Test lab. (10 Windows telecommunications packages) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Mike Hudnall
An incredible wealth of information awaits you. All you need is a computer, a modem, the right software, and maybe an account with one of today's super online services. With these tools, you can get the latest weather report or stock quote, find information in an encyclopedia, communicate with people across the continent about interest you have in common, get help with a computer problem, download all kinds of interesting software, play games ... The list goes on and on.
Modems are less expensice, faster, and more efficient than ever, and thanks to Windows, telecommunications programs are easier to use amd more capable than ever. This month's Test Lab focuses on ten telecommunications packages that run under Windows. They're all different. At least one will probably meet your needs. Most of them can interact with other Windows applications and are therefore more useful than stand-alone terminal programs.
All of the programs in this round-up are as easy to install and use as a word processor. And all of them have scripting languages, which let you automate tasks ordinarily performed manually. For instance, you could write a script that logs on to all of the services to which you subscribe, get your mail, and logs off. Something like this would save you money on connect time, since you could read your mail at your leisure offline when the clock wasn't ticking.
You can also set up a script to allow others access to certain functions on your computer. Suppose that periodically an associate needed to download files from your computer without your being there. You could simply run the host script that comes with most of the packages, customize the included host script to suit your needs, or write a script from scratch.
For all of these packages, I wrote a simple script that did the same thing. It logged on to CompuServe, gathered all of my mail, sent it to the printer, and then logged off. I took advantage of examples and used the reference section of the manuals to answer remaining questions.
If you already have a program like Procomm or Telix that runs under DOS, read and reviews and consider changing over. Although those are great DOS-based programs and many people feel completely at home using them, the power of these Windows-based programs give you a compelling reason to make a change.
BITCOM FOR WINDOWS
BitCom offers straightforward telecommunications. It has everything you need to connect with online services and bulletin boards, but it doesn't have many bells and whistles. That's OK; plenty of people prefer a simple program that's easy to learn and easy to use. If that's your desire, this is your program.
If BitCom is just a straightforward telecommunications program and Windows comes with its own simple telecommunications program, why should you buy BitCom? Because Windows' Terminal has only two file transfer protocols, has only three terminal emulations, has no scripting language, doesn't support macros, can't remap the keyboard, and is missing many other features that most people need. It's hard to use Terminal for much other than the most basic applications.
BitCom has all of the major file transfer protocols, including XMODEM, YMODEM, ZMODEN, ASCII, and Kermit. It has 11 terminal emulations--all of the major ones, including VT 100, WYSE, ANSI, and TVI. It has a phone book, a scripting language, the ability to capture and print incoming text, and color customization. BitCom enjoys so many major improvements over Terminal that I woundn't think twice about buying BitCom and using it instead of Terminal.
The well-designed phone book employs a card file metaphor. It's attractive and eacy to use. Tabs at the top let you quickly select a range of the alphabet to access. Once you've selected an entry, its information shows up on the card and can be easily edited. You can search through your file for a record, too.
BitCom's scripting language is as straightforward as the program itself. The language doesn't however, have any functions that allow it to talk to other Windows applications. Most of the other programs in this roundup do.
The command I relied on most heavily to write the test script I used with each of these telecommunications programs was one that waits for an incoming text string. Unfortunately, BitCom doesn't have the advanced version of this command that lets you look for several incoming text strings at once. To save time working around this limitation, I "cheated" by altering my Procomm script; once I substituted the equivalent functions for BitCom, the script worked well.
I was a little disappointed that the included scripts weren't easier to use and more prominent. Most of the other programs make their included online service scripts conspicuously available. BitCom doesnht, and I had to work for a while to find them before I could use them.
BitCom itseld won't be available as a stand-alone retail package when you read this. It'll be part of two bundles, BitFax Easy and BitFax Professional.
BitCom is a good choice for anyone who likes simplicity or is new to telecommunications and wants something to get started withour a large investment. It has enough horsepower to satisfy half of the telecommunicating public. If you're in that half, BitCom will serve you well.
COMMWORKS FOR WINDOWS
When it comes to telecommunications capabilities, CommWorks really gives you the works. Included in this package are five separate programs and a control program to manage them.
TS Online is a commendable telecommunications program that lets you connect with online services and other computers. TS Fax provides printing, broadcast and scheduled faxing, and background and send features. LapLink V lets you transfer files between computers using any combingation of serial and parallel ports. LapLink Remote Access lets you connect two computers and have direct access to any disk drive or printer on the second PC. LapLink Alert monitors the sending and receiving of files. And CommWorks Control Center gives you a way to run any of these programs with a single click.
TS Online gives you everything you need to connect the online services and other computers. Scripts for the major services are included, and the ability to add new services is as easy as clicking on the New button and answering some questions. The major transfer protocols are there: XMODEM, YMODEM, ZMODEM, Ketmit, and CompuServe B+. The less frequently used flavors such as XMODEM 1K and YMODEM-g are not included.
In the telecommunications program, the Dialer dialog box figures most prominently on the screen. This box shows you a list of services or remote hosts, as well as the configuration information for the selected service. It's easy to change settings, such as the phone number, default transfer protocol, and bps rate.
Once online, you can use a straight terminal screen with pull-down menus, or you can show a button bar at teh bottom of the screen. The buttons contain descriptive icons and offer single-click shortcuts for common functions, such as getting E-mail and logging off.
Some interesting features seem to be unique to CommWorks. You can set the program so that the left or right mouse button can sent a carriage return or position the cursor. That's convenient if you prefer using the mouse. A file-find function helps you determine the location of a file--something I frequently need when I start to upload files and can't remember their exact paths.
TS Fax is a version of Eclipse Fax which has been licensed for use in this package. It's got everything you need to do your faxing. I especially like the Quick Note feature. Most of the time, all I want to do is sent a short note to someone I wasn't able to contact via fax. The Quick Note feature lets me do this easily without having to spend time with complicated setups.
If you have a laptop and a desktop computer, you might really appreciate LapLink. It might even be worth its price if you have several computers and find yourself transferring large amounts of information between them. LapLink lets you quickly and easily transfer files between computers over a cable. If you take a laptop or notebook computer on the road, you can hook up LapLink when you get back and send your files to your desktop computer. I've used LapLink when I bought new computers. Instead of reinstalling all of my applications and copying all of my data, I just connect the cable, run LapLink, and transfer everything.
For versatility and utility in telecommunications, CommWorks is a wise choice. It's got what you need for practically every situation that will arise. It's well-done, solid software that gives new meaning to flexibility.
CROSSTALK FOR WINDOWS 2.01
Logging on with a single click and automating online tasks are the best parts of Crosstalk. Files called session profiles contain all of the information necessary to configure your computer to work with a host system. The session profiles can have script files attached to perform the chores of dialing and logging on. The scripts aren't limited to simply logging on; they can go on and do anything you want, such as downloading mail or going to your favorite SIG.
DCA knows how important it is to have single-click access to online services immediately after installation. That's why the company has included 11 session profiles for the most popular services. You'll find files for CompuServe, GEnie, DELPHI, Dow Jones, and many more. You're not limited to these, however, since you can create your own session profiles and write script files to go with them.
Besides the script files, you can attach files called QuickPads. QuickPad windows contain custom buttons and icons that offer shortcuts and automate tasks. For instance, the CompuServe QuickPad contains icons that go directly to E-mail, the Microsoft forum, Dow Jones, and the DCA forum. Three buttons in the QuickPad window let you easily connect, disconnect, and change settings.
An easy-to-use QuickPad editor lets you make changes to current QuickPads or create new ones. The editor is as easy to use as a paint program. To place an object in the QuickPad window, all you do is click on the button tool and draw a button on the screen. You can place any text in the button and have practically any action result from pressing the button, including running a script.
I did find a glitch when I tried using the CompuServe session profile. After I successfully logged on, the process would hang up after the CompuServe copyright message was displayed. I tried everything I could think of to get it to work, including editing the script. After trying a number of fixes, I figured out it wasn't the fault of the script. DCA's technical support recognized the problem immediately and directed me to download new DLL files from its BBS.
These glitches aren't much fun. But by the time you read this, the copies of Crosstalk in your retail outlets will have the new DLL files, so you shouldn't have this problem. It's commendable that the technical support department recognized the problem so quickly and offered an immediate fix.
Writing my test script with Crosstalk's CASL scripting language was a pleasure. Almost every script requires watching for incoming text strings. If you're logging on to GEnie, you might look for the string "GEnie Logon." Once you got that string, you'd know the log-on procedure had been successfully completed. Because some of the more important telecommunications functions involve looking for incoming strings, the ability to do so is very important.
CASL has a function that not only looks for a single string but looks for a number of strings simultaneously. Looking for several strings at once increases your script's ability to respond appropriately. Separate code can be performed for each string that's found. Suppose that an online service said, "You have messages waiting," "There are no messages waiting," or "Your messages have been saved as an archive file." If you were limited to looking for a single string, you'd only know if you got that string. But this hypothetical online service has three choices, and knowing whether you encoungered a single string doesn't tell you which one it is.
Crosstalk is a great piece of software. In a short review like this one, I can't possibly mention everything. Howevr, I can say that choosing this program is a smart move. It's one of the finest in a crowded field.
DYNACOMM ASYNCHRONOUS FOR WINDOWS 3.1
With DynaComm, FutureSoft has done a good job of including a wide range of features without cramming in too much. Often, there's a danger of going overboard and burdening users with complexity they might not need. This program succeeds in balancing features with ease of use.
DynaComm's developers obviously spent some time working on the program's DDE (Dynamic Data Exchange) links to other Windows applications. DDE allows Windows apps to communicate with each other. DynaComm's scripting language has a number of functions that make use of DDE and give you what you need to send and receive interapplication messages. to make sure you can figure it out, FutureSoft includes a fairly complex script that sends data to Excel and causes it to produce and display graphics.
A good example of DDE's script functions involves following the stock market. You could write a script that logs on to a service, retrieves the relevant stock quotes, and sends the information to Excel or any other application that supports DDE.
The scripting language's ability to perform multimedia functions is another outstanding feature of this program. You can use a fairly intricate dialog box to play MIDI files. The same dialog lets you make recordings for future playback. There's a demo that shows off the program's ability to read text using speech synthesis techniques. This program's sound capabilities are rich.
Something I personally like is the program's game scripts. Ones for Yahtzee and Match can be called from the program or the DynaComm group window. More then just disk filler, these games are examples of some of the advanced scripting techniques. You could write some online multiplayer games withe the program's scripting language.
Using the Learn function, I developed a number of scripts for tasks that I do often. One logged on to three services and retrieved my mail and sent it to the printer. One logged on to CompuServe and went to the IBM file finder. It was easy to use the scripts created by the Learn function.
I especially like the ease with which the program allows you to go into and out of terminal mode. Many of the other packages make it almost impossible to get into terminal mode so that you can simply type ata or atz. Sometimes, despite all the convenience of the automatic processes, I prefer the simplicity of doing things manually in terminal mode.
If you're looking for a program that reaches a pleasant compromise between features and ease of use, take a good look at DynaComm. It's got everything you need ot perform your online tasks, but you won't spend days reading the manual to learn how to do things.
I found HyperACCESS a pleasure to use. The longer I used it, the more I came to appreciate its depth and craftsmanship.
When the program first runs, your Phonebook is displayed. The entries all have icons, not simply text. The icons that come with the program are the best I've seen, a good example of the care the publisher has taken. A long list of icons is available as you add services and connections to your Phonebook. The list includes everything from medical symbols to chemical symbols to financial symbols. And you're not limited to these, since you can use your own.
I turned on the Learn function to automate some of my CompuServe tasks and experienced some surprises. Immediately, I saw a Notepad window open and watched the Learn function create the text of a script as I did things online. Unlike the other programs that create script text files from Learn functions, this program creates scripts complete with comments describing what each line of code does.
In order to satisfy my curiosity, I zoomed the Notepad window and noticed that it looked like a program written in the C language. I pulled out the Application Programing Interface Manual, and lo and behold, the language is identical to C. That's a relief, since so many people know C. There's no time wasted learning a completely new language that you'll never use anywhere else.
Continuing to study the manual, I learned that you can call any Windows application from a HyperACCESS script. Even more surprising than that, though, is that you can call HyperACCESS from any Windows application that you write, as long as you follow some special rules. The publisher includes a library file that you can link with your own Windows applications. With the library linked, you can call on HyperACCESS to perform a wide variety of functions.
Needless to say, writing my test script that logs on to CompuServe, retrieves mail, logs off, and prints the mail wasn't much of a challenge. That speaks volumes for the built-in scripting language and all of the tools that make it easy to use.
During sessions you can turn on a modem light simulation. If you've ever watched an external modem, you'll remember that there are red LEDs that tell you what the modem is doing. One is on what the modem is transmitting data, one is on what it's receiving data, one is on when there's a carrier, and others provide further information about precisely what is happening with the modem HyperACCESS simulates these lights. For each LED that an external modem has, there's a simulation in the HyperACCESS window.
The icon bar that initially appears at the top of the HyperACCESS window can be moved to the right, bottom, or left, or it can be made into a floating window. You can also make the buttons larger or smaller. You might not see well and want them large. On the other hand, you might like them small so they take up less room on the screen.
HyperACCESS appeals to me because it's a fine piece of software, crafted to very high standards. This software will definitely stay on my hard drive for the foreseeable future.
MICROPHONE PRO FOR WINDOWS
Are you tired of the same old online sessions? MicroPhone Pro not only offers fine telecommunications capabilities but gives you hooks to the Windows multimedia interface. You'll have audiovisual power never before experienced while online.
The program comes with six scripts that automate the log-on procedure for services such as CompuServe, GEnie, Dow Jones, and BIX. The scripts have a number of buttons with descriptive icons, and using these buttons, you can read mail, go to the CompuServe game forum, go to the service's settings menu, and more. I found these scripts more complete and easier to use than those included in most of the other packages. The main reason is that you can do much more with single mouse clicks since the included scripts provide quite a few buttons.
A Mini BBS script in MicroPhone Pro should prove useful if you or someone else needs to access your system remotely. It's similar to the host scripts that come with most of the telecommunications packages. It does go further, including features such as the ability to add bulletins, change the log-on and log-off text files, and perform user maintenance. Since all of these functions can be handled remotely, you can locate the BBS in virtually any place that has a phone line and still exercise full control over it.
You might need a Mini BBS if you collect information from sales personnel in the field. They might send you database or spreadsheet files--things that can't be faxed. If you're part of an organization for which people send text files on a regular basis, the Mini BBS provides a good way to receive files 24 hours a day. I often need a way for clients to log on to my computer and download work in progress so that they can review what's been done.
At the heart of what makes MicroPhone Pro vastly different is its ability to send commands to the Windows Multimedia Control Interface. With a single line of code, a script file can play CD-ROM audio. It can also play a file through the MIDI manager or call on any other of the built-in functions that Windows offers.
I used the included multimedia script and perused the script code. Each event is triggered by a single call to the Windows interface. It worked well and was error-trapped well enough so that the first time I ran it, I realized that I needed to install another Windows driver before proceeding. Software Ventures provides not only the functions but a way to detect errors and alert users as well.
The biggest problem with using the multimedia interface from the scripts is the sparseness of documentation. The online help and the addendum to the manuals offer a single reference to making multimedia calls, but you need to know what the calls are yourself. It really gives you only the scripting syntax for making the calls, not the details of how to do it. You'll have to get a Windows Multimedia Control Interface reference for that. If you wanted to invest a little time and roll up your sleeves, I'm sure it wouldn't be too hard. If you're up to the challenge, a little research and experimentation will serve you well. You may end up with some dazzling multimedia effects, playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture off your CD-ROM and displaying a photographic-quality picture of the Mona Lisa when you connect to your favorite online service.
Writing my test script wasn't much of a challenge, since I only had to copy what I needed from the included CompuServe script. In about ten minutes I had a script that logged on, got my mail, and sent it to my printer.
MicroPhone Pro is the most distinctive of the packages I looked at. It's not for everyone, but if you want to jazz up your telecommunications, it might be perfect for you. And if you're really creative, you might end up prototyping the next generation of online services. In fact, I found the program so intriguing that I plan on spending some more serious time with it in the near future.
MIRROR FOR WINDOWS 1.2
After getting headaches learning complex new software, I'm glad there's Mirror. It hasn't gotten too complicated. Instead, it has made things easier for people through its effective implementation of Windows' pull-down menus, online help, and dialog boxes.
All of the features you'd expect are there. You can select from a number of terminal emulations, such as ANSI, TTY, and VT100. You can send and receive files using ASCII, Kermit, XMODEM, YMODEM, and ZMODEM transfer protocols. The program lets you capture incoming text and save it to a file or send it to a printer. Custom colors can be set up to satisfy almost anyone's tastes. You can conveniently edit the keyboard mappings with a graphical representation of the keyboard. You can even record a session and play it back to review what happened.
One very nice thing about Mirror is its Learn feature. Using it is as easy as selecting Learn from the pull-down menu, performing all of the tasks that you want Mirror to remember and be able to do later, and turning the Learn process off. Then, when you want to perform the same set of tasks, all you have to do is tell the program what to do and watch it do its thing.
I developed scripts for all of the online services I use by letting Mirror use its Learn capability. Without the manual or online help, I quickly managed to figure it out. You can set it up to log on, get all of your mail, and carry out any other tasks you perform often. The scripts are saved as ASCII files, so you can load them into a text editor, read them, and make changes if you like.
Writing the test script was a total no-brainer. I used Mirror's Learn feature to do it. Just to say I'd seen the script, I loaded it up and took a look. But as long as I can let the computer generate the script with its Learn feature, there's no point in writing one from scratch.
Mirror is a no-frills program that'll give you all you need to connect and use online services and BBSs. It's easy to use because it's not cluttered with a lot of hard-to-learn features. I'll probably keep it on my hard drive for the times when I want something simple or when someone else has to use my computer and doesn't have time for complicated details.
PROCOMM PLUS FOR WINDOWS 1.2
At least half of the PC users who've been online have used a DOS-based version of Procomm at one time or another. I remember asking a friend in 1985 if I should write a terminal program for the PC. He gasped and said, "And go up against Procomm? You'd never be able to compete." That's how firmly entrenched Procomm has been. The Windows version of Procomm Plus is the next logical step. It's a commendable upgrade to the original DOS version that takes full advantage of the power of Windows.
An experience I had with Procomm gives you an idea of how easy it is to use. A deadline loomed, and I stayed up very late to finish my work. The next morning, I got up at my usual 5:00 and checked my work. All was well, but I had to transfer a zipped collection of files at 7:00. Since I leave for work at 7:15, it seemed a simple matter to start the file transfer and leave--that is, until I factored in the possibility of line noise (very high in my small town) and the odds that the transfer would abort as a result.
Remembering that I had just received a copy of Procomm, I took it out and prayed to the gods of silicon that I could get it to work by 7:00. The installation took about ten minutes and didn't require too much thought. A host script resembling the host script of the earlier DOS version comes in the package. It even occupies a button at the bottom of the screen, so it only takes a single click to run it. Once I did that and answered several configuration questions, it was up and running.
I separated the files into smaller zipped files in case of transfer aborts, placed them in the upload directory, and called the person who needed the files at 7:00. After watching the first two go smoothly, I went to work knowing that all would be well. I called the destination party that afternoon and heard that all the files had transferred successfully. Thank you, Procomm!
Writing my test script with Procomm's Aspect scripting language wasn't too difficult. All of the scripting languages have a command that waits for a specific incoming string. If you write a script for CompuServe, you might use this command to wait for the incoming string "Copyright (c) 1993," which appears after your password has been accepted. Once you get this string, you know you're connected. It turns out that my script to log on and get my mail relies heavily on this command.
Although there's a long list of powerful and useful functions in the Aspect scripting language, it is unable to look for more than one incoming string simultaneously. Its inability to do this makes it slightly less useful than I'd like. Most of the time, it's OK to wait for a single text string. But in many cases, you need to look for several strings and respond accordingly. Some of the other scripting languages sort through a list of strings that you're looking for and respond with the appropriate script code.
Procomm has a lot more to offer than I have space to mention. It's a solid program that'll give you great service. If you like the DOS version, you'll absolutely love this fine Windows version.
SMARTCOM FOR WINDOWS
The designers of Smartcom didn't cut any corners. They went to a great deal of trouble to smooth every edge, cover all bases, and meet the needs of just about anyone interested in telecommunications.
Smartcom is actually four programs in one. In addition to the main full-featured telecommunications program, there's Smartcom Editor, a full-featured text editor; Smartcom Custom, which lets you modify the configuration of the entire Smartcom system; and a standalone GIF viewing program.
It's not often that you get a program that fully supports five different languages. Smartcom lets you select from English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish.
When you dial a service, the modem goes through several steps to actually dial and connect. Most telecommunications software just tells you it's dialing. Smartcom highlights five separate pictures to let you know exactly what the modem is doing and how the dial-and-connect process is going.
Icons and shortcut buttons are part of Smartcom's attractive and well-planned interface. They can really help you get around, especially when you're new to the software.
One thing that I really wished for was a set of ready-to-go scripts that would let me log on to the major services. Setting up scripts for each of the services that I subscribe to didn't take long, though, with the Learn feature. For each one, I turned Learn on and logged on. Once I was logged on, I stopped the learning, named the script file, and even had the immediate opportunity to assign a hot key to run it. I could have easily placed icons in buttons at the bottom of the screen to run these scripts with a single mouse click.
Though the scripting language is very powerful, it isn't as easy to use as the scripting languages that come with most of the other packages. It took me a couple of hours to write some simple scripts.
I was thoroughly impressed with Smartcom. It's right up there with the very best of these packages, and it would serve you well for years to come.
Unicom goes to great lengths to present as much information on the screen as possible. About half the screen is used for viewing incoming information, and the other half is used for program information and controls.
I counted 21 buttons containing descriptive icons. The buttons do everything from hanging up to dialing a number to downloading files. There are equivalent items in the pull-down menus, but the buttons make it much easier to perform the tasks. Twenty-two buttons at the bottom of the screen represent special keyboard keys, such as F1-F12, Delete, Page Up, and many others. These easy-to-use keys are programmable.
An interesting screen feature is the simulation of modem lights toward the top of the screen. For each LED that an external modem has, there's a simulation in the Unicom window. Techies and people who like gizmos will love the LED simulations.
Another attractive Unicom feature is that it gives you access to many of the Windows accessories from a pull-down menu. The last pull-down menu, labeled Utility, contains entries that run Calculator, Calendar, Cardfile, Clipboard Viewer, Clock, Control Panel, Notepad, and Paintbrush. Being able to use these programs without having to go to the Program Manager saves time. And that can be important, especially if you're online.
Unicom was written by a single programmer, David Gan. I'm a programmer, so I appreciate what a monumental task it was. This program illustrates that you can get high quality from a single programmer as well as from a group.
Unicom's WinScript scripting language is more like C than most of the other languages. I found it easy to use, though it lacks the ability to look for more than one incoming string. That made it harder for me to write my test script.
Unicom's screen might appear too cluttered to some users, but if you like to see all of your options and access them with a single click, this is your program. Unicom is a great piece of work and worth considering.