New stuff on the Net for nix

The trick is to tune out all the promotional chatter and get to the valuable stuff quickly. But to find the good giveaways, you often have to waste time rummaging through heaps of ill conceived, poorly executed and just plain useless stuff. In fact, we did a fair bit of slogging to find the items listed here. This time around, we searched for innovative or little-known free stuff that leverages the Net's strengths of interactivity and multimedia capabilities.

Looking forward

What's next for free Web services? The latest trend is "trading up", which happens when you upgrade the basic service - enlarging your e-mail inbox, say - in exchange for a small fee or for signing up friends. Some services will let you opt out of ads this way. In general, though, free Web sites will remain advertising-driven, making them better suited to home users.

Keep in mind that today's free Web services may be too expensive tomorrow. Fortunately, competition in the free online service market is fierce, so if your favourite site suddenly starts asking for money, feel free to go elsewhere.

FREE SITES AND SERVICES

FREEWARE

Ram charger

Open sesame

COMMUNICATION FACILITATORS

Fight for your right to e-party

Making a list

Who loves ya, baby?

HEALTH

Medicine man

Survive and thrive

REFERENCE AND DO-IT-YOURSELF TIPS

Hail, Britannica

Learn your lesson

Mystery solved

Home repair helpers

PHONE AND MAIL

See me, hear me

GAMES AND ENTERTAINMENT

Interactive sports

Coming soon to a PC near you

All trivia, all the time

FREE SUPPORT

Intro

A gathering at the forum

Do your own background check

Usenet newsgroups

Knowledge base abyss

PCs and Windows

Applications

Peripherals

BEYOND FREE E-MAIL

Intro

E-mail

Add a security blanket to free e-mail

PIMs

Web hosting

Web storage and backup

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RamBooster

This is an ingenious little program that sits quietly in your system tray, monitoring RAM usage as you work. When available memory dips below a user-defined level, RamBooster clears out trash from applications you've closed - speeding up performance and helping prevent system crashes. It works as well as commercial competitors and is very compact - only 618KB once installed.www.saunalahti.fi/%7Eborg/rambooster

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PassKeeper

Having trouble keeping track of all the passwords you use to access Web sites and e-mail accounts? This convenient program gives you a secure place to store all your log-in information. In addition, it encrypts passwords and IDs so that no one can peek at them, and the program itself requires a password for entry.www.passkeeper.com

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Evite

This Web tool puts the RSVP into HTML. Using a simple Web-page form, you can send out e-mail invitations to numerous recipients, who are then directed to your Evite RSVP page. There are standard templates for more than a dozen types of events, such as movies, dinner parties, happy hours, or even online functions - such as a fund-raiser or group chat. Recipients reply by checking off a box and they can also add extra messages or comments.

Discriminating party-goers can view a list of other attendees before committing. Plus, Evite provides maps, door-to-door directions, weather forecasts and the all-important BYO option.www.evite.com

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Onelist

Mailing lists - which allow ongoing digital correspondence among any number of participants - were among the first Internet tools to take off, and for good reason. With little effort, you can design a list for one-step e-mailing and event posting among friends, business colleagues, or groups with common interests. There are many good list-hosting services out there, but Onelist has the best overall design and features, including file sharing, message archives and calendar functions. Once your list is up and running, members can send mail to its address and their messages will be forwarded to all other members of that list. You can also join any of Onelist's more than 280,000 public lists (which are arranged by category). Commercial services pay the bills for Onelist by placing inconspicuous text ads at the bottom of e-mail dispatches. Onelist will be merging with EGroups in May, but you can still access the site through the Onelist URL.www.onelist.com

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Egreetings

What better way is there to send a message to your significant other than using Barry White as your emissary? Like other card sites, Egreetings offers a number of free electronic messages in various categories, but this site also includes cards with popular music, such as the mood-setting number that features an animated log fire and Barry White singing "I Get Off on You". For that other demographic in your household, there are also cards featuring the alternative band Garbage.www.egreetings.com

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Ask Dr Weil

Stop spending money on alternative health-care books. Now you can ask Dr Andrew Weil directly about the best natural methods for healing psoriasis or treating your colitis. The easy-to-navigate site features a question of the day, plus various community forums and an extensive, searchable database of archived Q&As. There's also a useful "herbal medicine chest" glossary at the site for those who can't tell their echinacea from their eucalyptus, and an eight-week natural health overhaul program.www.pathfinder.com/drweil

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ThriveOnline

Part of the expanding Oxygen network's resources for women, Thrive Online is a well-designed women's health information hub that covers it all. You'll find daily health and fitness features, message boards, chat forums and an Ask the Experts section. Other interactive tools include a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator, pregnancy calculator and various health and fitness questionnaires.www.thriveonline.com

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Britannica.com

Go ahead and slam your front door on the encyclopedia salesman. Cross the multimedia CD-ROM off your shopping list and forget about paying Microsoft Encarta for its online reference work. Britannica.com is everything an online encyclopedia should be - plus, it's free. A remarkable amalgamation of Internet search engine, encyclopedia, news service and independent content provider, Britannica.com buries the competition when it comes to providing information on the Net. Type in a search and receive unabridged encyclopedia entries and current articles from more than 75 periodicals, as well as from books and relevant Web sites. No other reference work of comparable quality offers as much.www.britannica.com

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PC Show and Tell

You won't need naptime after viewing the brief, 1-minute video lessons on this site, but you will advance to the next grade in using software applications. PC Show and Tell offers some 6000 video lessons on how to master such applications and Internet services as PowerPoint, Excel, Windows 98 and ICQ. Each video focuses on a specific task in an application, so you can jump quickly to a precise problem, such as learning how to add an outside text box to your Excel chart. You will need to download the free 500KB player from the site in order to view the videos.www.pcshowandtell.com

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HowStuffWorks

Ever wonder why potatoes turn brown when you cut them? Are you trying to figure out how the light sabres in Star Wars work, or how a gas turbine operates? Then you could spend hours sifting through this interesting site. Illustrated with crisp photos and detailed diagrams, the well-organised articles explain the many mysteries of the world in simple, straightforward language.www.howstuffworks.com

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DoItYourself

Your roof is leaking, your drain is clogged and your toilet is overflowing. Roll up your sleeves, grab your mouse and search this site's extensive database of tips, FAQs and instructions on home repair. If you're stumped, the site features handy discussion forums where you can ask other do-it-yourselfers for advice. Or you can pose questions to professional contractors and home inspectors who moderate the discussions.www.doityourself.com

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Visitalk

Less than a year old, Visitalk is an online switchboard designed to let you see, hear and talk to people anywhere in the world via your PC. When you sign up for Visitalk's free services, you're issued an Internet phone number that allows you to send and receive instant voice messages while online, using Visitalk's free software. Visitalk also includes a comprehensive tutorial for using the software, making calls, using voice mail and other services. You can also set up direct, one-on-one video conferencing using existing programs such as Microsoft NetMeeting. The BuddyChat feature allows voice or video calls for up to four people. You'll need a sound card, speakers and a microphone, plus a videocam for video conferencing.www.visitalk.com

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QuokkaSports

Anchored by the Australian-owned Quokka.com hub, this site successfully exploits the interactivity of the online medium. It provides plenty of lively content (some in real-time) through interactive games, Web cams and streaming audio and video of international and adventure sports. Quokka will also partner with NBC to cover the Olympic Games in Sydney this September.www.quokka.com

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TrailerVision

Tired of watching film trailers that are better than the movies they advertise? The Canadian director who launched this site uses all the clichéd techniques in the bombastic school of filmmaking - quick strobe-light cuts, fast-action special effects and throbbing soundtracks - to create hilarious trailers for films that don't exist but that you'll swear you've actually seen.www.trailervision.com

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AbsoluteTrivia

The Disneyland of trivia sites, AbsoluteTrivia boasts a database of more than 10,000 infobites, which are sortable by keyword or category. Dedicated trivia enthusiasts will enjoy the random trivia generator. Furthermore, you'll find a tonne of links to additional trivia resources.www.absolutetrivia.com

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When vendor support fails, where do you turn? We try nine support sites to see which ones provide the answers you need, at a price you can't refuse.

When a PC suddenly and for no apparent reason conks out, most people pick up the phone and call the manufacturer's technical support line. Sometimes, that means waiting forever on hold. Or it could involve sending e-mail that never gets answered, paying money for help, or receiving bad advice. Don't worry. Third-party technical support sites offer practical tips on computer-related problems and a useful, accessible alternative to less-than-stellar vendor support. Like so much else on the Web, most of these sites are free (supported by ads) and some of them provide exemplary advice.

When Leigh Washburn needed help designing an Excel chart, she went first to Microsoft's Web site. "Their only advice was to buy a book," she says.

Eventually, she found her way to another site, MyHelpDesk.com, where a search for "Excel chart" brought her quickly to a graphic explaining exactly how the procedure worked. Initially, she doubted the accuracy of the advice: "When it works that easily, it couldn't possibly be right." But she soon became a believer. Washburn had discovered one of the conundrums of today's Internet: it's full of helpful free advice - if only you can find it.

Is third-party support any good? In many cases, it's excellent. We examined nine free sites - 32bit.com (www. 32bit.com), About. com (www.about.com), Computing.net (http://computing.net), EHow.com (www.ehow.com), Goofy Guys.com (www.goofyguys.com), My HelpDesk.com (www.myhelpdesk.com), NoWonder.com (www.nowonder.com), PC Support Center (www.pcsupport.com) and VirtualDr.com (www.virtualdr.com) - looking for answers to questions about computers, the Windows OS, applications and peripherals. Time and again, we found clear, complete and correct answers, though no single site performed best consistently. Forum sites, where a community of users helps other users, did particularly well.

That's more than we can say for the vendors' own sites. We asked the same questions at Web sites maintained by Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and other leading companies. Finding the correct answer was generally either very difficult or nearly impossible (Dell proved to be the one major exception).

Internet support usually falls into one of three categories: forums, expert advice sites and knowledge bases. Forums are bulletin boards where people post questions and answers for each other. You can also post a question at an expert advice site, but only one person will respond - an "expert" responsible for answering questions. At a knowledge base, you can search an online database to find answers to specific questions. A site needn't be limited to a single approach - NoWonder.com, for example, offers both forums and expert advice, while About.com uses all three methods.

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You're most likely to find the right answer at a forum site such as 32bit.com, About.com, Computing. net, NoWonder.com, or VirtualDr. com. You'll likely get a variety of opinions and more than one way to solve a problem, and good advice from one person will correct bad advice from someone else.

You don't get that kind of give-and-take experience from an expert advice site, where only one person reads your question and only you read his or her answer. The quality of these sites - About.com, GoofyGuys.com, NoWonder.com and PCSupport.com - depends entirely on the quality of professionals hired or, in some cases, of the volunteers selected to answer your questions. One caveat about expert advice sites: their usefulness hinges on their having enough experts for the traffic. If a site becomes popular quickly, the quality of its service could plummet as it scrambles to muster staff.

Waiting is also part of the game with forum and expert sites. Overall in our testing, forums proved more responsive than experts, usually providing at least one answer within an hour of our posting a question. By contrast, experts often took a day or more to answer a question. This variation in response time is hardly surprising: when you ask many people, someone is bound to answer quickly; when you ask only one, he or she may take some time to get back to you.

The two exceptions are NoWonder.com and PCSupport.com, both of which offer a chat-based feature on their sites. (By the time you read this, MyHelpDesk.com should also offer live chat.) Live chat potentially can provide a speedier give-and-take dialogue than e-mail allows. You ask a question, an expert asks for additional details, you supply those details and so forth. But you may have to wait for five or 10 minutes while the expert looks up something. At NoWonder.com, some experts charge for the information they provide. You can decide whether you want to accept it and pay their fee.

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When you do get an answer from a forum or an expert site, it's bound to be more useful than the information you retrieve from a knowledge base site such as About.com, EHow.com or MyHelpDesk.com. With a knowledge base, you don't have to wait for someone to reply, but the search itself takes time and the answers you're looking for aren't always there. When we searched with keywords like taskbar and margins, the three knowledge bases let us down more often than they hit the mark.

Some sites that we don't cover are useful but charge for information: ExpertCity.com (www.expertcity.com), for example, claims that it can respond almost immediately as well as provide more than one solution. Xpertsite.com (www.xpertsite.com) - which is in the process of rebranding itself as AskMe.com - and Service911.com (www.service911.com) both offer a +mix of free and fee-based services. These two sites were being revamped as of press time; the new versions should be available by the time you read this. AskMe.com claims its fee-based service can deliver a faster response from an expert. Yet another group of sites, which includes ExpertsExchange.com (www.expertsexchange.com), uses a point system to ration the number of questions you can ask.

In a nutshell: if your hardware or software vendor fails to provide prompt, reliable advice, third-party tech-support sites offer a helpful alternative, though some of them exhibit minor quirks.

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It's a common occurrence. You ask a question online, wait for a response and then get not an answer, but another question: what kind of PC do you have? What version of Windows? What printer?

If the people trying to help you don't have enough information about your system, they may not be able to answer your question until you've answered theirs, turning a simple query into a volley of e-mail exchanges. So if you want your answer fast, put every relevant fact into your original query.

What's relevant? Best to give more info than less. Start your message with a brief description of your question before getting into a long, detailed description with all of the information suggested here. If you're using Windows 98, you can get information about your PC from the System Information program. Select Start-Programs-Accessories-System Tools-System Information. If you're using Windows 95, right-click My Computer, select Properties and click the Device Manager tab for hardware information. Here are the facts you should include in your query, just to be safe.

Hardware Give the make and model number of your computer. Identify the CPU (Pentium III-500, for example) and video card and list the amount of installed system RAM. If you're writing to the vendor, include the serial number; you'll probably find it on the back of your computer.

Software List your operating system (such as Windows) and the version number (95, 98 or other). Add the names of all software that loads when you start your computer, such as antivirus or crash control programs and anything in the start-up folder. Of course, you should include the name and version number of any program pertinent to your problem and the names of any programs that interact with it, such as browser plug-ins.

Peripherals If you're asking about a printer, modem, scanner or other peripheral, include the name of the vendor and the model number of the device. You should also mention the type of port into which it's plugged (for example, serial, parallel, USB or IEEE 1394).

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The other Internet forums

If you don't find adequate technical advice from an expert advice, knowledge base or forum site, consider Usenet, a forum-based portion of the Internet that predates the Web by years. Usenet forums, called newsgroups, offer a plethora of useful information and the people who populate them are often very well informed.

The best place from which to search Usenet is the Web site www.deja.com. In the upper right corner of this portal's home page, you'll find a search tool geared toward newsgroups. Type in a keyword relating to the problem you're having with your PC, application or peripheral and you'll find a huge listing of postings from newsgroups all over the Internet, as well as options for a power search. AltaVista and HotBot also have newsgroups, though they're not as helpful as Deja's.

The best way to interact with a newsgroup (asking questions and taking part in discussions) is to go to it directly or to access it through AOL Netscape Messenger or Outlook Express.

As helpful as newsgroups are, some have shortcomings. They are, as a rule, not moderated, meaning that anyone can post anything. While this unrestricted approach has some advantages, such as greater freedom of expression, it does mean that you may have to wade through spam, including porn ads, to find what you're looking for. You'll also have to deal with people who are lacking in the social graces. Your questions may provoke replies ranging from unfriendly to downright obscene, in addition to some useful answers.

Which are the best newsgroups to try for PC technical support? For general information about your computer or Windows, visit comp.os.ms-windows.misc, comp.os.ms-windows.setup.win95, comp.os.ms-windows.win95.misc, comp.sys. ibm.pc.misc, comp.sys.intel, comp.windows.misc, microsoft.public.win98, or microsoft.public.win98.apps. For info about particular programs or peripherals, go to comp.apps.spreadsheets, comp.os.ms-windows.apps.word-proc, microsoft. public.excel, microsoft.public.win98.comm.modem, alt.comp.softwarefinancial.quicken, or comp.periphs.printers.

Don't fret if some of these names seem a bit out of date. The Windows 95 newsgroups do discuss Windows 98 and the term ibm.pc is a throwback to a time when IBM controlled this industry; the IBM PC newsgroup covers PCs made by any manufacturer.

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Best: Computing.net

Worst: EHow.com

The most basic technical support questions concern the computer itself and the operating system. To find out how different sites handle these queries, we asked each one a series of four questions.

First, we asked how to get the computer to start with the NumLock function off. Second, we looked for advice on picking the right kind of RAM to buy to upgrade a PC's memory. Then we searched for a way to make Windows' taskbar disappear. And finally, we asked why Windows 98 SE couldn't shut down properly. (This is a known bug, for which Microsoft's Web site provides a patch.)We started by looking for answers on the vendors' own sites. We asked the first two questions at Compaq, Dell and Toshiba. Extensive searches proved futile at Compaq and Toshiba. At Dell, by contrast, we quickly found what we were looking for, thanks to the site's natural-language search tool. We also checked Microsoft's site for answers to the two Windows questions. After much searching, we discovered the cause of Windows 98 SE's shutdown problem and a fix for it. We didn't find an answer to the taskbar question.

The best answers for system questions came from users at the Computing.net forum site. Their explanations, though not always conventional, were sound and useful. For the RAM upgrade, for example, someone suggested that we pull our existing SIMMs from the computer and bring them to a store for reference. Computing.net is also extremely straightforward and simple to use. Its unpretentious design has no doodads to slow the download and no odd colours to make reading difficult. Posting a question is ridiculously easy: you just scroll to the bottom of the page and find the form. Unlike the other forum sites, Computing.net doesn't require you to register to post a message.

The worst site for this set of questions was EHow.com, a knowledge base that covers far more than computer use. Ask EHow how to attract hummingbirds and you'll get a wide selection of useful tips. Ask it how to turn NumLock off and you'll get a short list of irrelevant suggestions, ranging from "How to Make a U-Turn" to "How to Top Turn Off the Lip on a Windsurf Board". EHow sports a natural-language search tool, but it lacks the intelligence to guess just what your question means. If you ask how to turn off the taskbar in Windows, you'll get a list of answers, including the ubiquitous "How to Make a U-Turn".

Worse, in many cases the info we sought wasn't there. For three of the four questions we asked EHow, no right answers appeared among all the wrong ones. For the upgrade question, however, it provided a useful article, "How to Buy RAM", written for the site. And since EHow provides canned solutions for common problems, we didn't have to wait for an answer.

Overall, we received few blatantly wrong answers to our questions. The experts at NoWonder.com and PCSupport.com had trouble with the shutdown problem, offering general advice that evinced no knowledge of the documented bug. In fact, the PC Support Center guru went so far as to tell us that the only probable solution would be to reformat the drive, though he admitted that answer was too drastic.

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Best: NoWonder.com

Worst: About.com

To find out how well third-party Web-based free support handles the programs we use to get our work done, we asked two questions about Microsoft Office and two about Quicken. Most of the sites provided some help with Office but did very poorly when we asked about Quicken, a market leader in a very popular category.

We asked how, in Microsoft Word, you make the first line of a paragraph stick out farther to the left than the other lines (a formatting arrangement called a hanging or overhanging indent - though we didn't acknowledge knowing the term). We also asked how to create an Excel formula for x to the power of y. Again, we avoided using the technical term, exponentiation.

Our first Quicken-related question concerned use of a common shortcut, -V, to paste text. This Apple Macintosh standard has been adopted by Windows and most Windows applications but was not a default setting in Quicken until version 2000. The second query asked how to enter a new share price manually into an investment account via the register.

You're not likely to find answers to these questions at Microsoft's or Intuit's site. Although Microsoft. com has an extensive database, we found only a long, complex way to create hanging indents and nothing explaining exponentiation. Intuit's site had no relevant help.

NoWonder.com offered the best advice in response to both sets of questions, perhaps because it combines expert advice and a forum. When one proved inadequate, as when the Word expert didn't provide enough details with his instructions, the other came through.

The exception involved the Quicken share-price question. Here, once again, the expert didn't include enough details, but this time the only reply we received in the forum was just plain wrong. On the other hand, NoWonder was the only site that offered the correct answer to the Quicken paste question, from both the expert and a kindly soul on the forum. We also tested NoWonder's chat-based expert area, which was on its trial run at press time. Unfortunately, since this facility was still in an early stage of development, it was not as successful in providing us with a prompt response.

On the design front, NoWonder's site could be called NoNonsense. The straightforward site is easy to use and navigate. To ask an expert, you simply fill out a form that asks for all pertinent user information. For forums, NoWonder.com employs Prime-Web's Ultimate Bulletin Board software, which enables you to easily enter messages, respond to them, browse and find answers to your questions.

Good Quicken experts are, apparently, hard to find. Consider what we encountered at PCSupport.com, the other site using a chat feature. It handled the Office questions quite capably. When I asked about Quicken on a Tuesday, I was told to come back the next day for the Quicken expert. Come Wednesday, I was told the expert would be there on Friday. Someone who was there on Wednesday took a stab at the paste question, figuring out the problem but not a solution. He asked for my e-mail address so the Quicken expert could answer the price-change question. But the expert's eventual reply was that he didn't have an answer - not exactly useful.

None of the knowledge bases held answers to any of our application-related questions. Even MyHelpDesk.com, which is the best of the knowledge bases because it culls information from various sources rather than depending on what its own people produce, couldn't help here. MyHelpDesk is a technical support portal that guides you to information on other Web sites. It's a great place to find extensive data about a subject, but you can't rely on it to find answers to specific questions. MyHelpDesk is still improving its site, however.

No site bombed in the applications category quite as badly as About.com - forums, a knowledge base and an expert advice site rolled into one. The forums are difficult to figure out and returning to questions you posted can be nearly impossible. What's more, About.com's forums are sparsely populated, limiting the give-and-take that usually makes these venues attractive. Finally, they're not carefully moderated; postings are often off the subject and can sometimes be offensive.

A knowledge base typically covers a broader area than just computers and doesn't fare well with technical questions. Although About.com's experts were often on the mark in other categories, giving prompt and accurate answers, they failed to make the grade with applications. We didn't obtain correct answers to either Quicken-related question. And 24 days after posting our Microsoft Office questions, we had yet to receive any answer.

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Best: 32bit.com and VirtualDr.com

Worst: None

So many different printers and modems are out there, no third-party site could possibly cover them all. Luckily, none has to. Most questions about, say, a particular ink jet printer pertain to other models, too. To test support sites' helpfulness with peripherals, we asked general questions one might ask about any printer or modem.

Our printer question asked why we couldn't load the paper in our Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 882C so it wouldn't jam. For modems, we asked a universal question: when in Europe, can you operate a modem designed for use in the US? If the site asked us for more details, we identified the modem as a 3Com US Robotics Modem PC Card and the country as Germany.

How did the vendors themselves do? Hewlett-Packard fared reasonably well, but only after we figured out that its advice for other DeskJet model numbers worked equally well with our 882C. On the international modem question, 3Com quickly responded - we sent the question and received an answer the next day. But the company's recommendation that we buy a European modem could have been sales motivated; other sources advised us that an adapter would do the trick.

Two of the forum sites, 32bit.com and VirtualDr.com, outdid every other site in the peripherals category. One 32bit.com user not only told us about modem adapters but also pointed us to roadwarrior.com (www.roadwarrior.com), a retail site that sells kits and adapters for travelling users. On VirtualDr.com, a response from a DeskJet 882C user offered the only model-specific advice about loading the printer.

Both sites use the same Ultimate Bulletin Board software as NoWonder.com and are equally powerful and easy to work with. The trick to using both successfully involves finding the right forum. For instance, 32bit.com has 11 different Windows 95/98 forums, including General, Hardware, Internet and Utilities. There's no specific Modem forum, so do you go to the Hardware forum or the Internet forum or both? The key is to look in the Posts column, which tells you if a forum is heavily used. The larger the number of people using the forum, the better your chances of getting a fast, accurate reply. We posted our query to the Hardware forum, which had 2433 posts, compared to the Internet forum's 533.

No site completely blew it on both questions; all had something useful to say about either printers or modems. We did get some bad advice, however. An expert at GoofyGuys.com wrote, "DeskJets are known to have this problem when they get old," indicating that he didn't know the DeskJet 882C is a newer model. Experts at both About.com and NoWonder.com told us that a modem made for use in the US could be used in Europe without any serious problem - true, but not sufficient advice.

And, of course, a wrong answer - a possibility with any technical support source - can be worse than no answer at all. With forum sites, including 32bit.com, Computing. net, NoWonder.com and VirtualDr.com, you're likely to find the right answer to your technical questions faster than you can say, "Read the manual."

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If you're paying anything for e-mail, Web hosting, backup storage, or a personal information manager, you may be paying too much. Dozens of sites give away everything from applications to personal organisers to multiple megabytes of storage space. But are these services really free? What are the hidden costs? And do no-cost offerings make sense for every user?

With so many free services available on the Web today, some people may wonder whether they'll ever have to pay real money to work and play on the Web again. While these no-charge services may be a no-brainer choice for small-office and home users, businesses may want to think a bit harder. For example, a free Web site may be ideal for showing pictures of your family to friends or for posting an online resume for all the world to admire, but if you're using the site as a business storefront, the mandatory ads that pop up on it will irritate clients. Free online storage is handy for personal file sharing or for storing your collection of MP3 audio files, but many free sites lack the security features and storage capacity that businesses demand.

In this article, we've divided free Web-based services into four categories: e-mail, Pams, Web hosting and storage/backup. We chose these categories because they're the most popular ones among PC World readers and Internet users in general. We list the advantages and disadvantages of each service type and highlight our top picks on a scorecard (after having evaluated at least five of each type of service). In some cases, we found that the convenience and cost savings of a freebie outweighed its drawbacks. But in other cases, a free online service simply did not measure up to its fee-based competitors.

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Pros: Your e-mail is available at any Web-enabled PC worldwide, without configuration hassles.

Cons: Handling of online mail is slower and less reliable than that provided by standard POP3 accounts; security remains a concern.

Best use: A good supplement to business or personal e-mail accounts, especially for frequent travellers.

These Web-based e-mail services provide a permanent e-mail address to call your own, paid for by banner advertising that appears on each screen you view. Your mail is accessible from any Web-ready computer and you can even use your Web e-mail account to check messages from another account - except those protected by a firewall.

Then again, Web-based e-mail takes longer to collect and read than paid POP3 mail (because free e-mail providers usually use slower servers); ads litter your screen; and every message you send bears an intrusive tagline touting the service. Even worse, using Web-based e-mail can expose you to security risks (see "Add a Security Blanket to Free E-Mail" on page 94). If you seek a business account, stick with the POP3 e-mail hosted by your ISP.

On the other hand, if you just want an e-mail account for personal messages, you're in luck. Almost everyone with a domain provides free e-mail these days - it's a good way for companies to promote a Web site, generate repeat visits and boost advertising revenue. So whose name should follow the @ sign in your Web-based e-mail address? Choose wisely and you may never have to change your e-mail address again.

Our favourite free e-mail services are veterans Yahoo Mail and Hotmail. In addition to providing the usual features, both let you save your user name on your PC (Hotmail will also save your password) so you can log in instantly (this shortcut is not recommended for shared or portable PCs because of security concerns). They also provide strong filtering tools for incoming messages, including a filter that bounces e-mail from known spam merchants. And both sites' interfaces are well laid out and easy to use. Better yet, you can download e-mail for offline reading: you can collect mail from Yahoo with any POP3 e-mail software, including the popular programs Eudora, Netscape Messenger and Outlook, while Hotmail integrates with Outlook Express 5.0.

In contact management, Yahoo has a slight edge over Hotmail - it can import address book info from Outlook, Organizer and Palms, as well as from other sources that can export their data in comma-separated value format. Yahoo Mail can also notify you of incoming messages via a signal to Yahoo Messenger, an instant-messaging app that you install on your PC. But Hotmail shines in two other areas: it can scan incoming mail attachments for viruses before you download them, and it offers a dictionary and thesaurus, in addition to the standard spelling checker.

Each of the other contenders has its own strengths. One standout is Malcolm, which provides free e-mail service for a gaggle of other portal sites, including IWon.com and NBC.com. The service's best feature is its large selection of domain names. Instead of tethering you to name@mail.com, it lets you opt for such alternatives as @aus.com, @consultant.com, or @cheerful.com.

Another plus is Mail.com's 5MB mailboxes - 2MB bigger than those most free e-mail services offer. Mail.com will also forward your messages to another e-mail address for free (as will Yahoo Mail). Even with such solid features, however, Mail.com could not overcome its two chief impediments: distracting advertisements and a so-so address book that lacks a nickname field and won't let you import multiple addresses at once.

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"So far, I've gotten 31 passwords and freaked lots of people out by sending them mail from their own accounts and changing their passwords!" Big talk like this, found at one hacker's Web site, is enough to turn the stomach of any Hotmail user. Last year, an exposed defect in Hotmail's security forced Microsoft to close down the site's servers for approximately eight hours. After plugging the holes, Microsoft brought in privacy watchdog Truste to declare Hotmail secure from hacks. Even so, persistent miscreants will likely find ways to exploit JavaScript, browser architecture, or server software and get into e-mail accounts. Here's how to protect your privacy, regardless of the free e-mail service you use.

Keep JavaScript out of your e-mail. Malicious JavaScript code embedded in e-mail messages endangers your account security and could make your system susceptible to damage, such as that caused by viruses. You can combat this threat in two ways. The first is to set up your e-mail app to refuse any messages that contains HTML code - plain text can't carry JavaScript. (Look for this option under the Preferences or Options link of your e-mail provider.) The drawback of doing this is that you may end up turning away legitimate mail that happens to carry HTML coding.

Your second option is to turn off JavaScript support in your browser before you log on to collect mail. (In Internet Explorer, select Tools-Internet Options-Security and set the security slider to High. In Netscape Navigator, click Edit-Preferences-Advanced and uncheck Enable JavaScript.) If you want to activate JavaScript at a given site, you'll have to turn the Enable JavaScript option back on.

Ban the spam. Reducing the number of strangers who know your address will help minimise the amount of unwanted e-mail you get. When subscribing to a site, don't check off boxes that add your name to online listings - spammers go there to collect addresses. Turn on spam filters at sites that provide them. And if you really want to be cautious, get your free service at a site which lets you specify the senders whose mail you'll accept.

Clear the cache. When you're using a public-access PC to check for e-mail, remember that browsers save information in the system's memory and hard drive when they visit sites. Unless you see (and check off) an increased security option in a public-access PC's log-in screen, you can't assume it will purge pages when you leave - meaning that subsequent users of that computer could read your e-mail. For peace of mind at services that don't offer an explicitly secure log-in, flush the cache manually. (In IE, select Tools-Internet Options-Delete Files. In Navigator, go to Edit-Preferences, expand the Advanced category, click Cache and then clear both the memory and disk caches.) Also, watch what you click. Hotmail, for example, provides two check-in options: one is secure, while the other saves your log-in name and password for instant access. Click the wrong option and you may regret it.

Clear the folders. With Web-based e-mail, the longer you leave messages online, the more time a hacker has to try to read them. Delete messages as soon as you've read them and empty the trash folder. Save messages you'll want to access again to your hard disk. If your service lets you save messages using a regular e-mail program (as both Yahoo and Hotmail do), take advantage of that feature.

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Pros: Your calendar and contacts are as near as a Web connection; many sites let you synchronise with your offline PIM or PDA.

Cons: The Web is slow (really annoying if you juggle a busy schedule); anyone who knows your password can access your account.

Best Use: An excellent organisational tool for people with multiple PCs and/or handheld PDAs.

Personal information management software promises to whip us into shape, and free PIM services are particularly tempting deals. Without a doubt, we favour paid-for desktop programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Organizer over their online counterparts. These desktop applications' greater flexibility, broader range of print options and faster local software are tough for a Web site to match. Furthermore, PIMs that stay on your hard drive are more secure: of the seven free services we looked at, all provide password protection and (according to them) hacker-resistant sites, but only Zkey.com and Visto.com offer a secure socket layer connection to encrypt data. (Visto.com also provides an optional secure connection just for log-in, where only the password submission page is encrypted.)Many of the seven sites we examined also permit you to synchronise data with an offline PIM. And if you use multiple PCs or PDAs, you can consolidate your various address books in a single location.

AnyDay.com and Visto.com are the strongest of the sites we looked at. Both provide clean, well-designed interfaces and robust downloadable programs that sync up calendar and contact information with a range of PC programs, plus Palm and Windows CE devices. But AnyDay. com takes the crown because of its additional features, our favourite being a first-rate event planner. In addition to scheduling events, it handles RSVPs by letting invitees leave comments, see who else has answered and check a list of things to bring.

AnyDay.com also lets you print schedules, two-month calendars, to-do lists and reminders with a date stamp on each page. It includes a free service, My Accounts from VerticalOne, to help you keep track of information on membership-based sites. To see how many new e-mail messages you've received, for example, or what's changed in your online bank account, click the appropriate link in the VerticalOne summary page.

The well-designed Visto.com comes with a full spectrum of features, including the ability to handle group calendars, integrated e-mail, file storage and sharing and bookmark synchronisation. It also provides a ‘remember me' button that lets you log straight in - just by entering the site's URL. (To log in automatically using a secure socket, type https:// before www.visto.com.) Excite Planner's attractions include a free downloadable version of TrueSync for synchronising with Palm devices, a special feature that will remind you of events by e-mail or pager and a nice notepad tool that you can use to jot down ideas. Unfortunately, however, we found the service's core scheduling features and screen layouts to be unremarkable.

Zkey.com offers a generous 30MB of file space and gives you control over the information other people see when they view your schedule. It also provides chat, e-mail, messaging forums and great tools for syncing up with a PIM. The organiser is a bit tricky to use due to its overwhelming number of features. Plus, the program's frame layout makes printing a hassle.

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Pros: Site-building tools, wizards, templates and help mean you don't have to be a professional to post your own site.

Cons: You can't control intrusive banner ads and pop-up windows.

Best use: Good for getting a quick Web presence - until you have the budget to do it without ads.

When carving out your own piece of cyberspace, you can either take what your ISP gives you (usually limited to 4MB or 5MB with scant page-building support) or look around for another host. The trouble is, fee-based hosting companies make you register a domain and then they charge you to host it.

If you're simply looking for a place to showcase a hobby or post some photographs, you're better off with a free Web hosting service. Unlike fee-based hosts, services such as Homestead and Freeservers.com provide excellent tools for designing pages and mapping out whole sites. Better yet, you can knock off a small site in about an hour and still have enough extra tools on hand to tinker with it for weeks. And while all free hosts make their money through advertising, not all of them bludgeon your visitors with irksome ads. Homestead and Xoom.com, for example, commandeer little screen real estate for ads and Tripod gives you the choice of having advertisements embedded directly in your Web page or letting visitors view them in a pop-up window that keeps coming back if they close it.

For all-around ease of use, Homestead takes the cake. Its site-building tools work best for novice designers. You click through a wizard-style template picker, changing text and uploading graphics from your hard drive as you go (you can also drag and drop images from Homestead's own art collection). To insert a link, click an element, then click the Link icon and finally enter a Web address. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

The program does equally well at mapping out whole sites. Like any Java-based program running across the Web, Homestead's SiteBuilder can sometimes be slow to load and use. And once ready for viewing, Homestead's sites are quite responsive. On the negative side, we were put off by the ad banner frames the Web host places at the bottom of each page: you can't minimise these, as you can at most other sites.

Furthermore, the company's 12MB space allowance is among the stingiest offered - edging out only Tripod's skimpy 11MB slot. On the other hand, the average casual user won't need even as much as 11MB. If space is an issue for you, you can sign up with a service multiple times, effectively gaining unlimited space.

Homestead's URLs are significantly longer than the ones furnished by Freeservers.com and Tripod, which provide virtual domain names for their users.

At Tripod, that's name.tripod.com; at Freeservers.com, you get a choice of several different domain configurations, including name.bizservers.com, name.freeservers.com and name.8m.com. (If you want an even catchier domain name, try Web.com's service, which will let you sign up for domains at name.web.com. The company plans to offer free domain hosting services by the time this article goes to print.) Like Homestead, Freeservers.com and Tripod both offer robust site-development tools, plus Web-based file uploading and FTP support, making them ideal for uploading sites created offline.

In addition, Freeservers.com throws in a couple of bonuses. It runs a free e-mail forwarding service, redirecting messages sent to any user name at your virtual domain to the e-mail address you used to register with the site. A Freeservers.com spokesperson says that the company also plans to offer instant messaging and free Web-based e-mail in the near future.

Of the other free hosting services we reviewed, Geocities' strengths include a well-established set of Web communities and its Yahoo affiliation, which draws traffic to the site. Geocities also provides 30MB of Web storage and comes with site-building tools that will appeal both to experienced HTML programmers and to novices. The service is chock-full of ads, however, and it forces you to use long Web addresses that incorporate geocities.com into the URL.

Our last contender, Xoom.com, gives you an unlimited amount of space and offers chat rooms, but the graphics-intensive site loads slowly.

As we were going to press with this issue, yet another site that provides free Web hosting - Bootbox.net - launched. This company's array of free offerings includes Web-based e-mail and Internet access. The home page is a portal, complete with a search engine and Yahoo-like categories ranging from Arts and Entertainment to World News. Though we didn't have a chance to review Bootbox.net's Web hosting abilities or its other services, they work much the same as the services of other providers in this story.

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Pros: A convenient way to archive and share data.

Cons: In most cases, you get little storage space and file transfer rates for modem users are slow.

Best use: Worthwhile as a cheap, easy way to back up documents, files, MP3 tracks and photos.

Apple's iMac is the future of personal computing: PCs will no longer contain a floppy drive. Where and how will you archive important files, shuttle work documents to colleagues and share family photos with relatives? High-capacity removable drives (such as the Iomega Zip) represent one option, but are costly. Fortunately, numerous Web sites these days supply storage space for free.

In exchange for some personal information (usually consisting of your e-mail address and your post code), sites such as FreeDiskSpace.com, I-drive and X:drive let you store or back up your files on their servers. Most sites allot between 25MB and 30MB, which should be adequate for saving small files, but won't suffice for backing up bulkier data, like graphics. Some of these sites let you buy additional storage. Other sites award you more space if you complete marketing surveys or persuade friends to join their service. For example, FreeDiskSpace.com gives you 5MB for each friend you refer who opens an account; if you fill out a fairly intrusive survey, you can earn up to a staggering 300MB. If that's still not enough space, you could always open an account at every free storage site on the Web.

Aside from being free, one big benefit of Web-based storage is that you can access your files from any Web-connected PC. This is a bonus for business travellers and telecommuters tired of transferring files between work, home and notebook PCs - or lugging a heavy floppy drive on trips.

Free storage sites also offer the advantage of letting you keep files in both private and shared folders. Friends, family and business associates can access specified parts of your private account, allowing you to share documents and photos without the hassle of e-mail attachments. (Some services permit non-members to sign on as "guests" and access your files; others reserve file-sharing options for members only.)Of course, you compromise the security of your data when you store documents on the Web. For this reason, many free sites keep multiple copies of your files on offline servers to prevent snooping or hacking. Finicky users may have legitimate privacy concerns. I-drive's user agreement, for instance, states that the company "does not guarantee the security of any information transmitted to or from this Web site".

For truly secure data transfers, you should opt for a pay service such as @Backup which employs heavy-duty 56-bit encryption to transfer your files across the Net. The service also lets you archive up to 100MB of data and its Windows program allows you to schedule automated backups and transfer multiple files in one session. In contrast, most free storage sites permit you to transfer only one file at a time.

Of the 10 free storage sites we reviewed, our favourites are X:drive, I-drive and FreeDiskSpace.com. X:drive takes top honours thanks to its reliable performance, its simple file-transfer tools and a clever virtual-drive utility that lets you treat your X:drive account as another PC storage device. To use this feature, you'll need to run Windows 95 or 98 and download a free 900KB applet from X:drive. (FreeDiskSpace.com plans to offer a virtual-drive feature soon, according to a company spokesperson.) One quibble about X:drive: it'll send you reminder e-mails if your account is inactive for more than 125 days, in an effort to keep you coming back.

I-drive is another gem. Perhaps most impressively, it packs three nifty free applications - FILO, Sync and Infinite Space. If you've ever bookmarked a Web page or article only to get a ‘Page Not Found' error message when you try to access it months later, you'll love FILO: it lets you copy entire Web pages to your I-drive storage area, leaving all the linked URLs intact. Sync allows you to synchronise the contents of a folder on your PC with one in your I-drive account.

Finally, with Infinite Space, you can store an unlimited amount of Web content - including news, file downloads, MP3 tracks and other types of data - in I-drive's storage area. (I-drive limits desktop storage to 50MB.) And like X:drive, I-drive doesn't force you to trade information (by completing a survey) for space.

Our third favourite is FreeDiskSpace.com, which supports multiple computer platforms, including Linux and Macintosh. (I-drive supports Windows, the Mac OS and Linux, but its FILO and Sync tools run only on Windows and Mac OS.) FreeDiskSpace.com also wins points for letting you transfer multiple files simultaneously - a unique feature among free storage sites.

People at home who don't need a lot of space and are willing to risk their privacy will benefit most from a free storage site. If you connect to the Web via a modem, though, you'll suffer from slow data-transfer rates. Business users seeking a secure repository for corporate secrets are wiser to shell out some dough.