Twitter is one of the most popular web services anywhere, but once you become fairly active on it, I find the web site itself is impossible to use. If you follow lots of people (I follow a little over 300), one single stream of tweets is just too much, and trying to keep track of conversations or random people mentioning you is next to impossible. Luckily there are numerous applications out there designed to make this easier. Most allow you to separate your stream into multiple columns so you can put the people you’re following into various groups; for example, I have a group with techie people (Scott Hanselman, Joel Spolsky, Leo Laporte, and the like), another group with people I’ve “met” online through my interest in pro lacrosse, another one for other sports people (Bruce Arthur, Dave Hodge, Down Goes Brown), and so on. This makes it much easier to keep up. You can also add a column for direct messages or mentions so those are easy to see. This makes having a conversation with someone on Twitter possible, where replies to you from others don’t get lost in the deluge of tweets.
I tried three of the most popular such applications: Tweetdeck (now owned by Twitter itself), MetroTwit, and Seesmic, and made some notes on each. Note that there are lots of options in both Twitter and these applications that I never use (eg. tweeting from multiple accounts, trending topics, Foursquare, LinkedIn, etc.) so I can’t comment on those. For each one, advantages/drawbacks are ordered roughly in order of importance to me.
Tweetdeck and Seesmic also have web versions that allow you to do much the same things as the desktop apps, but through a web interface so there’s nothing to install. I didn’t investigate these at all.
Tweetdeck is the first Twitter application that I used, and I used it for about a year so it’s the one I’m most familiar with. It handles multiple Twitter accounts and you can add accounts from Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Google Buzz (why?) as well. I really only used Twitter. I occasionally updated my Facebook status through Tweetdeck, but only when I wanted to set my status to something and tweet it at the same time, which was rare.
- A global filter hides tweets you don’t want to see based on hashtags, other content, user, or application. This makes it easy to ignore useless Foursquare tweets.
- The colour scheme is nice – dark background (but not too dark) with white text
- There are versions for Windows, Android, and iPhone.
- Pops up a little window for images from twitpic, yfrog, lockerz, and others, as well as for youtube videos.
- Easy to click on a user or tweet and jump to it in a browser if you want to
- I like the little whistling sound it makes for notifications.
- You can follow/unfollow people right from the interface and even modify Twitter lists.
- Columns are not resizable. This means that you have a maximum of six columns on a 1920×1200 screen if the window is maximized (and you can’t see all of the sixth column). Any more than that and you have to start scrolling horizontally. I hate that.
- Rearranging columns is silly – you have to click little arrow buttons to move columns right or left one position. You can’t just grab the top of the column and drag it to where you want it to be like you would expect. Dragging columns works in both MetroTwit and Seesmic.
- To mark a tweet as read, you either click on a tiny little dot on the tweet, select “Mark tweet as seen” from level 3 of a nested menu on the tweet, or click the “Mark all as seen” button at the bottom of the column. Not at all intuitive. I got around this by simply clicking “Clear all” at the bottom once I’d read everything to mark then all as read and remove them from the column entirely – though once you’ve done that, you will never see those tweets again through Tweetdeck.
- If you’ve marked all the tweets in a column as read but not cleared them, there is no obvious indication that there are new tweets. Unread ones have a little dot next to them, but it’s hard to see and not obvious at all. (This is why I clear out the whole thing.)
- If you see a reply to someone but want to see the rest of the conversation, you can click on the “in response to” in the tweet (this feature was also not obvious). However, this link shows up on the same line as the username, date and time, and application used (eg. “Twitter for iPhone”) so it’s not always visible. If you can’t see the link, I have found no way to get Tweetdeck to show the conversation.
Drawback specific to the Android version:
- If you haven’t updated in a while, you have to scroll through everything to get to the top. You can click on the title bar of a column to automatically scroll, but it still actually scrolls and if you have several days worth of tweets to scroll through, this can take a while. I couldn’t find an obvious way to simply jump to the top or mark everything as read.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a problem with Tweetdeck popping up a weird empty “Updating” window that never went away. (It got fixed the next day.) This was not a big deal at all, but I tweeted about it anyway. A friend responded and told me that he had tried MetroTwit and had never gone back, so I decided to give it a try as well. I had a tough time ordering the advantages below since the top six are excellent features.
- Columns are resized as they are added so if you only have a couple, they’re wide but if you have lots, they’re narrower but still all fit on the screen – no horizontal scrolling. This is fabulous. I have seven columns and can see them all easily. I haven’t tried more but I assume if you have too many it will eventually either not let you add more or will be forced to make you scroll.
- A big number appears at the top of each column telling you how many unread tweets are in that column, though I’ve occasionally seen situations where the number is off by one.
- Clicking on a tweet marks all tweets below it as read, so you can mark an entire column as read by clicking the top one.
- A mark appears in the scroll bar for each column indicating where the most recently read tweet is.
- The most recently read tweet has a line and arrow at the top to indicate “you’ve read up to here”. Very nice.
- You can have the application’s icon change to include a count of unread tweets or replies or messages or whatever. I have it set to replies only so I can glance at the icon on the taskbar to see if I have any unread replies.
- If you hover over shortened links you will get a tooltip containing the real URL.
- Images from yfrog, twitpic, etc. will pop up in the interface when you click on them. I prefer the way Tweetdeck pops up a window to display images, but this isn’t bad.
- The link to see the rest of a conversation is always visible and obvious (i.e. it’s a link on its own line that says “View conversation”).
- All three apps will autocomplete usernames when you type a ‘@’ but MetroTwit will also autocomplete #hashtags, choosing from those that you’ve previously used as well as current trending ones.
- When you minimize the app, some more tweets come in, and then you restore the window, the columns sometimes show the latest tweet, sometimes they show the most recently read tweet, and sometimes they show some random tweet that may be in between the two, or one that may be days old. It seems random which one happens – consistency would be good. This happens when you close and restart the app as well.
- No built-in filters, so no way to get rid of Foursquare tweets. There is a filter from something called proxlet.com, but I haven’t tried it yet.
- The scroll bar is very narrow and it’s hard to grab the scroller thing.
- You can follow/unfollow people but I couldn’t find a way to modify lists from the application. I generally do that from the twitter.com web page anyway. I only list it here because Tweetdeck can do it.
- Not quite as easy as Tweetdeck to click on a user and jump to that user’s page in a browser. It’s two clicks instead of one.
- The dark colour scheme is very dark, and the white one is hard to read. I prefer Tweetdeck’s colours.
- Twitter only. No support for Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
- Doesn’t handle multiple Twitter accounts. Apparently this is “coming soon” but may only be available in the not-free “Plus” version.
- Windows only. No Mac/Linux version, and no mobile versions.
- There is an ad (OH NOES! ADVERTIZING!) at the top of one column. It’s a different colour than other tweets and you can’t get rid of it, but it’s not really a huge deal. You can pay for the app ($14.95 Australian which is roughly the same in Canadian or US) to upgrade to “MetroTwit Plus” to make the ads go away.
I had nothing but problems with Seesmic. I installed it a few months ago and was less than impressed. I uninstalled it a day later. When I decided to write up this article, I couldn’t remember what I didn’t like about it, so I re-installed it and tried it for a while. “A while”, in this case, turned out to be about an hour. I’ve given it a few more chances since then but they’ve always been short and frustrating.
First off, there were authentication issues. I authenticated with Twitter, but when I stopped and restarted the app (required to disable most of the myriad of plug-ins that were automatically installed and enabled (grrrrrr…)), I had to authenticate again. But this time the authentication failed – numerous times. I tried shutting down the app and trying again with no luck. I checked to make sure the Twitter site itself was up, and it seemed fine. After about ten minutes I tried again and everything was fine. Note that I was copy-and-pasting my password from KeePass so it was not a case of simply mistyping the password. This hasn’t happened since then, so perhaps it was a one-time thing.
Version: They call it “Seesmic Desktop 2” but the version number was 126.96.36.1991.
- It lists retweets other than my own. If a user I follow retweets a user that I don’t follow (i.e. a “real” Twitter retweet, not just adding “RT” in front of the text), I’ll see it in Seesmic but I don’t think I will in either MetroTwit or Tweetdeck.
- You can create a Seesmic account and it will do extra stuff like be able to synchronize your configuration among machines. I did not do this, so I can’t comment on that feature.
- Windows and Mac versions as well as Android and iPhone.
- The columns don’t resize.
- Each tweet that you haven’t read is marked with a little yellow circle, which goes away when you click on the tweet or select “Mark all as read” from the menu at the top of the column. But that’s the only way to mark things as read. Not quite as bad as Tweetdeck, but worse than MetroTwit. You can clear out the tweets marked as read (i.e. empty the column), but when you close the application and start it up again, they all come back.
- There are two buttons in the bottom left panel with no indication of what they do. One looks like a solid rectangle, the other a series of smaller
rectangles but when I click on either of them (they seem to be mutually exclusive toggles), there were no obvious changes anywhere. There are no tooltips or text anywhere to indicate what they’re for.
- There didn’t seem to be any way of determining or controlling how often it refreshes the feed. I could find no way of manually causing a refresh either.
- At one point I had a Home column (i.e. my entire Twitter feed) plus a Sports column, made from a list I have. Several users in the sports list had unread tweets in the Home column but not in the Sports column. The tweets did show up in the Sports column some time later, but it didn’t make sense to me that one column was updated while the other wasn’t.
- If you right-click on a tweet, there is a large list of things you can do (i.e. reply, retweet, block user, etc.). There is a little menu at the top of each column but if you right-click there, you just get a small and useless Silverlight menu.
- Bug – when I tried copy-and-pasting my Facebook password, it seemed to think I was pasting in several hundred or thousand characters, as the password field kept scrolling horizontally for 10-15 seconds. My password is 8 characters long and when I typed it rather than pasted it, it worked.
- There were about 10-15 plug-ins automatically installed and enabled. I disabled all but about three of them.
On the desktop, I’ve moved over to MetroTwit. It has resizable columns, and tells you at a glance how many unread tweets you have in each column without having to clear the column, and changes the application icon to indicate how many replies are unread and makes it brain-dead easy to mark tweets as read. Lots of big plusses. However, I tend to keep my Twitter application open but minimized most of the time, and the scrolling behaviour I described earlier is annoying. Big minus. When I bring up the application (whether starting or de-minimizing), ideally I’d like the columns to automatically scroll, showing new tweets, until the most recently read tweet is visible at the bottom with the unread tweets above it, and then stop scrolling. This way I can instantly see the oldest ones I haven’t seen, and then continue to scroll up as I get to the newer ones. Actually I’m not sure what Tweetdeck does in this respect, since I always clear the column (because it’s not obvious which tweets I haven’t yet read).
I wouldn’t touch Seesmic with a 39 ½ foot pole. It seems like beta software that got released too early. Maybe I’ll try it again in a year or so to see how it’s improved.
I still use Tweetdeck on Android because there is no MetroTwit for Android (or iPhone).