Amiga Newsreaders, Part One: New York & FFNews

Letting you Use Usenet on your Amiga

By Steve Duff, Staff Writer, See staff list for e-mail address

I'm sure most readers of this magazine are familiar with Usenet and the Amiga's presence there. I'm sure you are also aware that Amiga newsreaders have long been a weak link in our internet arsenal. Indeed, many Amigans still use ported UNIX apps like PINE or TIN or simply resort to their 'other' computer, with favorites being Forte Free Agent on the PC or MT NewsWatcher on the Mac. Happily, things are looking up on the Amiga newsreader front.

As a caveat, I should state up front that I place high value on certain features of a newsreader, and lesser value on others. For example, I prefer an app which can read and post online, which crossposts automatically, which handles the signature file without a lot of bother, which can mark whole threads as Read or Unread, and which is stable. Lesser features which might be more important to others include strong binary handling, offline reading and background downloading. Neither of the newsreaders under discussion today quite hits that magic suite of features, but one certainly comes closer than the other. So without further ado...........

New York v1.240
Developer & Publisher:Finale Development
Price: $39.95 US

New York is coded by Chris Aldi and is notable mainly for its incredible speed. Simply stated, New York's speed embarrasses every other Amiga newsreader I've tried, with the exception of Thor. Importantly, perhaps, both of them use the ClassAct GUI system, whereas the other readers use MUI.

The New York GUI is very simple, comprised of one window with two subwindows. There's an upper window which displays either the list of subscribed newsgroups or the contents of a selected group. Below this is the icon 'speedbar,' where annoyingly all you get are icons without text, forcing you to actually try out each one to see what it does. A really silly feature. Below this is another window containing the contents of a selected post. If you reply to a post, a new, floating window will appear for you to write in.

The functions of the icons in the speedbar are all mirrored in pull-down menus, which contain further options. New York does not thread messages, so a nice menu feature is the ability to sort postings by subject, date, address and so on. I found this very handy.

Alas, before long you realize that New York, speedy though it may be, seems a bit light on some very important features. For example, it does not crosspost at all. This is extremely irritating, since you may be reading and responding to a post in one group that was first posted in another and crossposted to the one you happen to be reading. The group where you find this post may only be getting a few entries in the thread, so by responding with New York, you may be essentially posting into the ether. New York also seems to have no way of handling signature files, nor does it come with any real documentation beyond the which is mainly a mere listing of features. Another severe irritant is that New York does not word-wrap text, so you can spot an early New York user by how the lines of their post keep going to the right. Further, I've also found it prone to quitting while posting. Not crashing, just flat-out quitting. And in the world of extras, it seems completely unable to do binary decoding, despite this feature being advertised. Or at least, I could not figure out how to do it. Too bad there was no documentation to describe the right way.

In the end, New York seems best as a pure reader. If you have the resources, you might wish to run two newsreaders -- New York for its great speed at downloading articles, and another, slower but more feature-rich app for the actual posting.

Summary: New York is an easy-to use and fast newsreader, but very light on very necessary features. Rating: 60%

FFNews 2.38 
Developer & Publisher: RBM ComputerTechnik
Price $45 US

FFNews is coded by Thorsten 'Flavor' Stocksmeier. I first encountered it over a year ago in beta demo form. I liked the way it looked and worked but it proved stunningly unstable on my machine. It then seemed to disappear entirely and it proved very difficult to track down. One reason for this is that RBM is a relatively new German company which just recently made an appearance at IA98 in Toronto -- or was that AmiWest? -- where they showed off their handsome TowerHawk system for the A1200.

I went ahead and downloaded a demo of the new version, then got around to ordering the full version. More on this later, as it seemed to create a bit of a problem.

Anyhow, the current version of FFNews is easily the handsomest of all Amiga newsreaders. Using MUI, Thorsten has crafted a nicely-laid out GUI with a stunning button bar. Luckily, here you find both icons /*and*/ text.

It takes more than a pretty GUI to make a good newsreader, and here FFNews comes nicely, but not completely, equipped. FFNews does a nice fast job at downloading the master newsgroup list from the server -- 28,000+ groups in only 10 minutes, roughly the same as New York. Getting the hang of actually subscribing to groups is a little trickier than with New York, however. You must go to Settings, Group Manager and either download the list from the server or manually enter a group's name, then select 'Save To Disk' and hope it works. On one occasion, FFNews crashed while trying to save a group list.

Unlike New York, FFNews threads articles by subject and date, though other alternatives are available. Actually using those alternatives is remarkably unintuitive, because you have to call up the FFNews Settings window, which presents you with no fewer than 14 tabs, and many of the tab-windows have sub-tabs as well. To change the article sorting you have to go to the GUI tab and then the Message List tab, where you'll find a dreaded cycle gadget on the 'Sort articles by' line. It strikes me as ludicrous to bury such an important option so deeply in a program.

Other negatives of FFNews include its very slow 'reading in' of articles and, for that matter, the use of so many non-standard terms. For example, the term 'Catch Up' instead of 'Mark Read.' If you started on newsreaders with more standard terms, it'll take awhile to get the hang of this strange new language. FFNews also does not allow any sort of drag selection for multiple articles, nor can you mark entire threads as Read. Instead, you must 'Catch Up' an entire group!

FFnews uses two main floating windows. One contains a list of all your groups along with several option buttons. The other window is called up only after you select a group and all the messages have been 'Read In.' This window has four subwindows. The top contains a list of the articles, while two optional middle windows house the article Header and any binary attachments. The bottom window displays a selected article. This arrangement can get unwieldy if you're multitasking several appas on the same screen, since once you finish a newsgroup you may have to dig through several windows before you can actually select another.

Happily, FFNews automatically crossposts when replying to a post sent to several groups, and a window is available to edit the posting list if you so desire. FFNews also handles sigs very well. One problem I encountered is that the word-wrap feature failed to work even though it was checked. As with New York, you are thus forced to insert your own line breaks.

FFNews does handle binaries, though I found the internal viewer was only good at decoding jpeg files. Multi-part uuencoded binaries seemed to throw the app completely and would probably require a helper app. I say 'probably' because I may have failed to discover the way FFNews decodes multi-part binaries.

One serious problem I encountered with FFNews occurred when the button bar disappeared from the demo version once the trial period ended. Shortly thereafter I received the full commercial version and installed it, but still no button bar. Without the button bar the app is practically useless, so I panicked and e-mailed Thorstem Stocksmeier for help. I received no answer, so after a week or so I e-mailed Frank Lehman, who'd handled my purchase, but once again there was no answer. A couple months have now gone by without an answer to my tech support e-mails. This is not good.

As it turned out, there is a checkbox for the button bar where you can turn it on or off. I'm assuming I accidentally turned it off myself, but I still think it's possible that once the demo expired, it automatically shut off the button bar. Even granting that my question may have been a stupid one, it should still have been answered. After all, the purpose of tech support is to answer dumb questions. And besides, why would I have guessed that such a major part of an app as the button bar could be optionally dismissed?

Despite these noted problems, I consider FFNews to be a very nice newsreader going in the right direction. There are still kinks to work out and features to add, and maybe something ought to be done about the nearly overwhelming number of options in the Settings window. The biggest improvement would be more speed, though this can be modulated somewhat by reducing the number of articles it's allowed to download. It's not an approach I particularly like, however. But in the end, FFNews is an attractive, stable newsreader with a good list of features. Some English docs would be nice, though.

Summary: FFNews is the best-looking Amiga newsreader with probably the second-longest option list. Most newsreading areas are covered but nonetheless there are surprising gaps. Binary handling is present but spotty and there are perhaps more tweaking options than absolutely necessary, and some important features are buried too deeply. Tech support is nonexistent and so are English docs. Still, it's a sweet piece of work.

Rating: 80%

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