You can waste a lot of time on the Internet, but here is a survey of sites where you can put the Web to work.
Let's vent about the Web: It's slow. Pesky ads pop up way too often. It threatens our privacy. Try searching for information you need and you'll get swamped by 375 answers, most of them useless. . . . What a waste, right?
True enough, but let's consider the Web on a good day. With the right sites, and some good karma, you can find all sorts of useful information and even discover little treasures.
To prove the point, we've gathered a sampling of places to go and things to do on the Web that (usually) prove worth our time and clicking.
For this exercise, we've focused on sites that offer information, not commerce (even though the Web sometimes does offer that obscure book you've been looking for. Or a good deal on a camera. Or even a discount air fare that doesn't require a red-eye flight with two stopovers).
Here's our list of 10 useful things to do on the Web:
(1) Grandma's somewhere over Atlanta
You have to pick up someone at the airport and want to see if the flight is on time. If you call an airline, you might get an answer, provided you punch in enough numbers and escape voice-mail hell.
The Web makes it so much easier. Just click on FlightTracker at www.trip.com, for example. You can check by airline or flight number. Maps show where a plane is on its route, with the expected arrival time. If you don't have the flight number but know the departure city and approximate time it took off, the site will help you find it.
Many airline sites provide similar information, and www.flytecomm.com/TrackFlight /trackflight.htm also offers the weather conditions for flights.
(2) Clicking on city life
Finding a good restaurant on the road can be tough. Or maybe you have a few hours to kill between meetings and want something to do. Online city guides come to the rescue, whether it's in a strange town or near your neighborhood.
Citysearch.com offers a smorgasbord of information on more than 80 cities, including the Tampa Bay area, with listings of arts, attractions, restaurants, hotels, movies and shopping. It also has reviews, a reservation service and other features.
Newspaper sites are another good source for information. Locally, we have tampabay.com from the St. Petersburg Times and tbo.com from the Tampa Tribune. At its newyorktoday.com site, the New York Times has listings for Broadway shows available at half price (twofers in native lingo). Other favorites are boston.com (Boston Globe) and sfgate.com (San Francisco Chronicle).
Here are a few sites used for planning a good time: Evite.com is an online party planner where guests can RSVP and see who else is showing up. Movie buffs will find trivia at the Internet Movie Database ( www.imdb.com), and some good music info can be found at www.cddb.com.
(3) Need an umbrella?
Everyone's fascinated with the weather, and a lot of sites provide instant information on local conditions or what's happening halfway around the world. Simply type in a ZIP code at the Weather Channel's weather.com for a local forecast and radar. It also has breaking weather news and such minutiae as a wind forecast for golfers. Another favorite is intellicast.com, which has a Weather 101 terminology guide and quiz.
(4) Dig deep
Search engines have a tough job. None reaches all of the billions of Web pages out there. And even as the engines get better, the Web grows bigger.
Our favorite is Google.com, which seems to be the best at finding what we're seeking. Its search is based on the popularity of sites, which weeds out the truly obscure. Yahoo.com is actually a directory compiled by humans rather than a search conducted by technology. Yahoo has been at it a long time and has a substantial database.
Refdesk.com is a rich resource, indexing and linking to reference sites, news and other good information on the Web. For more traditional research, brittanica.com and encarta.com offer free online encyclopedias.
Among the places we send people looking for definitions of techno terms are webopedia.com and whatis.com.
(5) Finding people and places
Telephone directory assistance provides a number, usually for a small fee, and will dial the number, for another fee. The Web can get the number, often with an e-mail address and a map of the neighborhood for good measure, without spending the pocket change.
Among our favorites in this category is www.555-1212.com, which can search for phone numbers, ZIP codes and area codes, as well as do a reverse search that gives the listing if you have the number. Anywho.com has similar features, adding e-mail and Web searches. Whowhere.lycos.com has all of the previous and even an ancestry search.
Some sites, such as www.switchboard.com, let you look at a map of the neighborhood once you find the number. There are many sites dedicated to maps, such as www.mapquest.com, www.mapsonus.com and www.mapblast.com. The map sites also offer driving directions, though they tend to send you to interstates and main roads even if they're miles out of the way.
(6) We can't send enough e-mail
Digest a few stats: About 407-million people around the world send about 10-billion e-mail messages a day, according to International Data Corp. And by 2005, it will be 35-billion e-mails a day. It is estimated that more than 1,000 sites offer free e-mail. Two of the most popular can be found at yahoo.com and hotmail.com. It's easy to sign up, and it's free.
(7) Information sliced and diced just for you
To save you the time of hunting things down yourself, some Web sites deliver news and information to a user by e-mail, pager, cell phone or instant messages. The beauty of it is the user chooses what type of information he wants to receive.
At www.spyonit.com, for example, users can choose from a menu that ranges from keeping track of online auctions to ticket information for concerts to a "Swiss Army" smorgasbord that includes notification when packages are delivered.
Octopus.com allows users to personalize a Web page with data they want, a service that's free for individual users but requires you to use Internet Explorer and Windows. And other sites, such as msnbc.com and Excite.com, also let people sign up for free news alerts.
(8) State government at your service
Here's a way to avoid standing in line to renew a driver's license: Go to MyFlorida.com. Then click on the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles link, fill out the appropriate information and pay by credit card. It takes only a few minutes and the license renewal arrives by traditional mail a few weeks later.
More government services and information are available online, and MyFlorida.com is a good place to start. It has links to state agencies, phone numbers, public records and other information. It also has a directory and links to local governments that have gone online.
The Florida Supreme Court's site ( www.flcourts.org) may be better than Court TV: You can watch live video of lawyers making cases before the justices. The site also has briefs and other records available.
(9) Car buying _ or at least browsing
As we found when shopping for a car recently, the Web turns out to be more informative than kicking tires. It also levels the playing field for buyers who can't stand negotiating a deal with those salespeople who keep disappearing into the back room to "check with my manager."
Many dealerships have sites, but information such as invoice prices and Blue Book values can be found at the Kelly Blue Book site ( www.kbb.com) and edmunds.com.
One local site took things a step further: A "bull detector" at www.cravenbamboozle.com lets buyers figure out whether they're being taken for a ride by calculating a dealer's profit on a deal. If you can bear some of the sound effects (the mute button helps), it also explains the different kinds of car-selling sites, with links.
(10) Checking up on the roads
It's a pretty safe guess that traffic is heavy on U.S. 19 and Dale Mabry Highway. But what if road construction or an accident is making things worse? You'd like to know before you hit the road. At www.trafficstation.com, drivers can see how traffic is flowing (light, moderate or heavy) on a map with major highways, check logs of "events" such as construction or accidents and find other useful information for the Tampa Bay area and more than two-dozen other cities.
_ Dave Gussow can be reached at gussowsptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.
Share your uses
Which Web sites do you find useful? Tell us about a few of your favorites, and explain how they work for you. We'll share our readers' recommendations Tech Times soon. Send your nominations to techtimessptimes.com.