Real American Zero


Q. I’m enamored of those “Candidate Zero” ads that NetZero is using to plug its cheapo Internet service. Makes me wonder if I’m a total sucker for paying upwards of $20 a month for my AOL dial-up account. What’s the deal with NetZero’s $9.95 plan?

A. The bargain-basement $9.95 service will satisfy your most basic surfing jones, but let’s also take a gander at NetZero‘s $14.95 plan. You still don’t get the full digital experience, but it is cheap and quick. Just don’t get Mr. Roboto started on the customer service for either one.

Granted, AOL’s not much fun, either, not when you’re paying a Jackson or more every month for the privilege of using so-so dial-up. It’s not as slow as back in its laughingstock days, but AOL remains a Mr. Roboto pet peeve—you’d think they’d give you halfway decent speed in exchange for living with that abysmal browser. And, as you note, too many customers get locked into the overpriced $23.90 unlimited plan.

Small wonder that a crop of bargain alternatives have popped up recently. NetZero’s parent company, United Online, also owns the low-priced Juno and BlueLight brands, which offer $9.95 deals, too. (Juno and NetZero also offer a free dial-up plan that makes you stare at a gigantic ad banner and limits your e-mailing to 10 hours a month. Not recommended.) Earthlink has a $10.95 plan through its PeoplePC subsidiary.

But stop Mr. Roboto if you’ve heard this part before: The cheapest services don’t work all that great. There’s ample uptime, but the connections are achingly slow for today’s image-filled Web pages. If you’re a NetZero $9.95er and you try to access a site with high-quality pictures, you better have a Rubik’s Cube or other time-waster at hand; it’s going to take eons for the pages to load.

That’s why it’s worth upgrading to NetZero’s $14.95 plan, which includes acceleration software from SlipStream. Internet accelerators make pages load a lot faster by compressing graphics and photos. It won’t make your connection five times faster, as Candidate Zero so forcefully claims in those cheeky ads, but it’ll at least double the speed, and even triple or quadruple it if you set the compression on high.

The problem with compression, of course, is that it makes images all fuzzy, like you’re viewing them after accidentally inhaling some wood varnish. You’re supposed to right-click on any photos you’d like to see in their true glory, which can be sort of a pain. Also, keep in mind that even with the accelerator, you’re still pretty much out of luck with MP3s or other large media files.

The other downer about NetZero is the tech support, which Mr. Roboto will charitably describe as infuriating. Do they really have to charge $1.95 per minute to speak to a NetZero rep on the phone?

True, there’s online support, but c’mon—haven’t the NetZero pooh-bahs ever read Catch-22? How are customers supposed to query an online techie if they can’t get online in the first place? Not the sort of quandary you want when you’re stuck in Cedar Rapids and need to check your e-mail.

Cooler than iPod, an e-commerce site that specializes in Japan-only gadgets, has been a Mr. Roboto favorite for ages. Whatever’s hot among the teen packs in Shibuya makes its way there, including the Takara ChoroQ audio player. Shaped like a Volkswagen Beetle at just 1.8 ounces, the ChoroQ is even more eye-catching than a certain plain-white MP3 player that’s all the rage. A cool way to earn some sidewalk attention, though only you can decide if it’s worth 279 smackeroos.

I robot, you chatty

Much respect to‘s Japan correspondent for publishing a tidbit about Sony’s Intelligence Dynamics Laboratory. The lab is giving itself five years to create a robot that can function as an effective conversationalist—that is, a robot who can laugh at your tepid jokes, as well as reel off plenty of BS about how the Mets need a better bullpen. Sony claims its conversation ‘bot would be a world’s first, but your humble narrator begs to differ: Mr. Roboto’s been boring cocktail party guests for years.