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This month has seen the arrival on the Net of Which?, the fact- filled, ad-free, campaigning consumer magazine. This may represent a watershed: as far as I'm aware, it's the first example of a magazine site making an admission charge - and quite a charge it is.

Access to the core pages of Which? Online (http://www.which.net) costs pounds 7.75 a month, or pounds 93 a year - a lot to fork out for a flow of consumer information, whatever its eventual value. Curiously, there's no discount for existing subscribers to the Which? magazines (though you escape the enrolment fee), which rules the online service out for this subscriber, at least.

But there is a more attractive deal for those who have neither an Internet account nor a Which? subscription: for pounds 14.75 a month you get Internet access as well as the freedom of the Which? pages. This is actually less than you'd normally pay for an account with Cable Online, the access provider behind Which? Online, and only pounds 3 a month more than Demon Internet's benchmark access charge.

What do you get for it? Over to Which?: "The initial intention is to put all four of the main Consumers' Association magazines online - Which?, Holiday Which?, Gardening Which? and Health Which? - with the main reports published simultaneously. At launch, there will be about a year's worth of information - almost everything from 1996 will be available. We'll also be adding Which? books - major guides like The Good Food Guide and The Which? Hotel Guide."

The site is not surprisingly very plain; no Cool Site of the Day awards here. More to the point, for casual visitors the site gives precious little hard information. This month, there's a report on car breakdown insurance, which does give hard recommendations. Then there's generalised advice on booking holiday accommodation, trees, insurance companies and the British diet. Cars? Subscribers only. Cameras, money? Ditto.

Pity. There's lots of stuff that Which? could publish freely to enhance its standing. And if it doesn't see any profit in dispensing advice on consumer rights to non-subscribers, it could at least offer links to sites that contain it; I couldn't find any.

An obvious one is the Office of Fair Trading (http://www.open.gov.uk/oft/ ofthome.htm). The site doesn't call itself a magazine but contains some good and quite readable stuff, including guidance on consumer rights and buying on credit, and features on things like the perils of private health insurance.

These days, Which? evaluations of products and services face competition from specialist publications on things like cars and money, and from more general consumer magazines like Good Housekeeping. The British magazine does not yet have a Web presence, but the separately owned American equivalent does (http://homearts.com/ gh/toc/00ghhpc1.htm), and it's packed with information, advice and interest, including lots of health-related information and - yes! - product tests, some of which (video recorders, point-and- shoot cameras) may translate to the British market. It's a simple, easily understood site, but seems to have no links.

What is it with these consumer people?

Chris Gill

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