Ask that nice man...

How can I get started using the Internet?

I'm thinking about using a home personal computer to explore and have some fun with the Internet.
Any words of advice before I plunge in?
Relax and enjoy it.

It will be frustrating, educational, and harder than watching television, but it can also be a lot of fun.

This page contains many gross simplifications. The Internet is very complicated, and very intimidating. As you use it you will quickly begin to understand it better. If you already understand it better, feel free to correct me.

This Web page assumes you are using all-Microsoft ware: some version of Windows, Internet Explorer, and so on.  The decision of whether to use the Microsoft or the Netscape browser is a personal one. You can even use America Online or a Mac. There are plenty of fine options. This Web page is just one of many possible helpful pages. The author does not own stock in Microsoft.

Is it hard to get connected?
No, but you do need to do a few things.  You need a computer, for one, and you have to select and subscribe to an Internet Service Provider ("ISP").
Is is expensive?   Can I do it for free?
You can probably borrow access to a computer from a friend or library, or there are coffeehouses where you can rent a computer with Internet access by the hour, very cheaply.  

If you can borrow the access, you can get a free, permanent, Web-based e-mail account.  You can read and reply to your mail from any Web-enabled computer in the world.

But -- if you like it -- you will want your own computer. 

You can pay any amount you like for your hardware.  Used hardware is being given away daily, including perfectly good computers -- maybe three years old  -- that are entirely capable of getting you connected to the Internet. 

However, it can take a lot more time and effort to make those older (e.g. "Windows 98" era) machines work.  Your online experience will be a bit slower, and you may miss out on some of the fun, because some Web pages may not work properly for you. But e-mail and basic Web browsing do NOT require the latest expensive hardware. 

Want to buy new?  Fine. Even the very cheapest of the current crop of computers are more than adequate, and you'll never miss what you're missing unless you have friends with hotter machines.


As of this writing (July 2005), a dream machine for a home user including a Pentium-4 processor running at around 3GHz, at least 512 MB of "RAM" (memory) (but 1 GB is better), a hard disk that can store at least 100Gb data, a DVI video card, a 17" flat panel display (also preferably with DVI input), a DVD+/-RW drive (or at least a CD-RW drive and a DVD read-only drive), a sound card, speakers, a mouse, a keyboard, several USB jacks, a firewire jack (especially if you own or may buy a digital camcorder), an Ethernet jack (and maybe a V.90 modem so you can still connect to the Internet when the DSL line goes down), and a reliable (i.e. insurance-backed) surge protector.  You can probably get all this for under $1000 if you are a good, patient shopper. 

Getting an extended (3- or 4-year) parts and labor warrantee on your system is nice, but if the vendor is asking more than 10% of the system cost for it, maybe their hardware isn't as reliable as it should be.

Extra bucks buy you larger video screens, more storage space (for all the great stuff you can get from the Web), and SPEED -- far more processing speed than you can possibly use just browsing the Internet, but useful for other computer tasks. 

You can also spend money on a printer, a scanner, a tape backup unit, or all kinds of other expensive special-purpose peripherals.  And don't forget that software costs money, too.

For more detailed and timely purchasing advice, Ask That Nice Man!

OK, I've selected the machine.  But how do I select an ISP?  What should I expect to pay for that?

Selecting an Internet Service Provider can be tough. 

You could talk to someone in your area who already uses the Internet and have them recommend one. The best place to research the offerings of various ISPs is on the Internet. Fortunately, you already have some access to the Internet, or you wouldn't be reading this, would you?

Your computer vendor may encourage you to go with their favorite ISP, or may even offer you a rebate if you will sign up for a long-term contract.  These are not necessarily a good deal, and you may want to be free to change ISPs later, for lots of reasons.

A dial-up Internet account for personal use should definitely not cost more than around $20 per month.   In a competitive market like the San Francisco Bay Area you can pay as little as $10. You can save a lot by prepaying or accepting various limitations on your access.  But watch out for short-term discount prices tied to high-priced long-term contracts.

A DSL connection will cost $25 per month or more, depending on speed and special features, and a Cable connection probably over $40. 

Select your ISP carefully, because changing ISPs means changing your primary e-mail address, which can be a minor inconvenience or a major nuisance, depending how many people you give your e-mail address to.  If you keep a list of the important ones, in your own address book, it will make it easier to notify them all later.

What about using America Online as an ISP?
America Online ("AOL") can be a good choice for the novice.  It is usually extremely easy to set up, and it is designed to be easy to use.  A single account gives you up to five separate screen names.  And the AOL chat rooms and shopping services are extremely popular. 

However there are some disadvantages, too.  If you want to use your Internet access for business use, or for adult amusements, AOL's family-focused "terms of service" may be too limiting for you.

Using a regular ISP and a suite of Internet tools from Microsoft or Netscape is a little harder to get started with, but may be more rewarding in the long run.

OK, I've signed up with an ISP.  What happens now?
Your Internet Service Provider should do whatever it takes to help you get connected:  they may give you a CD to insert into your computer to set you up, or they may talk you through a procedure, or they may even come to your home.  After all, they can't really start charging you for the service until you start using it. 

One of the first you will need to do is tell your ISP what you want to use as your "user name". This is an important decision, because your primary e-mail address consists of your user name + "@" + the name of your ISP. And for some reason it is often surprisingly difficult to get your ISP to change your username.  

You may want to take advantage of your ISP's offer to give you additional "spare" usernames.  (AOL gives you up to 5 total usernames -- they call them "screen names".)  One will probably be a public e-mail address, derived from your real name, used for registering software and conducting e-commerce.  Others may be semi-anonymous "handles" for more casual, friendly or adult personal use.  

Many people keep one name "unlisted", giving it out to friends and family but never otherwise using it online, so the spam-mongers don't get hold if it.

Any other tips for getting started?
My most important advice is to write down -- and store someplace convenient -- ALL the information you gather at this time.  

Start with the purchase receipt that details exactly what hardware is inside the box .  Then in the same folder include all the materials relating to your Internet access signup:  passwords, usernames, tech support phone numbers, Internet resource addresses (often with cryptic names like "") and all the rest.  If things ever go badly and you need these things, having them all in one place will afford enormous peace of mind.

So once I am on the Internet, what should I expect?
Remember that 
it is the 
"hot spot" 
of the mouse cursor 
(the tip of the arrow 
or the index finger 
of the hand) 
that counts 
when pointing 
and clicking.
Using the World Wide Web is easier to do than to explain.  

You typically start by giving the command "Start | Programs | Internet Explorer".  If there is a big blue "e" on your screen, you can click (or maybe double-click) on that instead.  

This starts a program called a "Web browser".  The browser retrieves data from a "web site" and displays it on your screen.  Words, images, maybe music or animations, all this and more is "downloaded" from the Web site and displayed for your enjoyment.

The first site displayed when you start your browser is sometimes called your "home page".  (There may even be a button at the top of your browser to let you return to this home page if you get lost while browsing.

The home page will include "links" to other pages.  These links are a very important part of the Web experience.  You will learn to recognize links: they are often a different color, or underlined, and the mouse cursor often changes when it is on a link.  

A word or phrase can be a link, or a picture.  Sometimes a picture will actually include links to many different places, depending on exactly where on the picture you click.  

When you click on a link, your browser (communicating with the web site) interprets your click and, usually, goes out and retrieves another web page.  The new page may be part of the same web site, or it may be a link to someone else's web site, maybe in another country.  

By clicking and linking you can get from one page to another, to another, to another, ad infinitum.  If you click and don't like the results, you can usually click on the "back" button (on the tool bar at the top of the browser) or press the Backspace key (on your keyboard), to return to the site you were at before.

What if I don't like the look of any of the links?

You can go to a different page whenever you like, by telling your browser exactly where you want to go.  You can do this by telling your browser the address of the Page you want.  

The address of a web page is known as its "URL" (which stand for "universal resource locater", if you care).  It usually looks something like this:

This is the full form of a URL, but you can almost always just type in the part after the two slashes, like this:

In fact, for most Web sites, you can omit the "www." to, and type in something like this:

but that won't always work.

You type the Web Address (URL) into the "Address box" at the top of the browser.  (If no address box is shown, press Ctrl-L or Ctrl-O.  If using AOL, press Ctrl-K.).  Press Enter, and off you will go!

Don't confuse the "Address Box" with the "search box" which may appear, either as part of your browser or as part of the Web page itself on your home page. If I tell you that my Web address is "" you don't need to search for it -- you already know the address.  If you don't know my address but you remember my slogan, you can enter the phrase "ask that nice man" (including the quotation marks) into a search engine and (probably) find a link to my page somewhere.  You could also find my page by searching for keywords like "computer consultant San Francisco" but you'd have to wade through lots of other entries before you found the link to mine.

Searching is an important part of the Web experience, and you'll learn more about it -- and about the many other things you can do online -- very soon.  

Isn't there more to the Internet than just the World Wide Web?
  There is indeed.  For convenience, I will focus here on the tools provided by Microsoft as part of its Internet Explorer "suite".  

Microsoft has over the years offered many different e-mail programs, with names like  "Internet Mail", "Outlook Express", "Outlook 98", and now "Outlook 2000".  But the one that comes free with Internet Explorer is called "Outlook Express".  We'll talk a lot more about e-mail later.

"Outlook Express" also works well for reading and posting messages to the "Usenet Newsgroups".   Newsgroups are easy to explore and contain vast quantities of materials, much of it worthless but all of it free. 

A few years ago Microsoft made a lot of noise about their "Channels" feature. It went nowhere.  If your computer is still displaying a "Channel Bar" or icon, I recommend you close it, delete it or just ignore it. 

Microsoft Comic Chat was a simple tool for "chat"  -- exchanges of typed messages among living, breathing human beings who are simultaneously using the Internet.  That tool is now apparently extinct, so if you want to explore "online chat", you will need to use Web-based chat, and get some other "Internet Relay Chat" (IRC) client program.

This kind of group chat has been lately eclipsed by "instant messaging" - a kind of real-time email.  Windows Messenger is Microsoft's entry, but Yahoo has their own version, as do other vendors (AOL, ICQ, etc.).   Most now include voice- and/or video chat as well.  The challenge is balance complexity and features, and the ability to reach out and touch your friends with their freedom to be left alone.  

I should probably also mention "file sharing" - a category of software that makes it easy to search for and exchange files with other Internet-users.  The most popular kinds of files to trade are mp3 (audio) files of your favorite songs, jpg (image) files with interesting pictures, and mpg (motion picture) files containing short films or trailers of coming major releases.  Unfortunately this useful Internet capability has been (a) overrun by people who want to share files (most especially music files) that they don't actually have the right to share, and (b) hunted into obscurity by the corporations that actually do own the rights to those shared files.  

And once I am connected...?
You can use all the programs listed above, as well as hundreds more, that rely upon the Internet connection to make your computer much more powerful than it could ever be on its own.  

You can play multi-user games, do your online banking, and, of course, shop your brains out.  

You can make nearly-free long-distance calls to anywhere in the world.

You may even be able to connect to your workplace and do much of your work right from the comfort of your own home.

You can automatically update your software with the latest features and fixes.

You can play radio stations, or listen to police-band broadcasts for your city.

You can view maps or satellite images of any place in the world. 

You can find archives of free- or almost-free software, including all kinds of games and useful utilities, which you can download and run on your own machine. (IMPORTANT NOTE:  Never run any program unless you have good reason to trust the author or publisher of it.)

You can use the Internet to communicate with others, sharing your thoughts, either in carefully-written e-mail or hasty instant messages.  You can interact with others one-on-one, or you can create a blog and share your thoughts with potentially thousands of readers. 

Or you can just use the Web browser passively, not interacting with anything at all, just seeking out and anonymously viewing Web sites of specific interest to you.  It's your choice.

What do I do when I am done?
You don't have to "log out" from a Web site or from the Internet.   It is not rude to leave without saying goodbye.

You may want to "bookmark" a site so you can find it easily tomorrow. 

If you use a dial-up connection, you will probably want to disconnect from the Internet when you are done, to minimize costs and free up the line.  If you use a DSL or CableModem connection, your computer will probably be automatically connected to the Internet whenever it is turned on. 

Do be sure to use the Start button to shut down safely before turning the computer power off.

  Do I need to worry about connecting my computer to the Internet ?    
    Unfortunately, yes.  Those millions of computers that you are now connected to are also connected to you.  Malicious people and the software they create can try to steal private information from your computer's hard drive, trick you into giving them your credit cards or passwords, or take control of your computer (without your knowledge) for their nefarious purposes. 

Don't get paranoid, but do be careful.

First, be sure to set up Windows Automatic Update to keep your computer's operating system up to date.  This is absolutely critical to safe Web browsing. 

Windows XP now includes a firewall, for another layer of protection.  And Microsoft is also starting to offer malicious software detection tools as well.

For now, however, you should probably have a third party "Internet Security suite", including firewall, virus, spyware, and spam protection. 

McAfee and Symantec are the largest vendors of these products.  I personally use Trend Micro's Internet Security.  There are lots of others.  Expect to spend $30 to $50 per year to keep your protection up to date.

So, is using the Internet really worth all the trouble and expense?
You'll have to judge for yourself. 

But consider this:  the 'Net may possibly be the first human construction to approach the level of complexity of a living creature.

Love it or fear it, surf when you must or become an addict.  But no one living in the 21st Century should ignore it.  

  Any other Internet Tips?