The Shopping Club

Oh, Go Fax Yourself

Bruce,

Free ISPs u want? Free ISPs u got! These Internet service providers come in two flavors. Some (Netzero, Juno) want to own a piece of your desktop. When you dial up with them, a long, narrow window, filled with changing banner ads, appears on your screen as long as you’re online. Even if you’re using your word processor, you can’t escape this desktop billboard until you disconnect.

Other ISPs (like Worldspy) just want to own your portal. When you connect with Worldspy, your browser automatically loads to the Worldspy homepage, an e-commerce page with a rather uninspiring inventory. Beyond that, there’s no intrusion.

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In theory, I prefer the Worldspy approach. You can get set up quicker, and once you get online, there’s no annoying commercial interruptions. However, I found Worldspy’s software problematic–it crashed my system a few times during routine logging on and logging off. And unless I tried right after a fresh restart, I couldn’t use it with Microsoft Outlook to access third-party e-mail servers. That means that I couldn’t check my Earthlink, Netzero, or Juno account when I logged on with Worldspy. But if you’re happy to use Worldspy e-mail (it’s Web-based), or another Web-based e-mail (Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc.), it’s the best of the lot.

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Juno juggled my multiple e-mail accounts with ease, but its ad window is simply too intrusive for my tastes. For me, $20 a month is a small price to pay to keep my desktop from looking like the Vegas strip. Netzero failed me on both counts: There’s an ugly billboard to deal with, and I couldn’t access other mail servers with it.

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Aside from these flaws, the free ISPs compared favorably with their for-pay counterparts.  Downloading and installing the software was manageable. Netzero requires a particularly onerous sign-up survey, but I got online with all three around 20 to 30 minutes after visiting their home pages. They also seemed to be widely available: The three ISPs I scrutinized had access numbers not only in big cities (like New York, where I live), but also in more remote areas (like Sioux City, Iowa, where I grew up). I rarely got a busy signal, and none of them disconnected me during short periods of inactivity.

I’m not excited about any of them, though, because I think that my current ISP, Earthlink, provides an incredible service for a trifling sum. Why, I can still remember the days when services like AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy charged $6 an hour for BBS service that didn’t even include this newfangled “World Wide Web.” And if you wanted an e-mail, you had to hand-crank the rusty old “e-mail gin” just like everybody else. So pay the monthly fee, or put up with a minor inconvenience, but don’t forget–not for a second!--just how good you kids today have got it.

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If you’re worried about the Web tying up your phone line, there’s another free service, recommended by a number of readers, that you should check out: CallWave.com. Sit through a 40-second download, call your phone company to set up “auto call forwarding” to a toll-free CallWave number (this costs about a buck per month), and run CallWave while you’re online. If someone tries to call, they’ll get an “electronic answering machine” message instead of a busy signal, and you’ll get to hear the message they leave on your PC speakers. A caveat: If you have call waiting, you’ll need to disable it when you call your ISP. You can do this for free (at least with Bell Atlantic) by pressing *70 before you call.

But Bruce, if your dial-up ISP just can’t get you those corduroys fast enough, is there anything you can do? Maybe you need more bandwidth. Tomorrow, I’ll see if “free DSL” really exists. And let’s have a look at some more readers’ picks. Readers: If you’ve got a nifty type of free service that we haven’t mentioned yet, send me an e-mail, and we’ll try to check it out.

Happy Hunting,
Andrew

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