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.
In Part 1 of this article we looked at the
Datatari communications package, including the Miracle Technology
WS2000 modem, Datatari interface, and MultiViewterm communications
software. Part 2 describes what happened when we first tried to use
it 'for real'. Remember, we were complete beginners at the
telecommunications game, and hadn't a clue what to expect. Except
for one thing - a hefty phone bill. But The Lady of infinite Wisdom
had provided us with a jar so we could pay for our calls as we made
My son produced a list of bulletin boards from a
computer magazine, giving us a good starting point. The Atari based
Basildon ITEC board (0268-25122) got the honour of being our very
first contact, so we configured Multi-Viewterm to its requirements
and dialled the number. The phone rang, then a high pitched whistle
was heard. Great - a modem at the other end! Quick, this is costing
money - switch software into terminal mode, switch modem online, and
... and ... and ... nothing! The screen stayed blank. We re-checked
software and modem settings, and these seemed okay. A few tentative
keystrokes made no difference, either. It obviously wasn't going to
work, so we gave up. Cost so far: 40p (cheap rate). Not a good
Undaunted, we chose another board from the list.
This was SABBS (0698-884804), an Atari based board in Scotland. We
dialled and waited. Yes, there was the modem tone and ....YES!
Something on the screen - we were talking to another computer! When
the shock of this success had subsided, we gingerly followed the
logon procedure shown, then selected a few commands from the
seemingly meaningless list presented, without really knowing what we
were doing. We eventually found a help facility, and got it listed
to the screen (and in the buffer), so decided to log off and print
this out to study, so we'd have more idea of what to do. BUT - how
dickens do you log off?
At this point there was a great temptation to
simply switch off the modem and hang up the phone, but this,
apparently, is one of the greatest sins you can commit in the eyes
of a board's System Operator (Sysop), as it can sometimes cause the
software to 'hang', making the board unusable by later callers.
Perhaps that what had happened to the Basildon ITEC board. We
resisted this, and eventually discovered the correct command, and
logged off. Phew!
The next job was to get the printout. Oh NO! We
forgot to turn on the buffer to capture the screen messages. What a
waste of time - and another £ 1.20 on the phone bill. At that point
we decided to call it a day, having spent £1.60 on phone charges
and having got nowhere. I ostentatiously dropped coins to the value
of £1.60 into the jar The Lady had thoughtfully provided for the
purpose, and made enthusiastic noises to her about how we'd got on.
The following night we made a startling discovery.
Buried in the middle of the magazine list of bulletin boards was a
system called Gamlingay CBBS (076750511), based about 4 miles from
where we live! Local phone charges! So we set up again, and dialled
in. I remembered to turn the buffer on this time, and ....there was
the board, clear and bright! It claimed to belong to the Chiltern
CP/M User Group, and invited us to register if we weren't already
users. This involved giving name, where calling from, and password
for use on future calls to the board.
A help function called up an explanation of
commands and facilities. We selected the message facility, and
discovered a lower level help facility which explained how to use
the various message options. We chose a summary list of all the
current messages on the board. The list was long and items were soon
lost by scrolling off the top of the screen, but no matter - this
time everything was going into the buffer on the 130XE and could be
called back to the screen at any time, or dumped to cassette, disk,
or printer for reading later.
Found - Other Atari Users
Most of the message subjects seemed foreign to
Atari users, with frequent references to Wordstar, Dbase II, CPM,
BIOS, and other CP/M topics. But suddenly, a reference to Atari,
then another. This was more like it. We then went into the Read
Message function to get the full text. The first one was a general
invitation to all Atari users to contact the message originator. The
second one was a cry for help in locating an Atari cassette
Plucking up courage, we chose the Enter Message
function, and replied to the first message, explaining that we only
had the modem on loan, and he wouldn't hear from us again if he
didn't reply pretty quickly.
There was little else of interest to Atari users
so we decided to log off. We were invited to leave a message for the
Sysop if we wished, so we left a few complimentary words about his
board, and logged off. This time, we'd been online for 35 minutes
for a cost of about 30p - very reasonable.
Next Stop - Micronet
The Datatari package is also suitable for
accessing Viewtext services, the most well known of which is
probably PRESTEL, with its successful offshoot Micronet. The bad
news is that to use this service you have to pay a subscription,
currently £16.50 per quarter, and this is on top of your phone
charges. For this you get access to both Micronet and the more
general PRESTEL services. The good news is that in most of the U.K.
you can log on through a local access number, which means you only
pay local call rates, currently about 43p per hour.
To get into PRESTEL/Micronet you need a User
Identification Number and a Password, which you're only given after
you've signed up for the service and handed over your money.
However, you can try out the service for free before joining. Just
call Micronet on 01-278-3143 (voice line) and they'll give you
details of the special demonstration section and how to log onto it.
The Datatari package handled Viewtext in the same
fuss-free way it handled 'normal' bulletin boards. The only
disappointment was that, although the software reproduces the
PRESTEL graphics, they're only in monochrome. You don't get the
glory of full colour. You can set the background to the colour of
your choice, but that's about it!
We spent a pleasant 30 minutes wandering around
the demonstration section, looking enviously at the special
facilities for Commodore, Sinclair, Amstrad and Acorn owners, and
wondering if Micronet would ever wake up and begin supporting The
Best Home Micro in the World. I guess you know the answer to that as
well as I do.
It's not all bad, though. PRESTEL itself is 'non-sectarian',
and there's a lot of free information available in there - over
300,000 pages, they claim. It's potentially useful to anyone, no
matter what computer they use. I guess it's rather like a souped up
teletext service, with the advantage that you can interact with it.
In addition to the 'free' public information,
bulletin board sections, etc., there's also more specialised stuff,
which you pay for separately, either by subscription or by paying
for each screenful of data you look at. Micronet itself is an
example of this, as your £16.50 subscription consists of a basic
PRESTEL subscription, plus an extra charge for the Micronet service.
Various companies are now beginning to offer their
services through PRESTEL, such as theatre ticket bookings, travel
bookings, and home banking services, amongst others. And, of course,
there's electronic mail and telex facilities. Unfortunately, as we
were only logged onto the demonstration section we couldn't try
these things out 'for real'.
One thing we hadn't tried so far was downloading
software. This is often touted as one of the big attractions of
owning a modem. Basildon ITEC claim to hold downloadable Atari
programs, so we decided to give them another try. This time we got
through straight away. After the usual logging on formalities, there
were a series of messages announcing free download software
specifically for Datatari users (that's us!).
We eventually got to the download area, and found
that the only programs were terminal programs to enable you to
communicate with the board and transfer download files to disk. As
we were already using MultiViewterm this seemed a bit pointless, but
maybe we were missing something.
Purely as an experiment we tried to download a
Datatari RS232 handler. A simple command plus filename got this
started, resulting in what looked like random garbage being written
to the screen. After what seemed like an age (at long distance phone
rates) it stopped, so we now assumed we had the program in the
buffer. But what do we do with it now? It was obviously a machine
code program and it was in the buffer with all the other messages
we'd had on the screen, so we couldn't simply save it and run it. I
guess we should have cleared the buffer, selected download, and
turned the buffer on just before the download started. There was
nothing in the Multi-Viewterm manual about this.
Happiness at Last
We contacted various other boards over the next
couple of weeks, and only came across one that really impressed us.
This was the Central Birmingham Atari Bulletin Board System (CBABBS,
on 021-430-3761). This one radiated an air of friendliness right
from the start. It was easy to use, and had lots of interesting
sections on it, even downloadable software - some of it being
programs from past issues of PAGE 6. And, it was dedicated to Atari,
so there should be little or no Beeb, Commodore, or Sinclair junk
cluttering up valuable disk space.
A message explained that Multi-Viewterm has been
updated, now having an XMODEM Transfer function, for use in
downloading software. You can get this upgrade by returning your
original disk to the manufacturer, who will put the new version onto
it for you. It went on to explain exactly how you use it to achieve
a download. Full marks to the brave souls running this board - and
to Miracle Technology for this civilised update policy!
Can You Afford it?
The main barrier to these activities at present
has to be one of cost. The package we used costs about £185, which
is not bad when you consider what you're getting. The real killer is
the cost of the phone calls. This is acceptable if you have a board
within local charge range, or are prepared to pay £66 per year
subscription to Micronet, but even Micronet isn't of direct interest
to Atari users at present.
In all, we were logged onto various systems for
190 minutes. Counting the money in the jar it came to £7.80 - and
after only two weeks use! The approximate cheap rate call costs per
hour are £4.32 for calls over 35 miles (a little cheaper on some
connections), £1.73 for calls up to 35 miles, and 43p for local. A
realistic typical session is probably about 20 minutes, if you're
doing anything more than just checking if there are any messages for
you. So a local board would cost you a very reasonable 18p per
session, but a long distance one could cost a hefty £1.44 for the
same thing. For comparison, at peak times these costs would be about
£4.04, £2.30, and 77p per session respectively. And how many
sessions would you have each week? Go on, be honest!
The cost drops considerably if you use the board
purely as a mailbox, when a 5 minute session is probably adequate,
once you know what you're doing. But - will you be able to resist
the lure of peeping into those other areas? Or calling just one more
new board? Beware, The Lady with the Jar will be waiting, and you
may never have any loose change ever again.
Telecommunicating is great fun, but can be costly
if you have no self discipline. Currently, it seems of limited
practical use, but then many people say that about home computing in
general. It's as useful as you yourself make it.
The Datatari package? It worked very well for
what we did with it, but could probably be improved
by better downloading facilities, and/or better instructions on how
to use the facilities already included. The news from CBABBS
indicates that this is already being fixed, although the 12K buffer
size problem mentioned in Part 1 of this article still needs
attention. Perhaps the author could modify the program to
dynamically transfer the data to disk or ramdisk as it is received.
Now we know why Basildon ITEC were offering
those terminal utilities! With these modifications Multi-Viewterm
should merit the classification of Excellent.
The $64000 dollar question - would I go out and
buy this package? Shhh! The Lady might be listening .... but the
answer is yes.
As briefly mentioned in the
first part of this article, an upgraded version of the Multi-Viewterm
software, which supports XMODEM file transfer is available. This version,
which is available as a free upgrade if you send your original disk back
to Miracle Technology, includes both Xmodem Upload and Download direct to
disk (which means file size is limited to disk size, not the 12K buffer).
Other facilities which have been added are: text upload from within online
mode (uses X-on X-off); CR/LF conversion to EOL of text in buffer; access
to a second disk drive; carousel in View mode; START active in all menus;
and many other improvements which make it an even better package.
The upgraded version has
been available since September 1985 and new purchasers should therefore
already have this version.