Is there a downside to those Internet trial CDs?

A number of new and prospective PC users have asked for advice in choosing an Internet service provider (ISP). In particular they want to know if there are any pitfalls in using one of the disks that offer a number of hours free. This is a fairly large area to cover, but we'll try to show you the things that you might later say you wished you'd known.

TANSTAAFL

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. People don't give Internet time away unless they expect to get a return from their generosity, at least over all the people who take advantage of it. The simple fact is, many people who try a free trial disk end up staying with the ISP, at least for a few months or even years.

Remember that no two offers are exactly the same, and it's up to you to investigate the features, limitations and obligations of the offer you're thinking of taking up. Let's take an imaginary offer from Dingo.com which offers 75 hours of free access.

The credit card

Most offers require you to give your (or your dad's) credit card details. What you'll be saying is "If I don't specifically tell you to cancel this membership on the last day of the free month, I agree to pay a monthly fee for all future months I remain a user." You usually have to pay a whole month even if you go a day over the free period. Sometimes you also have to pay a joining fee, even to get the free month. It's a sad fact, but you have to check your credit card statements very well to make sure they do accept your instructions to terminate the contract. And if you do stay a user, it probably doesn't hurt to check your bills from time to time, both online and on the credit card statement.

Free hours

75 free hours are only 75 hours if you use them up within the first month. You can't carry them over into the next month. You'll also start paying for any hours in the first month that are in excess of 75. On the other hand, you can have a lot of fun exploring the Web in 75 free hours.

Getting stuck

One thing that new users don't think about is what they'll use as their e-mail address. People who sign up with Dingo.com will get an e-mail address like onionfeatures@dingo.com.au. The longer you use it, the harder it is to give it up, as all your friends and all of the mailing lists you've joined will have to be told when you change. That is, if you decide to stop using Dingo as your ISP you will have to give up the e-mail address. The alternative is to use one of those free e-mail accounts such as Hotmail, or get your own permanent e-mail address that allows you to change ISPs as often as you like. You still need an ISP, but your mail comes via your permanent address.

Take a look at www.mailbank.com. It offers you an e-mail account like fred@jones.com but there's a degree of luck involved, as Mailbank may not have been able to register the domain jones.com so it can't sell the subdomain "fred" to you. It's well worth a look. It costs $US20 to set it up and $US5 a year thereafter.

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Paul Zucker

PC World

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