Three-and-a-half years ago, though, when I commissioned a writer to take an experimental journey into what was then commonly referred to as cyberspace, the virtual arena seemed like an unexplored continent. He started this 24-hour odyssey with the admittedly high hope of becoming the Christopher Columbus of the Internet, but after wasting hours - first queuing outside the virtual door of an Oasis chat room (it never materialised) and then chatting up a virtual girlfriend called Veronique who never returned his e-mails - he felt that a day on the beach would have been a more enlightening experience.
The fact that Bondi's sun-kissed sands were the location that sprang to mind is perhaps indicative of the increasing appeal of the Net. Despite being more prone to breakdowns than a second-hand Trabant, it lives on the promise that it can transport you, instantly, to the farthest-flung reaches of the globe. All you need to do is type in some magic words, like some latter-day Merlin.
Sometimes the Net even delivers what you need, whether it be by eradicating mundane chores such as supermarket shopping - for some, the delivery charge seems a pittance by comparison to the effort of doing it yourself - or by bridging some hitherto insurmountable gap - it's surprising how many people can be reached directly by e-mail when they seem uncontactable via the telephone. Sometimes it even delivers something that you didn't know you wanted, but were ever so glad to have discovered.
Whatever you plan to do when you get connected, though, remember that it will take much, much longer than you anticipated, so make sure you have some nice-looking equipment to stare at while you're waiting for the damn thing to download.
THE BIG iMAC
Name: Apple iMac
Price: pounds 799-pounds 999
Stockists: 0870 2410212
Description: First a confession - there is a Faustian pact between Apple and the entire journalistic population of Western civilisation, who used to be just about the only people who didn't use PCs apart from nursery school kids. That changed with the launch of iMac last August, when someone at the company had the bright, translucent blue idea of doing to computer design what shark fins did to the convertible.
iMac's sexy curves would have been a classic of design over content were it not for the fact that the hardware was equally impressive, combining a powerhouse processor (the G3) with a top speed (56kbps) internal modem, and a construction that made it child's play to plug it in to a phone line, hook up to an Internet service provider (the guys who turn on the taps) and start paddling in the Net. Incidentally, Connectix's new Virtual Play Station software even allows the machine's CD-Rom drive to play most PlayStation games.
With Apple about to unleash five new colours (blueberry, grape, tangerine, lime and strawberry), the original has dropped in price by several hundred pounds. In fact, the iMac's only major downside is the extras you have to buy to go with it (including a disc drive, the current one being deemed too old fashioned to sully the iMac's good looks).
Anything else worth considering? OK, so you still want a PC. Well, there are hundreds of them that offer all-in-one packages like the the iMac, but you're going to have pay through the nose if you want to combine that with style. IBM's Aptiva S49 (pounds 2,700, 0345 727272) is the Darth Vader to the iMac's Luke Skywalker, dwarfing the Apple Machine with its 16.8- gigabyte hard drive and price tag. It also has the extra appeal of a DVD- Rom drive, a supermodel-thin 15-inch LCD screen and a pair of speakers that look like extras out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can have any colour you want so long as it's black.
If you want to surf the Net on a bucket-price ticket, there's a further option: a TV Net access box unit, such as WebPal (pounds 256.15 for the faster, 56kbps modem version, 0845 309 8023), which connects to your TV set and is operated by a remote keyboard and remote control unit. Be warned, though - it does have its software limitations. If you prefer the couch-potato approach to the Internet, then it's probably worth waiting for the Web.It later this year (see www.commodore64.com), which will come with one of the ubiquitous browser packages (Navigator), a range of Lotus programs for business purposes and - best of all - a built-in C64 emulator, which will allow you to relive your childhood by playing all the old Commodore 64 games on your TV set.
PORTABLE WORLDWIDE WEB
Ironically, as soon as someone makes something that will travel the world for you in search of information, someone else comes up with a machine that allows you to travel the world yourself and still keep in touch with your computer. It's unlikely, however, that you'll want to surf the Internet from a dinghy in the Baltic or a camel in the Sahara, so we'll skip the satellite technology and assume that you just want to show your mate something at his house.
Name: Sharp HC-4500
Price: pounds 700
Stockists: 0800 262958
Description: Like all miniature organisers, the Sharp HC-4500 is pretty boring to look at unless the optional digital camera (pounds 350) is attached. The Sharp's distinguishing marks become more transparent when it is required to surf. If your chief reason for buying one is to access the Net on the hoof, then ignore our advice last week about buying a Psion 5. The HC- 4500 works better in this medium, because it also comes with a cute 640x240 pixel colour screen, uses Windows CE software and comes with a miniature Web browser and e-mail programme. The disadvantage is that the British version doesn't include a modem (the US one does), so you'll have to spend another pounds 90 on a PC card modem to fill the vacant slot.
Anything else worth considering? Obviously, you could opt for something bigger, such as an Apple Powerbook (from pounds 1,649 plus VAT, 0870 6006010) or Sony's ultra-slim VAIO Note PCG-505FX (pounds 1,829 plus VAT, 0990 424424). The latter comes with an installed 56kbps modem card compatible to GSM/ISDN (ISDN is faster than normal phone lines - basically, it's twice as thick - but BT will also charge you more for the privilege of using it). Alternatively, if you opted to get an all-in-one organiser/mobile phone, such as the Nokia 9000i or Philips Ilium GSM Accent, then you can use those. But turn off the graphics if you don't want to wait till the next millennium before downloading a page.
Hands on: If you don't have a sympathetically designed iMac keyboard, you can give your old PC a boost with a fancy new keyboard. Microsoft has come up with a split-level key layout with Mexican-wave-like wrist rest. Its name, Natural Keyboard Elite (pounds 39.99, 0345 002000), is the most pompous thing about it. For those just wanting something flash, hunt out a wireless Casco Infrared Keypoint Pro Keyboard.
Watch the birdy: If you like Alessi designs, fancy yourself as David Bailey and remember the cartoon Ludwig with affection, then invest immediately in Philips's PCA645VC (pounds 92, 0181-689 4444), an egg on legs with a digital video camera where its beak should be. It also records audio signals, so now there's nothing to stop you (other than not having a PC with USB ports) from sending videograms by mail.
Literature: Internet mags tell you all the technical/boring bits about the Internet, so we don't have to. They also come with handy CDs of software and loads of ads promising free Internet services (to be treated with scepticism). January's Internet Magazine (pounds 2.99) is recommended for its analysis of Internet service providers (the people who hook you into the machine) and alternative browsers (your navigational tools). You don't have to use Internet Explorer, even if Bill Gates is trying to get it installed on every machine in the universe.
Internet at your convenience: Cyrix's WebPAD (around pounds 300, see www.cyrix.com) comprises a base station (or a PC) and a neat-looking portable screen (like the monitor half of a laptop), which communicates with the Internet via radio signals. It's not due out until mid-1999 but then, finally, the Net will become accessible in the place that epitomises most of its content: the bog.Reuse content