Knocking The Gates 02

By Gus Donnachaidh

Originally published in EUG #41

Like a lot of people, I succumbed to temptation and splashed out on one of the cheap Pentium PCs available. My old 386 just wasn't up to it any more and more importantly I wanted to access the Internet.

So, after two months, how is it?

The PC is fine. The operating system, Windows 98, though is a big disappointment. It seems to try to do two things: be available to almost anyone without the need for technical knowledge and to make Internet access straightforward from almost any program.

On the first point, it has failed. There's numerous pitfalls where you need to understand what some symbol or function is and how to use it. Since there is no Windows 98 manual that I know of, you quickly get stuck. There is a HELP function but this tends to tell you only the most basic of information and is inadequate.

In the two months I have had it, there have been three upgrades to rectify deficiencies in the original programming.

One of the most confusing aspects is that there are several programs which do similar things; each one though has a little detail that the other doesn't. The result is that there are a number of programs, each of which you need to learn, each of which does almost the same job and each of which takes up space on the hard drive.

More serious is the way most programs that you can load into the computer are automatic. They load themselves in, claim their own space on the hard drive and reorganise the computer to suit themselves. This can be especially annoying if you want to get rid of something. Many programs have an uninstall feature but some don't. Even with those that do, the uninstall feature sometimes doesn't work. I've had problems which continually flashed up reminders that they were there and that I should buy the latest version. Another message I can't really figure out is 'file xxx not found in D drive. Press any key' whenever I switch on my PC.

Also, I cannot get a number of programs to load at all and I have discovered that at least two of them have, according to the producers, bugs. The Maplin Magazine is one; an issue in Maplin's shop says it will issue a new CD in February. No word of warning or apology from Maplin itself yet.

On the Internet, Windows 98 has built in a feature that can call up the Internet very quickly, or so we should hope. Again, it just doesn't work.

OK. So I must be doing something wrong but since there isn't a manual how can I find out WHAT? In any case, this isn't the point. I'm the user; this machine should run for my benefit, not some commercial software provider trying to make a killing from the computer gold mine.

Internet Service Providers

To access the Internet, you need an Internet service provider (ISP). From my point of view, there are two types of ISP: those which you pay for and those which are free.

I tried one "pay for" on a month's free trial: American On Line (AOL). I needed a logon name but, as there are so many people on AOL, I ended up with the rather silly donn1562*#&.

It was quite easy to use: Move the pointer around the screen until it comes to a subject you fancy and then log in. However, you have to take out a yearly contract and pay a monthly fee.

There seems to be a number of free ISPs popping up now. These all take advantage of the Windows 98 Internet accessing programs.

Freeserve (, Technical support 0906 553 5600)

This came from a free CD ROM which I got at PC World. It loaded itself up quickly enough but then after trying to access the Internet six times, I had to phone technical support. "Oh, they must be busy. Try later." I never did manage to get through and technical support costs £1.00 per minute. I was on for eight minutes to hear that!

A friend who bought a computer from them needed some help setting it up and getting it working. He was onto them for 45 minutes!

But most seriously, it then stamped its logo on almost every program in my machine and made some unuseable.

My advice has to be "Don't use Freeserve".

Free-online (, Technical support 0890 99 88 77 6)

This also came on a free CD ROM; this time through the post. It loaded itself up and, after registering, I got onto the Internet.

In the extreme, it was basic. You really need to have some understanding of how Windows Explorer works or you may simply sit looking at a title screen. No instructions are provided.

Unless you have a list of addresses of every Internet site you would like to visit (and such a list would make a telephone directory seem like a small notebook by comparison) you will need a search engine. This is a program, provided by the ISP, where you can enter a word and it should search the whole net for sites which might be useful. Yes, it sounds daunting but it apparently works.

Free-online doesn't provide a search engine.

It cut me off after about ten minutes. I understand some ISPs with limited resources do this.

More importantly, remember that error message I get whenever I turn on the computer. It came from Free-online's CD.

Their technical support costs 39p per minute, and on the one occasion I did phone them they were quick, even if their advice was useless.

Again "Don't use Free-Online".

x-stream (, Technical support 0990 901 1000)

This came on a disk. No frills, no extras. It loaded in first time and got me onto the Internet.

It provides eight tabs across the top of the screen to quickly access a number of selected sites, a bank, a bookshop, a casino as well as a chat room, a good search engine (G.O.D.) and x-stream's own home page which has news and a number of other features. There is a second search engine also available called Yahoo. This, I'm told, is one of the best.

You don't get cut off, even after three hours. I know, because I was on that long once.

I really cannot recommend x-stream too highly. While the first two used Windows 98 to the full so that you were (or should have been) able to access them from almost any point in any program, x-stream uses a program in its own right. This means that you won't get this ease of access. For the home user, this can't be a problem. x-stream's icon is on the screen. Click it and it gets you in.

"Use X-Stream."

Telephone Charges

All of these services claim to charge local call rates. This isn't quite true.

A local call with my telephone company, Cable & Wireless, costs 0.9p per minute weekday evenings and 0.7p per minute weekend.

The charges for these numbers are 1.8p per minute weekday evenings and 0.8p per minute weekends.

So going on-line at the weekend is not too expensive. An hour is 48p. So you can get an hour's interesting entertainment for less than 50p.

Is it addictive?

Speaking as someone with a background in psychology I can say that if you have an inadequacy in your personality then anything that fills that inadequacy will be addictive.

But, before we all get too smug, remember all of us have little sore bits which we keep covered; the effect of this creates our characters. Some people believe that character is something to be admited, others that it's something to be overcome. Yer pays yer money, yer takes yer choice.

No, the Internet isn't addictive especially if while you are on-line you keep reminding yourself that the telesales' company who wants to offer you free double glazing can't get through because your 'phone is engaged.

So what's out there?

A lot of bumph. A lot of places just itching to get your credit card number. Adult sites, some of which have a habit of downloading little routines without asking you, some of which can cause problems. And some really good information.

Credit cards
This is the standard method of paying for anything. I telephoned my card company and was told that they haven't had much problem with fraudulent use but occasionally card holders had complained that, while they had authorised say £10, £30 had been deducted.

I have for some time had two cards, mainly because I switched companies a while ago. The card I don't normally use, I'm using for the Internet. I haven't bought much yet. I did buy some software which I downloaded but then it got messed up by Free-online's CD. If you want to avoid big bills, make it a habit to pay off the credit card bill every month. At the very least this should discourage you from impulse buying.

Personal conclusions

Get a dedicated set-top box to access the Internet. A few are available and aren't too expensive. I don't know if you can download any programs or pictures with them but you won't really miss this. I have seen one advertised in a catalogue which included a one year contract with an ISP. Ask what is the monthly subscription. Is the time on the net limited? Can you load/upgrade Internet access software and a different ISP?

Whenever there's a demand, someone out there will try to rip you off. There must be set top equipment which will fit these requirements so shop around. If they won't or can't give you the information, then be suspicious. And write to EUG with any information you may have or get.

If you want a more advanced word processor than View, and I'm still using View because I still prefer it to any other, get one of those dedicated word processors. Perhaps one that is no bigger than an Inverness telephone directory.

If you want a decent games machine, get a Nintendo or a Sega. PCs, like all computers, are useless for the more sophisticated games available nowadays. Go into Toys 'R Us and look at the latest Nintendos. If I were into games, I could go for one of these.

I haven't seen the iMac but have heard some good things. If you have any information on the iMac, send it into EUG.

Acorn, if you can afford it.

The total cost of a separate package like this should be a lot less than a PC and do a much better job.

"Don't use a PC."

Gus Donnachaidh, EUG #41