Kirk McElhearn's article last week about the emptiness of pages of links highlights why we don't maintain a list of Macintosh-related Web sites, and why we only infrequently write about specific Web sites. We're mainly interested in creating content, not acting as a waypoint to other parts of the Web.
But every now and then we run across a Web site that stands out by virtue of a truly innovative idea, unusually excellent execution, or some facet of design. We've written longer articles about some of these sites, including HomeGrocer.com and Priceline.com. Now, however, we're starting a sporadic column where we'll review those Web sites that we find ourselves telling our friends about because they do something in an innovative or unusual way. Although it's possible that some of these sites may be related to the Mac, that won't be a criterion for inclusion - we just want to tell you about the most interesting sites we find. You'll have heard of some of these sites - innovation isn't limited to the small - but we also hope that we'll be introducing the sites mentioned in this series to many of you.
How will we find sites for this column? Mostly by happening on them, via recommendations from friends or TidBITS readers. For instance, this week's subject, RepairClinic.com, was featured in a recent issue of the Web Informant essays from David Strom, a friend and occasional TidBITS contributor. So if you know of a Web site that truly stands out from the crowd, send a note to TidBITS Talk at <email@example.com>, and we'll be sure to take a look at each one for future installments of this column.
RepairClinic.com -- I grew up on a farm, and the experience gave me a familiarity with tools and the belief that it's both expensive and somehow cheating to call a repair person to fix simple problems. I like to understand the systems in our house, ranging from the initially inexplicable heat pump to the still confusing AT&T box that provided multiple phone lines via bulky red phones with illuminated push buttons. I usually know when a repair is out of my league, but I also hang out with the repair person so I can see what they're doing and perhaps learn to do it myself.
Specialized parts and tools frustrate this part of my personality. Sometimes it's not feasible to buy the right tool for a given job, and I may not even know such a tool exists. I haven't found a solution, but thanks to RepairClinic.com, I can at least now easily acquire parts to a number of our large appliances, something that was difficult or impossible previously.
There's nothing sexy about selling appliance parts on the Web, but after my frustrating search for replacement consumer electronics batteries on the Web (see "Finding the Power Online: Buying Batteries" in TidBITS-494), RepairClinic.com ranks among the top ecommerce sites I've ever used.
Here's my story. The silverware rack in our dishwasher has been somewhat broken for a while, and although it was annoying when I had to fish around in a rack of sticky dirty silverware for the knife or spoon that slid through the bottom of the rack, it wasn't a major problem. I'd been thinking about fixing it, but I couldn't see any obvious fix, and I've never been good at fixing plastic items anyway. Aside from the annoyance, there was the worry that an escaping piece of silverware might cause more serious damage.
Finding the Part -- So when I read about RepairClinic.com in Web Informant, I immediately went to see if I could get a new silverware rack. RepairClinic.com's PartDetective is an impressive front end to a huge database of parts. First you enter the appliance type and brand, which are required, and then the model number if you can find it (and they even provide help on finding model numbers on the appliance type you've selected). Next you answer one or more questions to determine characteristics of your appliance, such as whether the dishwasher is built-in or portable, where the freezer compartment is on a refrigerator, or whether a washing machine is top or front loading. Then you come to the heart of the PartDetective, where you attempt to describe the part you want.
The questions here are somewhat odd but have the effect of identifying the part quite closely. PartDetective asks if you know what type of part you need, if it's electrical, if it's 100 percent metal, if it's 100 percent plastic, if it's all the same color, and what its longest dimension is (to the nearest half-inch).
Obviously, results will vary with the type of part you're looking for, but in my case, the silverware rack for our dishwasher popped up instantly even though I hadn't bothered to enter a model number initially. Verifying the model number and entering a more accurate longest dimension provided duplicate results. Most of the results included a photo of each item, and clicking that photo provided a larger picture of the item superimposed on a sheet of graph paper so you could confirm that the item looked right and was about the right size.
The closest I can come to a criticism is that the part seemed a bit expensive at $22, but appliance parts are always more expensive than you think they should be, and I'd saved so much time and mental energy in not having to find a local part supplier or call a repair person that I was more than happy to pay the price.
In short, whereas the PartDetective was a innovative approach to identifying hard-to-identify parts, the rest of my interaction with RepairClinic.com showed a stunning level of execution.
RepairClinic.com also offers a service called RepairGuru, which provides information about how appliances work, maintenance tips, troubleshooting information, and answers to common questions. If you need additional information, you can even send them email. One thing I appreciated about RepairGuru's information was that it was nicely factual and aimed at helping people handle the repair without the assistance of a professional, but it also recommended that a qualified appliance technician be contacted in some situations, such as certain problems with appliances like microwaves. In other words, some things you simply shouldn't try at home.
I haven't the foggiest idea if the sort of people who read TidBITS are into fixing their own appliances, but I'd recommend that anyone interested in seeing how well an ecommerce site can be done check out RepairClinic.com. They've done an excellent job, ranging from a clean design to a clever part identification scheme to impeccable execution on packaging and delivery.