Getting Online

The Internet, as you may have heard, is a parallel universe. It's a travel agency, bank teller, music store, video player, radio station, and newspaper wire service, not to mention a bulletin board, chat room, post office, and global chess tournament. Or at least the Internet can be all that stuff if you can connect to it. That can be the tricky part.

The basic components you need for Internet fun include:

Internet service
Lots of stuff on the Internet's free, but getting to the Internet usually isn't. In fact, you have to sign up for an account with somebodyyour cable TV company, phone company, or an outfit like America Onlineto get your computer connected.

Your computer may already have what it takes to get you online: a modem (if you want to get online via phone lines), an Ethernet jack (to connect by network wire), or a wireless card (to connect wire lessly). Details in a moment.

Internet software
If you're going to send email and browse the World Wide Web, you need special programs to do so. Luckily, your computer came with these programs already on the hard drive.

Broadband connections. These are high-speed, extremely satisfying connections that are growing in popularitybut they're fairly expensive.

Dial-up connections. Your computer can also connect to the Internet by dialing out over ordinary phone lines. It's slow, but cheap.

Wireless connections. Pure heaven. Might even be free, if you're in the right place.

The Most Essential Piece of Gear
You'll need some equipment to get to the Internet, of course; you've probably heard of modems, cable modems, and DSL.

But before you can even consider getting yourself that sort or gear, you need a computer.

Computers are a lot cheaper than they used to be; you can buy a new laptop these days for around $500. In general, the newer the computer, the easier it's probably going to be to get it connected to the Internet. That's because fresh new operating systems like Windows XP and Mac OS X have built-in helper software designed to quickly guide your computer online.

But what if you already have a perfectly good four-or five-year-old model that works just fine for word processing or playing solitaire?

Truth is, an old Mac or PC may not let you see all that the Web has to offer.

That's because Apple and Microsoft stop updating their software when they move on to newer versions. So Web browsersand the software that lets them display video, animations, and other visual goodiesmay be out-of-date and incapable of showing you everything that's online.

If you have an older computer that has enough memory and hard drive space to meet the system requirements of Windows XP or Mac OS X, though, you can upgrade the old box with a new system and still see the best of the Web without buying a whole new machine.