Goodbye, iGoogle. As of November 1, Google's Web portal ceases to exist, leaving untold legions of users with no place to call home page. For anyone accustomed to being greeted by personalized news, RSS feeds, Twitter updates and other quick-scan info, this could be a jarring day.
Google's decision raises an interesting question: Do you really need a traditional home page anymore? Many users are content to start with a Bing or Google search page, or use their browser's "frequently visited" thumbnails as a jumping-off point. And business users are often pushed directly to their company's home page or another work-related site. Maybe the portal's day is done.
Still, old habits die hard and many users may find Web portals too useful to give up. And just because Google no longer offers a customized start screen doesn't mean you can't have one. There are plenty of alternatives -- some that almost perfectly recreate the iGoogle experience and others that offer a wholly different take on the personalized portal.
Here are eight free Web portals that you might want to consider for your new browser home.
If you don't want to spend a lot of time adapting to a new layout, igHome offers a personalized home page that's almost an exact replica of early iGoogle.
For starters, it perfectly recreates the portal's upper toolbar, providing handy one-click access to Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs, YouTube and other services. Of course, there's a prominently displayed Google search bar as well.
But it's in the meat of the page that igHome really resembles its predecessor. By default, its grid-like collection of information windows, or widgets, gives you news, weather, ESPN and other basics, but you can customize that with hundreds of sources across dozens of categories: shopping, politics, gaming, health and even comics. For news junkies, igHome offers headline widgets from cities and countries around the world.
Indeed, the big appeal here, as with iGoogle, is the ability to create a customized layout of RSS feeds and information widgets by dragging and dropping windows. The site supports tabs, so you can create separate pages of work-related news, RSS feeds, social media, fun stuff or whatever. And if you export your settings from iGoogle today, before the Nov. 1 cutoff, igHome can import them to expedite your setup.
It also offers plenty of interface tweaks, including your choice of themed wallpapers. These are worth inspection, as the site looks fairly drab without one. In fact, at first blush it's downright blah. But with a little work, you can closely recreate what you left behind at iGoogle.
If you want to reconstruct your iGoogle page, igHome can do it -- though it's worth checking out some of the other alternatives, which may just sway you from this old-fashioned format.
Another iGoogle doppelganger, iGoogle Portal, gives you a custom selection of information widgets and RSS feeds, then lets you organize them as you see fit. In some ways it's better than igHome, though it also has a few shortcomings.
To begin with, iGoogle Portal (iGP) looks a bit cleaner and more appealing than igHome, and offers a lot more layout options. You can configure nearly any number of columns, and they needn't all be the same width: iGP offers nine page templates, some mixing page-width widgets with column-width ones for a varied look. The site also offers tabbed pages, but not just for widgets; you can also devote a tab to a specific website, a neat way to integrate favorites into your portal. And you can adorn each tab with a colorful little icon, a nice visual touch.
iGP offers a huge selection of widgets across all the major categories (news, finance, technology, etc.), and it's a simple matter to add an RSS feed, share a page with others or even password-protect your portal. However, iGP lacks igHome's convenient Google-services toolbar, and in my testing, layout changes (such as the number of columns) didn't always seem to apply correctly. Also, it failed to properly import my iGoogle settings, displaying only one of the widgets I'd configured there.
Those wrinkles aside, iGoogle Portal is worth a look for anyone who wants an iGoogle-style portal with a good mix of layout options.
Netvibes has been around since the early days of Web portals, and while its bread and butter is now Web analytics for businesses, it still offers a consumer-friendly personalized dashboard where you can monitor anything and everything: news, e-mail, status updates, tasks and so on. And it's much more attractive than iGoogle ever was, though there's a bit of a learning curve in getting your site set up.
To get started, click on Get Started in the Basic option. (You can also purchase a VIP version with customer support for about $40 a year, or a Premium version that adds brand monitoring, social analytics and other features for $499 a month.)
From here you can enter a topic you want to track (say, Android or Warren Buffett), or choose from one of several popular "themed" dashboards: News, Social, Productivity, High-Tech and so on. These create a widget-filled, iGoogle-reminiscent page oriented around that central theme. If you prefer, one click switches you to Reader view, which puts all your feeds into a list (more like Google Reader than iGoogle).
The High-Tech dashboard is a fine example of how slick Netvibes can look and how smart it is at aggregating information. It starts you out with five tabs (including Computer, Blogs and Podcasts), each loaded with widgets, but you can easily add more tabs, widgets and RSS feeds. The way Netvibes handles story presentation is especially cool: When you click a link inside a widget, a new pane appears with a scrolling list of stories on the left and the main text in the right. Close the pane and the stories you've read are grayed-out within the widget.
You're not limited to a single dashboard, either. You might have one for High-Tech, another devoted to business-related search terms, and a third for productivity. Each can be customized using a variety of pretty themes, and Netvibes even lets you resize columns just by dragging and dropping edge handles.
Portal duty may not be the company's primary purpose, but Netvibes rocks at it.
A solid iGoogle alternative, Protopage incorporates that same grid-based widget concept, makes it look nicer and adds a few worthwhile amenities -- starting with a search bar that's not limited to Google. Rather, type your search term(s), then click the icon for any of over a dozen destinations: Amazon, eBay, ESPN, IMDB, Wikipedia and more. (If you just type your search term and hit the Enter key, it searches whichever site appears first in the list, which you can rearrange to your liking.)
The only real downside? Ads. Specifically, a big ol' banner ad that sits atop the search bar and widgets. It's understandable -- developers gotta eat -- but fellow iGoogle-alikes igHome and iGoogle Portal manage to peddle their widgets ad-free. That said, if you really like Protopage and are willing to pay for it, an ad-free annual subscription runs $29.88.
Protopage starts you with a varied selection of widgets in your Home tab, but also provides Bookmarks and Notes tabs to demonstrate how else you might use the portal. The Bookmarks widget (which can reside in any tab) is a good way to keep your favorites close at hand, while Notes offers a nice dedicated page for Sticky Note-style reminders. You can choose the colors and column widths for your tabs, but also drag widget handles across columns to increase or decrease their size. As for wallpapers, Protopage offers a smattering, but gives you fine controls if you want to assign specific colors or even pull an image from a URL.
The site can't import any existing iGoogle settings you might have, but other than that it's a winner.
Even if Google weren't shutting down its portal, you'd be well served to make the switch to Protopage.
One might argue that iGoogle and its iClones try to pack too much information into tabbed pages that require too much clicking and scrolling. Startific turns the portal paradigm on its head -- or, more accurately, its side. Showing obvious Android influences, the site mixes icons and free-floating widgets on side-by-side pages rather than across tabs. The result is something familiar, functional and practical, though a little buggy in places.
By default, Startific provides four preloaded pages. Home includes various Android-like groupings of icons for things like search, social networks, shopping and news. This page also shows a free-floating ad widget, which, interestingly, you can close -- and it won't reappear until your next session.
Tap the right arrow key on your keyboard for a page of news/info widgets (maps, weather, calculator, etc.), tap again for a page of social-network widgets, and tap once more for a bookmarks page.
As you'd expect, you can add or remove pages, drag and drop icons and widgets into whatever layout you want, and add additional icons and widgets for just about anything. Computerworld icon? Check. Netflix widget? Check. Assuming you like this kind of interface, you'll love how Startific lets you customize everything.
However, in tests with both Chrome and Internet Explorer, weird glitches cropped up. The workspace is larger than the window that displays it, so that on the Home page, for example, one preloaded icon grouping was barely visible because it was too low on the page. And when I created a new icon on the widgets page, I initially couldn't find it because it appeared behind an existing widget. Also, the icon for how-to site eHow had an incorrect URL that resulted in a "Page not found" error.
There's a lot to like about Startific, especially in the looks department, but the developer needs to make the interface a little more stable.
Not every user wants a home page littered with news, Twitter feeds, weather forecasts, and other iGoogle-style detritus. In fact, if your first stop is typically your bookmarks toolbar, you might appreciate StartMe's approach. It's all bookmarks, all the time. No widgets, no news headlines -- just a simple set of categorical sections for bookmarks and RSS feeds.
StartMe boasts a clean, uncomplicated design. About a dozen bookmark windows come prepopulated with links under categories like news, search, social, sports and tech. Favicons alongside each link give the page a little visual flair, at the same time making it easier to spot favorite sites at a glance.
The site also makes for a solid RSS reader. In the already-configured News feed, for example, you see the 10 most recent headlines from NBC. A small embedded toolbar lets you toggle among headlines from CNN, the New York Times and Fox News. You can modify these sources and set up your own RSS boxes with any number of custom feeds.
And speaking of custom, StartMe lets you create additional pages of bookmarks and feeds and allows for drag-and-drop organization -- not just of your sections, but also the links within those sections. It can import existing bookmark lists from iGoogle and just about any browser. And it lets you export your bookmarks and feeds should you decide to migrate elsewhere, a nice perk.
If there's fault to be found in StartMe, it's that the design is almost too clean: There's excessive white space between columns. Also, RSS items don't get grayed out or crossed out after you click them.
If you want a home page consisting entirely of bookmarks and RSS feeds, this is definitely the place to, well, start.
Tiles. Symabloo has more tiles than a hardware-store remodeling aisle. Colorful bookmark icons span a 10 x 6 grid, with a dynamic window embedded in the middle. Some of those bookmarks (Expedia, Facebook, Netflix, etc.) pop open in new tabs, while others (Google, encyclopedia, CNN's RSS feed) generate a search bar or information listing in that window.
Clearly, this is not your father's Web portal. Symbaloo departs from iGoogle in radical, albeit pleasing, style, putting bookmarks at the fore. The default setup uses colors to differentiate one section from another, but also leaves blank, dark-gray tiles as dividers. You can fill these with your own bookmarks if you wish, and of course you can also change existing tiles and create entirely new tabbed pages with all your own bookmarks.
It's cool the way you can mix search tools and information tools with straight-up bookmarks. For example, clicking Translate provides an abbreviated Google Translate tool in the center window, thus saving you a trip to another tab, at least initially (the results do appear in a new tab).
However, Symbaloo overcomplicates things with its "Webmixes," which are weird sub-collections of topic-specific tiles and/or RSS feeds. For example, click the preloaded News tab and you get a scattered collection of thumbnail images, mostly of unrecognizable faces. Mouse over one and you get a Yahoo News summary of the related story. It's just not a practical way to parse news.
Meanwhile, the Webmix Collection tab can take you to sub-tabs for topics like "Fastest cars" and "iPhone apps," but again, these are just strange, hard-to-navigate tile collections that offer little practical value.
As a basic launching point for your favorite bookmarks and search tools, Symbaloo has its merits. But steer clear of Webmixes, which are confusing and largely pointless.
At first blush, uStart.org could be mistaken for iGoogle's prettier sister. Drop-shadowed windows sit atop lovely customizable wallpaper, each window filled with news, tasks, bookmarks, notes and the usual assortment of widget-y portal goodness. Add more widgets, splay them across more tabs, and organize everything just by dragging and dropping -- uStart covers all the basics.
However, certain aspects of the site need improvement, while others are just plain broken. The omnipresent search bar, for example, ties only to Google; it doesn't give you the option to search, say, Bing, Wikipedia or Yahoo. Search results do automatically appear in a new tab, however, which is convenient.
The bigger issue is that uStart's tabs don't seem to work. You get three to start: Home, More and RSS Reader. A numeric counter embedded next to each title shows how many unread stories are contained within each tab. Mouse over a story, a pop-up summary appears, the headline gets grayed out, and the counter drops by one. That's pretty neat, except that not all the news widgets work that way. In some cases you have a click a story -- which opens it in a new tab -- to mark it as read. Mousing over those stories does nothing.
Furthermore, on a regular basis in my tests, my tabs would get "stuck." I'd click another tab, but nothing would change; the content would stay on the currently selected tab. Only refreshing the entire site fixed the issue.
And the RSS Reader tab arrives empty. When you click "Customize your page" and select an RSS feed, it gets added to the Home tab, with no discernible way to move it. I initially thought these issues were confined to Google Chrome, but I encountered them in Internet Explorer as well.
uStart has promise, but for now it's too buggy to recommend.
Needless to say, there are plenty of iGoogle alternatives, many of them superior to the original. That said, it's hard to pick an outright winner, if only because different users have different ideas as to what makes an ideal home page.
Fortunately, there's something here for everyone, from iGoogle clones (igHome, iGooglePortal) to bookmark managers (StartMe, Startific) to portals that sort of straddle the line (Netvibes, Protopage). A couple (Symbaloo, uStart) need a bit of tweaking. Of course, because they're all free, you have nothing to lose by test-driving each and every one.
That said, the real standouts here are the blissfully simplistic StartMe; the sexy, souped-up Netvibes; the solid, useable Protopage; and the Android-influenced Startific. Any one of these would make for a practical portal.
Rick Broida has written about technology for nearly 25 years. He pens the popular Cheapskate blog and writes for Computerworld, PC World, Popular Science and Wired.
This article, There's no place like home page: 8 iGoogle alternatives, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
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