There are three ingredients needed to access the Internet from a laptop or desktop computer: (1) an ISP, (2) a modem and (3) a Web browser.
The Internet Service Provider (ISP)
Access to the Internet is through an Internet service provider (ISP), which can be a large company such as Comcast or AT&T, or any of hundreds of smaller ISPs throughout the country. You are generally offered unlimited access for a fixed rate per month, but if you download an excessive amount of data, your download speed may be slowed..
Depending on the kind of service you have, you will need a unit of hardware called a "modem" for connection. Today, cable and telephone companies provide service to most people in the U.S., and the modem converts their signals to the Internet packets your computer requires. See cable modem
and DSL modem
Rural areas may have only satellite service or dial-up telephone access, the latter as much as 100 times slower than cable. Older computers had built-in dial-up telephone ports. See satellite Internet
Browsing the Web
A Windows PC comes with the Edge Web browser, while the Mac comes with Safari. Windows and Mac users quite often choose a different browser such as Firefox or Chrome, which offer additional features and are very popular.
The first time users hook up to a new ISP, they may need the ISP's assistance to configure the dial-up or networking software in the computer. After that, launching the browser is all that is necessary to "surf the Web."
Although email can be sent and received using a Web browser with a service such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, the computer may come with a dedicated email program that is already installed. For example, the Mac comes with Mail, while Windows has renamed its free program many times: Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail and Mail. Configuring a locally installed email program may also require some assistance. For the differences and advantages of using the Web versus a locally installed email program, see email interfaces
For only Web browsing, there is little lost in starting with one ISP and switching to another. However, if email is provided by the ISP under the ISP's own banner, and it is chosen by the customer, switching to a new email address later on is not like moving to a new town. The U.S. Postal Service will forward letters for a while, but if an ISP-based email account is closed, mail forwarding is generally not provided. That is the singular advantage of using a third-party email service such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail and not the ISP-provided email service.
Another option is to register a personal domain name and use an ISP that supports third-party names. For example, had Alan Freedman, editor of this encyclopedia, wanted to secure the alanfreedman.com domain name, his email address could have been email@example.com. If people register their own domain name and switch ISPs, they keep their email address because it belongs to them. See how to register a domain name