Personal Computing

Are free PCs too good to be true?

The market for new computers has changed dramatically over the last year. The first sub-$500 PCs arrived in time for last winter's holiday shopping season. How low can you go? How about zero. This is what companies chasing the latest trend in computer marketing would have you believe. It takes the concept of a free market to the maximum degree. But as you'll see, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." A growing number of companies will provide you with a free personal computer and unlimited Internet access as long as you subscribe to their affiliated Internet service and pay for shipping and setup, typically less than $100. In some cases the cost of the Internet service is no more than what you'd pay if you owned your own computer. In other cases you pay a premium. Fast cable modems aren't available. A typical PC provided by these services includes a 333-MHz Intel Celeron chip, 32 MB of memory, a 4-GB hard drive, a 32-speed CD-ROM drive, a 56K modem, a 15-in. monitor, Microsoft Windows 98, and other software. If you're looking for the latest and greatest, you should look elsewhere. Despite the caveats, this is the least expensive way yet to obtain a personal computer plus Internet access in your office or home. New York-based Enchilada (877-362-4452, http://www.enchilada.com) requires a long commitment -- four years -- but distinguishes itself by offering free on-site home setup. Its basic service costs $19.99 a month; a color inkjet printer costs an extra $10 a month. The service provides access numbers in most states and 15 cities in Canada. It's targeted for home use, but the company says you can move your PC to a business after it is delivered to your home. You should be sure you want the service. After a 30-day money-back period, you'll be billed for all remaining monthly payments if you cancel the service. InterSQUID.com (877-724-3733, http://www.intersquid.com), based in Chester, N.J., charges $29.99 per month and gives you a choice of three configurations. For a premium of $550 you can opt for a beefed-up "gamer" computer or $950 for a top-of-the-line "business" computer. You need to make a commitment of two-and-a-half years. If you bail out beforehand, unless the company determines you have a legitimate reason, you'll be charged $600 for the computer. The company has local Internet access numbers in most states plus Canada, Europe, and Japan. New York-based Gobi (888-937-4624, http://www.gobi.com) charges $25.99 a month. The company has access numbers in most states. The service currently is limited to residential use. Gobi requires a three-year commitment. You can keep the PC if you cancel your subscription, but you must pay $699 within the first year, $499 within the second, or $249 within the third. Unlike the three services described above, Pasadena, Calif.-based Free-PC Inc. (http://www.free-pc.com) subjects you to targeted advertising while you use your PC, online or off. In exchange, not only is the computer free, Internet access is free as well. When you sign up you must complete a detailed questionnaire that allows the company to target advertising from such companies as Amazon.com, Citibank, eToys, and Preview Travel. Ads are served from your computer's hard drive and are displayed in a frame surrounding the center of the screen. If you don't use your PC at least 10 hours per month, you're required to return it. The service has Internet access numbers in most states. Does all this still sound too good to be true? Here are more warnings. Because of backlogs, it may take a while to receive your PC. InterSQUID.com says the wait will be four weeks. With Enchilada it's three weeks, and Gobi two weeks. Free-PC says that it's limiting its initial rollout to 10,000 PCs, and it already has received more than a million applications. If the initial rollout goes well, though, it says it will try to service everybody. You can't reach anybody live at InterSQUID.com or Gobi to have questions answered. With Free-PC, you can't even place an order over the phone or through the mail. You have to apply though its Web site, which is inconvenient at best if you don't already have a PC. These services are all start-ups with an uncertain future. Yet the lure of "free" PCs sure is enticing. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk about the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

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