internet hardware: A starter kit for family surfing

Richard Longhurst on the latest shot in the computer marketing war: Net-ready PCs
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The trouble with buying a PC is that they're all pretty much the same. They look the same, they feel the same and, within a nanosecond or two of loading up your bog-standard software, you find that models with similar specifications from different manufacturers perform the same. Computer companies such as Compaq, IBM and Packard Bell realise this, of course, and as a result are keen to find something that will give their products the edge - if you will forgive the marketing jargon, a unique selling point, or USP.

Three years ago, it was considered cool (and a USP) if you bundled Windows with your machine, so much so that the unique aspect soon wore off. Thus, a diskful of free software became the factor to swing the decision in one maker's favour. Last year, a multimedia kit with CD-Rom drive and soundcard was a real boon. But now all these things are de rigueur, bog- standard elements in the personal computing marketing mix.

The next big swinger is the Internet. But it doesn't actually take much to turn an ordinary PC into an Internet-ready machine. All that's needed is to stuff a modem inside it and install some software from a Net service provider or online service to give you a free trial account - which is exactly what many manufacturers are now doing.

There are two main options when choosing a new PC: buy a multimedia package of the sort you'd find on sale in the high street, or buy a machine from a direct supplier such as Dan, Dell or Gateway 2000.

The advantage of buying a bundle in the high street is that it will have been specifically designed with the home in mind. Olivetti, Compaq, Packard Bell and Dixons offer machines that are sold as all-in-one packages offering home education, accounting, games, entertainment, "edutainment", "infotainment" and, now "Internetainment".

Olivetti's new Envision machine, for example, is a fully functional multimedia PC with a modem that looks like a video recorder and plugs into your television set. It even has a remote-control keyboard for true armchair cruising on the Net.

These computers are typically very easy to set up. All the software will have been pre-installed and they have customised interfaces that protect you from the horrors of Windows. Buy a model with a modem in and the chances are you'll end up with Net access via a free trial account with CompuServe or UK Online, which will give you around 10 hours of free online time. If the PC has Windows 95, then you're a couple of clicks away from the Microsoft Network. Whichever software has been installed, all you should have to do is click on an icon, fill in your details on-screen and on to the Net you go. The disadvantage of this option is that it's more expensive than buying direct and you could end up with a bunch of software you'll never use, but for ultimate ease of use it's definitely the best option.

Meanwhile, any PC manufacturer worth its silicon chips will be able to install a modem and Net software for you when you buy a new computer, which means that buying directly from a supplier can sometimes be as easy as buying in the high street. Flick through any heavyweight computer magazines and you'll see adverts for the likes of Dell and Gateway 2000, all of which will fit a 14,400bps modem for you for around pounds 100, or a faster (and preferable) 28,800bps model for around pounds 200. Again, the software will be installed before the machine turns up on your doorstep and you should be on the Net before you can say "I bet it's not really that easy."

Some smaller PC manufacturers are teaming up with Net service providers to provide Net-ready PCs, but you should be wary of paying a premium for such a system. Unless you're the most technically illiterate computer user in the world, you won't find it hard to plug in a modem and install some Net software for yourself. Most modems come with free trial Net accounts anyway, and the software provided by Net service providers, such as Bogomip and Pipex, requires you to know nothing more technical than your name and address.

If you're considering buying a new PC for all the family, you should certainly make sure it has a modem and Net account along with at least 8Mb RAM, a 75MHz Pentium processor, a 16-bit soundcard and quad-speed CD-Rom drive. And don't be fooled into thinking that getting online is so difficult that you've got to pay over the odds to get your supplier to do it for you.

IN THE HIGH STREET:

Compaq Presario CDS 520: from pounds 799 + VAT

Compaq new 5500: from pounds 1,249

Packard Bell: from pounds 1,099

Olivetti Envision: from pounds 1,399

BUYING DIRECT:

Gateway 2000 P5-75: Multimedia pounds 1,399+VAT, includes multimedia kit; 28,800 baud modem pounds 199+VAT, Tel: 0800 322000.

Dell Dimension P75t: pounds 899+VAT; multimedia kit pounds 189+VAT; 14,400 modem pounds 95+VAT, Tel: 01344 720000

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