SAN FRANCISCO (05/09/2000) - Free Internet access through NetZero Inc. is simpler in a recently revised version, but it still exacts a price.
You pay, you may recall, by providing demographic information about yourself.
You also watch endless banner ads and submit to having your every move monitored.
In exchange, you get free dial-up access, now through an enhanced version of the NetZero client software called Z3. It features a revamped ZeroPort navigation tool, as well as the capability to log in over an existing network connection.
Regardless of how you feel about NetZero or free Internet service providers in general, NetZero's latest batch of client software does come as a welcome change. With this release, ZeroPort has been shrunk substantially to 800 by 88 pixels.
It's still not possible to minimize Z3 altogether, but you can now automatically dock it at the top or the bottom of the screen, rather than drag it around the screen, as in previous versions. This, company officials say, prevents ZeroPort from obscuring other windows--an understandable complaint.
Also new on ZeroPort is an "instant search" capability, a search field that feeds into NetZero's search engine partner, LookSmart. ZeroPort also features redesigned marquee buttons and pull-down menus for quicker navigation, or "speed-dial" capabilities, as the company calls it. These include links to Autos, EBay, Music, and Weather, among others.
Now More Portable
Many people use NetZero as a back-up ISP, in case their primary ISP goes down or when they are traveling. Travelers will be pleased to hear that NetZero now has modem banks at 2500 locations nationwide.
NetZero has also added the capability to be used over an existing network connection. That is, you don't have to use NetZero as your ISP to gain access to its features. I tested NetZero using this feature, and it was indeed very easy to use and set up. After downloading the package, I answered some demographic questions, told NetZero which e-mail client I'd be using, and I was on my merry way.
But therein lies the catch: If you have an existing Internet connection, why on earth would you want to use NetZero?
If it's to access the free NetZero e-mail account, fine. But by the same token, you can get free e-mail from any number of Web-based providers--and they don't deluge you with ads or track your usage, either. Sure, ZeroPort provides some useful features--but are they enough to warrant divulging your demographics and being tracked?
The new capability might come in handy if you normally use NetZero as your (free) ISP at home and want to log in from another PC elsewhere. While you could call one of NetZero's enlarged selection of local access numbers, the portal option lets you also call from a public kiosk or perhaps from work.
All in all, ZeroPort alone fails to offer any functions above and beyond what you can get from a plain old portal. NetZero is, in brief, a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.