Ignore the hype and jargon, the Internet is simply a very useful thing to have, moreover it's fun, informative and very easy to use. If you haven't yet seen what it can do and still need convincing ask anyone who has been using it for more than a couple of weeks for a demonstration. You probably won't have to look very far there are over 8 million Internet users in the UK right now, with tens of thousands more signing up each week. So where do you begin?

Doubtless one day you will be able to 'surf' the net from the comfort of your armchair, on your living room TV, via a cheap black box. However, for the moment the only sensible option -- if you want to do the job properly -- is to have a PC and a telephone line. (It is possible to use a mobile phone but it is painfully slow and horrendously expensive).

The PC doesn't need to be anything special, virtually any model made within the last five years will do but fairly recent multimedia models, (Windows IBM PC/compatible or Mac) are easiest to use. The PC will need to be connected to or fitted with a device called a modem (more or less standard these days), that allows it to communicate over the telephone network, and you will need to sign up with an Internet Service Provider or ISP.

An ISP is a company that provides you with a gateway onto the Internet via their 'server' computer. The ISP will supply you with an E-mail address and mailbox, where messages sent to you are stored; these days many ISPs also throw in several megabytes of space on their server computer for personal web sites. Some ISPs, known as 'Content Providers', maintain their own extensive web sites, usually for the exclusive use of their customers. They're packed with extra services (news, sports, travel, shopping, on-line banking etc), and they may act as hosts to newsgroups and so-called 'communities'. These are specialised Internet sites where like-minded users can meet and exchange ideas.

Once you have the PC and a telephone it need cost only a few pennies a day to use the Internet, depending on your choice of ISP. One expense you can't avoid is the cost of the telephone call whilst you are on line. However, most ISPs use local numbers or a special lines charged at local rates, costing from a penny or so a minute off-peak and at weekends. That stays the same even if the Internet site you are connected to is 200 hundred yards down the road or on the other side of the world, the same applies to sending and receiving E-mail messages.

Internet access software or 'Browsers' are normally supplied free, you may already have one or more installed on your PC, they are also widely distributed on magazine cover-mount CD-ROMs otherwise one will be sent to you when you contact the ISP. A few service providers impose a one-off set-up charge and most still require a monthly subscription, however that has started to change. At least half a dozen ISPs now offer a completely free service and there are more in the pipeline. They make their money from advertising or they receive a slice of the income from the BT lines used by their customers. In some cases they may also charge heavily for technical support (up to £1 a minute) and you will probably end up with advertising banners and logos appearing on your computer screen. Another recent innovation is pay-as-you-go and light user schemes, that have low or zero start up costs but charge a penny or two on top of the cost of the call or provide a number of 'free' hours or minutes each month. The follow-on charge -- when you've used up your allocation of free time -- can be up to £2.50 an hour! The traditional subscription-based ISPs typically charge between £10 and £15 per month, but that's usually for unlimited access and free 24-hour technical support.

Free Internet access is a new idea and the market is still coming to terms with the concept. Initial fears that free ISPs might fail, be unable to cope with the demand or offer a second class service have proved largely unfounded but it remains a consideration, particularly if you require a reliable Internet connection for business or commercial use. The longer established broad-based companies and specialist providers may also offer more overseas connections or 'points of presence' that you can dial up when you are abroad, to collect your E-mail.

With so many ISPs to choose from it can be very difficult (there are almost 300 of them in the UK…) but there's nothing to stop you playing the field before you make up your mind. Most of the well-known, pay-to-use ISPs offer no-obligation 30-day free trials. They will ask you to give them your credit card details so remember to cancel well before the trial period expires if you do not intend to go on using it. Most Internet access software is supplied on CD-ROM, installation is normally quite straightforward, pop in the disc and follow the instructions. Occasionally something goes wrong so if you are a complete novice have a knowledgeable friend on hand and it's a good idea to have an 'uninstaller' program on your PC (CleanSweep, Uninstaller etc.). Only try one service at a time -- some access software can disagree with other programs -- so remember to thoroughly erase unused programs.

To sum up, free ISPs are an attractive proposition for home users requiring no-frills E-mail and heavy-duty web access. You will probably have to put up with some advertising and technical help can be expensive or difficult to find. If you need stability plus the comfort of free around the clock assistance then subscription-based ISPs are still worth trying. Pay as you go ISPs and light user schemes offer a simple no-strings service -- they're fine for sending and receiving E-mail but could work out quite expensive for prolonged web use. Next week we'll take a close look at your PC's 'window' on the Internet, the Browser. 

Next week -- all about browsers




Storage space on an ISP's server computer where incoming E-mail messages are stored prior to them being downloaded and read on your PC


MOdulator/DEModulator, a device that converts digital signals coming from your PC into audible tones that can be sent via a conventional telephone line


Fast, powerful computers with vast storage capacity, used to communicate and share data with other computers connected to local or large-scale networks



Keyboard shortcuts are always very popular so here's another selection, this time for Windows Explorer. Pressing F4 displays the full contents of the Address/location panel, F5 refreshes the windows, updating any changes you may have made and F6 switches the focus between the various window 'panes'.

Ctrl + A selects everything in the right hand window, Ctrl + Z undoes the last action and the Backspace key steps back through the parent directory tree. The asterisk key on the numeric keypad expands all of the directory branches whilst the '-' and '+' numeric keys collapse and expand the tree.

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