Homepak

Reviewed by John S. Davison

 

Issue 23

Sep/Oct 86

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Batteries Included/Ariolasoft 

What do you get when a well known games author turns his attention to producing a serious application package for the 8-bit Ataris? When that author is Russ Wetmore of Preppie fame, the result should be something special, and it is. Originally released in the USA by Batteries Included, HomePak has now arrived in the UK by courtesy of Ariolasoft, priced at 34.95.

HomePak is not one, but three programs. It consists of HomeText, a word processor, HomeFind, an unusual database program, and HomeTerm, a telecommunications program. They're 'integrated' to a certain extent, allowing you to merge items from HomeFind into a document you're preparing with HomeText, or use HomeText to edit files and messages you've received via HomeTerm.

Integration applies to the 'human factors' aspect, too. They all have the same visual style, use similar (slightly zany) audio and visual prompts and messages, and all permit you to set the physical characteristics of the screen to your liking, such as background colour and brightness, and text brightness. All three programs are very friendly, using windowed menus and lots of helpful messages when you need them. The bottom few lines on the screen are used for displaying messages, prompts, and current program settings, with actual details varying by program.

HomePak comes packaged in a black plastic box, rather like the library box you get when you buy 10 blank disks. This has a smart, colourful slip-on cardboard cover. Inside you find a single sided disk containing the programs, and an instruction manual. This manual is physically small, measuring about 3.5" by 5.5" and contains 62 pages (but no index!) printed in a tiny font. The printing is rotated through 90 degrees, so you have to turn it sideways and open it away from you to read it. Its small size and method of binding ensure it won't stay open at the page you want. Physically, it's a bit of a disaster.

HOMETEXT

This is a medium level word processor, falling between the ultra simple such as Cut & Paste, and the heavyweights like PaperClip and Letter Perfect. It has most of the facilities you're likely to need for general home use. It's got a good range of editing facilities, with all of the expected features present. Extras include cursor skip to start or end of line, screen or document, auto wordwrap, and choice of insert or overwrite modes. Pressing the START key calls up a small window containing a menu for block move, copy and delete functions. Search and replace is also accessible from here. You're guided through the operations by on screen messages, so you can't really go wrong.

Text formatting codes are accessed from a windowed menu. Unlike most word processors, HomeText doesn't put unfriendly control codes into your text. It inserts an abbreviation of the command in inverse video, so you can tell at a glance exactly what it means. It does all the usual things, like indenting, set margin, line and page size, and line spacing, centring, blocking and justifying. Your text can be printed boldface, extended, or underlined, with facilities for customising the codes for your printer. Any other special requirements, like alternate fonts, have to be done with raw printer codes. This is a pity, as it detracts from the general ease of use of the program.

Further choices allow you to force end of page, specify page headers, footers, page numbering, page wait (for single sheet paper), and chain to another file. You can also merge in data from HomeFind, giving you a mail merge facility, should you need it. Sadly, there's no automatic paragraphing, one of the few facilities missing.

Another windowed menu provides file manipulation options, such as load, save, delete, directory display, and append another file to the one currently in memory. You can also preview or print the current file from here.

The preview facility is handled graphically. Instead of showing your text, words are represented as black lines, with special features such as underlining shown in different colours. This is not the same as having a full text preview facility, but it seems to work quite well for checking overall document layout. The only snag is that it needs 5400 bytes of free memory to work. As you only have 6620 bytes to start with (not 8350 as stated in the manual), it makes the feature virtually worthless. However, there's a facility to preview a document of any size from disk rather than memory, so this gets round the restriction if you save your file to disk first.

The more I use HomeText, the more I like it. It's got lots to offer the casual user, and it's friendly. The only serious shortcoming concerns lack of memory. For documents over about 3 pages you have to resort to writing them as separate files and chain them together. I find this a nuisance, as often I want to refer to an earlier part of a document, and maybe even change it to fit in with something I've written later. Continual saving and loading separate files wastes valuable time. Perhaps Russ Wetmore will produce a version for the 130XE which will overcome this. I hope so, as it would make HomeText even more usable. It might even tempt me away from my trusty old Atariwriter.

HOMEFIND

This just has to be the most friendly database around. You don't have to know anything about fields, records and indexing - all HomeFind needs to know is the relationship between a subject and its data, and the data itself. You set up and make queries on the database with virtually plain English commands, with most other activities available from menus or by prompts from the program at the appropriate time. It's relatively limited as database programs go, but its ingenious design makes it a delight to use, especially for people who normally find computers a little intimidating.

Creating your database couldn't be easier. It's harder to describe than to actually do it! The data and its relationships are input in a simple three part form, like this:

Subject's Tag's Object

where: Subject identifies the person or item to which the data refers, Tag identifies the subject's relationship with the data following, and Object is the data itself.

The apostrophe and s on the end of subject and tag are important, as they tell HomeFind where the subject and tag end. They also facilitate the use of plain English for input. Let's look at a few examples to see how it works.

Imagine we want to set up a database of our friends. We'd probably want to hold their names, addresses, phone numbers, and other personal details. Straight away we can begin entering the data, in any order, with our own choice of tag name:

Mike's surname's Taylor 

John's surname's Burton
Bill's surname's Wooton-Smythe

If a subject or tag aren't already in the database, HomeFind responds with a cheery 'news to me!' message, and you choose whether to add it or not. This process is repeated for each line of data input. If a subject and tag already exist, then HomeFind handles the data immediately without further user interaction.

You might decide to enter addresses next, so your input could look like this:

Mike's address's 1, High St, Bingham

This time the subject's already in the database, so HomeFind can handle it. However, address is a new tag so you get a prompt for permission to add. In this way you can add any detail with any tag to build up a collection of related data about each of the subjects. You don't have to have the same tags for all subjects, just include whatever you want to suit your purpose. And that's all there is to setting up a basic database!

You can update your database at any time. To add new subjects or tags, simply enter them as described above. There's also a facility for adding object data to data already there, or for replacing old object data with a new version.

Deletions were a bit of a puzzle, as the manual doesn't say anything about removing obsolete data! It seems you achieve it using a variant of the replace data procedure, in effect giving each tag null data. Subjects and tags having only null data then have to be physically deleted by 'compressing' the database, available via one of the menu options.

HomeFind's data retrieval features are as simple to use as the data input facilities. To display all object data about a given subject, for example Mike, you need only type:

Who's Mike?

HomeFind replies with:

 

Mike's surname's Taylor
Mike's address's 1, High St, Bingham 

Mike's birthday's 15 January 

Mike's computer's Atari 130XE
and so on.

You can ask for any detail, using the words 'what', 'when', 'where' or 'who'. For example: 

 

when's Mike's birthday,
what's Mike's computer,

and HomeFind will reply with the appropriate detail. Actually, the words 'what', 'when', etc. are only included for clarity - the retrieval works without them.


Retrieval can also be achieved using the tag alone, the object alone, or the tag and object. For instance, you could key in 'who's computer's Atari 130XE', and get a list of all subjects with an Atari 130XE. Or you could enter 'computer' and get a list of all subjects with a computer. Regrettably, there's no wild card feature, a serious omission reducing the usefulness of HomeFind somewhat.


HomeFind's print facilities consist of a printer ON/OFF toggle! The printer lists 'relevant' screen output, i.e. it prints what goes to the screen, but filters out prompts, error messages, and the like. There are no facilities for producing customised reports or address labels directly, but you can extract data and write it out as a DOS file. This can then be loaded into HomeText and processed as you wish.


HomeFind is not meant to be a full blooded database program, being limited in scope and facilities. But it's elegant, friendly and very easy to use, and could be all you need for basic home or school applications.


HOMETERM


HomeTerm was designed for use in the USA. Unfortunately, for UK use it's lacking in certain essential areas, these being modem interfacing and split transmission rates for use with Prestel, Micronet, and other services using 1200/75 split baud rates.

 

I tried using it with the Miracle Technology Datatari interface and WS2000 modem and could get no further than the initial screen displaying the message 'Modem Error!'. Pressing any key after this resulted in the reloading of the HomePak main menu. Calls to Ariolasoft produced no solution, but they promised to run tests with the Datatari and call me back. To date I've had no reply.

 

The instruction manual says HomeTerm's designed for use with Atari 835 and 1030 modems, which aren't available here. You can also use other modems via the Atari 850 serial interface, but this device seems to be as rare as hen's teeth in the UK. It mentions the set up procedure required for the MPP modem (again, USA only), which uses a custom R: handler to emulate the 850's RS-232 handler. It seems likely that something similar's required for the Datatari. Anyone out there know of one?

 

For the review, the best I can do is to describe HomeTerm's facilities without the benefit of practical experience. At least this will be helpful to the lucky few with an 850 interface at their disposal.


HomeTerm has three operational screens. One is for interactive use, when you're online to another computer. This has some nice features, like automatic wordwrap to prevent breaking a word across two lines, and a 120 character edit buffer into which you can key your message, and edit it before transmission. The other two screens are menus, one being the Functions Menu from which you control the program's main functions, such as file upload/download, etc. The third screen is the Files Menu, giving you a 'mini-DOS' facility. This allows you to format a disk, list directory, or copy, delete, rename, lock or unlock a file, all without leaving HomeTerm.


HomeTerm handles transmission rates of 300 or 1200 baud only, in full or half duplex mode. It can also handle four different transmission coding methods/protocols, these
being standard ASCII for general use, ATASCII for use when sending Atari special characters, inverse text, etc., Vidtex for use on the USA's famous CompuServe Information System, and Xmodem file transfer protocol for uploading/downloading of files to/from other computers.

 

Files of any length can be transferred via upload/download. HomeTerm automatically segments outgoing or incoming files into 7K (buffer sized) chunks, interrupting the transmission to load from or write to disk as required. The buffer can also be used to capture anything appearing on the screen. Then you can dump it to disk or printer for later reading, or back to the screen for instant review.


HomeTerm has a number of other good features, including a real time resettable clock for timing those long distance calls, and a macro facility for automating regularly used character sequences, such as for logon.
So that's HomeTerm. On paper it looks excellent, but until the interface problem gets fixed, there's no way of knowing for sure. As far as I can tell, the only thing it lacks is split baud rate for Prestel type services, and this may be important to some people.


CONCLUSIONS


HomePak is a fine suite of software. Given a working version of HomeTerm, you get three eminently usable applications for less than 12 each, a bargain in anyone's terms. If Ariolasoft could fix the interface problem, provide Prestel support, and do something about that awful manual, the package would be unbeatable. Even without, it's still a very good buy.

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