The Internet’s Dirty, Cheap Little Secret : THE CUTTING EDGE: CONSUMER’S COMPUTER GUIDE

As the annual pre-Christmas computer buying frenzy takes hold, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to explore cyberspace. In fact, you can do most of what people like to do on-line for an upfront expenditure of about $100--including the cost of the computer.

The dirty little secret here is that cruising cyberspace takes almost no computing power at all, and the woods are just full of “obsolete” old PCs that are easily up to the task. You can send and receive e-mail, use thousands of special-interest newsgroups, or search the Internet by subject using gopher Veronica and the World Wide Web. You can even subscribe to CompuServe or America Online, which still offer friendly DOS-based interfaces for those so inclined.

To prove just how cheaply you can dive into the Internet, I helped my friend Cindi do just that for nothing more than $15, the cost of an annual subscription to the LA Free-Net. And Cindi didn’t even have a computer. (OK, I gave her one. But it wasn’t worth anything anyway, as you’ll see.)

Needless to say, there were some surprises along the way; for novices who decide to go this route, the help of a computer-savvy friend will make the job vastly easier. In fact, my holiday gift suggestion for all you warm-hearted geeks out there is to haul that ancient PC out of storage and give it to someone who would benefit from a little e-mail. Take the time to get the new user set up properly, and provide a lesson or two in using on-line services. You’ll find the experience more rewarding and less expensive than almost anything you can put a bow around.


As should be evident by now, the trick is to take advantage of all that surplus computing power clogging up people’s closets and attics. Our obsession with Windows and icons and so forth has blinded us to just how much you can do with the sort of old PC that people are practically giving away. Lars Eighner, for instance, wrote his acclaimed memoir of homelessness “Travels With Lizbeth” on a PC-XT he recovered from a dumpster.

These days you’ll find complete XT-class machines for as little as $50. Much better AT-class machines--these have a 286 chip, as opposed to the Pentium, or 586, being sold today--are going for $100. These prices are so low that you can probably cadge one from a friend for free, but if you’re paying, go for the AT. Old computers are often listed in classified ads, both print and electronic.

Cindi seemed the ideal person on whom to foist--er, that is, bestow--the old XT we had in our closet, along with an amber monitor and one of the surplus dot-matrix printers we had floating around the house. With 640K of RAM and a 21-megabyte hard drive, the computer seems pathetic by today’s standards, but bear in mind that a great old DOS word processor like XyWrite fit on a single 360K floppy disk. (Some of today’s word processors fill 21 megabytes all by themselves.) Cindi’s XT has no graphics capability anyway, so who needs gigabytes of storage?

That’s the key. You can access everything on the Internet with a piece of equipment like this, but you can’t see all those pretty pictures and colors on the World Wide Web. You’ll have to settle for text-based access instead. It’s faster anyway, which is a good thing, because Cindi’s new XT has a 2,400 bps modem.

My first surprise on setting up this old XT was how well it worked, as long as I kept the steam engine stoked. No, seriously, it worked so well that I was miffed. Here I am sitting in front of some fancy 486, a cyberspace pundit, after all, and my machine, running Windows 95 with 8 megs of RAM is slow as molasses. Cindi’s XT, by contrast, did everything almost instantly. This is progress?

Once I got over my DOS-envy, the biggest problem was getting any additional software onto her machine. It has a single 5.25-inch floppy disk that reads only double-density disks, rather than the 3.5-inch high-density disks most of us use today. And there’s no serial port for a cable connection. I rooted around the house until I found a bunch of double-densities I could use, only to encounter the worst nemesis of any such exercise: dust.

It got so bad that my own computer’s 5.25-inch floppy drive stopped working. At first I thought maybe I had been feeding it some CP/M-formatted disks from my old Kaypro, but then it wouldn’t even read brand-new high-density DOS disks. At a loss, I decided to try blowing into it, which cleared the trouble right up. (If that hadn’t worked, I would have tried kicking it, of course.)

At last I could copy some of the programs Cindi would need. I decided to stay entirely with freeware for this project; thus, the telecommunications program I installed for Cindi was BananaCom! 1.0, available on many BBSes. This exceedingly simple little program finds your modem (unless it is in the drawer with all the screwdrivers) and hides a lot of other nasty issues from the user.

Another virtue of BananaCom! 1.0 (later versions aren’t free) is that it doesn’t seem to mind Cindi’s prehistoric version of DOS. Worries about this issue kept me from trying to install any of the commercial telecommunications programs I got with various modems over the years, even though I can legally give them away as long as I don’t keep copies.

BananaCom! 1.0 is pretty bare bones, of course; many full-blown telecommunications programs are available in cyberspace as shareware, with registration fees rarely exceeding $35. Other free telecom programs are also available on the Internet.

I also installed pkunzip, so Cindi could unzip any downloaded files. For ease of use, Cindi’s computer has a simple DOS menuing program; many are available as inexpensive shareware, or the average geek can simply rig one up with a series of simple DOS batch files. I configured Cindi’s menus so that, when the computer is turned on, it says hi and offers her several choices, including Internet access, basically at a single keystroke.

By the time we set up the computer in her living room, it was easy to get Cindi enrolled by modem in the nonprofit Free-Net, which offers access to Internet newsgroups, the World Wide Web, unlimited e-mail and more. Some of the software the Free-Net uses to access these things is pretty ugly, but then again, what do you want for $15 a year?

I also learned from this whole project that Cindi isn’t the only one accessing the Internet with obsolete equipment. There are Kaypro users out there, as well as people logging on with ancient Apples. “We even have people using old Commodores,” says Free-Net Executive Director Phil Mittleman. And he doesn’t mean naval retirees.

Daniel Akst welcomes messages at His World Wide Web page is at


Free-Net Offer

For those with a little more computing horsepower--say, a 386 PC--the Los Angeles Free-Net is offering an attractive deal. Next month it will begin offering PPP (point-to-point protocol) accounts, giving users full access to the sites and sounds of the Internet.

The basic Free-Net account will continue to cost just $15 a year, with PPP available for an additional $15. Big spenders who pony up $65 can get PPP and a vanity e-mail address (such as, instead of

The nonprofit Free-Net is also installing 40 new 28.8 bps modems, expanding total phone lines from 85 to 115, and adding local phone numbers in Diamond Bar and Thousand Oaks. All accounts include unlimited usage, but after an hour on-line, you have to hang up and call back.

To check out the Free-Net, use your modem to dial:

(818) 776-5000

(310) 660-6032

(213) 223-6511

(213) 764-3022