From the Tech Toolbox

By James Fallows

When Ask.com was known as Ask Jeeves, I had a hard time taking it seriously. Its butler logo was the uncool opposite of Google’s minimalist hipness, and its basic premise—that it could imagine in advance the questions users might ask, match the query a user typed in to one of its imagined questions, and give a prepared response—seemed doomed, like an attempt to learn a foreign language by mastering all the possible sentences you might hear. (As a fallback, the old Ask Jeeves would conduct a standard keyword search based on the user’s query.)

But its relaunched version, introduced early this year, is worthy of serious attention. In addition to its “Zoom” feature, which lets you easily narrow or broaden the topic of a standard search or a question, it has several other features that are interesting, useful, or both. Its mapping service is like those from Google, Yahoo, or MSN—but also offers walking directions from point to point, avoiding the indirect routes you might have to take by car. It has a customizable toolbar that permits easy one-click searches for weather in your area, shopping, maps, and so on. A “Binoculars” feature gives thumbnail previews of the Web sites returned by a search, which often saves time in picking out the one you really want. (You can create the same effect for Google by downloading a GooglePreview extension.) I have found that its image-search system gives better and more relevant results than others I have tried.

All of today’s mainstream search engines are good, and none of them is perfect. But the new Ask.com deserves a look. —J.F.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/10/from-the-tech-toolbox/305221/