If you want to keep up with your friends, support political campaigns, gossip about your favorite celebrities or find out about new technologies, your best bet in today's digital culture is Twitter. Twitter has also become a necessary part of every business's marketing plan. You want people to visit your Web site? Buy your product? Talk about your CEO's philosophy? You need to be tweeting about it.
In short, Twitter has become a key part of our social interaction. Unfortunately, Twitter Inc.'s own site is a marvel of inconvenient simplicity -- there are loads of things that you want to do with the service that are difficult or impossible to do from there. For example, the idea of retweeting -- repeating somebody else's tweet so your followers can read it -- developed from something that Twitters fans began doing; it wasn't an actual feature on the Twitter site.
If Twitter's current interface is making you twitch, check out Twit nits: 12 top Twitter annoyances to find out what's missing, what's exasperating, and what you can do about it.
So what do you do? Well, if you're like most Twitter users, you do your tweeting from a Twitter client, a third-party application that takes care of all of it for you.
I looked at eight popular desktop Twitter clients. Some are Web-based; three (Mixero, Seesmic and TweetDeck) are desktop applications that use the Adobe AIR runtime software. All are usable on both Windows PCs and Macs; all are free.
These applications vary widely in their approach. Five of these apps try to make tweeting easier while adding additional features (and allowing users to interact with other services, such as Facebook). The other three -- TweetGrid, TwitScoop, and Twitterfall -- offer a different view; while they do give users the ability to do simple things such as search, their main purpose is to help people sort out what's happening in the wider Twitterverse rather than monitor only what's going on with their friends and followers.
Of course, these aren't the only Twitter-related applications out there. For example, there's a Twitter client called Tweetie that's available for the Mac and the iPhone (but not the PC). Web apps such as TweepTracker help you find out how many of the people you follow aren't following you, and vice versa. Twitterholic.com calculates who the folks are who have the most followers.
If you tend to tweet on the go, don't worry -- several of the desktop clients reviewed here also have iPhone versions available or upcoming, and there are a bunch of Twitter apps available for other smartphone platforms. For example, there's TwitterBerry and TweetCaster for the Blackberry, and PockeTwit and Twikini for Windows Mobile.
In fact, you can find a very long list of Twitter-related apps at the Twitter Fan Wiki.
If you don't have the time or inclination to wade through that list, you could start by considering one of the following eight applications. Which is best for you will depend on how you use Twitter -- and how you would like to use it.
Web-based HootSuite is unabashedly directed toward those who want to use Twitter for business purposes; its browser tab caption reads "Welcome to HootSuite -- The Professional Twitter Client."
What does it do? Like Seesmic, TweetDeck, and several others, HootSuite works via columns; you can have separate columns for your home feed, for your replies and mentions, for groups, and for any search that you care to do. Hover your cursor over a person's tweet and you get icons that let you mark it as a Favorite or create a direct message, a reply or a retweet. You can monitor several different Twitter accounts (but not your Facebook account), do either a keyword search or a general search, and assign users to groups.
What's cool about it? If you like Web-based Twitter clients -- for example, if you use more than one computer and can't install an independent Web client on all of them -- HootSuite is a good choice. What I especially liked was HootSuite's simple, elegant layout, which made it easy to find and use most of its features -- a distinct advantage when you're not all that Twitter-savvy.
And HootSuite manages to avoid a problem that plagues most other column-centric Twitter clients: If you're trying to monitor more than three or four columns, you end up with a virtual window that stretches well beyond your display's capabilities. HootSuite's use of tabs to separate out sets of columns means that you can easily access -- and see -- a wider variety of searches and feeds.
HootSuite also has some nice extras, such as a "Send Later" button that lets you schedule your tweet rather than just send it immediately. HootSuite also makes it very easy to get information about users by clicking on their names; you get an easy-to-read pop-up that offers info such as their follower/following and their description. This is sleeker than a similar feature offered by TweetDeck, which creates a new column for that data.
If you're looking to aggressively promote yourself or your company, there is also a direct link to Ping.fm, a service that allows users to send out their tweets to multiple social networking sites.
Finally, HootSuite uses its own URL shortener, Ow.ly. Like the third-party Bit.ly URL shortener service, it enables users to not only shrink long URLs, but also check how many people have clicked on that URL as a result of their tweet.
What needs to be fixed? To begin with, the folks behind HootSuite should learn that good word of mouth can't be forced -- to try a beta of the 2.0 version, I had to send a tweet supporting the product. If I hadn't been reviewing the service, I would have been strongly tempted to decline the honor.
And there are features that still need tweaking. For example, if you want to create a group, you have to type in at least one username, which can be a problem -- usernames can be strange enough that it's difficult to remember them exactly. Once you've created the group, you can drag and drop users from another column to your group column to add them to the group, but that still means a search for all the users you want to include. Mixero, which provides you with a list of your users, makes creating group much easier.
Final verdict: For a Web-based Twitter client, HootSuite offers some nice features and a few that other free Twitter clients don't, such as a convenient way to get a hit count through the Ow.ly feature and tabbed pages. If you prefer a Web-based interface and are using Twitter as a way to promote a brand or some other commercial venture, this should be on your short list.
While most Twitter clients seem to be standardizing with an interface that uses columns to help users follow multiple feeds, Mixero is experimenting with something a bit different: a set of panels that let you quickly switch among your feeds and searches. This beta desktop client may not work for everyone, but with a bit more development from the Mixero team, it could be something really outstanding.
What does it do? Mixero's interface offers the user three panels. The left panel shows the specific feed you're watching. The right panel has two tabs. The first lets you browse through your list of contacts and send each a private message, follow their feeds, or assign them to groups. The second lists your "channels" -- feeds that you have saved, such as keyword searches, user groups, etc. You create a channel by generating a feed in the left panel and double-clicking on a "Create channel" icon; after you name it, specify how often it will refresh, and choose an icon for it, the feed becomes a channel.
This is where the center panel, which is called the ActiveList, comes in. By double-clicking on a channel, you put its icon in the ActiveList. After that, all you have to do is click on the icon, and the feed is visible in the left panel; click on another icon, and that feed is active instead. (You can monitor how many new tweets have appeared in each channel; the numbers appear next to each icon.)
You can hide either the left or right panels if you wish. Each tweet includes icons that allow you to retweet, reply, etc. You can filter each feed using keywords. Your own icon sits on top of the ActiveList; little icons clustered around it (that look like cartoon voice balloons) let you look at your replies or your direct messages.
Besides Windows PCs and Macs, Mixero also works with Linux-based computers, and according to the Web site, an iPhone version is in the works.
What's cool about it? This is an outstandingly slick interface, especially when you consider that it's still very much in beta. It's clean, easy to understand and attractive; while you can't follow several feeds simultaneously like you can in other clients, you can flip from one to another with ease. You can even create what Mixero calls a "context" -- a set of active channels. For example, you can have one context with all your business channels, and another with all your entertainment channels.
But the item that made me say "Hey, cool!" was Mixero's "Avatars mode," which you access by clicking on Mixero's symbol (which looks like an old-fashioned blade fan). Your Twitter avatar and the icons of any channels you're following immediately dart over to the right-hand side of your display, where they stay visible but out of the way; the rest of the application disappears. When a number appears on an icon indicating how many new tweets there are, you can hover over the number to see the tweets, or click on the icon to bring Mixero up again.
What needs to be fixed? While you can quickly switch from feed to feed, the fact that you can't view more than one simultaneously may be a problem for some users. (You can open one or more feeds in separate windows, but this felt awkward to me.) And as of yet, while you can follow multiple Twitter accounts, there is no way to follow a Facebook account.
Finally, Mixero is currently in invitational beta mode; if you become a Mixero follower, the company will send you an invitation. The system is a bit awkward -- I had to send for a second invitation because my version didn't want to update.
Final verdict: Mixero is very much a project in development, so expect new features and changes before it stabilizes. Right now, this has the potential to be an incredibly useful and innovative Twitter client -- if the creators can add the features it needs without weighing it down.
PeopleBrowsr is a Web-based client that tries to be all things to all people; not only does it perform the usual tasks such as enabling delayed tweets and re-tweeting, but it offers a multitude of other features.
What does it do? Practically everything -- which can be a bit confusing if you don't need it to do practically everything. You can choose from three different modes. Lite is the simplest of the three but still lets you create a variety of different feeds organized into columns, which PeopleBrowsr calls PostStacks. A menu on the left side of your window (called a Quickstrip) offers the ability to click on several categories, including Followers or Searches.
Advanced mode is more feature-filled. Instead of the Quickstrip (which is still accessible if you want it), all your features are accessible by a multitude of icons that you can place at the top of your window, at the bottom or within your feeds. You can create and send to groups of users (PeopleBrowsr makes it relatively easy by offering you a checklist of all your followers); schedule your tweets and open re-tweet reports for any search. A box at the bottom of your main feed lets you sort it alphabetically or by number of followers, and more.
Business mode has a cleaner interface than Advanced mode; its standard interface shows you each tweet on a separate line, with each tweet no more than two lines. You can sort and filter by a variety of criteria -- for example, you can choose to see only tweets that include links or sort for the number of followers each user has. However, while it's easier to read, the two-line maximum means that each tweet stretches to fill your window, so if you have more than one PostStack, you have to mouse over to each, which can be inconvenient.
What's cool about it? It's nearly impossible to list all the features that PeopleBrowsr offers. Besides the features already mentioned, you can search within, and post to, a number of social networking services such as Facebook and FriendFeed. You can follow somebody simply by clicking an icon in their tweet. And you can use a "Helicopter View," which lets you watch the top tweet on each of your stacks simultaneously. You can open a pop-up that shows your own stream, your profiles for the services you belong to, and what tags you can be found under. You can even find out which tweets are within a certain area (for example, I was able to find out how many tweets about "e-book readers" originated within 300 miles of London).
The emphasis here is more or less on marketing, to the point that PeopleBrowsr offers to "make your group viral" by creating a hash tag using the group name, creating a message that asks people to retweet the message in order to join that group, and then automatically adding to that group all those who do actually retweet.