If users of

Datek's

free streaming quote service didn't know they had a great deal, they're about to find out.

Datek has been one of the only online services offering free real-time streaming quotes to noncustomers. But the freebie will end on March 31, the firm said Tuesday. Starting in April, Datek will offer streaming real-time quotes only to its account holders.

So what alternatives do the 590,000 users of Datek's free service have? First, they can sign up for a nonbroker streaming quote service, like

Money.net

or

CBOE.com

. Next, they can sign on with a broker, like Datek, that offers its customers streaming real-time quotes either as part of the account or for an extra fee. Third, and least advisable for the specific feature of streaming, they can use a service called

Quotetracker.com if they already have a source for regular real-time quotes. I'll take each option in turn.

First, a bit about streaming real-time quotes. Real-time quotes are just that -- quotes that are delivered in real-time, rather than delayed, say, 20 minutes. With

streaming

real-time quotes, users don't have to hit "refresh" to get the latest quote for the stocks they're tracking. Rather, real-time quotes just "stream" on to the screen.

Though prevalent Web-wide, real-time quotes are still not a true commodity, because sites that offer real-time quotes have to pay for them, and they're not cheap. The

New York Stock Exchange

, for example, charges 3/4 of a cent per quote for up to 20 million quotes a month, with the price dropping to 1/4 of a cent for services using more than 40 million quotes per month. Quote distributors can also pay the NYSE per customer.

Great for users, costly for providers. No wonder, really, that Datek decided to nix its popular free service. "We're going to obviously save some money" says spokesman Mike Dunn, who said Datek has been spending "several million" a year to provide streaming real-time quotes.

Streaming Quote Sites

If you want to stick with your broker and it either doesn't offer streaming quotes or you don't qualify to get them (usually it's decided by account activity or size), consider a site that has streaming quote services unattached to a brokerage account. But be prepared to pay.

The only one I've found that doesn't charge is

Silicon Investor

, but the firm is currently discussing whether to charge in the future, according to Mike Coddington, director of consumer sites. SI's service is powered by Money.net. Other options include Money.net itself,

B4Utrade.com

,

Bullsession.com

, CBOE.com,

Interquote.com

,

Quicken.com

and

Wwquote.com

, which charge anywhere from about $10 to more than $40 per month.

But while looking at price, keep in mind that not all streaming quote services are the same. My colleague

Mark Ingebretsen

is going to be reviewing streaming quote services in the next few weeks in his "Tools of the Trade" column on

TSC

. (Email him your thoughts at

mingebretsen@yahoo.com.)

Also, you might have heard of

moneynet.com (which is separate from money.net). Moneynet.com currently offers a streaming quote service, but going forward it plans to focus solely on a business-to-business model, supplying its technology to other firms which, in turn, offer it to consumers. A spokeswoman did not have information on what this would mean for current moneynet.com retail users.

Brokers with Streaming Quotes

Several brokers offer streaming quote services to their customers. In addition to Datek, there's

Scottrade

as well as

Interactive Brokers

,

rjt.com

and

National Discount Brokers

. Among the bigger "mainstream" brokers,

E*Trade

recently made streaming quotes a feature of its regular brokerage accounts.

Schwab

,

Fidelity

and

TD Waterhouse

all offer a streaming quote service as part of their active customer wares (different standards apply at each broker).

CSFBdirect

offers free streaming quotes to customers with more than $1 million in assets, though regular account holders can pay $24.95 per month and use the service.

One good place to find out who's offering what in terms of quotes is Quotetracker.com. This site keeps a comprehensive

list at its Web site under "Quote Sources" in the left NAV. My advice is always to call a broker yourself to find out its

very latest

in terms of offerings and pricing, since they change all the time. But Quotetracker.com is certainly a good starting point.

Quotetracker.com Streaming Quotes

Quotetracker itself is also a place for streaming quotes, in a way. It's a free program where you download its software to run on your computer. The service then uses quotes that you've accessed from another provider, like some of the sites listed above (it doesn't support all sites). Using this data, Quotetracker displays all kinds of groovy information popular among active traders, like streaming real-time intraday charts. If your broker supplies regular nonstreaming real-time quotes, so-called "snapshot" quotes, as many brokers do, you may be able to use those quotes with Quotetracker and get a form of streaming quotes. However, even Jerry Medved, whose company owns Quotetracker, does not recommend this method.

Medved says snapshot quotes use up too much bandwidth to try to stream with them. "You are better off going with true streaming," Medved says, noting that you'll get more timely updates and will be less likely to have problems with your Internet connection. (For more on Quotetracker, see this related

story.)

* * * * *

Ameritrade to Buy TradeCast

Swimming upstream toward the lucrative active trader market,

Ameritrade

on Wednesday

announced it had agreed to acquire

TradeCast

, a provider of direct access trade execution and software. Though individuals might know TradeCast as a day-trading broker, the company also serves businesses, working with brokers, hedge funds and money management firms. By all accounts, this arrangement will play to that institutional, or "B2B," area of Ameritrade's business. The deal also appears to have the potential to yield benefits for active individual Ameritraders, such as streaming quotes, which TradeCast offers but Ameritrade currently does not. Upshot of the news: It seems Ameritrade plans to butter its bread right now primarily on the active retail/pro end rather than the mainstream individual.

Stop at the Red Light and Sell

Fidelity this week announced plans to offer "in-car," "hands-free" trading in some

GM

cars. Drivers who subscribe to GM's "OnStar" service will be able to get quotes, watch lists and market information starting in April, and eventually, account balances, holdings and trading. I commend any broker expanding customer options. But as with "traditional" wireless trading cell phones/pagers -- I doubt early OnStar/brokerage adopters will find it a "smooth ride." (See this related

What Works column on wireless trading.) If you try out OnStar, do let me know how it goes with an email to

whatworks@thestreet.com.

Best Brokers at Tax Time?

I'm still soliciting ideas on what brokers serve investors best, and why, at tax time. Please email me with your full name at

whatworks@thestreet.com.

Thanks for Chatting

Thanks to all of you who joined me and Mark Ingebretsen on Tuesday for our chat about online brokers. If you missed it, you can catch the transcript

here.