Going Online Part 1

by John S. Davison

 

Issue 23

Sep/Oct 86

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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 telecommunications.

"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 on loan.

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.

MULTI-VIEWTERM SOFTWARE

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 described above.

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.

Connecting Up

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 - 5.50.

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 touch. 

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 right.

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 present.

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'.

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