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Surfing without a PC

Prices of personal computers have fallen in recent years, but they still remain one of the most expensive consumer electronics products. And then there are PC running costs, such as software and phone charges when accessing the Internet. It's no surprise then that for many households a PC is way beyond their budget. But with email and Internet access playing such a growing role in communications and access to information, cheaper alternatives to the PC must be found.

The good news is that you do not need a PC to use email or to go online. Devices such as games consoles and WAP phones can be used instead, although there are limitations. Amstrad and BT have even launched home telephones that include email services, but the device offering the best alternative to the PC is the home television (see table, page 16). There are now a number of email and Internet services which use the television set as the access device.

Supporters of TV-based email and online services argue that almost every home has a television set, so there is no expensive hardware to buy - although some services require users to purchase set-top boxes or wireless keyboards. Most of the TV e-services use digital television, so users are often required to subscribe to a digital TV service before they can receive email or access the Internet.

Using the TV to access email or the Internet is not the same as using a PC. A computer monitor has a much higher resolution than a TV creen, so graphics and text do not look as sharp on a television. Most Web pages are designed for PC monitors and may not fit well on a TV screen. Most TV e-services don't allow users to save information, which can be a pain. A PC can save web pages on its hard disk or print them out, but most TV systems can't. And then there is the potential problem of someone hogging the family television while accessing the Internet or using email.

* Some companies are offering free Internet set-top boxes and services, although call charges are not included in the package. The Internet company PowerChannel plans to offer consumers a free Internet box that plugs into almost any analogue or digital television and is operated by a remote control handset. There is also a free email service. The PowerChannel box will be free in exchange for users completing a monthly lifestyle survey. PowerChannel's box will be distributed by Granada's rental shops and free Net access will be via Granada's G-Wizz Internet portal.

The UK company Freebox (www.freebox.co.uk) also plans to offer free set-top boxes that will include a CD player, DVD player and MP3 player. Freebox says it will make its money from advertisers, content providers and Internet service providers. The company plans to have 20,000 boxes out before Christmas. Anyone considering these types of services needs to ensure that they fully understand the terms and conditions before signing up for them.

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