"So easy to use, no wonder it's number one," the AOL (AOL) ads tell us cheerily.
But at $23.90 a month for dial-up service that experts describe as "clunky" and "creaky," many do wonder why it's still number one — especially when other services offer more bang for the buck.
"AOL is cluttered — it has a lot of advertising, a lot of bells and whistles. It's like going to Vegas — and sometimes you'd rather go to the beach," said Lindsey Turrentine, a senior editor at computer review Web site CNET.com. "Earthlink has fewer pop-up ads, it's more reliable ... it's a little more hands-off, which we like."
In a recent CNET study of the cost-effectiveness of the five major U.S. dial-up Internet service providers, Earthlink came out the winner. MSN and AOL tied for second, AT&T took third, while CompuServe slumped in last.
And Earthlink's unlimited dial-up plan is $21.95 a month — $1.95 less than AOL's.
Pricing does matter. A survey by investment and research firm ChangeWave Investment Research of its clients who are current and former subscribers of America Online showed on Tuesday that 40 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the brand, service and customer support, with some members pointing to the $23.90 cost for the service.
"We have done more than 100 surveys and reports since late 2000 and this survey has the most overwhelming, and negative, response to a company or technology we have ever seen," ChangeWave director of research Michael Shulman said in a research note.
To be fair, the ChangeWave survey polled professionals in 20 sectors who were mostly early adopters of new technologies such as high-speed services — a far cry from AOL's 34 million plus Internet subscribers who are often characterized as "mainstream" and slower to adopt new technologies.
Look Beyond Big Names
For the casual Internet users out there who just want the basics — e-mail and the ability to occasionally surf the Web — Turrentine said it's definitely worth looking beyond the big names. Telephone companies often offer bundled dial-up plans at rates as low as $6-$7 a month. And local ISPs often charge as little as $9.99 a month for unlimited service.
"My mom uses a local ISP and she loves it. It's really bare-bones, just the basics, no 24-hour customer service. A lot of people prefer the personal service local providers offer — they might even come to your house and help you set up."
Local Internet providers in your area can be found at CNET.com.
Turrentine also said casual surfers who just use the Net to dial in once a day and check e-mail might be willing to put up with the "annoyances" of free services like NetZero.
"Most of our readers have had bad experiences with free or almost-free ISPs," she said. Because they are low-cost they are not able to maintain their networks the way some people are used to. So that means busy signals. You also have to put up with a whole bunch of ads and give up a whole lot of personal information."
Experts say high-speed access is still the best bet for serious web surfers. "If you're paying for dial-up access and a separate phone line, broadband service is about the same cost as those two things put together," said Ben Cutler, senior Internet analyst with marketing consultant Fulcrum Analytics.
Cutler said AOL's recent drop in new subscribers could be related in part to a spike in the popularity of high-speed access, available at lower rates than ever now through cable TV companies.
"Broadband is definitely the future," Cutler said. "It's faster, there's more you can do with it, it's better for downloading video and music."
The ChangeWave report agrees with Cutler, saying AOL could be hit with more defections as people move toward high-speed Internet services. Nearly 60 percent of the survey's respondents who were current AOL users said they planned on moving to a broadband service.
That isn't to say AOL loyalists are excluded from the high-speed world: Customers can get broadband for $44.95 a month, $54.95 with dial-up backup (Earthlink offers cable service with dial-up backup for $41.95.) AOL is also in the process of making AOL Internet available to everyone who has high-speed access through AOL Time Warner cable, according to spokesman Nicholas Graham.
AOL also has a plan where you can access them through your local ISP for just $14.95 a month.
And for some people, AOL provides a degree of comfort they can't do without.
"AOL brings you into this whole entertainment community. There's good content right there and it's easy to use," Cutler said.
School psychologist Virginia Marinelli, who pays $23.90 for unlimited dial-up like most AOL customers, seemed skeptical that any cheaper or more cost-effective plans would offer her better service.
"AOL does have its features — and except for an increase in pop-up ads it's been better lately. I never have a problem getting on like I did in the beginning."
Marinelli said she'd rather be comfortable than save a few bucks.
"I use AOL the same way I've lived in my house for 34 years — because it's the only thing I know."