The recent introduction of Apple's eWorld brings to six the number of national on-line computer services-and there are more on the way. You may be excused if the differences between eWorld and America Online and CompuServe seem as muddy as a Frisbee field at Apple headquarters. Each service offers message boards, chat rooms, news and magazine text, movie reviews, games, financial info, and other resources. Some offer limited access to the amorphous beast known as the Internet. All of them charge a fee on a monthly and/or hourly basis. But are they really made out of the same gray corporate flannel? We've dialed up, driven around, and compared the sights.
*America Online is the equivalent of a colorful, bustling farmer's market for hipsters. Its richly colored backdrops and icons comfort the weary on-line traveler-the moment you sign on, a warm ''Welcome'' greets you. AOL is the fastest-growing service, and it's easy to see why. Its new version for Mac lets you to call up photos almost instantaneously from sources such as MTV Online and DC Comics. The drawbacks: limited access to the Internet (AOL provides access to bulletin boards and E-mail) and an occasional wait to get on in bigger cities. But this bazaar is cheaper than its impersonal supermarket competitors like CompuServe and GEnie, so grab your basket and fill it up. A-
*Imagine a luxury liner with a vast amount of cargo: national phone listings, Zagat's restaurant guide, the entire Books in Printthat's CompuServe. The staterooms are full of people engrossed in conversations on a variety of topics. The catches? (1) CompuServe is far and away the most computer- and business-oriented on-line service, so it often feels as though you're on a cruise chartered by professionals. (2) You really are at sea: If it weren't for the E-mail, you'd be cut off from the Internet. (3) It's an expensive cruise: You pay extra to post messages on a bulletin board and even more to access the databases. You can live the high life on this ship, but you might see as much from a dinghy. B
*GEnie is like a long stretch of interstate with too many tollbooths. Contrary to its ads, which make GEnie look like the zaniest on-line outpost around, it's owned by GE-and feels like it, with a sterile and impersonal interface that leaves you staring at rows of mind-numbing text. Mind you, there's plenty here: newspaper and magazine archives, Dow Jones and Reuters newswires, even cool games like CyberStrike. But it'll send you to the poor house. There's a monthly rate, then a prime-time surcharge if you want to get on weekdays between 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and you'll have to pony up more dough depending on the speed of your modem. A joyride this ain't. C-
* This is odd: eWorld is like a new mall with construction barricades everywhere and few stores open. If you're a Mac addict, Apple's much-hyped new on-line service at least offers lots of technical support. eWorld features many of the same resources as other services, including the standard regurgitated news stories. With its cutesy pastel screen art, the service has a genteel PBS feel. eWorld will probably be a nice place once they finish ; spackling the walls, but for now it's America Online Lite, which is to say, practically weightless. C
* Prodigy feels like a really groovy toy store with clerks who keep telling you what's on sale when all you want to do is browse. While not as slick as AOL, Prodigy is the most user-friendly of the services, and colorful icons and a smorgasbord of offerings make it the most popular with kids and families. But you can't help but feel pressured to buy something, since there are ads at the bottom of every screen (that's probably why it's also the cheapest service around). On the plus side, instead of offering the usual raw-text news stories, Prodigy lets you download accompanying grainy photos pretty quickly. It also has a great sports area and arts chat rooms. Problem is, Prodigy is geared toward PC users; the Mac version isn't up to snuff. But it's still fun shopping, even if you don't buy. B
* Delphi feels like a neighborhood bar with cheap beer and the best jukebox in town. Since it's owned by Rupert Murdoch, there's lots of Fox-related material: an X-Files fan club, a promo area for fX, his new cable channel. Thing is, Murdoch hasn't invested in a new interface, so you get a clunky old pick-a-number-in-a-menu crawl instead of happy icons like those on AOL and CompuServe. Does it matter? Nah, because behind this bar is a four-star restaurant called the Internet. Delphi is the only service to offer full Net access: every file, university database, and downloadable dirty picture. Delphi itself offers the usual forums and information services, though it's not as thorough as CompuServe, as easy as AOL, nor as polite as eWorld. But Net access makes this dive worthwhile. B+