Telecommunications is still a mystery area
to many owners. Is it worth it? What equipment do you need? In this
two part article John Davison reviews the most popular package and
gives a first hand account of his experiences.
"No! You can't have a modem - we'll need a
second mortgage to be able to pay the phone bills!". Such was
the response from The Lady of Infinite Wisdom the first time I
hinted it might be fun to explore the brave new world of
"And anyway", she added, "I bet the
modem costs a fortune. We've got enough computer stuff about the
place as it is".
I had to agree with the drift of this argument,
and put the idea out of my mind.
Unfortunately, at the next meeting of the local
Atari computer club the Treasurer happened to mention he'd got a
telecommunications package for the Atari. Being a kind soul he
offered to lend it to me for a couple of weeks. The package
consisted of a WS2000 modem, the Datatari serial interface, and
Multi-Viewterm communications software, all supplied by Miracle
Technology. In short, everything I needed to 'go online' and explore
the exciting new world of telecommunications.
It was with some trepidation that I carried the
forbidden items into the house after the meeting that night. The
Lady noticed the silly smirk I must have been wearing.
"You've got a modem, haven't you?", The
Lady said with incisive intuition.
"Er, yes, but only for a few days" , I
stammered. "Just to learn with - it belongs to someone at the
club. I'll only use it for local communications, so the phone bill
won't suffer", I lied, hoping The Lady wouldn't see through me.
"It won't suffer, because you'll be paying
for each call as you make it", she said, sweetly, handing me a
jar with a coin slot conveniently cut in the lid.
So we came to an amiable agreement, and the modem
was given a temporary visitor's visa to the household. There
followed a short period of intense concentration while I attempted
to find out just what it was I had borrowed.
THE WS2000 MODEM
This is a small, neat, black plastic box measuring
about 6in. by 6in. by 2.75in. It looked very smart sitting on top of
the disk drive. The front panel carries three rotary switches
operated by stylish black knobs. These control Online/Local Test
modes, Viewtext receive/bulletin board and other modes, and finally
whether CCITT (European) or Bell (USA) standards are used, and the
data transmission rates that go with them. For use in the U.K. the
Bell standard settings have been inhibited by the manufacturer. The
white and red lettering round the switches is clear and easy to
read. On the left of the front panel is a vertical row of 5 LED's,
which light up to show the status of the modem at any time. It's not
always obvious what the front panel settings should be for a given
communications session making careful study of the manual a must.
The back panel carries four sockets, a fixed mains
cable, a fixed line cable and plug to connect to the BT wall socket,
and a mains on/off switch. The sockets are used as follows:
Accessory Port for future expansion, e.g. for acoustic coupler and
battery backup devices; Telephone Socket to plug in your telephone;
User Port for remote control of the modem from a computer or other
control device; and an RS232 Port, which is the normal way of
connecting the modem to an Atari. The two of interest here are the
Telephone and RS232 sockets.
The WS2000 supports just about any transmission
mode and speed you're likely to need in the 'non-professional' area.
It supplies 300 baud full duplex, 600 and 1200 baud half duplex for
bulletin board and direct user to user connection, and 1200/75 and
75/1200 baud full duplex for use at terminal or host end of a
Viewtext service. Miracle Technology can provide autodial and
autoanswer boards for this modem, but neither were fitted to the one
THE DATATARI INTERFACE
This appears to be a cable with a standard Atari
serial I/O plug on one end, and an RS232 plug matching the modem
socket on the other. Using this interface does away with the need
for the hard-to-find Atari 850 interface. Anyway, the 850 doesn't
support split 1200/75 baud transmission rates required by Viewtext
systems in the U.K., so in this respect the Datatari is a better buy
than the 850 for telecommunications use.
This program was written by Matthew Jones, a
regular contributor to PAGE 6. It's almost completely menu driven,
which means it's easy to use, especially for the beginner. It has
two main modes of operation, offline and online.
In offline mode it allows you to configure the
software for the communication session you're about to establish,
setting baud rate, parity, whether full or half duplex, Teletype or
Viewtext mode, and whether line feeds are to be automatically
generated. When you've set up a configuration you can save it to
cassette or disk for use at a later date. This means you can keep a
library of the configurations of all your favourite bulletin boards
and configure your system to use any one of them simply by loading
the appropriate file in. This could save you a lot of time if you
use many boards, as people usually do.
Incidentally, don't worry about the jargon too
much, you'll soon pick it up. Most of what you need is explained in
the instruction manuals that come with this package.
Offline mode also lets you save incoming messages
from a buffer in RAM onto cassette or disk, or to load existing
files into the buffer for viewing, transmitting, or printing. The
menu also lets you list the directory of a disk, delete files, and
protect or unprotect files.
A further offline facility allows you to set up
user defined keys for use in online mode. The most common use for
these is for storing frequently used commands, or your name and
passwords, which can then be input with a single keystroke. Useful,
as saving time saves you money.
Online, or terminal mode is the one you use for
the actual communication session. In this mode, your computer
becomes a terminal with the characteristics you defined when you set
up the configuration. You can transmit data from the keyboard or the
buffer to the remote computer, and receive data for display on your
screen from the remote computer. Optionally, you can capture data
received by having it stored in the RAM buffer for manipulation as
When in Viewtext mode you also have several preset
function keys. These transmit frequently used PRESTEL commands, such
as go to main index, go to previous page, leave PRESTEL, etc. Other
option keys are available for things such as turning the buffer on
and off, and setting the screen background colour. These are
available in Teletype mode also.
Preliminary investigation revealed that the modem
had to be plugged into one of the new type BT wall sockets. The only
socket in the house was the one for the extension phone in the
bedroom. Unfortunately, the computer was about 20 feet away in
another room, wired into a computer desk. For the sake of marital
harmony, rather than move the computer desk into the bedroom, I
bought a phone extension cable from a local electrical store. Cost -
Connecting everything up was easy. I unplugged the
phone, inserted the new extension cable in its place, then plugged
the modem line cable into the other end of it. The phone then
plugged into the back of the modem. Simple - a two minute job. The
next job involved connecting the modem into the 130XE's I/O daisy
chain. One end of the Datatari interface cable plugged into the free
serial port on the back of the disk drive, and the other end went
into the back of the modem. Again, dead simple. Finally the modem
was plugged into the mains, and the hardware was ready for action -
total setup time was less than 5 minutes.
Operating the System
The next step was to understand the software and
operational aspects of the modem. The WS2000 modem and the
Multi-Viewterm software each have their own slim instruction
manuals. The 17 page modem manual makes liberal use of pictures as
well as words. The front panel of the modem is rather intimidating,
having many different settings possible on the rotary switches. Use
of pictures to show you how they should be set is a much better idea
than trying to explain in words. The manual is laid out logically,
with separate sections covering initial setup and testing, online
use to communicate with Viewtext type facilities (like PRESTEL and
Micronet), bulletin boards, and direct contact with another user.
There is also a useful section on fault finding, if things don't
work as expected, but this is probably a little too technical for
some users, especially beginners.
The 20 page Multi-Viewterm manual is fairly
straightforward, giving a brief introduction to telecommunications,
and then a brief description of each function of the software. There
are no commands to remember, thank goodness, as virtually everything
is available by menu selection or through function keys. The manual
includes a cut-out template you can position above the numeric keys
to remind you what they do when used as function keys, a nice
One area it didn't cover was how to download
software from a bulletin board. It covered the Viewtext side, but as
Micronet doesn't have an Atari section it would have been better to
include instructions on how to do this in Teletype mode, as there
are a number of boards operating in this mode which do have Atari
software available for downloading.
So, after spending a while reading and re-reading
the two manuals, doing the basic modem tests, and familiarising
myself with the software menus, the Big Moment had arrived - time to
contact a bulletin board!
Using the Package
The next few days (or rather nights - cheap rate
phone calls!) saw me contributing significantly to BT's 1986
profits, as I grappled with bulletin boards good and bad. The story
of what happened makes an article in itself, so I'll save the gory
details for a later issue of Page 6. Let's go straight on to my
impression of the products used.
In use, the package of products worked well, and
appeared to do everything claimed for them. I'd never used a
bulletin board or PRESTEL before, but this package made the whole
operation fairly painless. It costs about £185 for the complete
system, although the items may be bought separately, if required,
about £125 for the modem alone, and about £60 for the Datatari
interface together with the Multi-Viewterm software. Normally,
though, you'd probably buy the whole lot together as a complete
telecommunications system. This has to be one of the best ways for
an Atari user to get online, if this is your interest.
The WS2000 modem in particular struck me as
offering first rate facilities at a reasonable price. With the
add-on facilities promised, and comprehensive interfacing and
control features on the back panel, it has the
capability of being developed into quite a complex system in its own
My main criticism is aimed at the software, and
concerns its downloading capabilities. As already mentioned, the
manual gave little away in this area. Many of the boards contacted
seemed to require the use of a special protocol, known as XMODEM
protocol, for downloading software. Multi-Viewterm does not appear
to have this. (An upgraded version is now available. Ed.)
Also, the buffer used for capturing incoming data only seems to be
about 12K in size. If you exceed this, it simply overflows and you
lose the excess data. You do get a warning of this, though. So how
do you download a program larger than 12K? I guess you can't at
As I've not used any other system it's difficult
to judge its worth relevant to other products on the market. All I
can say is, it worked, showed no obvious sign of bugs, and was easy
to use. The beginner couldn't really ask for more. Experienced users
might think otherwise, though.
I'm now trying to work out how I can change the
visitor's visa The Lady granted to the package to something more
permanent. Full naturalisation, perhaps? That could take some time,
as The Lady knows what the true online costs are likely to be. That
jar already has an awful lot of coins in it. This aspect will be
covered in Part 2 of the article, which looks at the joys and
pitfalls of 'going online'.