Are the Best ISPs in Life Free?

SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - I've had the same Internet service provider for half a decade now. Each month, I pay its fee as reflexively as I write checks for electricity and heat. And I'm flushing money down the drain--at least according to a small army of PC World readers who have written lately to extol the virtues of their free ISPs.

These communiqurs were prompted by our recent, decidedly lukewarm evaluation of free ISPs such as AltaVista Co., Freei.Net, and NetZero Inc. (www. pcworld.com/ apr00/free-mail). We blundered, the letter writers contend, by reviewing the wrong freebie service providers. The contented customers of BlueLight.com, Freewwweb.com, and WorldSpy.net were particularly vocal.

So I gave those three free ISPs a whirl and found that the letter writers have a point. If all you need is an Internet connection and an e-mail address, a free ISP is worth a try. But I also discovered that the services don't come close to matching the features of a for-pay provider. In other words, my ISP (and possibly yours as well) earns its keep.

What Price Freedom?

No secret here: on the web, free is a euphemism for marketing vehicle. In the case of BlueLight, the marketer in question is Kmart, which operates the service in partnership with Yahoo. When you sign up, you're forced to answer five screens of nosy questions about your income, education, and other personal matters. Then, whenever you're online (except at Yahoo), BlueLight confronts you with a small window of targeted advertisements.

True, one more billboard on the advertising-infested information highway is no big deal. But this window is particularly in-your-face: It floats on top of your browser, can't be shoved completely off-screen, and always seems to be in the way. So sorry, Kmart--you won't become my new ISP anytime soon.

Freewwweb and WorldSpy are more intriguing. Their sign-up forms demand only mundane facts like your current e-mail address, and neither defaces your desktop with an advertising window. The only unavoidable salesmanship happens when you log on to the Net: Each service automatically takes you to its own home page/shopping site. But once these force-fed home pages load, you can go where you will.

But do Freewwweb and WorldSpy monitor your wanderings around the Web, as some free ISPs do? Good question-especially considering that posted privacy policies are vague at WorldSpy and nonexistent at Freewwweb. (And a name like WorldSpy doesn't exude a strong sense of anonymity.) So I asked, and both ISPs told me that they don't track the surfing habits of individual users.

Lack Of Luxuries

Worldspy's software, a trim 1.4MB download, is a snap to set up; Freewwweb's default installation, on the other hand, requires a 22MB download, with a full copy of Netscape Communicator that you probably don't need. (You can sidestep that gargantuan download by manually configuring your PC to connect to Freewwweb, but it's a tedious job.) Once I was up and running, the services felt very much alike. At home in Boston, I consistently got connections of at least 50 kbps and never ran into a busy signal. However, on a San Francisco jaunt, I found that neither could muster more than 32 kbps, and WorldSpy's line was occasionally busy.

Neither service is exactly brimming with luxuries. Among the missing items: space for a personal home page and overseas dial-up numbers. (Freewwweb has access points in Canada; WorldSpy is U.S.-only.) WorldSpy also lacks Usenet newsgroups. My current fee-based ISP, by contrast, provides all these features and more--and I use 'em.

Moreover, if you need to phone for tech support, Freewwweb suddenly turns pricey. You must fork over $15 a call, a fact not mentioned on Freewwweb's site. WorldSpy's support is free and toll-free--one reason it's the ISP I'd choose if I went the free route.

Of course, free ISPs may beef up their features over time--in fact, WorldSpy says it plans to add home-page space and newsgroups. Once that happens, I might be tempted to dump my current ISP. But for now, its fee still seems like a reasonable deal. It works out to about 65 cents a day, less than I shell out to get the dead-tree edition of the New York Times delivered to my doorstep.

Although come to think of it, I could also read the Times for free on the Web.

Am I a wanton spendthrift or what?

Contact PC World Executive Editor Harry McCracken at websavvy@pcworld.com.

On the Net...

The day the music died: My.MP3.com, the put-your-CDs-online service that I (mostly) applauded in June, is no longer its old self. After losing a legal tussle with the major recording labels, MP3.com has disabled the service's ability to play most music. The company says that it hopes to revive the service in a label-sanctioned form, but I'm not holding my breath... Quick PC Tune-Up: Stop by PC PitStop (www.pcpitstop.com) for a free diagnosis of your computer's health that runs right in Internet Explorer 4.0 and above--the site interrogates your PC while you wait. The checkup alerted me to performance hits and security risks I'd never have caught otherwise... Get Thriftier: If you have a sneaking suspicion you're paying too much for phone service, gas or electric utilities, loans, or insurance, LowerMyBills.com warrants a visit. The new site's blend of consumer tips, information, and online shopping adds up to a useful reality check that could save you some bucks.

Gimme Five

Top Search Engine Sleepers

Do You Yahoo? Probably. But lots of lesser-known search sites also deliver the goods, including these five specialized services:

1. RefDesk.com: Run by muckraker Matt Drudge's dad, this site's a portal to all things factual--dictionaries, almanacs, white pages, and much more.

2. Ditto.com: Whether you're looking for a picture of George Washington or George Clooney, the image-centric Ditto can track down the graphic you seek.

3. SearchBug.com: This Yahoo-like hub catalogs search sites of all types, and provides forms that let you run queries on other sites right from within SearchBug.

4. SearchSport.com: Your guide to the wide, wide world of sports on the Web--from baseball and hockey to street luge and korfball (korfball?).

5. MetaCrawler.com: Query 13 major search engines in one fell swoop--or peep at what other folks are searching for at that very moment.

FYI

What Do Cybershoppers seek in an online store? Guaranteed security, discounted prices, and free shipping are the biggest draws, reports a new survey.

Source: Cyber Dialogue

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