Google's way of handling their search engine has come under a lot of criticism lately, the criticism involves favoring of bigger brands and sites making it difficult for smaller sites to rank. Other criticism comes from the fact that Google is tracking searches and visits in order to target advertising etc.
Alternatives to the bigger search engine companies have been available since Altavista in the 90:s, often with various quality. Below you will find some of the hottest alternatives to Google search.
Blekko was released 2010 to the public. It is edited by human editors (8 000 of them if you believe Blekko). The editors role is to edit 50 sites to correspond with 100 000 of the most frequent search terms on Blekko, a challenge indeed. Of course this means that search results will be more clear and hopefully more meaningful, but the backside of the model is that there will be about 50 sites corresponding for most of the traffic, and how the editing process works is not clear.
We tried searching for "Cars" both on Google and Blekko. In Blekko we got the following results:
3. Disney Cars (official site)
4. Cars (2006) IMDB
In Google we got the following results (logged out of course):
4. Cars (2006), IMDB
Blekko assumed that I was looking for information about cars, and did take into account the movie "Cars". Google got some weird results, one UK-site and one from Australia, this may have been Google's way of localization, but Australia is on the other side of the planet from where Syntax30 is based.
Blekko also has video and image search, it works well most of the time. Most of the hits are from YouTube, when opening a video it opens in a lightbox screen. I like the video navigation systems much better in Google, Bing and Yahoo, where you can browse more videos as you are watching them.
The major feature in Blekko is slashtags, a slashtag is basically a tag grouping a number of sites on a certain topic. The grouping is edited by an editor, or a number of associated editors, the model is very similar to how Wikipedia works, but a little bit more controlled.
Some cool features in Blekko is the fact that you can subscribe to any of the slashtags using RSS, it's also possible to view SEO-stats (such as inbound links, ranking etc) for each site listed. If there are some sites that a user doesn't like to get hits on, it's possible to mark them as SPAM, then they will disappear from that user's search results.
One problem with Blekko, is that even-though the search engine is edited by humans, some of the results that Blekko gives are old. For example various sites that we searched for had updated their page titles, URLs and descriptions, but in Blekko they were still included as the old sites.
Overall Blekko is an interesting alternative to Google, but it is too advanced to really be something that the general public will take interest in, at least the editing process. The search results returned are less spammy than Google's but in some cases also less relevant.
DuckDuckGo is an interesting project, which lately has received a lot of attention in the media as an alternative to Google. The main purpose of DuckDuckGo is not to track users searches and target advertising towards them, something Google has been doing for a while.
The interface is actually very similar to Google, with just a white main page with a search box, however since DuckDuckGo has no bias towards any special services online it's possible to search both in the image searches of Google and Bing, as well as YouTube and Amazon (for shopping reasons). This is a good concept, but we have seen it before.
When searching on DuckDuck Go the results are not much different from Google, for example our search for cars returned:
5. Cars 2 Disney.com
In the heading of each search there is a box "Meanings of", this box is basically a widget connecting to other similar searches on DuckDuckGo, the box also changes shape and loads information from Wikipedia or YouTube when available. DuckDuckGo have advertisment in their search results, for example we got an ad for Buick when searching for cars. It's nothing wrong with that.
For the real geeky users there are various settings that can be applied for DuckDuckGo, for example it's possible to change the colors, size of fonts, if the search engine should return more results when scrolling down etc. There are also various privacy settings which can be turned on or off, such as if the user search term should be tracked when leaving DuckDuckGo. It's possible to save the settings for use on other devices.
DuckDuckGo is much simpler than Blekko, and should appeal to a less technical audience. However the ranking algorithm is a sketchy. For example it's not open-sourced, and the only real information about how sites ranks in DuckDuckGo available is that it is based on inbound links, let's hope it's not the only way of determining if a site ranks well.
Addictomatic is not your standard search engine as Blekko or DuckDuckGo, instead of displaying results from an index of sites, Addictomatic imports various hits from social networks, blogs and other online sources, creating a more comprehensive and social view of a specific topic.
The sources connected to Addictomatic are Twitter, Friendfeed, YouTube, Flickr, Bing News, Google Blog Search, Blinkx, Ask.com, Twingly, WordPress and many others. It is possible to exclude some sources and include others.
The search algorithm for finding information in these sources is not open-sourced, according to the founders search results are pulled in to the site using RSS-feeds from the various sources. Overall the results are pretty good, however for search-terms where there is disambiguation Addictomatic will not work at all, at least not if the search-term is not available in social networks.
Each search is presented in a dashboard, with a box representing each network, the user can move the different boxes around, remove some and add others. It is a very neat way of getting the grasp of a topic quickly, the dashboards can later be bookmarked, and also shared on for example Facebook. There is also a browser plug-in available, but not for later browser versions. Addictomatic does not seem to be anonymous, such as DuckDuckGo, and there are ads in there as well.
Overall Addictomatic is not a general purpose search engine, but it does a very good job of finding buzz regarding current events and topics.
Another interesting alternative search engine to Google is Benelab, it may be the world's first charity search engine. When a user search Benelab advertising will be displayed, the revenue generated by the advertising is donated to charity. Each time you search your Benetrack will be updated with how many cups of rice, cups of water and seconds of labor your searches have generated.
Benelab is based on Yahoo Search, so it's not a real alternative to the other competitors, but if you want to search for a good cause, you should give it a go.
What other Google search alternatives do you like? Please share in the comments below.
Google has finally released their own online file sync service after years of rumors; Google Drive will primarily enhance the experience for existing Google Docs users but also strikes a blow to some existing file sync and sharing services.
It’s not like there isn’t any competition in the online backup and file sync sector with services like Carbonite, Dropbox and Microsoft’s Skydrive. Although it isn’t surprising that Google is moving in to the space it is much less dramatic than most industry “experts” seem to think.
Each Google user have to apply for Google Drive before it’s activated, once it is up and running the existing Google Docs directory will become Google Drive. The difference between Google Drive and the old Docs directory is that it is possible to automatically sync files between Google Docs, a desktop/laptop computer and Android devices (Ipad and Iphone apps are on the way when this is written).
Syncing from a desktop or laptop is done by downloading an application running in the background automatically syncing selected files. We tested the app with Windows 7 without any issues.
Another interesting part of Google Drive is the collaboration options, although they already existed in Google Docs it’s now possible to easily share a document using Google + or even better e-mail a link to a bulky document in Google Drive using Gmail.
Google Drive also saves all changes to documents, making it possible to go back to previous versions easily. This makes Google Drive more similar to Dropbox than pure backup services like Carbonite.
When we tested Google Drive it was apparent that Google put some time into making the app display different file formats, for example it is possible to view Photoshop and Illustrator files without any third party programs.
Google offers 5 GB of free storage, which falls somewhere in between Dropbox (2 GB) and Skydrive (7 GB). It is enough storage for most personal needs, however Google offers up to 16 TB of data. 25 GB of data costs $2.49 / month and 100 GB $4.99, compared to Dropbox which offers 100 GB for 19.99/month this is cheap. When buying Google Drive space, the storage can also be used for Picasa.
The ones that should be scared of Google Drive is not Microsoft, because it is not a threat to Skydrive as Microsoft’s alternative is integrated in Microsoft Office, tightly. Instead Google Drive is a direct attack on services like Dropbox and Sugarsync, which has nothing to offer in terms of integration. Overall Google Drive is a good product, it has more value than Dropbox but is also a solid alternative in it’s free version.
Let’s face it, Windows is one of the most widely used and successful operating systems out there, but in order to really use it effectively there are just some must have apps, we have listed five of them;
Google Chrome is slowly becoming the most popular web-browser out there. From almost being an experimental release by Google it has come a long way. Google recently added device syncing to Chrome, for example open tabs will be synced between your desktop and Android phone. Chrome also handles online apps and games very fast and has a number of Google features available as apps such as Google Docs, Gmail and Translate. Compared to Firefox and IE, Chrome is simply faster and more responsive.
Yes Carbonite is the only app that actually costs anything, but for the price it is a cheap way of backing up all your data to the cloud. Usually backup apps running in the background will steal system performance and be intrusive, but Carbonite is perhaps the most out of the way backup system that we know of.
Foxit PDF Reader
The Foxit reader is a light-weight PDF-reader, it is one of the fastest readers available and also takes up very little memory and space compared to similar alternatives from Adobe. Foxit also have a number of interesting features, such as social media integration. It’s possible for the user to mark a paragraph in a PDF and post it to Facebook or Twitter. For a fraction of what Adobe Acrobat costs the Foxit advanced-version for $99 also includes various PDF-editing options
There are various free image editors available for Windows, Paint.net is however the fastest and most straight-forward one to use. There aren’t that many frills but Paint.net have the basic features such as layers, history and various special effects. It also works with most image-formats and is updated on a regular basis.
Protecting your data is more important than ever as security threats are becoming more and more common. TrueCrypt may not be the most simple crypto software out there, but it has several key features such as whole drive encryption (also works for USB-drives), the ability to create hidden volumes and encrypted files etc. It is also open-source making sure that nothing fishy is going on in the background.
What other Windows apps do you think is essential?
Web apps and cloud based computing is here to stay, more and more applications are moving off the desktop and into the browser, and it will continue.
A problem with this evolution is of course that applications will become more difficult to reach than just having a simple icon sitting there on your desktop. Also web apps seldom leverage the whole computing power available in a desktop computer. A US based company named SweetLabs believes that they have the solution to all these problems, Pokki.
Pokki is basically an app store for Windows 7, with various applications and games available. The number of apps and games available is basic but still should cover most user needs. It is possible to install a Twitter client named Tweeki, Facebook and Gmail. There is also a neat music application, Grooveshark. Various games are also included, most of them pretty advanced.
The Pokki apps looks and behaves good in Windows 7, they load fast and often look better than some desktop counterparts. Developers can download an SDK, in which it is possible to develop part of the apps in CSS3 and HTML 5, which in itself is pretty amazing.
Pokki itself sits in the taskbar (it is possible to remove it) and is pretty unobtrusive, especially compared to similar solutions I have tried. A downside with Pokki is the lack of support for other Windows versions and operating systems, when this is written it only supports Windows 7.
The whole idea of an app store alternative for Windows 7 is good, but the question is how long it will live. Microsoft will without a doubt release an app store when Windows 8 is rolled out later during 2012, which may render Pokki useless.
Also Pokki serves no real purpose on other operating systems, Mac OS already have its own app store and Linux have had it for years. However they are not tied specifically to web apps and often have specifically developed apps for Gmail, Twitter etc. The real selling point with Pokki is being light-weight and providing a platform which is easy for developers to grasp and use. It will be crucial for SweetLabs to engage developers in order for Pokki to survive after the Windows 8 app store is launched.
In the meantime Pokki is a nice addition to Windows 7, and does make it easier to quickly access different web-based apps.
Online backup and storage is something we are growing increasingly used to, gone are the days using tape backup and external hard-drives. There are still few services that are focused entirely on backup instead of just storage and portability of files (read our other post for additional cloud storage options), Carbonite is however one of them (the name Carbonite comes from the substance used to freeze Han Solo in Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back).
Carbonite entered the market back in 2006 but has become more popular as bandwidth speeds are increasing; it is one of a few backup solutions that offer unlimited transfer of files and storage. Most other backup solutions such as JungleDisk connected to Amazon S3 charge by the amount of data stored. Carbonite is of course most affordable for people or businesses with large amounts of data; however it is not the amount of data that makes a backup valuable. A lot of users have the need for a simple off site backup solution.
Yes Carbonite is very simple to setup and use, you download and install a client from the Carbonite website when creating an account. When installing the client you can select to backup your whole drive or specific folders of your choice. The first backup obviously takes a lot of time since all the data have to be uploaded to the Carbonite web-drive. However when it is done Carbonite automatically syncs modified or added files quite quickly.
Restoring files is easy, it is possible to restore individual files but also a whole drive if a hard drive crashes. If you decide that you want to access your files from another computer there is also a web-interface.
Putting data in the cloud is both a blessing and a curse, it provides an offsite backup if something happens but it also exposes your data to the outside world. Carbonite has a pretty good security solution, the data-transfer between your computer and Carbonite is secure using a key. Carbonite themselves claim to encrypt your data twice, whatever that means. They also claim that they use the same security procedures as banks. A problem with Carbonite’s security is that their Terms of Service says "Carbonite may have the ability to decrypt your data files", but says that they will only do so in order to troubleshoot or comply with a law. This basically means that Carbonite have the encryption key for your files and can in some cases use it. So if you are storing information that is classified or something similar it might be wise to choose something else (however classified information should not be in the cloud in the first place). For regular users I doubt that the fact that Carbonite have the ability to view data after a subpoena is that significant.
It was not that long ago this kind of backup solution used to cost a small fortune, Carbonite is however very affordable. For $54.95 a year you get unlimited backup. However the license is tied to one computer, if you want to backup several computers you will have to purchase additional licenses. Another limitation of Carbonite is that there is no Linux client, right now it works with Windows XP/Vista and MAC OS Tiger or Leopard, older versions of Windows is not supported either.
Carbonite is a great backup-solution and a good alternative to Amazon S3 based backup solutions for Windows and MAC users. It is light-weight and stays out of your way, it is also surprisingly affordable. However entities handling sensitive or classified information need to find a more secure solution.
Daily the media features people who have gotten their credit card numbers stolen on the net, or companies who have been hacked and lost sensitive information.As more applications move into the cloud, security will be more vital than ever.
HotSpot Shield from Anchor Free protects you and your network while surfing the net. The program creates a Virtual Private Network (VPN) between your network and Anchor Frees servers, which is connected to the Internet. The VPN prevents hackers and other parties to intercept data that you submit; it also ensures anonymity when surfing.
HotSpot Shield is perhaps best used in a public Wi-Fi hotspot (hence the name), where security threats often are more severe. However since the service connects to Anchor Frees server it basically means that you are trusting them, and we have no idea who they are. We are not saying that they can’t be trusted but users would do best in not trusting HotSpot Shield completely.
Also do not buy the hype that you need this product to be completely secure on a public Wi-Fi, yes it helps but virtually all online banks and PayPal already have encrypted services. So HotSpot Shield adds an extra layer of security for your e-mail and general browsing.
HotSpot Shield is free and available for Windows 2000/XP/Vista and Mac OS. There is currently no Linux version, which might be a drawback for some.
HotSpot Shield has a bandwidth cap of 3 GB per 30 days for HotSpot Shield, this means that watching video or listening to music is out of the question. But for general browsing the cap should be fine.
HotSpot Shield is slow from the get go and at certain periods it is painfully slow making it almost impossible to use. The service also gives you a US based IP-number, this means that some have used it for getting access to US-only services such as Hulu or Pandora. Hulu have however closed that hole, so if you are looking at this service simply for getting access to Hulu you are out of luck.
For power-users travelling a lot and connecting to public Wi-Fi networks on airports etc, this product is good to have installed but should be a last resort when everything else fails. There are better and faster alternatives out there. However for the occasional traveler HotSpot Shield is a neat product.
Online storage, or storage in the cloud as the marketers would call it has been around for a while (one of the first services to my knowledge was Yahoo Briefcase, now discontinued). However because of increased bandwidth and Internet penetration the popularity of online storage products has risen dramatically. There are several benefits of having your files stored online, they can be accessed from any computer you happen to be at and they are backed up so if your house burns down or your computer fails you still have your precious files.
There are probably a gazillion of storage products out there; we have chosen to review the ones that we have used previously. They have all been reviewed from a consumer / small business stand-point, larger enterprises would of course have different needs. We have only chosen to review free alternatives.
Skydrive is Microsoft’s attempt to conquer the online storage segment, which actually isn’t much to conquer since most larger players got rid of their similar solutions (AOL, HP and so on). Skydrive is pretty basic; you can upload files in a web-browser from any computer.
It is possible to create public folders, but maybe more importantly share them with selected groups (synced with your MSN Messenger account) or individuals.
Skydrive offers 25 GB of storage, which should be enough and is considerably more than what other storage services offer. For example Dropbox offers only 2 GB in their free (basic) account.
The limitations on Skydrive becomes pretty clear after a while, most other cloud storage services have a client or the possibility for the user to mount the service as a drive on their computer. Skydrive has no such functionality, which means that you have to open a browser window every time a file has to be uploaded. It can’t be used as a good backup solution either, since it has no ability to automatically sync files. Skydrive has however one advantage, you do not need a separate login since your Windows Live ID can be used.
Dropbox has been around for a while, the free version offers a limited 2 GB but if you fork $19.99/ month you get 100 GB. The whole point with Dropbox is storing and sharing files in work-groups. Dropbox is tightly integrated with the Dropbox client, available for Windows, MAC and Linux. The client sits in your tray but also enables you to upload files using a drive mapped on your computer.
There are several options in the client such as audio notifications as soon as someone in your work-group updates a file. It is also very easy to just open an edit a file directly without having to login to a web-interface. Sometimes it’s almost too easy, if you have a large work-group or a novice work-group there is a risk that files get involuntarily replaced. Dropbox also has a web-interface, very similar to Skydrive. Unlike Skydrive Dropbox has the ability to automatically sync documents, making it a perfect backup solution.
Esnips is more community oriented and wider in scope than most other online storage services. It is for example possible to create profiles with pictures and info about yourself. Esnips even have a marketplace where designers, photographers and others can sell their content files. The storage itself is however pretty basic, 5 GB with a web-interface and a toolbar client allowing you to upload files directly from your computer more easily. However the client is not as easy to use as the one from Dropbox.
Apart from the community and storage the solutions Esnips has some unique features, such as the ability to take snippets from web-pages and directly import them into Esnips. Esnips also has a post to Twitter feature, which works quite well.
Box.net offers 1 GB of storage for free, although you can get 30GB for $15 per month and user. The service is more oriented towards small businesses than individuals. Box.net has a desktop client, collaboration workspaces, versioning, mobile access and a lot of other business oriented features. For example it is possible to view CAD-files without using a CAD program etc.
Opera is creating their own interpretation of cloud computing with Opera Unite. While most other companies are creating gigantic server networks for users to upload their information to, Opera is going the other way and opening up client computers for peer to peer file sharing.
Opera Unite is actually a set of different services, all turning your computer into a file-sharing or web-server. The services include photo and file sharing, a media player, a chat client (hosted on your own computer) and the fridge (a bulletin board system where anyone can leave messages for you).
Although Opera Unite is in early Beta we tried all the available services out to see what the fuzz was about. Unite lives in your web-browser, so the first step is to download the Opera 10 browser and install it. Then you will need an Opera account, which can easily be created.
Perhaps the most interesting feature in Opera Unite is the file-sharing capabilities. There have been many times where you just want to e-mail a file to someone, but because of all the spam-filters and file-size limitations it is not that easy.
When installing the Opera Unite file-sharing service you simply select a directory that you want to share with the outside world. It is possible to share the folder with everyone making it public, but also to password protect the folder so that only selected users can view the contents in it. When a folder has been configured you get a URL, for example xxxxx.operaunite.com/folder/file-sharing/. Then it is a matter of sharing the URL with the people you want to be able to access the files.
It is also possible to create a completely private folder, just for yourself. This might be suitable for when you are on the road and need access to your files.
Another interesting service is the Fridge, where users can leave messages in the form of post-it notes on a fridge. To be quite honest it is difficult to see any real use for it though, most people would text, send an e-mail or use discussion groups or other collaboration environments. But it is nevertheless fun.
Media Player is another Opera Unite service, it resembles WinAmp Remote. It works basically the same-way as file-sharing with some added capabilities like shuffle and repeat.
The web-server service is quite handy if you just want to use it as a test-environment, especially if you are designing web-sites and want to give your clients an easy way to look at the sites. However the Opera Unite web-server does not contain any support for PHP or databases, which I thought was the whole point with having a web-server for test-purposes.
Opera Unite also has a photo sharing capability. I was in a meeting and wanted to share some photos of a project we had been working on, sending them by e-mail turned out to be a nightmare because of spam-filter and file-size limitations. So I used Opera Unite, with little success. I shared a folder and directed the meeting participants to my URL, the service just sat there and loaded, nothing happened. After my third attempt I just uploaded the photos to my Smugmug account, worked like a charm. The Opera Unite service is a bit quirky and does not always work, which can be expected since it is in testing.
Opera Unite is sort of a borderline product, one side of the story is that it is brilliant. For files that you want to share fast without uploading them somewhere it is great. For small businesses that does not trust cloud storage services it is also great. However it comes with limitations, first of all the client computer has to be on all the time. If the client computer gets lost you do not have the natural back-up as regular cloud services provide.
Another issue is security; I cannot help feeling worried when I create public folders and services on my own computer. Opera Unite is not something I dare to make permanent on my systems since it is not a finished product, and I can imagine that there are quite a few exploits and other security issues hidden in there, as in most other new beta software products.
Opera Unite is easily accessible from Opera 10; however Opera 10 excites me more than Unite. The product is a good start and it will be interesting to follow, but as of right now it is nowhere near finished, cloud sharing services still have the upper-hand.
If your computer is filled with a lot of different programs (like mine) chances are that it is a full time job to keep track of all software updates. This leaves your system open to vulnerabilities, which in a worst case scenario will get your system hacked.
Secunia PSI is a vulnerability scanner, which basically means that it scans all programs installed on your computer and updates them. Obviously you will get rid of having to check updates on your own, or even start programs to see if there are any updates available.
In addition to checking for updates Secunia also give you a complete overview of the different vulnerabilities using a graph. The software also rates the seriousness (or threat rating) of the vulnerabilities on your system. If you move the cursor over the threat level indicator Secunia will even suggest what a hacker can do to your system using the insecure program.
A scan for the different programs and vulnerabilities on your system does take some time, on a 1, 86 GHz Intel Core2Duo processor with an 80 GB hard-drive it took about 5 minutes to scan the whole system. Not too bad. The system scanned gets a rating, my system got 71%.
Most of the programs Secunia highlights needed updating, but for some weird reason it marked Firefox 3 as a severe security threat stating that “A hacker can typically use this to gain full control of your PC”. However when I started Firefox and checked for updates there were none to be found. After checking the Mozilla website for the latest version of Firefox it seems as Secunia sometimes give erroneous warnings.
Secunia also highlights the programs on your system that is no longer supported (end-of-life). This means that the program no longer receives security updates. There is also an option called Program Monitoring, which means that Secunia continuously monitors every program installed on the computer and checks of for updates on the fly.
A concern with live monitoring of programs is performance issues. The system does seem a little bit slower when Secunia is running, for a home PC it is however possible to turn Secunia program monitoring off and just run the program once a week. For business computers it is advisable to leave it on.