Almost any personal computer can be used for Internet electronic mail and other text services like bulletin boards and conferences. More power is needed to handle large files and the World Wide Web with its graphics. If in doubt about your machine, find a service that offers specialist support or get advice from a user group.
Service providers support the three most common computers in schools: IBM and compatible (Windows PCs), Apple Mac and Acorn. But the widest choice of browsers and features is for the Windows PC and the Mac.
A range of programs will allow you to browse the Web, use electronic mail (e-mail), get files (ftp), get programs (gopher) and take part in news groups (telnet).
Connecting to the Net with a PC
The minimum configuration recommended for a Windows PC with Windows 3 software is a medium speed 486SX with 4 megabytes of memory, a 200-megabyte hard disc, 256 colour VGA screen and a 14.4K bits-per-second modem.
If you want to sample the delights of Hot Java, for its much-hyped multimedia browsing, then you need Windows 95 as your operating system, preferably a Pentium processor and 8 to 16 megabytes of memory, and a faster, 28.8K modem.
Connecting with a Mac
The minimum specification for a Macintosh is an LC with System 7.1 or later, 4 megabytes of memory, 200-megabyte disc, a 16-colour monitor and a 14.4K or 28.8K modem. But for advanced Net features the situation is the same as for PCs - get the most up-to-date machine and a fast modem.
Connecting with an Acorn
Several Internet providers are beginning to supply packages for Acorn computers (popular inside but not outside schools). The minimum hardware specification is an Acorn with Risc OS 3.10 or later, 4 megabytes of memory, 5 megabytes of free disc space, a free serial port and a 14.4K or 28.8K modem. The most popular package is the Ant Internet suite. Besides the communication software needed to connect your Acorn to the Internet, it includes Marcel (an e-mail and news readerwriter which also supports e-mail attachments), and Fresco, a Web browser. Fresco supports tools such as telnet (for news groups) and ftp (to get files). This package is easy to install and comes with good documentation, ideal for a new user.
Cityscape and BT CampusWorld are just two of the 32 service providers that bundle this suite with their Internet subscription. Others such as Research Machines' Internet for Learning have opted for Arcweb as a browser and Newsbase with TTFN to handle e-mail and read newsgroups, but the documentation is not comprehensive.
Argonet also offers a complete package based on Voyager software with an Arcweb Web browser, but the package is not as easy to install and configure for new users.
A modem is needed at your end of the telephone line to convert the computer's digital signals to and from analogue signals which pass along the line.
Modems send data at different speeds, which is reflected in their price. The commonest modems on the UK market work at 14.4K (about Pounds 100), but prices for 28.8K modems are dropping rapidly (expect to pay Pounds 150-Pounds 200). Tests suggest that a 28.8K modem will only be about 40 per cent faster than a 14.4K one when using the World Wide Web, but you may be able to use the full speed advantage if you "ftp" files in off-peak hours.
CHOOSING AN INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER
The number of service providers has expanded roughly tenfold in a year to more than 120 - so selection might not be easy. The criteria are service and cost. You need to talk to existing users, answer the following questions, then ask for a trial subscription: * Are the features good?
* Can the provider cope with simultaneous connections at peak times?
* Are its modem connections fast enough? (They should be V34 standard, or 28.8K.)
* Is the connection PPP or SLIP? (PPP is potentially better).
* Can you have more than one e-mail user name and mailbox? And what sort of e-mail is it? (POP3 e-mail is best, especially if it doesn't cost extra. ) * Is the software bundle good, with easy, clear installation instructions?
* Does the e-mail software support MIME so you can attach files such as documents, spreadsheets or graphics to messages?
* Newer Web browsers are likely to be better than older ones, so do they include all the common "helper" applications?
* Is the phone call local? (This will be your main expense.) * Is the service good, or is it congested? Does the provider have a fast enough connection to the Internet? Are its computer capacity and upgrade plans adequate?
* Is the provider reliable? How much down time is there a month? Is technical support adequate?
* What is the monthly charge? (Avoid connection time charges: most providers have a basic dial-up service at Pounds 10 to Pounds 15 per month, regardless of how many hours you spend connected. Quality is more important than this small difference in cost. If you need more advanced services, or a faster or more permanent connection, you will have to price the options carefully.) * What is the joining fee? (They range up to Pounds 50, but it is a one-off unless you move to another provider. Check if this fee includes software: if this turns out to be unregistered shareware, add the registration fee for a fairer comparison.)
* Some service providers:RM: 01235 826868BT CampusWorld 0345 626253Edex 0181 296 9201CityScape: 01223 566950Pipex: 01223 250120Easynet 0171 209 0990Demon 0181 371 1234
* Internet, a monthly UKpublication from EMAP,ISSN1355 6428 is a good wayto pick up tips, special offers andto keep up with information onservice providers. Pounds 2.95.