Modem/software picks & pans
BAAUG SPEAKS OUTby GIGI BISSON, Antic Assistant Editor
It might seem like a crazy idea: Give Atari users a chance to tell the industry what they really think about telecommunications products. Crazier still, put those comments into print.
The Antic editorial staff paid a visit to the local Bay Area Atari Users Group (BAAUG), one of the nation's largest, and let them tell us what's wrong and right with their modems. About 100 Atari owners, some with wives, kids and even modems in tow, showed up for the meeting in an elementary school cafeteria in the heart of Northern California's Silicon Valley.
We braced ourselves for some brutally honest comments. But the Atari users at BAAUG are quite happy, even ecstatic about their telecommunications equipment. They seem to fall into two extremes: either they own first-rate 1200 baud systems and subscribe to several online sevices, or they log onto local bulletin boards with public domain software and discontinued modems purchased at computer swap meets.
They are willing to pay premium prices for premium software and hardware, but if they didn't get power for the price, the verbal slings and arrows flew through that cafeteria like peas in a food fight. On the other hand, almost any problem could be tolerated if a modem or communications software was inexpensive enough.
(See the Modem and Software Source List elsewhere in this issue for additional details about the most widely used products mentioned in this article. -ANTIC ED)
These Atari owners say many free public domain telecommunications programs are better than the ones sold by commercial software companies. Owners of direct-connect modems (modems designed specifically for the Atari computer and not requiring a separate interface) usually prefer public domain programs over the software supplied with their modems.
We almost got tired of listening to members extolling the virtues of 1030 Express, a public domain program written by Keith Ledbetter, a system operator (sysop) on CompuServe's SIG*Atari They went on and on: "1030 Express is the best piece of software I've ever found" "I wish the programmer would write one for the 520ST." "The auto-dialer is simple to use, it saves three macros and there's no need to manually enter a password." 1030 Express works only with the Atari 1030 and XM301 direct-connect modems. Ledbetter's newer version, 850 Express, is compatible with the Hayes and other non-direct connect modems that utilize the Atari 850 interface.
AMODEM is the most frequently used program, but 1030 Express is clearly the best-loved. Users of the six different versions of AMODEM like the macros, ease of use and the way it supports ASCII and XMODEM protocols. But they complain about poor documentation and problems uploading with AMODEM's small buffer space. XMODEM users say the public domain program is hard to use. Surprisingly, none used the public domain program TSCOPE.
HomeTerm, from Batteries Included's HomePak, is the most popular commercial 8-bit program. "It's a good, dependable program. I like the macros," one user says. But another chimes in, "My macros didn't work at all." "HomeTerm is easy to use, clear; menu driven and forgiving of mistakes," says Sue Tempey.
For the ST, the leaders are less clear. One user says ST Talk is the only commercial program that works. Most agree Mark of the Unicorn's PC/Intercomm "works great, but at $124 it should." ST Term by Matthew Singer of Commnet Systems software was the second most popular
A big surpnse is the ongoing popularity of the discontinued Atari 1030 modem (price varies). BAAUG had few harsh words for this limited, but inexpensive peripheral.
Second most popular for both 8-bit and ST users is the industry-standard Hayes Smartmodem ($599 for 300/1200 baud).
About half of the group at BAAUG own 1200 baud modems-and most of the remaining 300 baud owners wish they had them or plan to purchase them. "I used to own a Hayes 300 Smartmodem, but after discovering the Hayes 1200 baud modem, I'd never go back again, ever. I spend major portions of my life in front of my computer That's too much time to waste with 300 baud?' says one owner; echoing the sentiments of many.
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the modem's performance from that of the software. In fact, problems blamed on modems at the meeting often seem to be software compatibility problems. But a good software package can transform a mediocre modem into an online powerhouse. For example, an unmodified Atari 1030 can't auto-answer; and when used with its built-in terminal program it can't upload and download files either. However with the AMODEM 7.2 or 1030 Express program, it produces reliable file transfers.
The Atari 1030, purchased for anywhere between $40 and $150, was by far the most popular modem at the BAAUG meeting. "The 1030 is reliable, but it's only 300 baud and it can't run our BBS," says Kathy Standifird. On the other hand, a volunteer sysop (system operator) at the Atari BBS says 90% of Atari Corp's own bulletin board is run with an Atari 1030 modem and 1030 Express. The Atari BBS also offers 1030 Express for downloading. "That's great. How do I download it without a terminal program?" someone asked. This is the Catch-22 of free downloadable terminal software. You can, however, obtain a copy from your local users group or purchase it for $10 from the Antic Catalog.
ATARI 835 ACOUSTIC
A real price buster; the old 300 baud Atari 835 was purchased within the rock bottom range of $10 to $19. "It's cheap. It does the job adequately when paired with AMODEM 7.1. But it's an acoustic modem so it won't auto-dial and it's awkward to use" owners say.
Why use an acoustic modem? Loretta Colbourn responded: "It's reliable, and I bought it for only $24." The only problem was software. "It's hard to find," she says.
This prompted a user group discussion on modular telephone plugs vs. four-pin connectors. Acoustic modems are good to use if your telephone still has an old-fashioned four-prong wall jack-you simply rest the telephone handset in a pair of rubber cups atop the modem. The more advanced "smart" modems plug directly into your phone outlet and require a modular plug. One member offers this hint: "I just unscrew the phone mouthpiece, hook on the two modem plugs with alligator clips and it works great." "I don't know about you," another BAAUG member jokes, "But I did something like that as a kid and almost got arrested." Another member suggests a device called a Blackjack that allows you to connect a modem's modular phone cord to a non-modular phone jack.
The users with Atari's new XM301 modems say it's a good value for the price ($49.95). They like the ease of use, the fact that it's a direct-connect modem and has an auto-dial feature on the software it comes with. The only gripe is that the XM301 must be the last peripheral in a "daisy chain." But overall, as Ron Frey says, "It's small, it's cheap and it works."
The best features of Supra Corp.'s MPP 1000-E direct-connect 300 baud modem are its low price, auto-dial and redial capabilities. However, users complain that it lacks a speaker; so you can't tell if you've got a busy signal, a ring, or a voice on the line. Ron Rautenberg likes the MPP. because it's "small and neat looking." Some owners say the built-in SmartTerm software was the MPP's worst feature. Raymond Santiago found SmartTerm easy to use, but says the software buffer is too small and has some problems with file transfer errors when using the MPP with his Percom disk drive. In any case, the price is right-in the $60 to $139 range.
SIGNALMAN MARK XII
"It runs AMODEM 5.0, but won't run with 850 Express or BBCS (Bulletin Board Construction Set). It's cheap, though," says Wendell Cotton who picked up his Anchor Signalman for $25 at a flea market. Others paid up to $99 for this 300/1200 baud modem.
You get what you pay for. Hayes Smartmodems, purchased at prices ranging from $199 to $300 for a 300 baud model and $300 to $595 for 1200 baud, were the second most popular brand. Indeed, the only complaint about Hayes modems was the price.
"Compatible with everything," says John Schreier ,who uses it with Mark of the Unicorn's PC/Intercomm software on his 520ST. Another plus was the standard RS-232 interface, allowing people to use the same Hayes modem with both their Atari 800 and 520ST computers.
"The Hayes is reliable and has auto-dial and auto-answer capability with all good software," says Richard Anderson, who uses his 130XE for electronic banking and software uploads and downloads. "It's easy to use, has a built-in speaker, trim styling and good customer support from Hayes," says Mike Morrow, who uses it with HomeTerm on his 800XL and Chat on his 520ST. As for the 2400 baud Hayes, one user says he hasn't had any problems with a Hayes 2400 baud model he paid $400 for at a computer swap meet, saving $295 on the retail price.
"Not all Hayes-Compatibles are Hayes compatible I've had many problems," says Greg Humphrey, a marketing manager for Haba Corp. attending the BAAUG meeting that night.
A Hayes-compatible modem is supposed to be able to use communications software packages designed for a Hayes and utilize the same commands. It's also supposed to be "smart"- able to dial automatically and store phone numbers. Full comartliblilty means the modem can utilize all the automatic features of a communications software product designed for the Hayes. Semi-compatibility means you can connect successfully only after dialing each phone number manually, and may not be able to utilize some of the software's other features. Most Hayes-compatible modems are compatible with both the ST and 8-bit Ataris when supplied with the appropriate interface and software.
Living up to its Volkswagen-type name, the Hayes-compatible Volksmodem 12 from Anchor Automation got raves for its reliability and simplicity. "I like it, it's real cheap," says Corey Cole who paid $150 and uses it with the Flash terminal program on his ST. Norman Maxwell, who paid $79 for his Volksmodem, uses it to control his robot with a 520ST and the ST Talk program. This non-direct connect modem is also compatible with the 8-bit Ataris.
Three members use the Racal-Vadic 1200 modem with the 520ST or the Atari 800. The price ranged from $249 to a whopping $900 for a variable-speed Racal-Vadic 1545 purchased eight years ago. No complaints here. Users say the Racal-Vadic is "smart," fast and supported by a good company.
The 1200 baud, Hayes semi-compatible U.S. Robotics/Password modem is the modem of choice for BAAUG president Frank Nagle who uses it with his 520ST and PC/Intercomm software. The $300 modem lacks a volume control. Pluses are auto-dial and pulse/tone dial options. AMODEM 4.9 software supports all of its features.
'I like the line-quality lights so you don't waste time downloading junk," says Glen Elliott, who uses his Bizcomp Intellimodem with HomeTerm software. The 1200 baud Hayes-compatible modem manufactured by Business Computer Corp. of Sunnyvale, CA retails for $400. "But it's not truly Hayes-compatible," complains Mark Blomenkamp, who uses it with AMODEM software.
Four have Prometheus Promodems, purchased for anywhere between $299 and $380. The best features are auto-dial and auto-redial abilities, phone directories, adjustable baud rate and a clock display. However, one user says the clock must be reset every time it's powered up. Another, Steve Heacock, says the Prometheus has different status numbers than the Hayes, although it's the same command set. Other drawbacks reported: it won't work with Bulletin Board Construction Set and gets very hot after being on for only 15-20 minutes.
E + E Datacom's Avatex modem is 95% Hayes compatible. "Which 5% are you missing?" someone wondered out loud. The 300/1200 baud model retails for $199.95, but it has recently become available for users group multi-unit purchases at under $100. The Avatex is advertised as being fully compatible with HomeTerm, but is apparently only partially compatible with DiskLink and TSCOPE software. Scott Tretyl, who purchased his Avatex for $100, likes the auto-dial capability when he uses it with AMODEM 7.2, but laments it lacks a speaker.
THE IDEAL MODEM
In all, users at the meeting says that the ultimate modem and software combination would be a Hayes-compatible auto-answer, auto-dial modem compatible with a variety of terminal software and computer systems. And all this for a price under $200. The communications software should use macros, store 10 phone numbers, support graphics and above all, be invisible to the user. Says BAAUG member Jon Rogers, "I want to communicate, not manipulate software."
Manufacturers, are you listening?