Lost in Cyberspace
Free Computers?
© 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz

If it sounds too good to be true, sometimes it's still true. Take "free" computers. It's really true you can get a new computer for free, or nearly free. But with so many features and financing options available, things can get confusing. So here's some plain talk on free computers:

There are basically three kinds of free computers. The original free computer is both a free computer and free Internet access, but you pay with advertising, privacy and screen space. The second kind of free computer is free or nearly free but you pay for Internet access for three years. The third kind of free computer isn't free but close, as the price of a computer has plummeted from $2,000 to $1,000 and now as low as $400.

Free-PC <www.free-pc.com> was one of the first to offer a free computer with free Internet access. It has been giving away Compaq Presarios with a 333 MII Cyrix processor, 32 megabytes of RAM, 4 gigabyte hard drive, floppy drive, CD-ROM, 56-kbps modem and 15-inch monitor. Translated, that means more machine than you could have bought for $1,500 six months ago. Free unlimited Internet access is through FreePCNet, a no-frills ISP with e-mail and a "portal" home page with a search engine, news headlines and of course advertising.

Too good to be true? The trade-off is that to get a free computer you have to fit a certain "consumer profile," and if you get the computer you are bombarded with advertising targeted by the information you provided to prove you fit the profile. The ads show up along a strip down the right side of the monitor that takes up 20 percent of the screen. Also, the Free-PC software tracks every Web page you visit and every ad you click on. The pluses are that you learn to tune the ads out. Minuses are that if you have any concerns about Big Brother, you may find having your Web surfing scrutinized overly invasive.

The second kind of free computer comes in the form of a $400 rebate if you sign up for three years of Internet service, which turns out to be paying regular price for the computer but getting the Internet service for about half price. So, for example, Office Depot was offering $400 rebates on computers with a three-year commitment to CompuServe <www.compuserve.com>, kind of an America Online lite which also happens to be owned by AOL. Staples was offering the same rebate on the same computers, only you'd be signed up with MS Network <home.microsoft.com>, another AOL wannabe owned by Microsoft. 

A computer without Internet service is like a TV without an antenna or cable connection, so you are going to want Internet service anyway. But make sure the ISP you choose has a phone number in your area code so you don't pay long-distance charges, and preferably several numbers, so when one is busy you have other choices. Also, if the $20-a-month Internet service goes the same way as the $2,000 computer, and new broadband technologies make telephone modems obsolete, you may not want to lock in for three years.

The current king of the nearly free computer is eMachines <www.e4me.com>, which offers a computer similar to the Free-PC described above, minus the ads, for $400 plus $100 for a screen. Its newest machine is an iMac look-alike except it runs Windows with an Intel Celeron 433 MHz processor and 64 MB of memory. The eOne was being sold exclusively at Circuit City stores for $800, $400 with a three-year subscription to CompuServe.

For a few hundred dollars more you can buy a fancier machine with a Pentium chip, but as Charles Cooper notes in a story for ZDNet News <www.zdnet.com>, consumers can thank eMachines founder Stephen Dukker "for outing one of the industry's dirty little secrets: Precious little difference separates one machine from the next, and only suckers still pay premiums for 'value-added' extras."

Having said that, one more option to consider is an Apple computer. FreeMac.com has announced it will be giving away iMacs currently selling for $1,200 to customers who pay $720 to EarthLink Network for three years of Internet service. Say what you will about marketshare, the Apple operating system is still simpler, easier and more fun to use than Microsoft Windows, and if I didn't already own an Apple computer and subscribe to EarthLink, I'd be all over this offer.

Then again, Microsoft has been making noises about offering free or nearly free Internet access. If MS Network goes free, it will force America Online and other Internet providers to slash prices, leaving customers who bought "free" computers paying $20 a month for free Internet access. Decisions decisions.

copyright 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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