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 (www.mozilla.org) or Chrome (www.google.com/chrome), which offer additional features and are very popular.
The first time you hook up to a new ISP, you may need their assistance to configure the dial-up or networking software in your computer. After that, all you do is launch the browser to "surf the Web."
Although email can be sent and received using your Web browser with a service such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, your 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 your locally installed email program may require some assistance. For the differences and advantages of using the Web versus a locally installed email program, see email interfaces
If you only browse the Web, there is little lost in starting with one ISP and switching to another. However, if your email is provided by your ISP, switching your email address later on is not like moving your family to a new town. The U.S. Postal Service will forward your letters for a while, but if you close your account with an ISP, they generally do not forward email. That is the singular advantage of using a third-party email service such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail and not the email provided by your ISP.
Another option is to register your own 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 you have your own domain name and switch ISPs, you keep your email address because it belongs to you. See how to register a domain name