Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

2.15. What Internet tools should I look for?

The tools available to you online will determine what you can do on the Internet. As mentioned, some services offer many tools, others just a few. E-mail, the bare minimum offering for any service with so-called Internet access, is surprisingly robust alone (see Chapter 4, "How Can I Communicate with People Around the World?" for ideas.) Of course, with more tools in your toolbox you'll be able to do more work.

The most basic level of Internet access is electronic mail, which will allow you to exchange messages with users on the Internet and other networks.

The next level is a combination of Usenet newsgroups and electronic mail.

The best collection of Internet access includes newsgroups and e-mail as well as the Internet's interactive tools--Telnet, FTP, Gopher, and so on. (These tools are called interactive because you use them to connect with other people and computers in "real-time." E-mail and Usenet groups don't work in real-time. When you send an e-mail message, for example, it isn't sent the moment you type it. It may sit in a mailbox for minutes or days before it's read by the intended recipient.)

From the hosts you are considering, find out what Internet tools are available. Some services that claim to offer Internet access offer only a limited selection of tools.

Be sure to plan ahead. For instance, although you may think you only need Internet electronic mail now, you will be gravely disappointed if you later want to try out FTP or Gopher and discover you can't access those services from your host. Tools to ask for are

* Electronic mail. Is it "batched" (delivered only a few times a day) or is it delivered the instant you send it? Batching e-mail probably saves your service provider money, but it considerably slows down the delivery of your electronic mail. Also, does the service charge you to send and receive e-mail? A small number of services--especially commercial ones that shall remain unnamed to protect the guilty--charge based on the number of messages delivered or the size of your e-mail. Try to avoid using services that charge this way. Charges based on e-mail usage limit the range of nifty things you will do with electronic mail and can bring unwelcome surprises when the bill comes.

* Telnet. The Telnet program, which you use to run programs and access databases on remote computers, is an important interactive tool. Get it if you can.

* File Transfer Protocol (FTP). With FTP you can search and get files from various archives throughout the world. If you're interested in shareware, free software, or other information that you might be able to find on a public server, you'll definitely need FTP access! Find out if your service provider offers it. If so, is there a limit to the amount of information you can transfer using it?

* Usenet News. Does your host offer a full Usenet feed? How about value-added news like ClariNet (which features UPI newsfeeds, syndicated features, and the like)?

* Gopher, Archie, and World Wide Web client. If the service provider runs a special client for accessing these Internet tools, you'll have faster access and (one would hope) more reliability than using public clients run by other organizations.

* Online help. Are "manual pages" or other online help systems installed on the host?

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