Computers: Easy way to set up a window on the world: Leonard Doyle eases his laptop into gear and cruises out into the fast lane of the information superhighway

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At last someone has come up with a slick and easy to way to climb aboard the Internet, the great information motorway in the sky and the forerunner of those superhighways that promise to turn our lives inside out when they eventually come on line.

For such a humble piece of free software, WinNet positively screams with possibilities and opportunities. I have been daydreaming about them ever since I loaded the programme on to my trusty laptop.

Slowly, I am feeling my way around this new universe of telecommuting. WinNet gives ordinary computer users an easy and cheap way to cruise the largest computer network in the world.

And for those who have always wanted to have their own E-mail address emblazoned across their calling cards and stationery, WinNet provides them with the ultimate information age status symbol. New users must concoct their own permanent electronic address before going on-line, after which everything they send or receive from the Internet is logged to that address.

Within hours of setting up, a user can not only send and receive E-mail from virtually anywhere, but can also download programs or ship documents around the world in a fraction of a second.

As the name suggests, WinNet is a Windows-based service which operates from the PC's graphics-based operating system. It is a joy to use for anyone who has spent time and money been mucking around with on- line services, modems and pay-as-you-go databases. Once it is installed, a Windows 'setup' programme pops up and the new user spends a few minutes providing credit card details, hardware details and the like.

Then the fun begins as the modem automatically dials up the service, starts to beep and then connects with a comforting blast of static as it electronically shakes hands with the 'server' operated by the PC User Group which operates WinNet. Once account details and billing information has been verified, the user is up and running for a cost of pounds 7.93 (including VAT) a month for more than two hours of connect time.

This is something of a bargain when set against the cost of using a service like Compuserve. With experts predicting that within five years more than 100 million people will be logging on to the Internet on a daily basis, it is a fair bet that WinNet will be the chosen route for many new users.

The monthly access charge allows use of the network for electronic mail and on-line conferencing with other network users for up to 130 minutes of connect time. There are no restraints on chatting with other network users, wherever they may be.

The PC User Group gives access to the network at any modem speed above a sluggish 2400 bits per second and from there it packages data into a format more suited to the speed-of-light transmission 'packet switching' system of the Internet. Packet switching crunches the data into tiny coded parcels of information that are sent across fibre optic lines in rapid bursts and reassembled like a jigsaw at the other end.

The data travels across the Internet at a heart-stopping 45 million bits per second, compared to the 14,400 bits of data per second over a telephone line via a modem.

Tell the system you want to join a 'newsgroup' and within hours you will start receiving news which will continue to arrive until you instruct it to stop. It is all good clean fun and for those who require an interactive information service, WinNet can provide services such as World Wide Web and Gopher for an extra pounds 8.52 a month.

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