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Computing With Bifocals
by Nancy Carroll Gravley

A column for people who remember what
the world was like before there was color.....

AOL Vs. A Local ISP
November 25th, 1998

This week I am going to write about choosing an on line provider. You know how sometimes you will hear a commentary on the radio or TV and it will be followed by a statement that the previous commentary does not necessarily represent the opinions of this station? Well, that is what this is - only my opinion.

I am going to discuss the different options offered to you as a user by the different kinds of internet providers who all clamor for your business. This column will concentrate on American Online (AOL) vs. a local internet service provider.

When I first went on-line (which I compare to the first day of school because it was so overwhelming) I signed up with AOL. Primarily I did this because it was the service that my children used and they all told me it was the only way to go. They installed the program, got me set up with a sign-on name, strung the phone wire, and installed the external modem. Then two of them looked over my shoulder while I explored this vast new world. My first intelligent thought was that I wished I had had access to this when I was in graduate school (1993-1995). It would have saved me many, many trips to the library. My second intelligent thought (which came much later in the day) was to thank God I could type 100 words per minute.

I used AOL as my only internet provider for about 6 months. By that time I was good and fed up with it.

AOL offers a number of features. It has easily accessible e-mail, a menu driven home page that both identifies and provides access to different sites, and the infamous chat rooms. You can immerse yourself into the AOL world as much as you choose — become a member of the club as it were. Many members choose to create a profile that tells who you are without revealing your real name or address. Other members can access those profiles and contact you for chats, requests, etc. There are a lot of really nice people on AOL, but there are some real weirdoes too. I was astonished at the number of very young men who were apparently extremely interested in becoming involved with older women. I developed a number of theories about this, none of which I will go into now. Lets just say that I have raised all the children I am interested in raising. There are sites that allow you to research special interests such as travel, sports, investments, etc. Most of them then lead to other sites. For instance you can go to a general people site and from there look for personal ads, find bulletin boards where you can leave messages that you are trying to find a long-lost friend or love, find people who share your birthday or your astrological sign, or find a group that shares a common interest in anything from motorcycle enthusiasts to stamp collectors. One of the most popular components of AOL are the chat rooms. Chat rooms are special interest groups that range all the way from people with foot fetishes to young mothers looking for help with colic. There are rooms for StarTrek addicts, rooms for people from specific parts of the country, or certain age groups. There are rooms for elaborate fantasy games, and rooms for dog lovers. You name it and you can probably find it. If not, you can create you own. It was in a chat room that I appreciated the fact that I was a fast typist. Most chat rooms move like lightening with several people entering comments at the same time. There can even be more than one conversation going on in a chat room, depending on the participants.

And, there are rules for chat rooms. If you break the rules you will hear about it quickly. For instance if you type in all capital letters it means you are yelling. This is a no-no. There are symbols that are used to show you are laughing, angry, happy, etc. These are actually necessary since you do not have the advantage of the nuances of speech to show how you feel.

One nice aspect of AOL is the Buddy List. You can enter and save the AOL e-mail name for anyone you want and the Buddy list will tell you each time you sign on whether or not they are also on-line. It will even tell you where to find them if you ask. Another special feature is instant messages. You can send an instant message to anyone on-line on AOL and they will receive it, even if they are involved in something else. (You can also block individuals from contacting you.) You can create your own private chat room. I do this with my daughters once or twice a week, when we can all get on-line at the same time. It is like a conference call without the long distance charges.

At this point you may be saying "but I thought you said you didn’t like AOL." The answer to that is I don’t, but my children do and to take advantage of the opportunity to easily converse with them I have to maintain a membership in AOL. However, since I use another, quite different kind of primary internet access, I am able to get unlimited access to AOL for less than $10 a month as opposed to the regular price of around $20 a month for unlimited access.

There are three reasons why I absolutely refuse to use AOL as my primary contact. These are: the difficulty in dialing in, the inordinate amount of time it takes to work, and the limitations on what I can access.

I choose to regularly use a local internet service provider. I can count on two hands the number of times in the 2-1/2 years that I have used a local provider that I was not able to dial in on the first attempt. Those times were related to floods that damaged phone lines and times when the whole internet was flooded with users at the same time. I access the internet using Netscape with no home page. That means I get a blank page and can quickly type in a destination or pull down the favorites menu and go to a site of choice. Using this system I can get into the internet in approximately 50 seconds (with a 56K modem). It usually takes AOL about 3-1/2 minutes just to get to the home page, even longer if they throw in one of their periodic advertisements. My set up also allows me to use Eudora as an e-mail provider. I can access my e-mail without opening Netscape at all and it usually takes about 20 seconds to access.

I also discovered over time that while AOL offers a number of subject categories and options for getting information, it is all tied directly to AOL. What I mean by this is that it is difficult to access the regular internet and non-AOL sites. I discovered this when I tried to refer a daughter to to help her find an old friend. Granted she is not an experienced user, but she couldn’t get there using AOL. It was only after I switched providers that I began to discover great sites like and Any of the multitude of search engines can search subjects faster and better than AOL. The home page for AOL provides news updates and allows you to seek out other news destinations. But with my regular provider I signed up with free service). Twice each day, at my request, they automatically send me mail that includes the headlines with access to in-depth coverage. They send me another message with the evening TV lineup for my local area, including the cable channels that are not listed in my local paper. A third message contains trivial information such as the historical happenings for the current day. I can choose to read these messages or not as my schedule allows, but either way I don’t have to do anything to get them.

In summary, AOL is much more cumbersome and slower than my regular internet provider, but it offers the advantage of Buddy Lists, Instant Messages, and Chat Rooms, features that are only available on AOL to AOL subscribers. My local internet provider gives me faster service, greater access to the whole internet, and fast e-mail.

My personal wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Copies of Nancy's book Tips, Hints, and Solutions for Seasoned Beginners Using Apple Macintosh Computers With OS X are available in PDF download versions  for US$9.57 and in print version for $18.15 plus $4.00 shipping.   To view sample pages and get ordering information visit the September 14, 2004 column.

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Check out Nancy's complete index of all her columns for the most complete list of tips anywhere. The list is categorized and is a great reference when you are looking for help!

A Capacious Catalog Of Computer Tips

Talking to a generation that remembers what the world was like before there was color, covers issues for people who don't care how their computer works, but rather what their computer and the internet can do for them.

Nancy has a Master's degree in Human Services Administration and prior to her retirement she worked for almost 30 years in field of mental health and mental retardation. She has been a Mac user for 11 years, and has recently developed an avocation of teaching basic computer skills in both group and one-to-one settings.

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