Here are ways to get the most payback for your online time

'Today's World Wide Web is the world wide wait," says technology forecaster and futurist Daniel Burrus. "And it's not just for connections; it's also that there's too much information."

But several time savers can help you make the most of your online time.

Your computer

The processor and random access memory (RAM), particularly, affect the speed and ease with which you can cruise the 'net. Iowa State University (ISU) extension recommends a minimum of either a 166 MHz (megahertz) Pentium processor or a Macintosh PowerPC. When it comes to RAM, 16 MB (megabytes) will do, but 24 MB makes for speedier surfing.

"The life expectancy of a computer is about two years," says Andrew Whyte, a University of Minnesota software support specialist. "So I always say, 'Buy two years ahead of what you think you need and you might get four years out of it.' It's usually a very marginal additional cost."

Look for affordable packages like a 400 MHz processor, 64MB of SDRAM, 3D graphics card and 4.3 GB (gigabyte) hard drive. Total cost: about $800.

He also advises: "If you have some cash left over, spend it on the monitor. That's what you'll be looking at all the time."

Your modem

With high-speed access becoming more available, the modem you need may depend on how you choose to connect.

"The biggest time saver that I've found is high-speed access," says Whyte. "Unfortunately, rural areas are often very limited in their choices. It's pretty much what the regular telephone lines are capable of doing."

The good news is that technologies like cable modems, digital subscriber lines (DSL) and satellite access offer high-speed options that many predict will blanket the U.S. within the next year or two.

Cable and DSL connections are currently offered in limited areas. A satellite link can be achieved at any location with a clear view of the southern sky. Cable modems connect at speeds from 300 Kbps (kilobits per second) to 1 Mbps (megabit per second). DSL speeds reach about 1.5 Mbps while satellite service speeds run about 400 Kbps.

Compared to a 33.6-K modem, these options are a minimum of 10 times faster. It's like going from a two-row planter up to a 24-row planter.

All these services allow you to simultaneously use the phone and Internet, and they all require special modems. For satellite access, a satellite dish and a regular modem are also necessary.

With any high-speed access, you'll want to make sure that your computer will keep up.

As is often the case with new technology, these high-speed-access options can sometimes be cost-prohibitive, says Whyte. When shopping, be sure to take into account installation fees, modem rental or purchase and monthly charges. Also note that these charges usually do not include Internet service, so your monthly access fee will still apply.

Your Internet service provider (ISP)

The number of ISPs has mushroomed over the past few years, outfitting users with various access options. ISU extension recommends that you ask some questions before signing up:

* Does the provider have a local dial-up number?

* What are the rates for unlimited and/or hourly use? Is there a set-up fee?

* What services are included: full Internet access, e-mail or space for your own Web page?

* Is any Internet software or browser provided?

Knowing the answers to the following two questions can save you a lot of time.

* What's the ratio of user accounts to provider modems?

If the user-modem ratio is more than 10 to one, there will likely be times when you can't get online.

* What modem speeds are supported?

An ISP that only supports speeds to 33.6 K will slow a 56-K modem down to 33.6.

To find an ISP, check with your local phone company, library, computer store or extension agent. If you have access to an online computer, thelist.Internet.com has service and cost information for ISPs by area code, state or country - including free service options.

Your search engines

Once you're online, how do you track down what you're hunting?

"Know what you're looking for," advises Connie Hancock, University of Nebraska extension educator. "It really makes a difference. When you do a search, you should narrow it as much as possible before you get started."

Search engines (like AltaVista, Excite, Google, Lycos and Yahoo) look for pages using a crawler. A crawler is a program that contacts Web servers and scans them for your search topic.

Hancock suggests using search engines that are specific to your topic. For example, AgriSurf and AgFind search only agriculture sites for your subject matter.

"Search engines access just a tiny percentage of what is actually available out there," Whyte says. "In any particular subject they might find 20 or 25% of the Web sites that are available. So it's a matter of getting a little bit creative with those questions."

Another option is a metasearch engine. Since no two search engines return exactly the same results, these engines query several search engines at once. Dogpile, ProFusion and MetaCrawler are some favorite metasearch engines.

Search operators, such as plus or minus signs, are almost as important to your search as the key words. Simply entering two words will return a completely different set of results than putting quote marks around them. Following are some examples of how operators can affect search results.

Search For: Returns Documents Containing: corn borer the word corn and/or the word borer "corn borer" both words together +corn borer corn, the word borer may be there +corn +borer both words, not always together +corn -borer corn, pages with borer are lower

Putting quotes around words allows you to search for a specific phrase. When using a plus or minus sign, put a space before but not after it. If you use lowercase text, both upper- and lowercase results are returned.

Wading through search results is often a time-consuming task full of its own challenges.

"Learn to interpret what the little summary paragraph is about," says Whyte. "It saves a lot of time if you can learn to pick out which sites look good and not even bother going into the ones that don't."

Hancock concurs. "Part of the trick is to identify what information is good, reliable information and what's not quite so worthy of spending time on."

When you do find a useful, reliable site that you may want to visit again, add it to your favorites or bookmarks. Then keep the addresses organized in folders. Or, Whyte cautions, it could take as long to find the bookmark as it did to find the site.