EIGHT GOOD REASONS TO GO ON-LINE HERE'S HOW TO FIND THE BEST COMPUTER NETWORK FOR YOU.
(MONEY Magazine) – Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is, right? So you're probably leery about joining one of those interactive computer networks that promise to launch you over your phone line onto the much hyped electronic superhighway. Well, relax. An estimated 300,000 people a month are joining the 20 million already cruising the worldwide meta-network known as the Internet, and at least 5 million more have subscribed to the three big U.S. commercial computer networks-America Online (AOL), CompuServe and Prodigy. The attraction: genuinely useful features such as electronic mail, up-to-the-minute news reports, sophisticated investing information and travel reservation services. The typical network might cost a moderate user about $20 a month, including phone charges, which is roughly equal to the average American's $21-a-month cable-TV bill. Moreover, all the equipment you need is a personal computer (such as the ones described in the previous story), a modem and a phone line.
Going it alone on the vast Internet is best suited to experienced computer users. That's because you must connect via one of approximately 250 independent Internet providers, usually small local operations such as New York City's MindVox. They charge about $20 a month and require you to learn a lot of arcane computer commands. Fortunately for newcomers, CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL all use point-and-click software that helps you navigate cyberspace easily. The commercial services cost $8.95 to $9.95 a month for either unlimited access to a broad range of basic services or a prescribed amount of time on the network; additional time or premium services may cost extra (see the table on page 114). What's more, the big three let you tap into some of the most popular Internet services, such as electronic discussion groups (costs range from nothing to $9.60 an hour).
To help you pick the right network for you, we describe below eight real-life problems or questions. In each case, we explain how they can be quickly solved or answered with one or more on-line services. After you've decided which network suits you best, you can pick up one of the promotional disks that fall out of any computer magazine, slip it into your computer and try the service yourself. Or call the big three directly and request free time to explore their systems. America Online and Prodigy will give you 10 hours gratis; CompuServe offers free time only occasionally.
Your daughter is away at college and never writes home.
If you're a network subscriber, the solution is at your fingertips, because your kid most likely gets electronic mail already-from teachers at school and friends anywhere in the world. Reason: Virtually all of America's estimated 14.4 million college students have free accounts on the Internet, which was created in 1969 to enable researchers at universities and government institutions to exchange data more easily. So if you want to find out whether your kid is alive and well, just fire up your computer, type in a brief message and your daughter's address and hit the send button. Now your E-mail letter will confront her the next time she signs on to the computer system. And she has no excuse for not writing back-which you may regret: All she has to do is hit the reply button and type "Send money."
If you simply want to transmit and receive E-mail, you'll probably be happiest with America Online or Prodigy. Both networks' $9.95-a-month basic plans allow you to send as many E-mail messages as you want-within their own systems or to any Internet address-at no extra charge. By contrast, CompuServe allows you about 60 free messages a month but charges 15¢ for every additional message sent.
You're tired of hunting through the newspaper pages to find yesterday's prices for your nine stocks.
Say good-bye to strained eyes and stained fingers forever. While each of the big three offers stock quotes, for ease of use it's hard to beat Prodigy's Quote Track (cost: $9.95 a month for five hours; $2.95 per hour thereafter). Whether you own stocks, bonds, mutual funds, Treasuries or precious metals, you can quickly and easily customize Quote Track to follow your holdings. In addition to daily highs, lows and changes, you get stock and bond prices 15 minutes after the latest trades. A click of the mouse-or an equally simple keyboard command-brings you the latest news on the markets and each company whose shares you own.
With yet another mouse click, you can zip from Quote Track to the PC Financial Network, an on-line service run by Jersey City brokerage Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette. The service allows you to trade stocks, options, mutual funds and fixed-income products like certificates of deposit and bonds instantly. Logging on to PCFN is free, and the commissions are discounted (say, $150 for trading 1,000 shares at $50 each-even better than the $180 that big discounter Charles Schwab would charge for such a transaction). Or switch to Prodigy's Strategic Investor, which for $9.95 a month provides historical performance data, key financial ratios and other basic stats.
Cousin Bernie says PDQ Corp. is a great buy-but he also touted XYZ Corp. right before it tanked.
For detailed research on publicly traded companies, nothing comes remotely close to CompuServe. Its 40 financial databases include Disclosure SEC. That service enables you to get the financial statements, called 10-Ks and 10-Qs, that more than 10,500 U.S. companies file electronically with the Securities and Exchange Commission (cost: free to $17 per report, depending on the complexity of your request). CompuServe's Executive News Service, a favorite of serious information junkies, will automatically scan the financial wires of the Associated Press, Dow Jones and Reuters for stories about the companies you ask to follow. Whenever you plug into the service, the stories will be waiting for you in special folders. (Money-saving tip: Skim the headlines in your folders quickly and then save the ones you want to your home computer. Reading from the service's folders costs $15 an hour; reading from your hard disk costs nothing.) Because CompuServe charges as much as $15 an hour extra for most of its financial databases, be sure to check costs before rummaging around in them.
CompuServe also offers a highly popular Investors' Forum, where you can trade advice and tall tales about your winning picks with thousands of other investors around the world (cost: $4.80 to $9.60 an hour, depending on your modem's speed). But treat what you read with the same caution you would treat those tips from Bernie. Government agencies in New Jersey, Texas and at least five other states are currently investigating on-line investment fraud and abuse. In June, Missouri issued a cease-and-desist order against a cybertout who recommended an electric-car company's stock to Prodigy members last spring; his messages failed to disclose that he was doing p.r. for the company.
You travel a lot and want to make sure you're paying the lowest rates.
All three major commercial on-line networks offer a slew of proprietary travel services, including restaurant guides, ratings of hotels and B and Bs and electronic bulletin boards for swapping travel advice. Best of all, the networks all offer free access to Eaasy Sabre, a user-friendly version of the powerful reservation system owned by American Airlines and employed by professional travel agents. Eaasy Sabre lets you book your own reservations with more than 300 airlines, 18,000 hotels and 45 car-rental companies worldwide. The procedure is essentially the same on all three services. Click on the Eaasy Sabre icon, and you'll be issued an ID number and prompted to choose a password. The program will then virtually lead you by the hand through a series of menus. Plug in the time and date you want to leave, where you're going, when you're returning and whether you need special food on the flight. A detailed itinerary will appear on your screen. To pay for your tickets, punch in your credit-card number. (When you get really proficient, you can use airport abbreviations as a shortcut through the system.) Another advantage: Eaasy Sabre lets you shop around for the best price. For example, a recent search of round-trip air fares from Newark to Kansas City, Mo. turned up a $401 rate if you flew out at 8 a.m. and returned five days later at 11:45 a.m. Five minutes of schedule shuffling, however, revealed that flying back on an 8 a.m. flight would cut your fare to $218.
You have inherited a coin that bears the profile of a man, 1872 and wilhelm deutscher kaiser konig v. preussen. Is it valuable?
You bet it is. You own a Wilhelm I Prussian 10-mark coin. If it's a mint proof-that is, an uncirculated prototype-it could command as much as $1,600. And even if the coin is in lousy shape, it's made of 0.12 ounces of pure gold, worth about $45 recently. Or so say the numismatists on Prodigy's Collectors Bulletin Board (included in the network's basic $9.95-a-month plan). Though collectors of all stripes hobnob throughout cyberspace, both on the commercial networks and on the Internet, Prodigy's service is especially well organized and easy to use. With thousands of members and more than two dozen individual special-interest sections devoted to everything from autographs to Teddy bears, the Collectors BB is the place to go for friendly advice before putting your ignorance-and your pocketbook-at the mercy of a professional appraiser. Just log on, post your query in much the same manner you would a piece of electronic mail (there's plenty of on-line help) and then log off and do something else. The next time you log on, you'll likely have an answer. Caveat: Because you have no way of determining the expertise of the advice giver, consult a professional appraiser before buying or selling.
Your doctor wants to put you on the new asthma drug Serevent, and you worry about side effects.
Although all three major commercial services offer electronic bulletin boards on health and medical topics, their combined offerings are meager compared with those of the Internet. One of the Internet's greatest features is Usenet, a web of more than 6,000 worldwide electronic discussion groups, called "newsgroups," on subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology. And because the Internet is tied into almost all universities and major government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, lots of experts are available. Within 24 hours of posting queries about Serevent to four newsgroups, more than a dozen asthmatics told us that the drug had worked so well they were able to scale back their dependence on other medications. A pharmacist warned, however, that Serevent makes some users jittery, while someone else recommended medical-journal articles about vegetarianism's possibly beneficial effects for asthmatics.
If you connect with the 'Net via an independent Internet provider, you will be able to browse the Usenet for hours at no extra cost. However, you will probably have to learn lots of arcane commands that may frustrate nontechie types. Fortunately, America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy recently began offering Usenet to subscribers. AOL's Usenet software is the most user-friendly of the three commercial networks: type in the word "internet" to get to 'Net central; from there, simply click on the appropriate icons to search for specific newsgroups. And if you subscribe to AOL's $9.95-a-month basic plan, Usenet is free during your first five hours on-line; after that it's $3.50 an hour. While Prodigy's plan costs only $2.95 an hour after the first five hours, it's a bit trickier to use. CompuServe charges $4.80 to $9.60 an hour, depending on the speed of your modem.
When is the best time for you to go to Quebec to see the migration of the greater snow geese?
If you love things avian, you'll crow about birdchat, an Internet electronic mailing list devoted to bird watching. Indeed, the Internet carries about 1,200 mailing lists on almost any topic you can imagine, from the Japanese martial art aikido to the television show Star Trek. Many mailing lists are moderated by some thankless volunteer to root out the yahoos and to reduce the amount of mail that piles up in your electronic mailbox. You pay nothing to join or contribute to an Internet mailing list-beyond phone charges and your Internet provider's fee.
To join birdchat, simply send an E-mail message to email@example.com. Then type subscribe birdchat plus your name on a single line. Within a few minutes you'll start receiving discussions of rare-bird sightings, birding outings, field guides and binoculars (you can send your own messages too). About those snow geese: the birdchat folks say the place to go during late September and early October is the north shore of the St. Lawrence River at Cap Tourmente, about 60 miles downstream from Quebec City. If you luck out, you might spot a white-fronted goose as well.
Your magazine rack is overflowing. How do you find the stories you're really interested in?
Simple. Check out America Online's Newsstand (cost: $3.50 an hour after the first five hours, which are free with a basic subscription). It offers full-text articles from more than 40 newspapers and magazines, from Air Force Times to @times (the new on-line edition of the New York Times). Many magazines also have their own electronic discussion groups, so you can talk about a story with other readers or with the writer and editor.
Don't confuse AOL's Newsstand with Internet's Electronic Newsstand. This service offers only the tables of contents and a few abridged articles from nearly 200 publications, from the New Yorker to obscure academic and trade publications. You can then sign up for a subscription on-line-assuming you want to read them the old-fashioned way.
Staff for this section Assistant Managing Editor Frank B. Merrick Senior Editor Kevin S. McKean associate Editor Elizabeth Fenner Art Director Nancy Steiny designers Ingrid Buuck, Mimi Maxwell writers David Evans, Lamar Graham, Holly Wheelwright Ketron, Tim Powell, Susan Scherreik reporters Judy Feldman, Genevieve M. Fernandez, Karen Hube BOX
Making the connection
The three largest commercial networks, listed below, all provide easy access to the Internet. For an independent local provider that will connect you with the Internet directly, scan listings in computer magazines such as Internet World and Online Access, available at most newsstands. We list the commercial networks by number of subscribers, which can be an important consideration for heavy users of bulletin boards. Reason: The more people connected, the richer your on-line discussions are likely to be. [List comparing networks, giving number of users, telephone numbers, typical cost, and best features (text not available)]