THIS WEEK NatWest unveiled its new PC banking service, NatWest On-Line, although one would have been hard-pushed to have noticed the fact on the bank's website when I took a look at it. There is nothing on the "home page" to indicate that NatWest now caters to the online trade. In fact, there is nothing to see at all other than the contents of the press release in the bank's "news centre" and you would not necessarily look there unless you had been told to do so.

If you are a NatWest customer and you want more information about the bank's new service, you will have to ring them on the following freephone number: 0800 281 292, which I got out of the bank's press office after some initial confusion, since the number on the press release I received, and the number quoted on the website, were both actually slightly different.

In all, it appears to have been a rather low-key launch by NatWest of what is, after all, likely to be the banking way of the future. However, it does mean that all the major high street players in retail banking now offer some kind of online service to personal customers, through the Internet or a direct-dial intranet.

As the last of the big banks to offer an online service, the question is, has NatWest got right some of the things the earlier entrants got wrong? Has it been worth the wait for NatWest's customers and potential customers?

The first thing NatWest has got right is that it has decided not to charge an on-going monthly fee to personal customers for the use of NatWest On- Line. However, there is an one-off pounds 30 set-up fee. It is worth remembering that while banking online may be empowering for us, it also saves the banks themselves a lot of administrative expense. I chafe, therefore, at the thought of paying for the privilege of making a bank's life easier.

NatWest's service claims to be compatible with the major personal accounting software produced by Microsoft, Intuit and Sage, and there are discount offers on products from all three companies. However, if you are one of the thousands of people who bought an iMac Apple computer in the last few months, seduced by that company's "chic not geek" advertising, you won't be banking with NatWest. Lloyds Bank is still the only major provider of online banking services to cater to the Apple Mac-owning community.

Unlike Lloyds and the HSBC subsidiary Direct Line, but in common with Barclays, its other major competitor, NatWest has opted for a direct-dial rather than web-based service, as the bank believes this to offer greater security for its customers. It also has a freephone 24-hour helpline. Once you log into the service, if there is no activity for five minutes you will be automatically logged out. You can also access the NatWest website while online, but cannot browse the Internet at large.

What does appear to be a step forward from some of the other online offerings is that you can add the bank and card account details of new beneficiaries to make payments via the service directly while online. You may also arrange payments or transfers in the future, setting amounts and dates up to 40 working days in advance. Should you change your mind before the payment date is reached, the transaction may be cancelled just as easily.


Robin can be reached at