A Buyer! Guide to
The Best Ways To Go Online
BY JERRY McBRIDE
If you own a modem, you need telecommunications software that you can tailor to your specifications. ST users have several packages from which to choose. Reviewer Jerry McBride compares four of these: Flash! and Shadow from Antic Software, Interlink ST from Intersect Software and ST Talk Professional from Quantum Microsystems Inc.
Before you buy a telecom program, ask yourself a few questions. Do you need a program that is very easy to use? Do you want advanced programming features? Do you want to download or upload files while running other programs? Perhaps you want a balance of all these features, so you won't outgrow the program as you develop in knowledge and experience. Some of you will have very specific needs (you know who you are), such as VT-100 emulation so that you can interface with the computer at work.
I hope this comparison helps you find a telecom program that's right for your needs. In the following pages I review Flash!, ST Talk Professional, Interlink and Shadow.
Some telecommunications terms are confusing to the beginner. Here are a few definitions:
Capture Buffer: a text window that can store all discourse between the two computers. Buffers also have word processing features and may be used for creating messages or script files.
Compuserve B Protocol: B protocol is fully automatic: you tell Compuserve which file to download and it tells your computer exactly what to do and when to do it. It's fast and reliable.
Script: A series of commands that can be executed automatically (similar to macros for a word processor). A script mimics keyboard-entered commands and may have some programming or decision-making commands not available from the keyboard. Flash! uses a script language to automate common tasks.
Program: A series of BASIC-like commands that include "wait" statements, IF/THEN and other programming commands. ST Talk Professional uses a programming language to automate common tasks. It's more powerful than a script language, but also more complex and significantly harder to use.
Protocol: Error-checking method used during a file transfer.
Recording: A method of memorizing your actions with the keyboard and mouse that can later be repeated automatically. Used by Interlink to automate common tasks. This is not a script or programming language, but a fully automatic task playback feature.
Terminal Mode: This is the "mode of speech" between two computers when no file transfer is occurring.
Type-Ahead Line (or Buffer): Lets you compose an entire line (or more) of text and correct any errors before transmitting the text.
Vidtex Graphics: A simple form of graphics available in certain parts of CompuServe (weather maps, for example) and on other private bulletin board systems.
Xmodem (CRC or CHK): The most common transfer protocol. It checks transmitted data accuracy every 128 bytes. Xmodem is recommended if your phone lines are excessively noisy. If you have quiet phone lines, Xmodem is slower than "Xmodem 1K/Ymodem" protocol. Most programs let you choose between two types of Xmodem error-checking, CHK (checksum) or CRC (cyclical redundancy check). CRC is better. (Early computers only allowed CHK; that's why you're given a choice.)
Xmodem 1K/Ymodem: These two terms refer to the same transfer protocol, which transfers 1K of data before error checking. It is faster than standard Xmodem.
Ymodem Batch: This is different from Ymodem. Ymodem Batch can Transfer groups of files automatically.
Now, on to the reviews.
INTERLINK ST$39.95. Intersect Software, 3951 Sawyer Road, Suite 108, Sarasota, FL 34233, (800) 826-0130; (813) 923-8774 in Florida.
|* Report Card *|
Interlink ST is nothing short of incredible. It is a full-featured program, standing head-to-head with ST Talk Professional in most categories (see the comparison table). Interlink's advantage is that it has somehow integrated great power with unmatched ease of use, even in its automation features. Interlink has an auto log-on feature that is so simple a child could use it. It can also memorize an entire online session and repeat it automatically at any time. Interlink also has background transfer capability and even a built-in mini-BBS! And you know what? Even the BBS is easy to use!
No special installation is required, but Interlink does let you define separate pathnames for upload and download files.
|Interlink ST's Telephone Dialer/Editor.|
Where should I begin? Interlink uses a Terminal screen and a GEM screen with drop-down menus. You can open the Capture Buffer window from the GEM screen, but it is normally not shown. The bottom of the Terminal screen can switch between a type-ahead line and a status line. The GEM screen shows a wide variety of information in a status box.
All Interlink features are controlled by drop-down menus and handy dialog boxes. While in the Terminal screen the dialer and transfer dialog boxes are a mouse-click away. A minor feature that I really like is the quick-draw mode, which kills the lines GEM dialog boxes make when they appear or disappear. The boxes snap on and off, speeding things up considerably.
Default capture buffer size, dialing directory and translation table can be set using a dialog box. You can also enter the name of a recording you want Interlink to execute immediately upon start-up (more on recordings later).
File access with Interlink is easy due to its improved item selector which supports any number of disk drives and lets you change pathnames by clicking drive and folder names. All telecommunications default settings and function key definitions are stored in a single file, the dialing directory.
Text editing and file management is very easy with Interlink, thanks to a full range of disk- and buffer-editing features, including text search and place/find mark. Interlink can keep a log of online activities and has a separate cost calculation program.
A new clipboard feature is also supported. Clipboard is a new standard for saving data to hidden files on floppy or hard disk. Programs that support the clipboard can transport data between applications easily. Interlink saves to the RAM clipboard until you quit, at which time the data is saved to disk. Interlink has Block-to-Clipboard, Clipboard-to-cursor and Clear Clipboard functions.
Running other programs from within Interlink is very clean and simple, but a minimum of one megabyte of memory is recommended.
|Interlink ST's main screen.|
Interlink's background transfer feature supports Xmodem, Xmodem 1K/Ymodem and Ymodem batch. To initialize the background transfer feature you summon the file transfer dialog box and double-click on "?????" (load a protocol from disk). Then select MULTIXY.TXF from the file selector. You are now ready to use the background transfer feature.
When you want to transfer a file, tell the BBS to begin and then go to Interlink's GEM screen. Do not summon the transfer dialog box from the Terminal screen when using the background feature. Go to the File drop-down and select Transfer. The transfer dialog box will appear. Select the desired transfer protocol and either send or receive. Now you can quit Interlink or execute a GEM program from within Interlink. Under no circumstances should you go back to the Terminal screen until the transfer is done.
The background transfer feature works quite well. During the transfer the desk accessory "Interlink Waiting" changes to show the number of blocks transferred and number of errors encountered. A click announces each block transferred and a chime rings when the transfer is complete.
I just have to mention the mini-BBS. This little jewel has three levels of access. Low-level access lets you upload, download, or leave messages in a predefined folder. The other end of the spectrum is high-level access, which places all drives and folders at your disposal. You can move, copy and delete files and more. The BBS is very easy to use and has online help menus, but I've saved the best for last: The BBS has a mode that lets you "call" it right from your own computer. This lets you see how the BBS works without leaving your home!
Dialing Directory Security
Interlink has a unique feature that lets you encrypt your dialing directory with a password. Each time Interlink loads the directory you must supply the proper decryption password. This feature is important for two reasons: one, you could have your terminal program disk stolen or copied, and two, Interlink's built-in BBS can provide access to your disk files. If an unscrupulous person learns the high-level access code they could download your dialing directory and passwords. Not a pretty thought....
Each dialing directory file can hold 20 numbers and call a group of numbers, one after another, until one of them answers. Long distance services are also supported.
Interlink's autodialer contains the auto log-on feature--and one of the most impressive features at that. Simply fill out a two-column form. Enter the expected prompt from the host computer in the left column and the proper reply in the right. Just fill in the blanks and Interlink takes care of the rest.
Interlink can mimic tasks you perform. Thus you could have Interlink call a BBS and read your mail (into the capture buffer), or it could get stock quotes, etc. It does this with its Record feature. A recording can also perform simple offline tasks when Interlink wakes up, such as bringing up the dialing directory or setting default paths.
Using the Record feature is simple. Just turn Record mode on with the Recorder dropdown menu and perform the task you want Interlink to mimic. When you're done, turn Record mode off and save the "recording" to disk.
Recordings are not editable so they aren't as versatile as a script language. You wouldn't want to download the same game from GEnie twice, for example. This is the primary difference between a recording feature and a script language.
Interlink's manual explains most features very well. I especially appreciated the informative appendices, which explained Ymodem batch use, Quick B mode ATASCII, IBM 3101, VT-52 and VT-100/PC-ANSI terminal modes. The VT-100 section is extremely thorough. On top of all this, one appendix explains all major modem services, from GEnie to PC Pursuit. The manual's index should be expanded because it misses several key topics (which are hard to find in the manual).
The documentation has a few glaring holes. The explanation of the background transfer feature is hidden and incomplete and there is no explanation of how to use the cost calculation program.
Interlink is an excellent program and I highly recommend it. It is reliable, powerful--but most of all it is simple to use. Its only caveats: you must be sure to start a background download from the GEM screen, not the Terminal screen. Also, the online cost calculation program is not explained.
The only thing missing that many users will need is a script language, though the auto log-on and record features will fill most automation needs quite well.
ST TALK PROFESSIONAL$39.95. Quantum Microsystems Inc., PO. Box 179, Liverpool, NY 13088, (315) 451-7747.
|* Report Card *|
As can be seen in the comparison chart, ST Talk Pro is a full-featured telecommunications program. Non-automated features are easy to learn and even easier to use. The autodialer, GEM dropdown menus, point-and click icons and full word processing features make ST Talk Pro a joy to use.
|ST Talk Professional's Terminal screen.|
ST Talk Pro's automation features are based on an advanced programming language. Conditional statements, advanced keyboard, disk and modem I/O, logic functions and advanced string/ array manipulation are supported. Programs can also be chained together. In sum, there just might be something ST Talk Pro's programming language can't do, but it'll take you a long time to find it.
There is a drawback to all this power: it's much harder to learn and use than Flash! and Interlink. In fact, it may be too complex for many users to use effectively. Case in point: though the programming commands looked proper, I could not get the sample automatic GEnie log-on program to work.
ST Talk Pro lets you select different pathnames for various file types. Files for uploading, downloading, your favorite ARC program, ST Talk Pro "Autopilot" programs and more may be stored in separate drives or folders. This provides a great deal of flexibility when storing information. Choosing these pathnames is the only installation required by ST Talk Pro. "Why is a pathname provided for an ARC program?" you ask; because ST Talk Pro has a drop-down menu selection for ARCing and Un-ARCing files--for which you supply the ARC program. ST Talk Pro has to know where to find them.
ST Talk Pro switches between a Telecommunications screen and a Capture Buffer screen. The Telecom screen is powerful and easy to use. In addition to full GEM drop-down menus, ST Talk Pro has point-and-click icons which perform common tasks instantly. On the bottom of the Telecom screen is a status line that shows baud rate, remaining system memory, time online, accrued online fees and more.
The Capture Buffer screen has icons for selecting one of the 10 available capture buffers. ST Talk Pro has full-blown word processor features, invoked using Alt-key commands. Another plus for ST Talk Pro is that it provides all common disk functions such as directory, make folder, format, rename view (text file), copy and delete. ST Talk Pro provides an improved item selector that supports drives A through J.
ST Talk Pro uses a fair bit of memory. If you have one megabyte or more you will be able to run GEM programs from within ST Talk Pro. If you have a 520ST you will not have this option.
ST Talk Pro's autodialing directory provides a wide range of features. Baud rate and dialing options can be selected for each entry and hourly costs can be entered for online services. The dialer can run an ST Talk Pro program automatically and show statistics such as total calls made, total cost, cost this month, etc. Do you call bulletin boards that are always busy? Well, select all your favorite boards in the dialer menu and ST Talk Pro will call each one until one of them answers.
|ST Talk Professional's Capture Buffer screen.|
One bug I found is that the autodial directory refuses to dial after you edit it and save the changes. You must quit and restart the program to get it to work again. But a unique dialing feature permits you to install 10 of your favorite BBS phone numbers directly on the Dial drop-down menu, which is immune from the bug I just mentioned. Since installation to the drop-down menu is temporary, your installed BBS numbers go away when you exit the program.
In sum, manual operation is very easy and is packed with great features.
ST Talk Pro does not supply the background transfer program with the product. You must send in your registration card, plus $3, and cool your heels until they ship it to you. As of this review, there was no evidence that it existed.
Automating ST Talk Pro requires the use of a powerful but complex programming language called Autopilot. I found this a serious disadvantage. Why? The most common use of automation occurs when logging on. All users would like to have account and password sent automatically when the host computer asks for them. This is easy to do with Flash! and Interlink. Unfortunately, ST Talk Pro forces you to use their programming language to perform this otherwise simple task.
I feel that only those who have significant programming skills (and some luck) will be able to write their own ST Talk Pro function key or command programs. I feel that nonprogrammers may be overwhelmed by its complexity.
ST Talk Pros manual explains operation very well and includes many illustrations. It also has a complete glossary and index. Its organization is its major drawback. Here there are two problems. One: it's organized by drop-down menu--fine for cover-to-cover reading but a nightmare for finding specific topics. It needs bleeder tabs (or anything) so that you can find the start of each description. Two: tutorial and in depth information for any given subject are spread across the manual. It's hard to find things unless you use the index, which isn't always accurate.
ST Talk Professional provides advanced and easy-to-use auto-dialing and point and-click operation. Offsetting this is the fact that you must use a programming language to perform a simple autolog-on or to set up function keys. Also, there's no simple script capability, so again you must use the programming language. Finally, this programming language, although powerful, does not always work as anticipated and has a long learning curve.
FLASH!$29.95. Antic Software 544 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, (800) 234-7001.
|* Report Card *|
Flash! requires no installation or special setup. You just load and go. But it was not as easy to learn as I would have liked. Part of the reason is the documentation, which consists of a not-so-great manual and a 19-page addendum-on-disk. The other part of my confusion was due to the user-interface and the many ways any given command can be executed. Once I got the hang of Flash!, however, it was easy to dial, log on, go to a specific area of a BBS, upload, or download--all with the press of a single function key. (Editor's note: We have it on good authority that a new version of Flash! will be available by the time you read this.)
|The Flash! Terminal screen.|
Flash! uses two main screens, the Terminal screen and the Capture Buffer screen. The Terminal screen allows actual telecommunication and is controlled by a command-line (or Alt-key combinations). The Capture Buffer screen lets you change modem parameters and edit text--all using GEM dropdown menus. The drawback to the Capture Buffer screen arrangement is that all telecommunications are suspended while you are using it. The Terminal screen has an informative status line that shows the current baud rate, duplex mode, etc.
The command line/Alt-key user interface is harder to learn than a point-and-click user interface. I found it difficult to remember Flash! commands at first--it takes perseverance. Fortunately, there are GEM drop-down menus (in the Capture Buffer screen) for uploading and downloading--but they're only available for Xmodem and ASCII transfer types, not for Ymodem batch. There is also help available from within the program, which you access by pressing the Help key.
Flash! lets you execute other GEM programs without quitting. However, this works best if you have a full megabyte or more of memory. Also, you must change Flash!'s default directory to the drive and folder containing any necessary resource (.RSC) file. If you don't, Flash! will give you an error and refuse to run the other program.
Flash! has an excellent automatic dialer which can custom set the baud rate for each individual phone number, access private long-distance services such as MCI or Sprint and even execute a script file automatically.
The same two-letter commands used on the command line are used in Flash!'s script language and function keys. Once you become familiar with the commands, automating Flash! is a breeze. This is just the opposite of ST Talk Professional, which is very easy to use manually but a nightmare to automate.
|The Flash! Capture Buffer screen.|
Flash! macros are also more versatile than Interlink's command recorder. Interlink can memorize any task you perform and repeat the same task later. This is a fantastic feature, but you can't edit it. A script file can be written to perform a certain task and can be modified as needed. But Flash! scripts are created by stringing commands together in a text file. You don't have to know how to program or learn a specialized programming language. A simple script can log on for you, upload or download files, or dial for you. Flash! also has basic programming/decision making commands not available on the keyboard. These allow conditional branching, nested routines (three deep), jumping, labels, string variables, etc.
A series of Flash! commands can be placed under one function key. You can also place one or more script files under each function key! 20 function keys are provided (F1 through F10 and Shift-F1 through Shift-F10).
Flash! displays a 24-hour format clock, but does not track online costs.
I've already mentioned a few problems with Flash!'s manual. It should be rewritten. The biggest problem is its lack of an index, which makes it very difficult to find specific information. (Editor's note: There will be an entirely new--and extensive--manual with the new version of Flash!)
Flash! is a little hard to get used to at first, but it is still a very good, reliable program. Flash!'s main strength lies in its versatile function keys and script files. If you plan on using script files a great deal, my suggestion is that you consider Flash! rather than the other programs mentioned. However, Flash! does not itself have background transfer capability.
SHADOW$29.95. Double Click Software, distributed by Antic Software, 544 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, (800) 234-7001. (Upgrade $10 with original disk. Or, do it yourself with the patch program on CompuServe's SOFTEX--type GO ANTIC and select Antic Software Catalog for SOFTEX information.)
|* Report Card *|
Shadow makes uploading or downloading files as easy as calling a desktop accessory. It's also the only background program that can be initiated from within any compatible GEM program. (The other programs require you to start from the main telecom program.) Shadow can be used either as a standalone desktop accessory for dialing, uploading, or downloading--or as a companion to Flash!
Like all background programs, Shadow works with most GEM programs, but is not guaranteed to work with all of them. Shadow can be especially finicky with certain desk accessories. (Fortunately, it works well with Universal Item Selector II and Superboot, my favorites.) A software compatibility list is supplied on disk, but is not all-encompassing. If you need compatibility information on a specific program, contact Antic Software.
The most amazing thing about Shadow is that it will reliably survive a system reset or screen resolution change and still complete a file transfer with ease. In fact, you can punch the little reset button as many times as you like. Shadow will still finish the job and come back for more!
Shadow comprises a desktop accessory and a program that you must place in an AUTO folder. At initial power-up, Shadow entrenches itself firmly inside the memory of your computer; then it proceeds to reset the computer--your computer actually boots up twice. The second time around, Shadow is ready.
To use Shadow you use the desk accessory drop-down. The main selector box appears (after a title box)--letting you set transfer protocol or RS-232 settings, or move to the Terminal screen. Once you start the transfer you can leave Shadow and do other work.
|Shadow's main menu.|
As a stand-alone program, Shadow is the Volkswagen Bug of telecom programs. It's not fancy, but it is simple to operate and gets you from point A to point B. Shadow supplies typical users with all they need to autodial, upload, or download. (Its dialing directory is compatible with Flash!'s directory and vice-versa.) One minor drawback with Shadow is the way it downloads. Shadow stores your downloaded file(s) in a temporary buffer, not directly to disk. The default buffer size (which you can change) is 100K, but the buffer must have enough space to hold the entire download or else. After the download is complete you are asked if you want to save the file to disk. The upshot of all this is that 520ST owners will not be able to run memory-hogging programs and download War and Peace at the same time.
Shadow uses a subset of VT-52 terminal mode and supports Xmodem (CRC or CHK), Xmodem 1K/Ymodem, Ymodem batch and Compuserve B protocols--as well as straight ASCII transfers.
On bootup, Shadow reads the RS-232 baud rate from your ST's Control Panel accessory. Shadow does not have any other terminal modes other than VT-52 and does not have auto log-on, script capability or a capture buffer.
Function Keys and RAM Disk
Shadow uses the 10 function keys for predefined purposes (duplex toggle, linefeed, abort file transfer and protocol selection).
The program also has a reset-proof RAM disk. You must use Shadow's RAM disk--or none at all; Shadow does not work properly with other RAM disks.
Shadow and Flash!
Shadow and Flash! combine to create an integrated telecom program that has the power and advantages of both programs. Shadow gives Flash! background operation and friendly point-and-click selector boxes, while retaining Flash!'s capture buffer, auto log-on, script capability and extra terminal modes. Normally, Flash! only has drop-down menus for X-modem and ASCII file transfers (Y-modem is available only from the command line). With Shadow behind Flash!, all transfer types are available from the GEM drop-down menu.
Using Shadow With C, Assembly-language, or GFA BASIC Programs
Shadow's manual explains how to make C or Assembly-language programs interact with Shadow. Also, GFA BASIC "bindings" have been programmed into Shadow, so you can access Shadow's features from your own GFA BASIC programs.
Shadow's manual is very good. It clearly explains basic operation first, then provides an in-depth reference section. The lack of an index makes it hard to look up specific information, however.
Shadow has fewer bells and whistles than other programs and has only one terminal mode--but it has strengths found in no other program. It is the only reset-proof background program and the only background program that can be initiated while in any compatible GEM-based program. It can also be integrated into Flash! or into your own programs.
Jerry McBride is a technical writer for Hewlett-Packard and the newsletter editor for ST-ACE in Santa Rosa, California.
|Telecommunication Program Feature Cross-Reference|
|Autodialer capacity||60 per file||60 per file||372||20 per file|
|Automatic log on
ease of use
ease of use
|Call list of BBS's||no||no||yes||yes|
|Different baud rate|
|for each number||yes||no||yes||yes|
|MCI, sprint, etc||yes||yes||yes||yes|
| Online cost
|Run automatic file||yes||no||yes||yes|
|Manual quality||fair||very good||very good||fair|
|ASCII (no checking)||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|Xmodem CRC or CHK||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|RAM disk, reset proof||no||yes||no||no|
|Load from disk||no||no||yes||no|
|Save as DEGAS||yes||no||yes||no|
|Save as Vidtex||no||no||yes||no|
|View filenames in
|n/a = not applicable|