The service is cheap: pounds 12.50 plus VAT to join, then pounds 10 plus VAT per month. For this, you will have to download all software - you dial up a number using a basic communications package (such as Terminal in Windows), enter a password Demon has given you over the phone, and follow instructions on the screen. This gives you the dialling software you need, so you can then start downloading other Internet software. For pounds 7.50 plus VAT, Demon will send you a disc with the dialling software, though you still have to download everything else. An immense amount of documentation can also be downloaded, though this can confuse more than clarify.
A much easier but more expensive route to Demon is to take the Electronic Telegraph starter pack. This costs pounds 25 plus VAT to join, then pounds 15 plus VAT a month. For this you get a disc with full Internet software and step- by-step instructions.
Demon had serious problems earlier this year after it had taken on more subscribers than it could properly service. It has now increased the number of modems and help desk staff, and its service has improved. However, users complain it can still be very difficult to dial into in the evenings. It has PoPs all over the country.
Demon: 0181 371 1234
Electronic Telegraph: 0181 371 1200
CityScape Internet Services Private subscribers to this service, which links users to Pipex PoPs, may be put off by the company's insistence that you pay the pounds 180 annual fee in advance. There is also a set-up fee of pounds 50. If you can swallow this, though, there is an advantage for home users: it is not as busy as many other providers in the evening. A full set of Internet software comes on a disc and is easy to install. The Independent uses Cityscape: we have experienced some problems with the administration, and also find there are times when the Eudora e-mail system is unreliable. The support desk is good. There are six PoPs.
CityScape: 01223 566950
Pipex is the UK's largest supplier of direct high speed Internet connections, which only companies can afford, and also supplies the points of presence to service providers such as Cityscape.
It does, however, offer a standard connection for Windows users, called Dial. A disc provides a full set of Internet software. Pipex currently has PoPs in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh and Cambridge. This is being extended via an alliance with Mercury, which will create extra "virtual" PoPs, giving local access to the Internet for much of the country. Dial is among the more expensive Internet services, costing pounds 50 to set up plus pounds 180 a year. This is a business-level service and much is made of the network's reliability. All users have full Internet access and the technical support is good.
Pipex: 01223 250120
Easynet is the company behind the Cyberia cappuccino-and-Internet cafes. It has a modest private subscriber base (2,000), but intends to expand very fast - its PoPs in London and Edinburgh will be joined by 20 others by the end of the year and it has 90 planned by April 1997.
It costs pounds 25 plus VAT to join, followed by pounds 11.90 plus per month: you have to pay the first two months in advance. You are sent a disk which includes all Internet software. We have no reports on service level.
Easynet: 0171 209 0990
CIX A long-established bulletin board system with a reputation for friendliness. It now offers Internet access, though it cannot yet offer graphics on the World Wide Web. It is however possible to download graphics, which you can then view on your computer. CIX is now testing a full Internet connection and hopes to offer national coverage (for now you have to dial London).
CIX gives you an easy-to-use interface called Ameol, which allows you to read and write e-mail and bulletin board messages without clocking up connection charges. This is important as there is no monthly fee, but you are charged by the minute: after a pounds 25 joining fee, you pay 6p per minute peak and 4p per minute cheap rate. There have been problems dialling into CIX - though it has just installed a new mail server, which should solve the problem.
CIX: 01492 641961
CompuServe The big one, which has recently introduced World Wide Web access. CompuServe has 120 services of its own, including encyclopaedias, games, train timetables and discussion forums. It also acts as a gateway to the Internet, though this is expensive if you intend to surf regularly.
The CompuServe Information Manager, which comes on disc, will give you an exceptionally friendly "interface" to control access to the company's own services. You can also send e-mail, download FTP files and get into the Internet Newsgroups from this. But to surf the Web, you need extra software, called Netlauncher. Windows' users can either ask for a (free) disc, or download the software; Mac users have to download. The monthly fee is pounds 6.50, which includes three hours of Web use. Beyond this, you pay $2.50 (pounds 1.70) per hour. CompuServe has PoPs all over the world so is unbeatable if you want to send e-mail on the hoof.
Access to the service itself is quite good, though the help desk can be a nightmare to contact. There have also been complaints that files take a long time to download on CompuServe.
CompuServe: 0800 289378
Delphi News Corporation's on-line service, with access to Sunday Times and Times information. Delphi's Internet access includes the World Wide Web, but without graphics. It can be expensive: the standard plan is pounds 10 a month including four free hours' use, then pounds 1.80 an hour. The 20:20 plan costs pounds 20 a month and gives 20 hours' free use; hourly cost thereafter is pounds 1.80. You can dial into one of 80 PoPs outside London run by BT, but there is a surcharge of pounds 1.50 per hour.
You can get a five hour free trial of Delphi: 0171 757 7080.
eWorld is Apple's foray into on-line services, and is aimed at Mac users. Like CompuServe, it has its own set of services and has particularly dinky graphics. There is also full e-mail, both within the system and to the Internet. The Automatic Courier can be set up to dial in and check for mail at pre-set intervals and can also read messages off-line. It does not yet offer World Wide Web access, but should soon. It is also expensive for UK users. The current monthly subscription is $9.95, which includes one hour a month online. Additional time is charged at $9.95.
Software and a one-month trial (including two hours of access) are free of charge. A Windows version is planned for later this year.
Apple UK: 0800 896206.