If you want to keep up with your friends, support political campaigns, gossip about your favourite 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'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.
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 centre 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.
What needs to be fixed? Remember when people used to make jokes about amateur publishers who had just discovered desktop publishing software? Their documents would be so full of different typefaces, colors, sizes, what have you -- you know, the typical ransom-note style -- that you didn't know where to look first. That's PeopleBrowsr. Even at its simplest -- the Lite version -- the interface is pretty busy; when you get up to the Advanced mode, the crowd of colors and icons makes it difficult to concentrate on the tweets.
PeopleBrowsr tries to make things easy for you at the outset; when you first sign in, it asks you to mark off your various social networks and then guesses what topics you might be interested in. And yes, each icon has a rollover explanation. But all the noise makes it difficult to concentrate on what you're actually working on.
Final verdict: PeopleBrowsr offers a vast number of features (as I type this, I keep finding more) for those who are serious about their Twitter use. Many of these features are interesting and can be very useful for marketing workers and others who use Twitter for professional purposes. Its only drawback is that there's so much going on that it's difficult not to be overwhelmed.
I first heard about Seesmic from a former TwitterDeck user, who said that this desktop app (still in beta) could be the Next Big Thing for people who need to track a lot of different Twitter threads.
What does it do? Seesmic is indeed a bit like TwitterDeck on steroids. Like TwitterDeck, it organizes your Twitter and Facebook feeds into columns. You can create new columns by starting a search or by following a single user or group of users. Or, if you want, you can just follow your Facebook and Twitter feeds in a single column (and it can handle more than one Twitter account).
In fact, rather than automatically putting your Facebook and Twitter feeds in two separate columns, it starts with a Home column in which both are combined. If that bothers you (it bothered me because it results in duplicate messages from people who send to both feeds) you can either choose to look at only one of the two feeds (by clicking on a menu to the left of the columns) or break one of them off into a separate column. You can easily send a status message to Twitter, Facebook or both, and Seesmic lets you add an image to your tweets.
What's cool about it? Seesmic is incredibly flexible; you can make it do almost anything you want it to -- and you can do it on a moment's notice. Say you've searched on a term and you're now curious about one of the tweeters -- just click on the name and you immediately have a new column with all of that person's recent tweets. If you're tired of that search, an icon at the top of the column will close it up or delete it.
Seesmic works on a system of "fixed" and "detached" columns. You can have a single fixed column that shows all your Twitter and Facebook accounts; you can then generate a series of detached columns that follow specific accounts (for example, just your Facebook account), specific users or specific searches. You can have nothing but detached columns -- or you can have a single fixed column.
If a column shows a specific Twitter account, a series of icons on the bottom let you filter it further into replies, direct messages (private tweets directed to you), etc. In any column, you can easily reply or retweet a message by simply clicking on one of the icons that are "hidden" within the user's picture (very much like TweetDeck).
Seesmic is one of the most Facebook-friendly Twitter clients I've come across. Each of your friends' status updates from your Facebook account has an icon that, when clicked, shows you the details of the message and lets you comment on it right from Seesmic.
And if you're not near your own computer, you can access Seesmic's Web-based interface, which is a simplified version of its desktop application. An iPhone version is in the works.
What needs to be fixed? Although not nearly as complicated as PeopleBrowsr (and much nicer to look at), Seesmic is one of those applications that you have to spend some time with before you've achieved a reasonable comfort level. The concept of fixed and detached columns takes a while to get used to, and one gets the feeling that there are all sorts of things you could do with it -- if you understood how. Like many other third-party Twitter applications, Seesmic offers video tutorials, user guides, and solutions to known issues and answers to common questions for those willing to put in the time.
Final verdict: Seesmic is a fabulous way to handle Twitter if you need to watch different feeds at different times, and if you like tweaking your applications to do exactly what you want them to. It's especially handy for Facebook users who don't want to bother to actually visit Facebook.
Judging from the number of times I see TweetDeck mentioned as the source of various tweets, it must be a popular application. And I can understand why; this nicely organized desktop app allows you to simultaneously and easily follow different groups (including your Facebook friends), searches and trends.
What does it do? TweetDeck, which was still in beta when this was written, organizes your Twitter, Facebook and/or MySpace feeds into columns. Icons on top of the interface let you compose an update; create new columns for Twitter, Facebook and MySpace feeds; create a new column out of a search; and launch a Web site called the TweetDeck Directory, which describes itself as "a TV Guide for Twitter channels."
Besides Macs and Windows PCs, TweetDeck works with Linux-based computers, and an iPhone version is available.
What's cool about it? TweetDeck makes it extremely simple to choose a topic or keyword to follow -- just click on the Search icon and type in a word or phrase, and a new column appears showing all the public tweets that use that word or phrase. That column will stay as part of your TweetDeck interface until you decide to delete it.
There are a number of other ways you can individualize your TweetDeck experience -- and it's very easy to figure out how to do it. You can create groups of specific accounts that you are following by choosing from a checklist of all your followed accounts. You can follow all mentions of your own tweets. A single click lets you jump in and out of "single column view," so that you can follow just one column for a while without having to eliminate the others.
Want more? You can simultaneously send a message to your Twitter, Facebook and MySpace accounts, shorten URLs (by, among other ways, linking to your Bit.ly account -- if you have one -- so you can track your clicks), send Twitpics (a service that lets you share images on Twitter) and even translate your tweet into a number of languages, including Arabic, Latvian, Filipino and Hebrew.
TweetDeck recently added the ability to read Facebook Wall posts and, like Seesmic, to comment on and "like" Facebook status messages directly from the app. And while TweetDeck is a desktop application, if you register, you can sync and back up your columns across different machines.
But the best thing about TweetDeck is its ease of use. It has, up till now, managed to incorporate all these features into an interface that is not overwhelming or too busy.
What needs to be fixed? Very little, actually. There are a few glitches in the latest upgrade -- for example, I have to rebuild all my feeds each time I start it (a bug I hope is fixed soon). And it will be interesting to see if TweetDeck can keep its ease of use as it continues to add more features to keep up with the competition.
Final verdict: This is still one of the best Twitter clients out there, offering a nice balance of features and simplicity.
TweetGrid is a very simple Web-based grid that lets you watch a number of feeds simultaneously. As the site's FAQ says, TweetGrid was built to be a "drive-by" service, where you can go, do a search or find a trend, and then leave -- anonymously.
What does it do? TweetGrid gives you a lot of flexibility in how you can view your various Twitter feeds. You start by creating a grid from a set of choices: one row of two columns, two rows of three columns, or even (if you want to really confuse yourself) three rows of three columns. (That's your maximum; TweetGrid supports up to nine searches at a time.) In each box, you specify your search terms and it immediately pulls in the feed.
Besides the searches, you can also mark a box in a column to follow your friends or your direct messages.
What's cool about it? This is a quick and easy way to follow whatever trends or searches you need to. TweetGrid doesn't demand anything from its users -- you don't have to register with TweetGrid or even with Twitter. Just pop over to the site and specify your grid and your searches. You can even save your searches by simply bookmarking them -- nothing could be easier.
If somebody includes an image in their tweet, you can see it alongside the text. Click on the "Trending Topics" link, and you immediately have a 3 x 3 grid showing nine of the top Twitter trends. And if you're only interested in images, you could try the TwitPicGrid, a 6 x 3 grid showing nothing but images that people are uploading into Twitter.
What needs to be fixed? Let's face it, TweetGrid isn't the slickest-looking application around -- the interface is crowded and a bit difficult to read, even if you're using a simple 1 x 2 grid.
And some of the features are a little awkward to use; for example, if you want to create a group, you have to type the word group in the search box, followed by a list of the names you want in the group. Finally, if you're an Internet Explorer 6 user, either upgrade or forget it -- TweetGrid isn't supported by that version of IE.
Final verdict: This is a good place for somebody who wants to taste Twitter, or who needs to do a quick search for work but doesn't want to actually join the service.
TwitScoop is where you go when you want to see what everybody else is talking about -- it keeps a constant eye on the Twitter zeitgeist and keeps you appraised of what the top topics are through a dynamic, constantly shifting map.
What does it do? You start by giving it access to your Twitter account. My first impression was that it's a glorified version of Twitter's page -- a straightforward friend feed on the left side of the page updates every minute or so. But it's what's on the right side that's important: a constantly shifting text cloud of what Twitizens are talking about.
What's cool about it? Curious about what a trend's about? Hover your cursor over one of the floating phrases in the text map, and you get a pop-up with the last few tweets that use that phrase. Want to follow the trend? Click on it and you're now following it in the feed on the left. Want to follow more than one trend? Click on the others, and you now have tabbed pages on the left, each following a different trend.
Or just sit and watch the text cloud change -- words grow and shrink in size, depending on their popularity in the Twitterverse. One word can dominate the field for hours (for example, when Twitter went down on the morning of August 6, the words hacked and hacker were the big winners until midafternoon). Others can appear, grow and then disappear in a matter of moments (usually indicating spam). For wandering Twitizens, an iPhone version is available.
What needs to be fixed? Not much, as long as you take TwitScoop for what it is -- a view of the moment's Twitter trends.
Final verdict: TwitScoop is a great place to catch trends and news. If that's why you're on Twitter, this is where you need to be.
Twitterfall was my first Twitter client, and so I have a fond feeling about it. It is a good "first" to have -- it gives you a real sense of how Twitter works and lets you read all those tweets as they hit the ether. It's also an excellent way to monitor current Twitter trends.
What does it do? The aptly named Twitterfall Web site drops each tweet from the top of the screen; as the next tweet comes, it pushes the one before it down. All this gives you the impression of a continuing drip, drip, drip of people sending out their tweets.
Twitterfall's main purpose is to help you keep track of trends; the latest ones are listed on the right side of the screen, and you can check as many you want to watch (or all of them, if you're a glutton for punishment). You can also create your own search and/or include the Twitter accounts you are personally following. The tweets can be color-coded so that you can easily find your personal tweets among the others; for example, you can make the trends gray, your personal search brown, and your followed accounts green.
A Settings box on the right side of the window lets you change the speed, type of animation, number of tweets and other features. A version is available for the iPhone.
What's cool about it? Watching each tweet drop from the heavens and make its way down to the bottom is almost hypnotic.
What needs to be fixed? In the end, while Twitterfall is cool, it's really is more of a stunt than a practical way to follow your tweets. Even with the color coding, mixing the tweets from different sources/searches isn't really a practical way to view them.
Final verdict: Twitterfall is a fun Web app and worth playing with, especially if you want to watch today's hot topics flash before your eyes, but if you use Twitter as a more practical social networking tool, this isn't for you.