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Thousands of personal computers found homes this Christmas - more still during the January sales. But many new (and old) owners of these machines are left baffled by what they can do and fearful of the vast electronic world out there. This week w e begina straightforward weekly guide to cruising the information superhighway.

Anyone with a telephone line and one of these computers can queue up on the sliproad to the network. All they need is a "modem" to link the devices together, which costs less than £200. Then, for the price of a cappuccino a day, a new world of communication can be theirs.

Much has been written about the information superhighway, and much of it is impenetrable and confusing. Even in the plethora of names used to describe it, experts seem determined to make this simple idea as complex as possible. The superhighway, the Internet, the Infobahn, the CyFiWay, multimedia, cyberspace and virtual reality are some of the terms used to describe ways of transferring and accessing digitised information.

Music on a compact disc is "digitised", or broken up into millions of signals, but it is not just sound that can be treated in this way. The power of computers means pictures, film, text and graphics can be turned into a string of computer signals. Once this has been done, they can be mixed together (hence multimedia) and "poured" down a telephone line.

The basis of the electronic highway is simply the ability to transfer all sorts of digitised data down the line. When the old copper phone lines are replaced by optical fibre, their capacity will increase many thousands of times: at this stage the highway becomes a superhighway, and almost limitless amounts of information can fly between computers around the world. The automotive metaphor is, of course, American: just as the network of freeways built in the 1950s and 1960s brought the states closer together, so this electronic network will bring citizens closer together still.

By hooking your computer to an "on-line service", you will be able to send electronic letters to your American friends (cheaper than phoning), discuss opera with techno-baritones in Baltimore or talk cooking with techno-cooks in Cincinatti. You may even be able to have intelligent conversations with your children.

First, you need a computer, either desktop or laptop - anything built in the past couple of years should do. Next, buy a modem - to allow your computer to send digitised information down the telephone line. A modem can be internal (slotted into the computer), or external. External modems are battery-powered, so are more expensive to run, but they can be used with more than one computer. Most modems these days are "fax-modems" - they also convert your computer into a fax machine; you will be given a floppy disc carrying the software that controls both the fax and the modem systems.

Ideally, you should have a separate telephone line (cable television companies are providing them cheaply at the moment), but you can use your existing telephone jack if you do not mind plugging and unplugging the socket. Finally, you need a subscriptionto an on-line service - there are about a dozen, of which the largest is CompuServe. They charge £6-£15 a month, plus a start-up fee of up to £20. A list of their phone numbers is published in the monthly magazine Internet. Plug in, dial up, and you areready to go.