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.