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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!