Personalised start pages -- also known as Web desktops, Ajax desktops, customisable portals and metagators -- have been kicking around for several years, but recent improvements in looks and functionality have resulted in a heap of competitors vying for the right to be your homepage.
If you're not familiar with the enticing world of start pages, here's a quick run-down. These services, which include the likes of Netvibes, Pageflakes, Microsoft's Live.com and iGoogle, have two main components: feeds and widgets. Feeds allow you to view content from a heap of different Web sites on one page by subscribing to the sites through RSS. Widgets are interactive apps that do everything from monitoring your eBay auctions to converting currency.
The convenience factor is the main appeal of start pages -- instead of visiting 10 sites every morning, you just load your browser -- but recent releases of Netvibes and Pageflakes have introduced a comprehensive community aspect. In a similar way to social sites like Twitter and Facebook, you can create a profile, add contacts and then follow their pages and activities.
What start page do I choose?
Ready to sign up and revolutionise your Web habits? Great stuff! The first choice to make is which service to use, and that's what this article is all about. We put four sites -- the aforementioned Netvibes, Pageflakes, Live.com and iGoogle -- through stringent testing according to the three Cs: content, customisation and community. Though all share the same key features and appearance, there were big differences in how they performed. Read on to find out which Web desktop is right for you.
A few points to note before we get into it:
- Wondering why we haven't included My Yahoo? Granted, it's also a start page service, but it does not allow developers to create and share their own widgets. Due to this limitation, we haven't featured it in the round-up.
- For Netvibes, we are referring to the Ginger release, which is still in Beta. Many of the remarks we make also apply to the current public release (Coriander), with the main difference being in community features. We're expecting to see the full release of Ginger any day now, so there's not long to wait.
All four desktops share the same basic layout: a page full of drag-and-droppable boxes that can be organised into tabs.
The process for adding feeds is like that of a standard RSS reader: you provide the feed address of the site you want to add, and your Web desktop will pull the content into a neat little box on your page.
To find feeds, look for the RSS or XML button on your chosen site -- most will have one. Many sites also feature buttons that will add the site's feed directly to your Web desktop of choice.
Buttons for adding feeds
If you can't find the RSS feed, fear not: Netvibes, Pageflakes and iGoogle will find site feeds if you provide the main URL. Live.com won't, but does allow you to search for feeds by site name.
A big point of difference between the sites is how the content of posts can be viewed. iGoogle and Live.com direct you to the source site, while Netvibes and Pageflakes offer the option to read full posts in a pane that opens on your desktop page. Pageflakes also has a particularly nifty Reader mode, which switches the layout to a format similar to Bloglines or standard RSS readers. It's a neater way to view articles if you've subscribed to 1001 feeds.
Technically a podcast is obtained in the same way as an RSS feed, but some Web desktops treat them differently. Netvibes incorporates a nifty little audio player that allows you to listen to podcast episodes from within your Netvibes page. Pageflakes has a podcast module that works like audio player software -- just add your feeds to it and they'll play within the iPod-shaped box on your page.
There is no such special treatment within Live.com or iGoogle; podcast feeds can be added to your page, but click on the latest episode and you'll be taken to the source site to listen.
These interactive apps go by a variety of cutesy names, but all refer to the same thing. Their purpose can run from the practical (e-mail, calculators, to-do lists, our very own CNET.com.au app) to the downright silly (amusing cat photos, the Hot Or Not module).
Different start pages offer different widgets, but modules written for Netvibes can also run in iGoogle and Live.com. If there is a site you'll be using frequently via your page -- such as a Web-based e-mail account or a social network like Facebook or MySpace -- check what widgets are offered in a few start pages before committing to one. There can be subtle differences: some Facebook apps allow you to update your status, but have problems handling quote marks and double up on the "is". Others will let you write a wall post directly from the module.
|Cute name||Selection||Where to find them|
|Netvibes||Widgets||About 115,000. Organised into 14 categories, including Technology, Games, Tools & Services, News and Travel. Stand-outs include eBay, Facebook, Flash (displays any flash animation), POP3/IMAP4 mail.||Via the Add Content link on your page or in the Ecosystem.|
|Pageflakes||Flakes||Around 240,000. Organised into 16 categories, including Politics, Technology, Lifestyle, Offbeat and Diversions. Examples include E-mail (configure POP3/web accounts and compose from window), Pageflakes Central (showcases new flakes and features), the Anything Flake (add your own HTML).||Big Flake button on your page or in the Community.|
|Live.com||Gadgets||About 1500. Mostly focused on American or niche interests. Some simple games like Marioworld.||A very small number available from homepage, others found in the Gallery.|
|iGoogle||Gadgets||Several thousand, including into nine categories. Many Google offerings such as Google Docs, Maps, Finance and Picasa. A heap of games including Blackjack and Tetris.||Through the "Add stuff" link on the homepage.|
Changing the look of your desktop
All sites allow you to change the look of your desktop to some degree. Live.com is the most limited, offering just five colours. The rest offer preset themes and the ability to create your own page theme, but there are varying levels of expertise required. In iGoogle you must tinker with XML. Pageflakes allows you to upload a picture for the header and background, change the links in the header, use custom CSS and change colours. In Netvibes you can nab header and page "wallpapers" from Flickr, Twitter, a MySpace profile or a particular URL. You can also alter the header height, text colour and favicons for each module.
Changing desktop looks in (clockwise from top left) Netvibes, Pageflakes, Live.com and iGoogle.
When you've spent hours sorting your modules into themed tabs and trussing up your desktop with themes, you might feel the urge to show it off. All sites except iGoogle offer the ability to share pages with the online masses. Besides being a way to share your favourite feeds with friends, this feature allows companies, brands and causes to promote themselves via a collection of relevant feeds and modules.
|Netvibes||Allows you to create a separate public page known as a Universe, which you can share with anyone online.|
|Pageflakes||Has a feature called Pagecasting, in which you can publish your page to the general public or to a group.|
|Live.com||Can post your page ("collection") to the Windows Live Gallery, a mishmash repository of apps and add-ons for a range of Windows products. No guarantees that your page will be seen by anyone -- it's a bit of a mess in there.|
|iGoogle||Can share individual gadgets via e-mail, but not pages.|
Just when you thought you had enough social networks in your life, along comes another opportunity to fill out a profile and add contacts. Here's how each site handles user interaction.
The most social network-esque of the four, in which you can add contacts, subscribe to their universes and see who is visiting your page. You can search for people by mining your Web-based e-mail address book or by looking up their Facebook account, Flickr /Twitter/AIM username or NetVibes name. You can also invite friends to start using Netvibes by entering their e-mail address.
There is also a feature called Activities, which is similar to the Facebook newsfeed. This logs the public activity of your contacts so you can see when they have subscribed to new feeds, added modules or added friends.
|Pageflakes||Allows you to browse and search people and filter according to sex and age. You can mark "favourite" people to add them to your contacts list. It also offers a forum but it's not very active.|
|Live.com||Other people do exist, but there's no central directory or easy way to add them. The most obvious way seems to be via your Hotmail contacts list or MSN messenger (assuming you use them). The focus seems to be on adding people you already know rather than looking for new friends with common interests.|
|iGoogle||iGoogle does not have a community component -- it's more for personal use. However, you can interact with fellow users by responding to comments left on gadgets in the gadget library.|
The four sites fall into two distinct pairs, with Netvibes and Pageflakes making up the funky, community-enhanced, highly customisable couple. Their prettied-up tabs load dynamically, they offer the most tweaking options and they have huge libraries of widgets that can be added in one step. Their help files are comprehensive and the community aspect allows sharing at a variety of levels.
Live.com and iGoogle are the pared-back, less-flexible duo. They focus on offerings from within their own brand and offer fewer customisation options. Their help sections are sparse, and the community element is either difficult to navigate (Live.com) or non-existent (iGoogle).
Overall conclusion? For a start page with the most flexibility -- and the least need to navigate elsewhere -- go for Pageflakes or Netvibes. These sites allow you to view feed content in full without having to go to the original site. The only downside of this is that the content can sometimes get mangled on the way -- especially when it involves elements such as polls.
As for the winner of the Netvibes versus Pageflakes smackdown, it's an incredibly close contest. We'd be happy to use either on a daily basis, but Netvibes just edges out Pageflakes due to its podcast player, wealth of customisation options, and the sheer ease of adding content. That said, if your focus is on RSS feeds rather than widgets, you may prefer Pageflakes' reader option and elegant, image-enhanced handling of feed summaries.
|Good for: People with short attention spans who want everything on one page. Widget fiends. Those looking to consolidate all their Web 2.0 profiles (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr). Anyone wanting to maintain separate public and private pages.|
|Good for: RSS addicts who like their feeds to look nicer than your average text-fest. Anyone looking to establish a group to share pages with. People who want the most widgets to choose from.|
|Good for: Google disciples. Those not fussed by aesthetics. People who want to glance at the latest headlines and updates but not necessarily read the content behind them.|
|Good for: Windows Vista/MSN/Hotmail devotees. People who want simplicity.|