If you want to get on the Internet, one of the first things you'll need is an access provider, to allocate you a name, handle the billing via your credit card and tell you which phone numbers to dial to access its computers. It is through your provider that you talk to the rest of the world, via email, newsgroups or the Web.
Choose your provider carefully. Do you want billing by the hour or unlimited access? Do you want an email address for everyone in the house or just for yourself? And will you want to access your mail when you're abroad or create Web pages to tell everyone about yourself? You can find a company which fills all these needs but not necessarily at the same time and with more than 100 providers in the UK, making your choice can be tricky.
We've looked at seven of the largest providers to see what's on offer and how easy they'll be for the Net novice to get to grips with - as the Internet becomes more and more popular and tries to move into the mainstream, it's essential that people can set things up easily. The days of fiddly configuration files are long gone but they may have put many people off the Internet for good.
All the providers give you an email address and let you view pages on the World Wide Web. But they don't all provide the same facilities. AOL and CompuServe, for instance, offer a wealth of information of their own, including news bulletins, technical support areas and chat facilities.
Many people could happily spend all their time using these and never need the Internet itself for more than email. Other providers offer a bare bones service, leaving you with little more than a Web browser and perhaps some useful links to follow. In some cases, even when you do access the Web, the software that's been supplied simply doesn't cut the mustard when it comes to the latest multimedia pages.
So, which should you choose? There's no simple answer and you may find that for what you need from the Net, even our choices aren't the best solution for you. Read on and find out.
AOL is rapidly becoming one of the largest suppliers of Internet access in the UK. That's largely due to the software that it supplies with each account. We tested the latest version, which should be available by the time you read this article. Setting up the system is easy and you can sign up online using a code number supplied with the free disks.
Once you're on, you can create up to four more screen names, which are additional accounts for other members of the family. Parents will be glad to know that you can assign parental controls to each one so that, for instance, you can make sure your children can't exchange messages or access chat rooms. Although AOL is looked on by many people as an Internet provider, it's actually much more widely used for its online content, which includes newspapers, weather, reference and discussion areas for a variety of topics, all with a graphical interface which is easy to use.
If you want access to the Internet, it's all there. A major criticism of the previous version of AOL was the built-in Web browser, which was pretty short on features. That's now been remedied. The new built-in browser is based on Internet Explorer and has an AOL-style interface, so it offers support for frames, tables and most other features. It's also easy to run a separate browser. The version we tested only supported 16-bit Internet applications but that should change before the new release ships. The AOL Winsock installs automatically, and as long as you put your Web browser in the same directory or make sure it's the only Winsock in your path, you're ready to surf. Be warned, though, that Winsock does not give you a TCP/IP connection. In other words, you can run Internet programs but you can't use a different dialler such as Windows 95 Dial Up Networking - you have to use AOL to make the connection.
In terms of ease of use, there's little to beat AOL. Its speed is reasonable, too - access to UK Web sites is fast even though they are sent via the US. The biggest fly in the ointment is the costs - your free time can be used up very quickly and if you use the chat areas, expect to pay dearly. For novices and occasional use, however, it's well worth a look.
Phone 0800 279 1234
Conclusion A good choice for beginners but watch out for spiralling charges.
BT is a relatively late entrant into the Internet market; whether or not people will use the same company that provides their phone service remains to be seen.
Earlier versions of the BT Internet software received rather withering comments. The software provided for review arrived on a CD which supported a single button to install Internet Explorer; checking the ReadMe file revealed that was the key to setting everything up.
Two restarts later, we finally managed to go online for registration, which all happens from within the Web browser. This is a rebadged copy of Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, with a BT logo instead of the static "e" in the corner. While it's a good browser, it makes everything seem a little slugglish on a slow machine. You might want to use a different browser on an older PC but you'll have to put up with this one for registration.
Once you're up and running, you can easily use any Internet application you like. That's because, alone of all the services that we looked at in this test, BT Internet actually takes advantage of the built-in dialup networking under Windows 95. You don't have to move your applications to a different directory to run them with the service or mess about in any other way.
After the sluggish installation, performance was good - as you'd expect when you're connected to one of the UK's main Internet backbones. The default page on the Web browser gives access to extra facilities, including the ability to configure the URL on your Web pages or create additional mailboxes - you can have up to five.
For new users, a reasonable selection of helpful information is provided on the Web pages although there's no printed matter and nothing on the CD. Email is provided by Microsoft Internet News and Mail, which works well with Explorer. The chief fly in the ointment is the slightly clunky installation, which just didn't behave as the instructions said it would. If BT can resolve that, it may have a service that will be attractive to many people.
Phone 0800 800001
Conclusion A good service but a little pricey.
In comparison with AOL, its closest competitor in terms of type of service, CompuServe is looking decidedly dated. The software supplied is the CompuServe Information Manager (CIM), plus the CompuServe Dialler and a copy of Spry Mosaic for accessing the Web. Unlike AOL, a CompuServe account does give you direct access to the Internet but the software supplied is a kludge at best. Clicking on a link to a Web item from within CIM reminds you to alter your settings, sign off and then use the CompuServe Dialler to sign back on for an Internet session. The main service is accessed via a TCP/IP connection, which is even slower than using CIM directly.
The supplied Web browser looks distinctly long in the tooth compared with the likes of Internet Explorer. Nor is it integrated with the rest of the service, beyond loading pages when you click on an appropriate item in CIM - hardly cutting edge stuff. You can, thankfully, use any other applications that you want, either via CompuServe's own dialler and Winsock or by using a script for Windows 95 networking - there's one on the Windows CD as part of the Dial-Up Scripting tool.
CompuServe's saving grace is the breadth of information it offers, with technical support forums for most major companies and a wide range of databases that can be searched, including company information and newspapers.
In these respects it's a better information provider than AOL but the interface is clumsy, especially the mail facilities of CIM, and you're still stuck with an unmemorable number instead of the meaningful IDs allocated by every other service.
If you need access to the databases and are prepared to pay the premium rates they attract, you could certainly find a use for a CompuServe subscription.
It's also a handy option for travellers because dialup access is available in most countries. But for those users who are more interested in plain Internet access, the speed isn't up to what it should be and the mail facilities don't cut the mustard, especially since you can't use a program like Explorer or Eudora to replace the mail functions of CIM.
CompuServe is aiming to move its service to a Web-based interface - frankly, it can't happen soon enough. Until it does, however, it's best looked upon as a second option, something to keep for travelling and occasional reference.
Phone 0800 000200
Conclusion Useful for globetrotters and some business information but not a first choice.
Demon started the dialup Internet business in the UK and it is still the biggest player in the market. It has also suffered terribly from its image - many people hold the view that it's a technical service. To an extent that's true - unlike any other provider, the Demon Internet service puts your computer on the Net with a unique address so you can run applications such as Web servers or use programs such as CuSeeMee fairly easily.
The package supplied for testing was the new retail pack, which should cost around u39.99 and includes signup fees as well as the first month's access. But because of the way the Demon service works, you'll have to call the sales team anyway, to choose a name for your account. It's a 24-hour service but it's still an extra step which may put some people off.
The supplied software is Turnpike, which is a fairly powerful system for collecting news and mail messages. You can have as many email addresses as you like, so a single account could be sufficient for a small office, but it's a little quirky in the way you manage folders of mail. Once you've got the hang of it, however, it's very flexible. Also included are Internet Explorer 3.0 and HoTMetaL Lite, with which you can take advantage of the rather generous 5Mb of free Web space.
Software setup has improved greatly since Demon's early days and most newcomers will find it pretty straightforward, if not quite in the same league as AOL or Global Internet. Performance, however, is variable. Demon has suffered in the past from what can best be described as growing pains and as a result it has received a certain amount of bad publicity. At the time we did our tests there were problems with access to some other sites on the Net - according to Demon, this was due to an increase in the capacity of some of its links. When all works well, it's certainly fast.
Users who need unlimited email addresses or who are attracted to the flexibility of the software could do worse than look at Demon. It's still a little more intimidating than some other services but it's much less so than in the past.
Phone 0181 371 1010
Conclusion The best solution if you want a small office package or are more technical.
Global Internet is one of the larger second-tier providers in the UK, and the package we were sent arrived, CompuServe-style, as a couple of floppy disks in a wrapper which extolled the virtues of the service. Setup is fairly straightforward although you will need a credit card to get online.
Unlike the other providers, Global Internet doesn't require you to fill in Web pages with information to sign up. Instead, there's a custom signup program which presents you with a form to fill in, which provides you with payment details and allows you to select a first and second choice account name. Once that's all done, the system dials up, connects, and tells you which name you have been allocated.
While registration is straightforward, the rest of the software is a little disappointing. The supplied Web browser is SuperMosaic, which isn't up to the standards of either Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, and nothing else is included. The sole concession to usefulness is that the install program creates a settings file for Eudora and the instructions tell you how to download it from the Web site - once that's done, at least, you can send and receive mail. Global says it intends to ship a replacement for this later in the year, which will include Internet Explorer and the Microsoft Mail and News applications. Coupled with the ease of setup, this makes it an attractive package. It's also one of the cheapest for unlimited access, especially if you pay quarterly or annually rather than monthly. It would be more useful, however, if it made proper use of Windows 95 dialup networking rather than relying on Trumpet Winsock.
Performance is reasonable, and Web access is fairly fast. With the addition of Internet Explorer, Global Internet could be a good choice of service for many people, although once again you will be limited to a single mailbox rather than the five on offer from some of the competition. If that's all you need, however, and especially if you're prepared to take out an annual subscription, then it's worth waiting for the new software and taking the plunge.
Phone 0181 957 1008
Conclusion If you want to pay in advance you'll save money here, but one email address isn't enough for most people.
IBM Global Network
There are some things that are just typically IBM. Such as opening a fairly large box and finding just two floppy disks and a few sheets of paper inside. Two cards give information about the licence agreement and a 64-page A5 booklet contains the licence itself, in lots of languages.
Add a briefer leaflet and you have the sum total of the documentation - although more will be supplied with the end user version of the package, according to IBM.
Installation is fairly straightforward, nevertheless. It leaves you with an Internet Dialler icon on your desktop, Trumpet Winsock, and a copy of Netscape Navigator 2.0 installed on your hard disk, which is used for mail, news and Web access. The setup procedure automatically configures Navigator with all the details needed for your account - in our case, that involved picking up messages from a machine which appeared, from its name, to be in the US. While in theory that shouldn't make much difference, given the nature of the Internet, the performance did seem to be a little slow.
Once you've installed everything, it's all pretty easy to use - just one button to call or hang up, plus one for user settings and one for the networks, including the phone numbers.
Unlike many of the other services, IBM includes no free Web space, which puts the pricing a little on the high side. However, it does have one important bonus, shared only by CompuServe, which is that it's a global service - the program is supplied with a long list of phone numbers for this use and you can automatically check for updates to the list. While it's not quite as ubiquitous as CompuServe appears to be, you will nevertheless be able to use your account in most of Europe, Australia and the Americas.
That alone is probably sufficient to make this a useful option for people who travel a lot and who want access to Internet mail. But the poor documentation and the slightly lacklustre performance conspire to make IBM Global Network one of the less attractive of the UK access packages that we tested.
IBM Global Network
Phone 0800 973000
Conclusion Another option for travellers but the lack of documentation was a shock.
UUNET Pipex Dial
Pipex Dial has been around for some time now, since long before the company became part of the global UUNET group. The latest version of Dial is an off-the-shelf package which includes everything you need to get going, on CD and floppy disk. The CD contains other useful programs too - HoTMetaL Lite for designing your Web pages, Acrobat Reader and FoneCost, which helps you monitor your telephone bills.
It's also the only package to include general information about the Internet, in the form of a rough guide which includes a directory of Web sites catering for just about every interest under the sun. Registration is handled automatically.
All you need to do is fill in the details supplied on the registration card and the system automatically allocates you a password and user name.
That user name is your initial email address, too, and it's not very memorable.
Fortunately, you can set up a more meaningful alias and you can also create four additional mailboxes.
Everything is controlled by the main Pipex Dial control panel, which has quick launch buttons for all the applications included - chiefly Netscape Navigator 2.0, which is used for email as well as Web access. When you've configured more than one mailbox, the Dial program will ask who you are each time you start and configure Netscape appropriately.
Since the package we looked at was designed to sell in shops, it is also completely self-contained. You don't even need a credit card to activate anything since your first 30 days are fully paid up. Each time you connect you'll be reminded how many days you have left. If you decide you like the service and want to continue with it you just subscribe online.
As in previous tests, Pipex Dial proved itself to be fast and reliable - it will also make use of 33.6Kbps modems although the 16 per cent increase in speed probably isn't worth rushing out and upgrading for. For those who want full access but don't want the content provided by an online service such as AOL, this is a good solution. The package we used effectively gives you a month's free access, which should give plenty of time to see whether the Internet, or this particular provider, really is for you.
UUNET Pipex Dial
Phone 0500 474739
Conclusion A very good service which is well packaged, but if you want to do lots with the Web, Demon is cheaper.
It's always hard to pick a winner since Internet providers differ in subtle ways. Worse, in the fast-changing world of the Internet, to pick on a provider for its service over one week may be unrealistic. Even where we've found a provider to be fast, it's hard to say convincingly that a newcomer to the Internet will spot a massive difference or even that the differences will exist for them, such is the pattern of usage.
Instead, we've concentrated more on how easy it is to use a service and to get online with the package supplied. Under these criteria there are two clear winners. AOL is by far the most simple and straightforward to use and the new software answers many of the criticisms of its Web access.
For newcomers dipping a toe in the water, it remains an excellent choice although it can be expensive when you start to use it a lot.
If you are after pure Internet access, only one package comes with absolutely everything - UUNET Pipex Dial, complete with the rough guide. It offers a chance to try out the service by way of a month's free access, you can be online within minutes, and the CD carries all the extra programs you're likely to need. It's as close to a bargain as you can get.
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