|★ APPLICATIONS ★ COMMUNICATION/TELEMATIQUE ★ Axis: Joining the comms revolution ★|
|Axis (Computing With the Amstrad)||Applications Communication/telematique|
IAN SHARPE takes a new CPC comms package out for a spin and has a few reservations
IN the August 1987 issue of Computing with the Amstrad I reviewed the Pace RS232 interface and Commstar, its in-built communications software. I said that, by leaving Commstar undeveloped since its introduction in the early days of the CPC, Pace had left the market open for something better.
Comms - the process of communicating with other computers via the telephone network - is here to stay and one company with its eye on this expanding market is Monflair. Axis, its new comms package, runs under CP/M Plus, thus making it suitable for the CPC6128 or modified CPC464/664.
The first job is to use a configuration program to set up Axis for your modem, interface, and the services you want to use. This information is then stored in a file of profiles - one for each service.
A profile may be designated as the default which is then automatically loaded - unless you specify another when entering the program. If you have an autodial modem, Axis will dial the required number and in any case will send your password.
I thought more information could have been given in the manual to ease the beginner's passage through the configuration process. For instance, when setting up a profile for Prestel I had to give details of its protocol. Not the sort of thing I carry round in my head and it's not in the manual either. I ended up going back to Commstar to find out the settings.
The Axis kernel
Axis consists of a central program -or kernel - with modules for specific purposes. Monflair pursues an active policy of adding new modules and upgrading existing ones.
There are two types of service you might want to access - viewdata and Ascii terminal. The difference is that viewdata services - such as Prestel -are organised in frames very much like Ceefax and Oracle. They have 40-character-wide screens displayed in colour. Services like MicroLink, Telecom Gold, and many bulletin boards use Ascii. As each line of information is printed the display scrolls upwards: The screen can be up to 80 characters wide and there is no colour.
From this you can see that a comprehensive comms program needs two parts. Axis caters for both, but as the viewdata side differs most from other packages I'll concentrate on that.
The viewdata emulation isn't bad, but the presentation isn't as slick as Commstar's. The screen update is slower and not as tidy - particularly noticeable when offline and with dynamic frames - and you can't program keys with the numbers of regularly used pages. The Delete key isn't implemented and there is no indication of elapsed time.
At any stage you can press Control+f0 and capture the current frame which is added to a file of up to 170 on disc. When you go offline the stored frames can be viewed in carousel mode, where they're displayed sequentially at 20 second intervals -it's a pity you can't speed up the process with a keypress as you can with Commstar. The captured frames can also be incorporated in the Axis microbase together with your own creations.
The microbase is like a mini-Prestel where you can wander from frame to frame along routes accessed by the keys 1-9 and #, or go straight to a particular place by specifying its name or number. A frame linkage editor allows you to set up these routes. Don't confuse this with bulletin board software: The Axis microbase isn't that sophisticated and can only be accessed through your own keyboard, not by the modem.
Your own frames are created with an integral frame editor which caters for viewdata text, graphics and colours. One of the main problems when designing viewdata screens is remembering what keys the graphics characters live on. An easy way of selecting them would have been nice.
You can dump the screen to the printer either as text or shaded graphics. The dump takes a while but is a background operation, so after a few seconds control is returned to the keyboard and you can get on with what you were doing.
However once again Shinwa CP80 owners are left out in the cold as the graphics dump will only work with 100 per cent Epson compatibles. There should have been an option to cater for this in the configurator.
Fortunately the text-only dump performs without difficulty. Funnily enough, although you can dump screens while on line or in the microbase, you can't do it in carousel mode. When trying to dump a screen with a white background the graphics dump had the unfortunate habit of showing control codes as black blocks and left a corrupted pixel column somewhere on every line.
Axis has a sophisticated system for the transmission and reception of mail. This is an important area in any comms program because if you have to type mailboxes while on line - as you do with Commstar - it's costing you money which mounts up over the months. It's far better to compose them offline without running up a telephone bill and then log on and upload.
Within Axis's mail module you can set up a directory of names and mailbox numbers. When you go to Prestel's frame 77 to send a mailbox Axis intervenes. At the point where you would normally enter the mailbox number of the recipient you can type in a name and if it is in the directory. Axis will retrieve the corresponding mailbox number and send it for you.
In normal Prestel mailbox operation you would now type in the text of your message finishing off with a # character. With Axis you have the option of pressing Control + f9 which will bring up a prompt asking for the filename of a document. This would have been prepared with a word processor before dialling up and it will be transmitted to Prestel as if it was being typed in. If it's longer than a mail frame, Axis will print "Continued..." at the bottom, send the frame, call up a blank one, insert the mailbox number and continue sending the message.
This is excellent and a real money saver, but there are a couple of rough edges which let it down. First, whatever the line length of the original file Axis wraps words at column 40 and right justifies the text - in other words pads it with spaces so the right edge is not ragged. With such a narrow screen the number of spaces between words - sometimes three or four - can be unsightly. If a line contains no spaces the program can't cope and locks up.
I encountered this when sending a Protext document which has a ruler line at the start. Ok, so you don't want ruler lines in a mailbox, but the program shouldn't lock up because of one. I also found Axis died on me when an underscore character appeared in the text.
Another problem is that as well as starting a new line after every 40th character, Axis also acts on carriage returns, giving you an extra one at the end of each line in the original text. Obviously it is better to format it to 40 characters in the first place. It takes almost three minutes per frame to upload - far slower than it could be -and there's no way of aborting once you've started sending a sequence of frames.
I think Monflair should do away with the automatic justification, leaving you to put it in the source file if required. If all single carriage returns were ignored and a new line started for a double return, it would be a better system, and faster. It should also be possible to force a new frame with a # in the same way as a word processor allows you to force a new page.
I mentioned before that Axis has a frame editor for the creation of viewdata frames. As far as I can see these are only for use in the microbase so you can't transmit graphics, which is disappointing.
On the other side of the coin -receiving mailboxes - when Prestel displays one and you press Control +f0 to capture the frame it goes into a separate mailbox store. Axis keeps a directory of up to 170 stored mailboxes which can be viewed offline, deleted or printed at your leisure, again an excellent feature.
There is a telesoftware downloader which will automatically decompact compacted software and leave uncompacted programs alone. With Commstar you have to run a decom-pacter - itself downloaded from Pres-tel - if software is in the squeezed format.
As well as the niggles I've mentioned already, some of the graphics characters look a little odd. I also experienced the occasional crash for no apparent reason.
The other side to Axis is the scrolling Ascii terminal emulation. It offers the standard facilities plus a couple of enhancements. As well as communicating with the remote computer via your keyboard and screen you can I feel that if Monflair had delayed the Ascii module until after more extensive field testing and had concentrated on smoothing out the bumps in the viewdata side everybody would have been better off.
Monflair has come up with a good viewdata system which is marred by a few blemishes, probably due to not being tested other than by the programmers. I could live with the warts as Axis offers advantages over Commstar, particularly when involved in a lot of mailboxing. The Ascii emulation is just adequate, but nothing special.
Some of my criticisms will have been rectified by the time you read this and there should be at least one new module to cater for the calculation of telephone charges. In its present state Axis is usable and I hope Monflair gets enough support to ensure the continued development it merits.