Free PCs?

Computer Life column for April 10, 1999

Richard Gordon

On the way to work Wednesday morning, I heard the hosts on WIP interview an 8-year-old girl to whom they'd given free tickets to see the Sixers Tuesday night. She rattled off the food she'd eaten and the souvenirs she had to have, until one of the hosts asked her father:

"So how much did those free tickets end up costing you? Forty bucks? More?"

It reminded me of the recent glut of offers for free PCs--really "nearly-free" PCs.

Microworkz is taking on-line orders for their Webzter PCs ( at prices beginning at $299. That price includes a year's worth of Internet service. The catch? Floppy drive and monitor are about $240 extra. And unless you order the $699 Webzter Sr. model, you'll get a system with a Cyrix MII chip-one that doesn't stack up well in most benchmarks.

Free-PC ( is a venture from Idealab, the same folks who started up NetZero (, a free Internet Service Provider that now has over 700,000 subscribers.

Free-PC plans to operate the same way NetZero does: in partnership with advertisers. The big catch with Free-PC is that any time the computer is on--not just when you're surfing the Web--advertising scrolls across your screen. If you don't watch those ads for at least 10 hours per week, you'd be in violation of your contract.

The other thing that some people object to is that, in order to apply for the program, you have to share some personal information. Nothing like the questioning you undergo when you give blood, but you have to reveal your income, hobbies, and shopping habits.

DirectWeb ( is another company that has blitzed area radio stations with their toll-free number. If you sign up for Internet service with them at rates ranging from $19.95 to $49.95 per month, they say they'll send you a PC. Quit the service? You have to return the computer.

The final entrant is a company called Gobi ( If you sign up for 36 months of Internet service with them at $25.99 a month, they'll send you a computer for about $70 (shipping, credit check, and set-up fee). They also promise to upgrade your computer, modem, and software over the course of the contract. If you drop out early, you can pay to keep the computer.

Media and word-of-mouth reports ruined Gobi's idea of test-marketing in only one location, Toledo, Ohio--I first heard about them from a friend in West Virginia. On Wednesday, Gobi reported they had received 1,500 orders in 10 days and had shipped about 400 systems around the nation. That makes Gobi the only one of these companies to have actually shipped any of their nearly-free systems.

All these companies are offering consumers a Web-capable computer at very low prices. If you're interested, try Gobi first. Gobi is upfront about the costs of their program; market analysts report that, of the "free" PC crowd, Gobi's business plan seems to be the most realistic; they're actually up and running; and Gobi even lists access numbers for all three of Delaware's counties.

Tip of the week

Apple's Location Manager

One thing that drives laptop users mad is having to reconfigure three or four settings if they move their computer to a different location.

Apple PowerBook users have a tool to make that task easier: MacOS 8.1 (and higher) includes a control panel called the Location Manager. You can store one configuration for your office, one for home, one for your major client's office, and so on. Once those locations are stored, with one mouse-click you can reconfigure your network access (from modem to LAN or whatever), printer preferences, time zone, and a number of other settings.

For more information, including some ideas about using the Location Manager on your desktop Mac, see "Tap Into the Location Manager," Joseph Schorr's column in the May 1999 issue of MacWorld.

Copyright © 1999, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.