Any ST user who does a lot of telecommunicating via Bulletin Boards or mainframes, must at some time or another wish that their machine was capable of multitasking. I use a 1200 Bd modem to talk to other computers and it is frustrating to sit and twiddle my thumbs while a large file transfer is taking place, for example a 200,000 byte file will take about an hour, which is time that could be better spent working on another application.
The solution is to either get a faster modem, (well we all would like a faster modem. including ACE NSW) or use some form of “multitasking” environment. Switchers like Revolver will not fit the bill as they simply freeze one application so you can work on another, and if you are transferring a file with a ’comms’ program then the transfer freezes as well. There is also a utility called Shadow which is designed to be used for Flash, a comms program and is a stand alone program which gives background file transfers. Not knowing much about Shadow, I can’t really comment on what it is like, however I get a general impression that it is only a partial solution to the problem and I know of no one in the Atari community who uses it.
Now there is STalker, A GEM desktop accessory that is a fully fledged terminal program in it’s own right and does background file transfers as well. STalker is modelled on most Macintosh style comms programs in that all the action takes place inside a window that has both vertical and horizontal scroller bars. When communicating with another terminal, both the incoming and local text fills up the window and previous lines of text may be viewed by scrolling back. This feature is quite nifty, but is dependent on how much memory is allocated for the window buffer, 2000 lines of text maximum, which should be ample for everyone except those keen on reading every message. Text which is in this window can be marked as a block and saved to either a clipboard, to disk, to STeno, the companion text editor or printed.
STalker is very easy to use and there is a keystroke for almost every action, and a menu is brought up by left-clicking anywhere in the window. Any functions that can not be accessed are greyed out depending on what is being used. Like any good comms software STalker includes an autodialer, but this one has a difference. Up to 20 sytems can be stored with their attendant settings, for example Baud rate, how much they charge per hour (soon to be implemented when deregulation hits, most BBS users will not be able to afford the phone cost), terminal configurations ie whether to use ANSI or VT52 mode and a custom log on sequence for truly lazy people who like everything done for them. This is truly brill, each BBS setting can be customised and the configuration saved, ah before I forget, there are big and small text sizes as well to suit different systems.
A special feature is that each BBS or terminal number can be repeatedly dialled if busy, up to 99 times. Not just one, but every number in the list can be repeatedly dialled in sequence and each connecting number will be taken out of the list when a connection is made if neccessary, just the thing for BBS Junkies who need a daily hit!
For those people who forget their passwords, or require stock phrases, text strings can be assigned to the function keys and plopped into place as required. There are several kestrokes which enable one to manouver around the window with ease, the Home Key takes the user back to the top of the window while the CLR key (shift home) takes the window back to where the cursor is. Very handy for going back over the text and returning to the right spot again.
An unusual feature of STalker is it’s ability to function as a mini remote BBS, not too much detail is supplied in the manual on this function, indeed the only reference to it is in a text file on the disk. It seems fairly easy to set up but it is recommended that a CLI shell be used. I imagine the remote facility would be handy for anyone at the office who needs to send files home but has incompatable disk formats.
Most of the remaining functions of STalker are fairly mundane, and are familiar to anyone who regularly uses communications software, functions like uploading and downloading of files, terminal configuration, RS232 settings and the like are performed competently through the pop-up menu or keystrokes. Now the only bad thing I can say about STalker, is with the choices of file transfer protocols. There is Xmodem or Xmodem. I am not a great fan of Xmodem as it is a bit slow and pedantic and behind the times besides. I look forward to a version with Zmodem which will make STalker shine with its batch file transfer power.
It is now on to the most interesting feature of STalker, and that is it’s ability to sit quietly in the background while another task is being worked on. To put it in a nutshell, it works very well and with a minimum of fuss. Once installed as a desk accessory, it will reside in the memory that is set aside for this purpose and continue to function invisibly through most other applications. STalker can only be accessed from within a GEM environment, It being a desk accessory then the GEM menubar is essential, it also runs in hi and medium rez, so no slipping in a few games while downloading the latest files. Having said that, once STalker is busy either waiting to get onto a BBS or transferring a file, then it will continue to work unhindered, whether or not you happen to be using a GEM application.
It is truly wondrous to be able to call up STalker, select a BBS or several to dial, and exit to another program. If the numbers are busy, then STalker continues to call them, (I recommend turning the speaker of the modem down as it gets annoying after a while) As soon as one answers, then there is a little tune and one can either pull STalker down from the menu bar or exit to the desktop if in a non-GEM application. If a list of numbers is being dialled then the one that answers has it’s name in the dropdown menu area. When doing a file transfer, the same principle applies, one exits STalker to continue doing something else, if so desired the STalker window can be left open so that a check can be made on the progress of the transfer, otherwise a tune will play to signal a successful transfer or a failure.
Apart from the many obvious uses of having a multi-tasking communications program, there are a couple of useful tricks I have discovered. It is possible to archive and de-archive files while logged onto a BBS, for example I often get a twinge of guilt when I look at my upload/download ratio for ACE BBS and I think ahh I’ll upload that bit of artwork, but its not archived.... With STalker I can do an arc, and send it. I might add, that it is wise to keep to fairly modest sized files when doing this and if you do it while a file transfer is happening then the operation freezes for the duration. There are few applications where I have had trouble so far with STalker. One is Calamus which flatly refuses to co-operate if STalker is resident, why I don’t know as no-one else has this problem, obviously something to do with an autoboot application that will have to wait until the hard disk re-organisation (shudder). The other is Multidesk, which is an accessory that allows other desk accessories to be installed. If STalker is run from within Multidesk, then if you are talking to another terminal and close the STalker and Multidesk windows, then it shuts up shop. Apart from these two, I have had no problems.
We now have a quick look at STeno, the companion STalker Desktop Accessory text editor. Like STalker, STeno is a scrolling bars DA that stays put through almost every application and can be accessed through a GEM program. It is very similar to most wordprocessors for the ST that use a GEM window. Unlike any other DA for the ST that I have seen, this one has pull down menus. Amazing, the ST normally has menus that drop down when the mouse pointer touches them, STalker has menus that appear when clicked on with the mouse, just like a Mac. This is great except that with two sets of menubars it is too easy to go to the top bar and activate the dropdown bar. If the STeno window is at the bottom of the screen then the menus are inverted, ie they pop up, not down.
STeno is designed to be used with STalker, STeno can be used as a capture buffer for all text that is generated in the STalker window. If both windows are open then text can be seen to be updated instantaneously. At it’s simplest STeno is a basic wordprocessor, that happens to be a desk accessory and reads/writes ASCII only. An interesting feature is that several point sizes of screen typeface are supported, these being 8, 10, 16, 18 and 20. Only 8 and 10 can be considered useable.
When communicating with STalker, Steno can be used in ’type ahead’ mode, this means that complete paragraphs may be typed and pasted into message areas of BBS’s while online, very handy. Other useful features are a search and replace option, insert another file, printer setup including a custom initialization string, reformat document or paragraph (very good), a range of keystrokes for editing, a help option and tab setting. The editing commands are similar to most word processors in that slabs of text can be cut, copied and pasted at will. It is here that I discovered a slight problem, normally the cursor is in insert mode, which means that if I wish to delete a dud letter from a word, then I position the mouse cursor to just behind the letter and click, hit the backspace key and insert the new letter. If I hold the mouse button down for longer than a 1/2 a smidgin’ then the cursor turns into overstrike mode which is used for defining text blocks. Not an epic problem and one I am sure to get used to eventually, but then......
Another interesting aspect is that the lefthand margin is set from where the cursor is, like if I set the cursor here for the next line, then all the subsequent text will follow on from from this point. this is a bit strange at first but is a great way to set up indented paragraphs. About the only thing that is not supported is right justified text, but this does not give a good result with an ASCII document, so has not been implemented.
There are quite a number of uses for STeno, apart from the obvious one of communicating with STalker. It is a nifty little document generator, this review was done totally with STeno. If using STalker on a BBS and you download a textfile, it is possible to read it straight away, edit it and upload it again! Another use is say if you are using a spreadsheet or database and you wish to save a textfile then the file can be read straight away and checked to see if the margins and columns are correct. Another handy utilisation is to use Steno as a mini database, Like I have a text file that is a list of names, addresses and phone numbers. I call up STeno and load the file and there I have an instant address book.
It should be fairly obvious that I have given a big fat endorsement to these two programs, there is very little that can be said against them, they work very well and with a minimum of fuss and they expand the amount of useable and hopefully enjoyable time the ST user spends with their machine. The only real gripe I had was with the manual, it is several versions behind, The current STalker is V2.06 and STeno is 1.03. The manual is V2.0 and V1.0 respectively. There are adequate text files on disk explaining the updates. A functioning demo of STalker is available from ACE BBS (02 6641303) and the real thing + STeno can be purchased from Megabyte Junction for $59.95.