead of all users.

An area I can see WebClips being particularly useful is for research. When working on a project, you could use the service to pick and choose paragraphs from reference material you find online that you might want to use later. Instead of saving the whole document and noting the page and paragraph, you only have to bring up your saved WebClip and it will have whatever notes you wrote attached to it. College students might find this very handy.

There’s so much great stuff out there on the web that it’s easy to continue amassing a pile of stuff you like. Services exist that allow you to save whole web pages but sometimes all you need is a few pictures or a sentence. WebClips integrates well with social media and fosters a sense of community between users. It’s an organized, online bookmarks folder that I never have to back up. Which is just what I needed.

WebClip.in turned into WebClip.out. In a Hail Mary effort to salvage anything from their months of hard work, the domain is up for sale.

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Sign-Up-Sheet: Take Your Party To The People

There’s nothing quite like throwing a work party. You single-handedly bring all the elements together, post a sign-up sheet, iron-out scheduling conflicts, book the entertainment, reserve the meeting room, stay up all night preparing food and drinks, and spend the morning decorating, only to find that when the moment comes where people should be flooding in, they aren’t. Curious to find out how many people had committed to coming to your little shindig and are flaking out, you check the sign-up sheet you tacked up on the company bulletin board a week ago. Your worst fears are realized: it’s completely obscured by a flyer haphazardly stapled up there by Jim in Accounting, advertising his new kitten grooming service. Thanks Jim.

I would venture to say that there is an online equivalent to virtually every pencil-pushing task we have these days. Mail has become email, calendars have become auto-synched online day planners that beam to your PDA, taxes are filed online, bills are paid right out of your online checking account; you name it, there’s an app’ for it. Even better than moving the task online is that the online version of said task generally removes the tedious and frustrating aspects and streamlines the whole thing. Certainly, that’s the case with replacing your old paper and push-pin sign-up sheet with a virtual one from Sign-Up-Sheet.com.

signupsheet

Whether you’re planning a concert, annual picnic, race event, family reunion, training seminar, convention, toga party, or tea party, Sign-Up-Sheet is a website that will help you wrangle the most important aspect of any event: the guests. It’s a proactive approach to getting people to show up for any event.

The process for creating your first event sign-up sheet through Sign-Up-Sheet is pretty simple. First, sign up on the website for the Sign-Up-Sheet services. There are several plans from which to choose, based on how many events, attendees, and account users you anticipate needing. For users who just want to try out the service, I recommend the free account that allows up to 3 events and 200 attendees. Enter your basic information, select an account address (http://your_event_name_here.sign-up-sheet.com, which is where you’ll direct potential attendees), create a password and that’s about it. After activating your account by clicking the link sent to your email address, you’ll be taken to your account dashboard where you can create and edit events and manage attendees.

Essentially, Sign-Up-Sheet creates a webpage for your event that people can use to find out details, discuss the event, see who’s attending, and then commit themselves to attending. When you set up the event, you list the details of the party, specify if you want a waiting list, choose a sign-up start and end date, and select whether potential guests can see who else will be attending. (Now you can even search for attendees.) Users can leave comments on the event, which, depending on how well last years party went, could be a good thing. It might sound complex, but helpful video tutorials are available for all users and walk you through how to accomplish the tasks you’ll need to effectively manage your event.

Social networking links on each event page really help boost attendance. Anyone can post your shindig on Facebook, Twitter, etc., with just a few clicks, or just email the event notice to a few friends. There’s even a new RSS feed feature now, so the latest info on an event can go straight to a user’s RSS reader.

Sign-Up-Sheet integrates with your own website by matching colors and allowing you to upload your own logo to your event page. The sign-up form can be tailored to suit the needs of the event and You can also export your data for use with email marketing programs like Campaign Monitor to help you keep track of attendees and follow up for the next party. This is great, but hopefully we’ll see more integration with other client database programs in the future.

One of the things that I really like about this site is that the service scales incredibly well. You can use Sign-Up-Sheet to organize anything from a small tea party to a nationwide comic convention. The Sign-Up-Sheet service is based on a monthly fee rather than on ticket sales, meaning that you don’t have to share ticket proceeds. You simply pay the monthly fee and they let you run the events how you want. If your small event ends up attracting a huge number of visitors, you can choose to keep it small or upgrade to a more accommodating monthly plan. Managing the event (from the sign-up side of things at least) is the same whether you’re putting on a banquet for 40 people or 4,000.

The premise behind Sign-Up-Sheet is simple and works well. Integrating social media and the flexibility of having a traditional sign-up sheet online allows you to reach and accommodate a wider audience. Their not the only game in town for helping you plan events online, but they are one of the easiest to use, offer great tech support, and only charge a low monthly fee. These things make Sign-Up-Sheet rise above the competition.

With Sign-Up-Sheet, the problem will no longer be wondering how many people will show up, but rather how many people end up on the waiting list and how much bigger of a venue you’ll need next year. From an event planner’s perspective, that’s what is called a “happy problem”.

Apparently there was a problem with Sign-Up-Sheet’s paperwork. The internet police pulled them off the internet detaining those responsible for questioning.

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MovieDiver: Put That Broadband Connection To Work

It’s wasn’t too long ago that my computer was communicating with this vast network of servers we call the internet via a series of clicks, beeps, and squawks screamed over phone lines that were installed over fifty years ago. The bandwidth was barely enough to be able to support the transfer of ASCII art, much less streaming video. Forays into downloading large files were largely Sisyphean: any hiccup or minor solar flare would cause a disconnection. In fact, let us take a moment to remember those who were slain for the crime of picking up the phone to make a call while I was downloading Quake from a spotty Indonesian FTP server at ~6K/second. In my defense, the download was at 98%.

Now, we’ve got more bandwidth than we know how to use. My desktop computer just sits there between downloading webpages, a high-speed information superhighway with big, wide, empty lanes. It’s like using a nuclear warhead to open a jar of pickles. Every so often I download a clip of “The Daily Show” or an antivirus update, but otherwise my internet connection just sits there, bored, amusing itself by idly tossing a network packet back and forth from between my router and my ISP. A whole world of information and media at my fingertips and yet I still rent movies through one of those DVD kiosks at my supermarket. That is, until I found out about MovieDiver.

moviediver

At MovieDiver you can watch movies online for free. They have over 5,000 movies to watch, with many of them being recent releases. The movies that you watch online are relatively low resolution (still crisp enough to enjoy, though), but MovieDiver also offers movie downloads for just $1.99. Movies you buy can be downloaded in a variety of formats that can be played on your computer or any of your new-fangled multimedia-capable gadgets like your iPad, iPhone, or Blackberry. You can purchase credit for your account starting at $19.95, but the more credit you purchase the more free money they throw at you. Buy $29.95 in credit and you get $10 free, or buy $49.95 in credit and get $20 free, which is a very good deal.

If you’re familiar with OnRead, then you’ll feel right at home on MovieDiver. Like the books at OnRead, the movies here are organized primarily by genre, but you can also sort them by country (which seems to indicate where the movie was filmed rather than where it was released) or the year the movie came out. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of Digital Right Management going on, so you can do virtually whatever you want with the files after you download them (within reason, of course). And while the movies are the star attraction at MovieDiver, you can also choose from a smattering of excellent television shows like “Firefly”, “Twin Peaks”, and “House”.

From the front page you can see which movies other users are currently watching and join in within a few seconds. I like this feature because it lets you know immediately what’s popular. Currently, 37 people are watching the action-adventure flick “Stealth”, while 33 are watching the historical film “Elizabeth”. It’s a small aspect of the site and easily glossed over, but I like it because it shows a sort of interconnectedness between people.

The website requires registration if you plan to buy any movies, but it’s quick and painless. You supply a username, password, and email address; no phone number or address required. The layout of the site is clean and it’s easy to search for movies. If you want to watch free movies online, no registration is needed; just a click on the movie of your choice, scroll down the page, and start watching.

I’ve got some fond memories from my childhood that center around certain films and it’s pretty great to be able to, within just a few clicks, watch such classics as “Labyrinth”, “The Dark Crystal” or “Back to the Future”. If I’d wanted to watch these movies before I discovered MovieDiver, I would have had to scour old video stores for the titles and dust off the VCR or order the movies for some ridiculous cost online.

It should be noted that the MovieDiver website is not safe for work. Not because of any sort of inappropriate content, but because once you start browsing and watching movies, you’re not going to be able to get back to work. I’m aware of how corny this sounds, but let me give you an example. I decided to start out my review of the MovieDiver website by watching a movie all the way through yesterday, just to test it out. I started off with “Coraline” (I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan), then watched “Back to the Future”, and then couldn’t resist watching “Return of the Jedi” once I found out that I could. At that point it was well past 1am and my wife had gone to bed. Even though I had to wake up early this morning to run errands with my wife, I started up the “Firefly” series. After I upload this review, I don’t foresee much else getting done today. Thank goodness I’m not a scientist trying to cure diseases.

Put that overpowered and underused broadband connection to work and watch some great movies at MovieDiver. The movies are free to watch online, cheap to buy, and you can put them on your favorite gadgets and take them with you wherever you go. What could be better? Beware, though: it’s easy to become distracted by so many excellent titles-OH MAN, THEY’VE GOT BLADE RUNNER?!

MovieDiver took a dive of its own, never to be recovered. They succeeded in failing, which is half the battle. Let’s hope they win the other half next time. (Succeeding at succeeding…)

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OnRead: Read The Best Books For Free

I love books. I love the way books smell. I love the tactile sensation of the cool, smooth pages and the sturdy binding. When you hold a book, you’re holding what may be an entire life’s work in your hands. A book, any book really, is an author’s vision that has been realized. Whether it’s the history of a certain time and place, a fantastical and surreal story, or the writer’s own personal story, a book can be a wondrous thing that transports the reader to another world. It’s old-school escapism. Your parents read books, your grandparents read books, and even their grandparents, when not actively hunting or building log cabins with their bare hands, probably read books too. Over time, a favorite book becomes worn, dog-eared, soft and tattered. Picking up an old book that you’ve read a few dozen times feels like coming home from a long day. Truly, there is something to be said for holding a real, paper-and-glue book in your hands.

But there’s also something to be said for not having to lug those heavy books around.  And there’s even more to be said about being able to enjoy over 150,000 books on your desktop or laptop computer for free. You can do this, or buy those same books to watch on your smartphone or PDA for less than one dollar, at Onread.

onread

OnRead puts a library that includes many current bestsellers and classics right at your fingertips. Simply search for a book, click on the title, click the “Read online for FREE” link, and start reading. The books are arranged mainly by genre, but you can also browse alphabetically by author name or type in search terms in the Quick Search bar. It’s legal, easy to use, and there are a staggering collection of titles from which to choose.

In addition to the ability to read books online for free, you can download the books in a variety of formats for a very low price. One of the big problems with buying e-books has been that the cost from most online retailers simply isn’t in keeping with the product. The production cost of an e-book is virtually nothing and yet many website still sell the books for the same cost as in retail stores. At OnRead, the books cost 99 cents each. That’s not a typo; they’re really just a dollar per book.

Do you know what else you can get for a dollar these days? Virtually nothing. You can buy a cheap fast-food cheeseburger for a dollar, but that’s about it. And the cheeseburger, quite frankly, barely counts as food. It’s mostly sawdust. At OnRead, you can download the latest books from the likes of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King, not to mention classic literature from Tolkien, Dickens and Twain, for less than a bottle of Mountain Dew. I don’t know what has gotten into the people who run OnRead, but finally e-books are being sold at a price that justifies the cost of production, which is practically nothing. At a dollar per book, the publishers and authors are still making money hand-over-fist and you’re getting a fair price. It’s unfortunate that a fair deal like this is cause for me to rant and rave, but it’s unique to find this in our modern world. It’s an anomaly.

In addition to the over-inflated price, the e-books that you buy from the big online retailers tend to only work on the device for which it was purchased. Digital rights management has been touted as technology that protects the author but in reality it only serves to frustrate hard-working consumers who spend their cash and can’t even transfer the e-book between their own electronic devices.

The OnRead take on digital rights management is refreshing: there aren’t any. OnRead gives you the freedom to use the book as you see fit. You can download in a variety of formats that include RTF, TXT, PDF, EPUB, PalmDOC, and FB2. The downloaded file can then be used on many popular multimedia devices including the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Sony Reader, Bookeen Cybook OPUS, B&N Nook, and many more.

If you’re having trouble deciding where to start, I recommend the OnRead Reviews section. The reviews are written by real people, not stuffy paid-by-the-word book critics with obscure degrees in Medieval Russian Literature. It’s more like listening to a friend talk about a book that they read. This is perfect for someone like me. I don’t need the reviewer to go into detail on the underlying themes and draw parallels between current world news and the book’s storyline; I’m going to do that on my own. When I read a review, I like to hear one of three things: it was good, it was boring but had some decent parts, or it was so bad that it made me wish I was illiterate. Thankfully, these are the kinds of reviews the users write at OnRead.

For a book lover who is woefully behind on their reading list, the OnRead site should be a mandatory browser bookmark. With a huge selection of free books to read online and download prices that are spookily in line with what they should be, you should make a habit of checking to see if OnRead has the book you want before going anywhere else.

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Ben’s Outlet: Gadgets For Geeks

When it comes to websites, I like simple. I like my websites to be like a glass deli counter: everything’s right there in plain sight, front and center. You don’t have to hunt around for anything, there’s nothing else “in the back”, and the interface is pure WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). Simplicity implies honesty and integrity.

If popularity is any judge, then many people agree with me that simpler websites are better. Geeks, in particular, tend to dislike having to click through a bunch of pages to find what they want. It’s why many of the most popular websites out there (Google, IsItChristmas, etc.) are simple and straightforward. And if you share my sentiment for simplicity, you need to check out Ben’s Outlet.

bensoutlet

Basically, Ben’s Outlet is a website with twelve items on the front page, arranged in a grid. The items are updated several times per week and they range from headphones to digital heart monitors to video game peripherals. When an item sells out, it’s replaced with another item. Each item can be clicked on for a detailed description, or you can simply click “add to cart” if it’s something you know you want and can’t go on living without. Such as anything that is radio-controlled and costs less than a pair of pants. Seriously, Ben’s Outlet, you had me at BB-firing R/C tank.

Thankfully, the prices are rock-bottom. This is because Ben’s Outlet buys overstock and closeout items directly from sellers around the world. The product quality is top-notch and, unlike many other “hot-deals” websites, they keep the shipping cost reasonable and flat-rate. They charge about what it costs to ship the item; no more, no less.

The deals you’ll find on Ben’s Outlet are available only for a limited time. Once they’ve been removed from those twelve boxes on the front page, they’re no longer available for purchase. They’ve got an area on the bottom of the page where you can see items that are no longer available, which is, quite frankly, rather cruel. They’re right there, just out of reach, so close yet gone for good. I can understand how this provides motivation to visit the website every day, but it’s still be pretty torturous.

Something I really enjoy about the site is that the product descriptions are written by real people, not faceless advertising drones. This really sets Ben’s Outlet apart from similar sites and gives you the impression that you’re dealing with real people who are just trying to get you a great deal. The product descriptions tend to be passionate, interesting, and somewhat revealing. They’re written much like how the average person might write a description after getting to play with a really neat gadget. Whoever this “Ben” character is, he’s a lucky guy.

Ben’s Outlet is a great place to shop for holiday and birthday presents for the geeks in your life. Aside from the R/C vehicles and spy-toys for the man-children you know, there’s also audio gear, GPS devices, crazy-cheap netbooks, USB gadgets… the list goes on and on. The best part is that many of them are priced just right for stocking-stuffers or neat token-of-appreciation gifts. If I chose any one item randomly from the products that are currently available on the Ben’s Outlet homepage, I can think of at least two people I know personally who would love it. And, if for some insane reason those people didn’t like their gifts, well, I wouldn’t feel too badly about keeping them for myself.

If there’s one thing that Ben’s Outlet could use, it’s an RSS feed for new products. It would be a welcome feature that could keep potential customers updated on the latest products, without having to visit the page every day. Easier said than implemented, but it’s really the only fault I can find with the site.

Ben’s Outlet is a great concept executed flawlessly. Sure, there are other sites out there that function similarly, but I’ve never been quite as enthusiastic about their products as I am about these. Similar sites tend to be hit-or-miss, while I can’t find a single item on Ben’s Outlet that I wouldn’t love to have.

It’s a perfect site for geeks on a budget, really. The prices are low, the shipping is reasonable, and their product selection is right on. If you’re into great deals on cool gadgets, you should count Ben’s Outlet among the sites you visit every day.

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Bccthis: Twitter Better

Like 19 million other people out there, I use a micro-blogging service called Twitter. Unlike 75% of them, though, I use it a lot, meaning just about every day. I tweet things that I find online, what I made for dinner, haikus, ruminations on the weather, and upcoming events I’ll be attending. A lot of supposedly “hardcore” Twitterers will say that they are addicted to Twitter, but I don’t think they understand what that really means. If I think of something witty or take a picture of something interesting out in the real world, I need to find a computer and update Twitter fairly soon. If I can’t, well, that’s when the shaking and the cold sweats start.

Since I don’t have one of those fancy new cellular smartphones (my cell phone is so old it’s got a rotary dial), I have to use a computer to spread my inanity. I started, like most users, with the Twitter website (twitter.com), which is cumbersome and requires you to load a new page whenever you want to see you mentions, direct messages, and lists. After a few months, I moved on and began exploring Twitter desktop clients, webmail plugins, and online alternatives. These provided more functionality, but ultimately I could never get into them. They were, for the most part, hit-and-miss. Some had greater functionality than other, but were lacking when it came to the interface. Others had a great layout but were completely missing even the most basic features. Eventually, I would end up back at Twitter.com, feeling dejected. Forlorn, even.

Let me cut to the chase; if I had the programming knowledge to create my own perfect Twitter client, it would look and perform just like Bccthis. It provides the same functionality that their laudable Outlook plugin does, but also functions as its own stand-alone Twitter client, and stands strong.

bccthis

The main feature that Bccthis developed is the ability to send out tweets with an additional message tacked on that only certain followers will see. In essence, you’re giving a select group of people an aside that the main audience can’t hear (or read). For example, I can tweet something like “I just ate dinner with some friends at Sushi-Hana. It was great!” and then I can attach a note in Bccthis that says “Josh totally didn’t pay his fair share. Kick him in the shin next time you see that jerk.” As long as I don’t include Josh’s Twitter name in the Bccthis list, he’ll receive his punishment and won’t have a clue who masterminded it. And if any of the people you’re bcc-ing don’t use Bccthis, that’s okay; a direct message is sent to them with the hidden message content in it, along with the original message.

Aside from this feature, which is incredibly useful, there is the matter of the layout. The interface is a 3-column design that is packed with useful features. You’ve got the normal Twitter links to your mentions and favorites, but there are also links to your direct message (DM) inbox, DM outbox, BccThis messages box, lists you’ve created, subscribed lists, trending topics, and support.

Aside from the BCC message box link, which takes you to your main Bccthis dashboard, everything else loads in-line, meaning that you don’t have to wait for a whole new page to load up when you want to check your mentions (which most users do frequently). Next to the search bar, lists, and trending topics, there are handy refresh buttons, and photos from TwitPic (the most popular way to share pictures on Twitter) can be viewed within a tweet.. Also, below the main Twitter content box, is an in-line URL shortener that inserts a shortened URL right into your message.

The design aesthetic is pleasant and the site’s colors make things easily readable without being bland. Bccthis might not win any awards for graphic design, but they’re also not distracting me from the content I came to see. Bccthis saves you time by keeping everything on the same page, while still somehow managing to not seem cluttered.

While reviewing Bccthis, I found myself wondering why seemingly simple features (like the URL shortener, in-line refresh functionality, and in-line photo-viewing) aren’t found in other Twitter clients. I can name a few that include one of these features, but Bccthis is the only one that has all of them. It’s not as if there’s not room on the screen, it just seems like the other developers lack the common sense, imagination, or motivation. When it comes to features, I can think of nothing that Bccthis left out. It just makes other Twitter clients pale in comparison.

I could continue to gush about Bccthis, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll simply say that if you’re not using Bccthis, you’re missing out on some great features and just not getting the most out of Twitter. Try it, love it, and spread the word.

Bccthis has regretfully but decidedly removed itself from the internet. Its passing came with nary a sound. Except that of the sad, lonely tears of the broken dream it became.