Free computers!

That's one eye-catching headline. And the ads it appears in are telling the truth; Free-PC, a Pasadena, Calif.-based company, is indeed giving away computers, along with free Internet accounts. Free, of course, is a relative term. Somebody is paying for these things: in this case, advertisers who want to place their names squarely in front of a captive audience.

The deal is, whenever you turn on a Free-PC computer, ads run on the border of the monitor. Free-PC also monitors your use of the computer, tracking which sponsors' Web sites you visit. Free-PC says this information helps determine the mix of ads you see, although names of users are separated from the data gathered.

Free-PC's offer has raised hackles among computer pundits, who say that no intelligent person would suffer the indignity of yielding personal information when applying for one of these computers and, in addition, that having someone peer over their shoulders when they use their computers is obscene. Some 2 million people apparently disagreed and applied for free computers.

One of those individuals was me. Why? My computer was outdated and slow; its hard drive chattered like a pair of castanets whenever I trudged through the Web. But I was strapped for cash. So why not?

You begin by applying online at http://www.free-pc.com (yes, if you don't already own a computer or have access to one, you won't be getting one of these). I coughed up some substantial personal information -- age, income, car(s) owned, hobbies, magazines read and so forth. Some of the fine print: You must use the computer for at least 10 hours a month. If not, you have to send it back to Free-PC or pay the company $600, minus $20 for every month you lived up to the requirements. After 30 months (just in time for it to be fully obsolete), the computer will be yours. And no, you can't try to disable the ads.

Two weeks later, Free-PC e-mailed me to announce that I Was Already a Winner. I had 48 hours to confirm my application and supply a credit card number, or the computer would go to someone else. I agreed to all the terms and hit the send key. After all, the soul's a little thing, hardly missed

Not long after, I arrived home to find several large boxes propped against my door. The computer inside them was a Compaq Presario with a Cyrix 333 MHz processor, 32 megabytes of memory, a 4-meg video card, 4-gigabyte hard drive (half of which is reserved for the ads), 32x CD-ROM drive, 56-kbps modem, JBL speakers, 15-inch monitor and a collection of the usual Microsoft titles, including Works and Outlook.

Ads -- and icons directing you to even more ads -- bloom on the right side and bottom of the monitor, eating up more than 30 percent of the screen. It's no help that the computer's display is preset at a microscopic 1024x768 screen resolution; after a few minutes my eyeballs felt like they had been scrubbed in a golf-ball washer.

The ads are (theoretically) customized according to the interests you expressed in your application and are regularly updated by Free-PC. They blink, flash stroboscopically, change color, scroll up, scroll down and do everything possible to catch your eye. But I still managed to disregard them when I had to concentrate on something. (Oops, I just bought another CD.)

The bottom line: The computer itself is a good mid-grade system, more than adequate for Web browsing, e-mail and light word processing. (Note that although the hardware's free, the tech-support calls are not.) Similar units would cost $500 to $600, without monitor, at local computer stores. You'll have to judge for yourself the price of this "free" computer: the personal information volunteered, the ever-present ads, and the tracking of which advertiser Web sites you visit. Is this a deal with the devil or a simple business transaction, in which you give Free-PC something of value (your demographic information and your willingness to expose yourself to their sponsor's ads) in exchange for a computer?