Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 126 / FEBRUARY 1991 / PAGE 22

Bit$, Byte$, and Buck$. Saving Time and Money Online
by Denny Atkin

Online services are fascinating to newcomers. If you haven't been online before, you'll be overwhelmed at the number and range of people across the nation - and around the world - with whom you can communicate. You'll also be amazed at the wealth of information and software you'll be able to access. If you're not careful, though, what you may find most astounding is the sudden upsurge in your VISA bill.

Some Enchanted Evening

It's easy to spend an entire evening exploring your favorite telecommunications service, but there are a number of reasons to limit your online time.

The first and most important reason is the expense. Some services (such as Prodigy and GEnie's Star*Services) bill at a flat fee, but most charge an hourly rate. Every extra minute you spend online will show up on your bill. And even if you use a flat-rate service, your family will probably be irritated if you tie up the phone all night.

Using a combination of shortcuts, special software, and common sense, you can significantly reduce the time you spend online.

Gearing Up for Speed

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you can do many of your online tasks offline. Unless you're still hanging onto your vintage 300-baud modem for sentimental reasons, chances are good that your computer can talk to your online service much faster than you can type. Why spend time hunting and pecking online? Your computer can zap information to the host network as fast as the host can accept it.

In the early days of computing (the 1980s), you'd usually spend $20-$30 just learning how to get around the system. Now, long after graphical user interfaces have appeared on every computer, they've finally come to the online services.

Called front ends, these programs work just like GUIs to isolate you from the low-level commands usually needed to navigate online services. For example, instead of having to remember a special code such as M 555;1 to get to your favorite message base, you simply select it by name from a menu.

Another way front ends help is by minimizing connect time. Instead of wading through a list of new downloads one by one, you can have the front-end program grab the list and log off. Then you select the programs you'd like to download. The front end automatically logs on, downloads the selected files, and logs off.

Front ends save even more time in message bases. After you've set up your front-end program by letting it know which message bases you like to read, the program logs onto the network, captures all new messages non-stop, saves them on disk, and logs off.

This allows you to read individual messages offline at your leisure. No more skimming through messages because the clock is ticking. If you see a message you'd like to respond to, choose a menu item, and you'll find yourself in a text editor. The message you're responding to is displayed at the top of the screen for reference. Simply compose your reply and save it. Continue this till you've read and replied to all the messages.

The front-end program will then log on, post all of your responses, optionally grab all new messages, and log off. You end up paying for a fraction of the time you would spend online under ordinary circumstances.

Heavenly Hosts

Not all hosts have front-end programs. GEnie currently offers Aladdin free of charge (you pay only for the download) to all of its MS-DOS and Atari ST users, and it has versions for other platforms in the works.

CompuServe offers the CompuServe Information Manager (CIM) for $24.95, including $15.00 worth of free connect time, for MS-DOS and Macintosh computers. Whap! offers similar functionality for CompuServe's Amiga users for $39.94.

Quantum's online services (PC-Link, America Online, and Quantum-Link) can only be accessed through special front-end programs. Although Prodigy requires a proprietary terminal program to access the service, the software doesn't allow the user to process information offline.

No complete front-end programs are available for American People/Link, but Amiga owners can use the shareware BSHELL ARexx program and the Baud Bandit terminal program to take some of the manual labor out of their downloads.

Getting Around

If you don't have a front-end program or if you want to stick with your favorite terminal software, there are still many ways to speed up your online sessions.

You spend a lot of time online just getting from one area to another, especially if you wade through the system's menus each time you log on. Almost all online services provide ways to quickly jump to a specific area, bypassing all of the menus.

Suppose you wanted to find hints for the frustrating adventure game you just bought. To get to the Gamer's Forum on CompuServe, you could work your way through four levels of menus, or you could just type GO GAMERS at any prompt. On GEnie, you could type M 805 or SCORPIA at any prompt to get to Scorpia's Game RoundTable.

When you find an area online that you think you'll come back to, write down the name (or page number, in GEnie's case) of that area. That way you can go directly to that area next time, saving valuable minutes of connect time.

If your terminal program offers programmable function keys, programming keys for each area you usually visit is a great way to navigate. I program F1-F10 to take me all the way through my session. F1 contains my user name and password, and F2-F9 are programmed with the page numbers of areas I commonly visit. F10 contains the log-off sequence for that network. That way I don't even have to spend time looking for a sheet of paper containing the page numbers.

Making the Capture

You don't need to have a front-end program to respond to messages offline. All you need is a terminal program that will capture incoming text to an ASCII file and send ASCII files to the online service.

Simply log on to the service, move to the message base, and open your capture file. Give it an appropriate name; if you're capturing messages from the IBM support group on Christmas Eve, you could name the file IBM1224.CAP. Make sure your terminal settings on the network are configured so that the service doesn't pause at the end of each screen of text. This is usually accomplished by setting your screen height to 0 rows or by setting your terminal type to TTY (TeleTYpe).

Once you're in the message base with your capture file open, choose the read all new messages option. The messages will scroll by and be captured to disk much faster than you can read them. Once the messages stop, close your capture file. Repeat this process for each message base you wish to read; then log off.

The easiest way to compose your responses is to use a word processor or text editor, like Microsoft Works or Turbo Text, that lets you have more than one file open onscreen. Load the capture file in one window, move it to the top of the screen, and open an empty document in a window at the bottom. As you read the messages in the top window, you can compose your replies in the bottom window. Save each reply in a separate file with an appropriate name. Make sure you save the file as ASCII or TEXT, because the special codes your word processor uses will confuse the online service. Once you've written responses to all the messages, log back on, move to the message bases to which you wish to respond, and post your messages. When the network's editor prompts you to begin typing, use your terminal program's ASCII Send feature to send the text. You may need to slow down the ASCII send, as the network may be expecting a slower human typist. You can slow data transmission with a command in most terminal programs. Look for an adjustment with a name like ASCII Send Speed or Character Delay.

Following Protocol

You can save downloading time simply by using a faster file-transfer protocol. While most networks support XMODEM, it's one of the least efficient transfer protocols available. After XMODEM sends 128 bytes of data, it has to stop and wait for confirmation before sending the next block. This adds a lot of overhead, especially on packet networks such as Tymnet (used by Delphi and BIX) which send data in large packets capable of holding more than 128 bytes.

Newer protocols like XMODEM-1K and YMODEM attempt to speed up transfer by sending data in 1024-byte blocks, but the problem of the computer's just waiting for confirmation remains. The most efficient error-checking protocol is ZModem, which sends 512- or 1024-byte blocks but doesn't wait for confirmation before it sends the next block. If there's a problem with a previous block, ZModem resends the bad block. With ZModem, you're able to transfer files at your modem's full potential. ZModem is available on GEnie, Delphi, BIX, and most bulletin board systems.

CompuServe Quick B protocol is similar to ZModem, with send-ahead and large blocks. It's the transfer protocol of choice if you're using CompuServe.

American People/Link uses a unique protocol called WXModem (Windowed XModem) to speed transfers over packet networks. It's available in many commercial terminal programs, such as ProComm Plus and Baud Bandit, and as a shareware desk accessory for the Macintosh. Plinkers will find it almost twice as fast as telecommunicators using XModem.

Keeping to the Script

Some terminal programs will actually record your entire online session, allowing you to create a script file that you can use for future sessions. Programs with this capability include Mirror III on MS-DOS computers, White Knight on the Macintosh, and Online! Platinum Edition on the Amiga.

Networks feature a built-in help facility better than any software package's: other users. If you're not sure what the fastest protocol on your favorite online service is or how to find a list of all the message bases, the best way to find out is to ask online. Everyone online was a beginner once, and there are always a lot of friendly folks who will be glad to help you out.

If you follow these tips, you should save money in your online travels. Then you can use the money you save to explore even more fascinating online activities.