How to find how-tos on the Web

Want to learn how to tie a tie? Build an igloo? If so, check out these how-to sites that help you do things big and small.

The economy is in trouble and we're all cutting back on spending, unsure of what the future might hold. We're also starting to realize that maybe doing things ourselves instead of hiring outside help is a great idea.

But if you're someone like me, building a deck in the back yard or, heck, painting vaulted ceilings, just isn't something you're proficient at. But luckily for us, there are a slew of sites across the Web that provide articles and videos that can help us complete any project.

5min.com
I like 5min because I can learn about almost anything in, well, 5 minutes or less.

5min features videos from users who are experts on a particular subject. Sometimes, their expertise is buying an electric shaver. Other times, it's installing weatherstripping. Either way, you can find anything from the simple to the complex on 5min.

Although the videos are great, my favorite feature on 5min is the company's video player. Unlike some players that only let you play, stop, rewind, and fast-forward a clip, 5min's video player lets you zoom in, proceed frame-by-frame, and run the video in slow motion so you don't miss any steps. That feature comes in especially handy when you watch a video on a complex topic and the expert is moving too fast in their instruction.

eHow

eHow is a fantastic how-to site that includes both videos and articles. And although there aren't nearly as many videos on the site as other services like 5min, eHow still provides a fine alternative for learning how to get things done.

eHow enlists the help of professionals to create the more than 300,000 articles on the site. From learning how to tie a tie, to how to caulk, the site has it all. That said, if you're looking for video, you're not going to find much on eHow--it's designed to provide step-by-step text instructions. Sometimes, especially when I need to figure out how to build something like a deck, that's ideal. But for simple topics like learning how to throw a baseball, a video works much better. In those cases, I tend to use sites like 5min or Expert Village instead.

You will be forced to sit through commercials on the company's videos, but that's not a big deal--they're only 15 seconds long and run before the clip. I should also note that the site's video player doesn't offer all the extras like those that you'll find with 5min, so you'll probably find yourself moving the slider back quite often to figure out how to do something.

But video isn't what eHow is all about. The site is ideal when you want to bring instructions with you wherever you need to complete a task. Unlike 5min or Expert Village, I don't need to sit in front of my computer to see how to sand wood flooring when I use eHow; I can print out the instructions and read them. And on complex projects, having that option is ideal.

Expert Village

Expert Village is a little different from a service like 5min, which allows users to upload videos to display their expertise. Expert Village employs experts who work in fields ranging from music to home improvement who research particular topics and create short videos--usually no longer than five minutes--detailing how to perform a particular task.

The value of Expert Village's use of experts is seen almost immediately. Sure, you can find a really informative video on 5min and it might provide the same quality as something on Expert Village, but generally, that's the exception, not the norm.

According to Expert Village's internal figures, the site features over 131,000 videos that have been viewed more than 292 million times. And given the wide range of topics those videos cover, Expert Village is an ideal source for help.

One especially nice offering that shouldn't be overlooked is Expert Village's series. Unlike 5min or even eHow, some Expert Village experts stay on one topic and create a series of videos to walk you through a process.

For instance, one expert is teaching Chinese etiquette. Obviously, teaching how to behave in China won't work in one video, so he broke his instruction down into multiple videos and created a complete guide to behaving the right way in the country. It may take more time to learn with multiple shows rather than one five-minute video giving an overview of Chinese etiquette, but in the end, it provides much more value. And that's something that should always be kept in mind when you want to decide between Expert Village and another video how-to site: will the alternative provide as much information and insight as Expert Village? Based on my testing, I doubt it.

Howcast

Much like 5min, Howcast brings how-to videos to you through the help of user-generated content in a professional setting. In other words, Howcast allows users to upload video, but it doesn't want it to be done with a Webcam in low-quality. Instead, the company provides users with an opportunity to create professional-grade how-to videos, and in turn, receive a portion of the advertising revenue that might be generated from those videos.

Most of the clips on Howcast are informative, but you'll notice on many of the site's videos that they use actors and more entertainment to try to teach you something. Sometimes, I found that appealing--especially on simple topics--but on those topics that are more complicated, like learning how to work on projects around the house, it tends to be a distraction.

Howcast also features a "Wiki Guides" section, which contains how-to articles that can be modified by its users. As much as I like how-to articles, I'm not convinced that the site's Wiki Guides are that valuable, since anyone can change anything at any time. I can't help but question their accuracy because of that.

Howcast's video player is second to none. The player features chapters so you can quickly find step-by-step instructions on each video and much like 5min, you can zoom into the video or slow it down to a crawl so you see every detail.


Instructables
Instructables rebuffs the videos you'd find on other prominent how-to sites and sticks to the basics: text and photos. It may sound simplistic and you might prefer video, but for me, Instructables' simplicity is welcome on a complicated project.

Instructables enlists the help of the community to provide its content. Users share everything from instructions on how to make white bread to building a garbage composter. The site has it all.

One of the best sections of Instructables is its forums page. There, users can ask questions, request help, or have a conversation on topics ranging from video games to home and garden. More often than not, if I can't find something in the main section of the site, Instructables' forums will answer a question I might have.

Instructables isn't for everyone, though. It won't offer the entertainment Howcast does and you're relying on the expertise of users who may or may not work in a particular field. But if you can get past that, I think you'll find that Instructables offers a wealth of knowledge that shouldn't be overlooked when you're learning how to complete obscure or complicated projects.

About the author

Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.

 

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