Flash

Reviewed by John S Davison

 

Issue 30

Nov/Dec 87

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ANTIC Software

39.95

Isn't it strange how some software feels 'right' almost as soon as you boot it up? I had that feeling with FLASH, a communications program from Antic, and after using it for a while I can honestly say that my initial impression was correct.

For 39.95 you get a cardboard bookform package containing a single sided disk and a 60 page instruction manual. The latter is clearly written, but I did find some topics a little fragmented. The program disk isn't copy protected, so you can easily make a backup copy or install it on a hard disk. Thank you, Antic, for this sensible policy.

Installation is simple, in fact you could, if necessary, run a comms session with the disk as supplied, however, you'll probably want to personalise it to suit your way of working and that's very easy to do.

Like most communications programs, FLASH has two modes of operation, known here as terminal mode, and capture buffer mode. You can quickly switch between the two with the press of a mouse button. It's from terminal mode that you conduct an online communications session with a remote computer system. Capture buffer mode is FLASH's offline control mode, where you can examine and manipulate the contents of the capture buffer, set up and edit various control files and parameters, and so on.

FLASH can be driven in several different ways: through the keyboard, using full command words, abbreviations, or Alt/Key combinations; or by using GEM's mouse and menu facilities. As you become familiar with FLASH's facilities you can progress to quicker ways of working a nice design feature.

There are over 60 commands to learn, but you'll only regularly use a small subset of these. The manual includes an alphabetically organised reference section, which briefly lists and explains them all and there's also a Help command available giving on-screen assistance with the most often used features.

TERMINAL MODE

On startup, you find yourself in terminal mode. This screen isn't a GEM screen, so there's no mouse and menu options. Normally, anything you key in here gets transmitted. Current terminal parameter settings (such as baud rate, duplex, etc.) are shown on a status line at the bottom of the screen. This line also displays a real time clock, which can show either time of day or elapsed time an extremely useful feature.

You may wish to issue a FLASH command from this screen, so to talk to FLASH rather than the remote system you have to first press the INSERT key. This turns the status line into a command input line. Following input of the command, the line turns back into a status line again. Neat design and quick to use!

FLASH's terminal mode screen is a true 80 x 24 configuration in medium resolution. It can also operate at 80 x 48 in high resolution, but I couldn't try this as I don't have a monochrome monitor. I found the display to be clear and perfectly legible, thanks mainly to a sensible choice of screen colours and text font.

CAPTURE BUFFER MODE

Capture buffer mode presents you with a GEM screen, so permitting mouse and menu control. Its simplest function is to give you a window onto the capture buffer. This is a large area in memory into which you can choose to automatically store anything appearing on the terminal mode screen (either keyed in by you or received from the remote system). You can switch into capture buffer mode at any time and view anything that has scrolled off the terminal screen.

But capture buffer mode gives you much, much more than this. It has built-in word processor-like facilities, allowing you to create, edit, and save or transmit all or selected parts of the buffer, those parts being defined by block start and end facilities. You can then save, delete, print, transmit, copy, move, or even append a block to an existing file. There's also a search feature, permitting you to quickly locate a specified character string in the buffer. And you can insert an existing file into the buffer at the current cursor location. All this gives you fantastic flexibility for offline preparation of
items for transmission, saving you money on expensive connect time and phone charges.

Capture buffer mode is also used to customise FLASH for your own use. It has facilities for setting up one or more 'dial directories', which hold the names and phone numbers of your favourite bulletin boards and services. Assuming you have an autodial feature on your modem, dialing a service is reduced to a couple of mouse clicks. Obviously, different services have different terminal configuration requirements, so FLASH allows you to define configuration files and load them in when needed.

AUTOMATIC

Probably the most impressive features of FLASH are its built-in automation facilities. Rather than key in commands singly, you can batch them together in 'DO files' using capture buffer mode facilities, so they look like a program or macro. They may then be saved on disk and executed when required via the DO command. DO files may be nested to three levels, giving the potential for some pretty fancy processing.

A DO file can be linked to a phone number in the dial directory, and is executed automatically following successful connection with that number. You can also arrange for a DO file to be automatically executed immediately following boot-up.

The DO file can contain a mixture of FLASH commands, modem commands (for intelligent modems) and data to be sent to the remote system. You can also perform such things as redial of engaged numbers, test for character strings received from the remote system, pause for a specified time interval, wait until a specified time, and many other useful functions. It's possible to completely automate an online session, for instance to dial a service at a given time, log on, look for your mail, download it, save it to disk, log off, and sound a bell to tell you it's finished. I've tried many of these functions and they all seem to work. Now I know why it's called FLASH!

Another way of automating FLASH is via programmable function keys. You can define up to 20 of these, each one having a string of characters assigned to it. These can be FLASH commands, or anything else you want. The manual wasn't clear on maximum length allowed, but it appears to be around 80 characters. If you need a longer length you can link function keys together using a 'GO function key' command as the last part of a given function key string. The end result is that you can input the whole character string in terminal mode by pressing just one function key very useful for log-on sequences, for instance. The definitions may be saved to disk and loaded in whenever required.

BULLETPROOF ...

FLASH is advertised as having 'bulletproof' file transfer facilities. It handles ASCII or XMODEM transfers directly to/from disk, and has facilities for varying parameters to suit a wide range of remote system requirements. I can't verify it is bulletproof in all circumstances, but it has certainly worked successfully on the downloads I've tried so far.

Another feature worth mentioning is FLASH's translation table facility. This allows you to do such things as access bulletin boards designed for specific non-Atari machines, and to handle any strange control characters which might otherwise drive your Atari crazy. Another use would be to implement a simple form of encryption/decryption between two FLASH users having the same translation table, i.e. a basic security system. Translate tables, like all other customisable features in FLASH, may be saved to disk and loaded in as required.

IN CONCLUSION...

My overall assessment of FLASH is that it's an inspired piece of programming. It's reliable, easy to use, offers useful features rather than gimmicks, and sells at a reasonable price.

The main fly in the ointment is that it doesn't support PRESTEL type systems. However, it works OK in V23 mode (1200/75 baud) on text only systems at least, it does with my Miracle WS4000 modem. The other (admittedly esoteric) missing feature is the ability to handle auto-answer you can't dial into your own system from elsewhere to access or upload your own files. However, Antic have recently released an accessory package which adds exactly this feature and much more besides. If they could do the same with PRESTEL type support, FLASH would be unbeatable. But if you don't need this, it's a winner anyway!

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