Chapter 13



Usenet Newsreaders


At one time in my life, choosing newsreaders was a religious quest. I was working in a job that required me to keep current in some areas that are best covered in Usenet newsgroups. Spending one or two hours each day wading through the chaff in even the best newsgroups is enough to make you picky about newsreaders. It's enough to make you switch jobs too, but that's another story.

Here, as much as in mail, I feel that flexibility is important. People need to find a way to wade through newsgroups that suits them, and the newsreader that you choose to use should accommodate the way that you work as closely as possible.

NOTE: Since you can try all the main newsreaders for free, I recommend that you form your own opinion and don't clog the nets with questions asking which newsreaders people like best. Newsreaders are very personal programs, and only you can decide which is right for you.


News XPress


I have a new favorite newsreader. News XPress is an extremely nice program that is also public domain. Author Ken Ng has obviously made sure that all elements of the program behave like well-written Windows programs should, and it has paid off with a commercial-quality look and feel.

I am working with the beta #2 release of version 1.0, so some things may be different in later releases.


Installation and Setup

To set up News XPress, first unzip the .zip file onto your hard disk into any directory you like (such as c:\nx). Make sure you move CTRL3DV2.DLL to your windows\system directory if it isn't there already. Then create a Program Manager item for the program and you are ready to run it.

You must give the program all of the initial information it needs to fetch news. From the Configure menu, choose Setup, and you see the following dialog (see figure 13.10)

Figure 13.10: News XPress Setup dialog.

The only way to figure out the first two server names is to ask your system administrator or take a wild guess. For instance, if your account is at halcyon.com, then there's a good chance the news server is named news.halcyon.com, and the mail server is mail.halcyon.com (and in the case of halcyon.com, those are in fact the news and mail server names). News XPress also asks for your full name, your organization, and your email address. It only requires the last of the three, but there's no reason not to type in the others.

Below that, News XPress asks for authorization information. Most news servers don't require this, but if you know that your system does, you'll want to include this information (often the same as your userid and password for email). It also prompts you for your home directory. This essentially is where it stores your newsrc, which is the configuration file that contains all of its currently known newsgroups. It also has a log file that tracks any errors that occur in connecting to your news server. Finally, you should enter the three-letter abbreviation for your time zone (for instance, Pacific Standard Time is abbreviated PST).

After you enter all that information, you can go to the File menu and select Connect. News XPress goes out to your server and downloads the Full Group List, the big list of all the newsgroups available on your site. Downloading this list takes a long time, possibly as long as ten or twenty minutes over a 2,400 bps modem! Unfortunately, it will do this every time you connect to your news server, unless you choose Configure Preferences and set Retrieve Active Groups on Connect to Ask, which I strongly recommend. The only drawback to this is that you only discover new newsgroups when you actually feel like waiting and click on Yes, when asked if you want to download the new list.

After you have the retrieved the massively long list of all the groups for the first time, News XPress gives you the option of subscribing to as many as you like (see figure 13.11). Browse through this list to pick a few you might like, but don't worry about getting all of the groups you want, because you can subscribe and unsubscribe from newsgroups quite easily. At the bottom of this window, there is a field labeled Filter. This field is at the bottom of many windows in the program and allows you to enter some text to filter out everything except the newsgroups containing the text you have entered. For instance, if you enter "cheese" in this field, the group alt.macaroni.and.cheese might appear as the only newsgroup, since it's the cheesiest. When you are finished selecting the newsgroups you wish to subscribe to, click Done.

Figure 13.11: News XPress new newsgroup selection window.

That's about it. You're ready to read news, although you may want to configure some more preferences first. If you select Preferences from the Configuration menu, News XPress presents you with a dialog containing some general options. This dialog lets you choose whether you want to retrieve all of the newsgroups every time, how you want to sort the articles, and whether or not you want to display the headers of the articles (which contain information about where the article came from, what keywords the author might have chosen, and what organization the author comes from, among other things).


Basic Usage

One of the nicest things about News XPress is the well-implemented button bar at the top of the screen. In true Microsoft Office fashion, the best part about the button bar is that when you move your mouse cursor over one of the buttons, a tag pops up explaining what the button does. Keep this in mind when playing around with the program (although also keep in mind that some of the buttons are only active with certain windows).

Below the button bar, you should see a window that contains a list of all of the groups that you are now subscribed to (see figure 13.12).

Figure 13.12: News XPress with group list displayed.

To read a newsgroup in your list, double-click on it or select it and then press the Enter key. News XPress opens another window containing the subjects of all the articles in the group, and alongside each subject is either a manila folder or a piece of paper icon and number (see figure 13.13).

Figure 13.13: News XPress newsgroup window.

NOTE: Larger groups sometimes take a long time to load in, but you can see how much further you have to go by watching the completion bar at the bottom of the window. If you get tired of waiting for the group to load, click on the "Stop" button (the button with the little red dot in the center). This works even when you have an hourglass cursor. You can then read the articles that have already loaded or select a different group.

The piece of paper icon indicates that the article is the only one in the thread, the folder icon indicates that there are more than one, and the number beside the folder indicates how many articles are in that thread. You can click on the folder to show the other articles, just as you click on a folder in File Manager to display a folder's contents.

Double-clicking on an article subject in the Newsgroup window opens a window with that article in it. One of the more annoying features of this specific release of News XPress is that it doesn't open the article in a maximized window even if you've maximized the article list, so you end up clicking and maximizing a lot just to read the article. (see figure 13.14). I've found that this can be avoided if you maximize the article window and use the >> button to choose the next article, but that doesn't always seem to work. Ah the joys of beta products!

Figure 13.14: News XPress article window.

With an article window open, you can go to the next article, next thread, or next group -- marking the current group as read -- by clicking on the Catchup button.

In News XPress, you also can reply to an article via email or post a follow-up to the newsgroup using commands in the Articles menu or by using the appropriate toolbar button (see figure 13.15).

Figure 13.15: News XPress reply window.

When you're back in a Newsgroup window, you also can quickly mark articles as read or unread by using the appropriate command in the Articles menu. This can be handy for getting through a group quickly.


Special Features

News XPress is a solid implementation of a threaded newsreader. Threading enables you to view all of the postings regarding a particular subject as a group, rather than intermixed with all of the other postings in chronological order. This is one of the single most important features of any newsreader for anyone who is more than a casual Usenet user. Threading enables me to read all news on a subject that piques my interest, and totally skip news I'm not interested in -- all without searching endlessly through the subject lines looking for "Re: Re: Re: Heating your home with the Intel baseboard heater." The "filter" line on newsgroups is a very handy mechanism to extract specific articles. I also like the ability to move through the massive full group list by typing the first few characters of each part of the newsgroup name.

Ken has also added automatic extraction code to News XPress, which enables it to automatically download and decode binary files that are posted, usually in uuencoded form.

For those of you who read news on a Unix machine using rn or nn at work and perhaps use News XPress at home to read news on the same machine, News XPress uses the same format .newsrc file so that you don't have to duplicate reading effort (although it sorts the groups whether you like it or not).


Overall Evaluation

News XPress is a very good first release of a Usenet newsreader for Windows. The only real complaint I can think of is that the text window limits prevent you from posting messages larger than 64K. Chalk up another one for Windows' limited text editing routines (which should be solved in Windows NT and Windows 95). You can save messages larger than 64K, though, and read them with a program that reads files larger than 64K (such as Write).

Overall, though, what can I say? This is exactly what the Windows community has been begging for. Ken Ng has provided us with a great public domain program. However, I shouldn't imply that News XPress is perfect or, more accurately, complete. I hope Ken plans on continuing work on this wonderful program.


Administrative Details

News XPress is free and is so good that it's included on the second Internet Starter Kit for Windows disk, and you can retrieve the latest version from either of the following:

ftp://ftp.hk.super.net/pub/windows/Winsock-Utilities/nx10b2.zip

ftp://ftp.tidbits.com/pub/tiskwin/nx10b2.zip


WinVN


This is an old favorite and is fast becoming a mature newsreader. The user interface has been cleaned up quite a bit in the latest versions of the program, and it's starting to look quite nice, though nowhere approaching News XPress. The paradigm, once again, is to present you with an initial list of groups, from which you may select a group to read from, and be presented with a list of current articles from that group. Though all the newsreaders that I've seen for Windows do this in similar ways, WinVN is a bit more flexible regarding setup and presentation.


Installation and Setup

Create a directory for WinVN and unzip the distribution from the zip file into an empty directory. Create a program item for WinVN in the Program Manager, by choosing the File menu, clicking on New, and entering the name and location of winvn.exe.

At this point, you are ready to run WinVN. As always, you must first start the WinSock interface by running NetManage's Custom (or whatever WinSock interface you might be using), and then double-click on the WinVN icon you just installed. This brings up the WinVN news server Communications Options (see figure 13.16).

Figure 13.16

WinVN News Communications Options.

The critical item to change on this screen is the NNTP Server edit box. This should be set to the name of the NNTP server, as given to you by your system administrator. In the case of Northwest Nexus, this would be news.halcyon.com. In most cases, you do not wish to change the TCP port that WinVN uses; it defaults to the standard port for NNTP. Last of all, you should fill in the name of a machine that can forward SMTP mail for you, such as mail.halcyon.com, in my case. You can learn more about this feature in the section on POP, but this feature enables you to send mail and forward news articles from within the WinVN program. You may wish to select SMTP as the mail transport type, or MAPI if that's what you use, but I haven't tested the MAPI interface -- you're on your own there. Click on OK, and WinVN asks if you would like to get the latest group list from the server. Since this is your first time on, you do need to retrieve the group list. But read the warning at that bottom: it is time-consuming.

Once WinVN has retrieved the entire list of groups, you have the option of selecting which of them you would like to subscribe to. You do this by scrolling through the group, holding down the Control key and clicking on each group you are interested in. Once this process is done, click on OK to complete the group selection.

NOTE: The number of newsgroups that actually come down the pipe varies from server to server. This is because one server may add or subtract newsgroups at will. It is common for some servers to filter out may or all of the alt hierarchy, which is a lot of newsgroups.

Choose Configure Personal Info from the Config Menu. The information required here is all self-explanatory. However, it is absolutely necessary if you wish your news postings to make sense to the rest of the world (see figure 13.17).

Figure 13.17 : WinVN Configure Personal Information.

There are several other items in the Config menu that you'll want to become familiar with eventually. These let you control how WinVN looks and interacts with you.


Basic Usage

By double-clicking on any of the groups in the main window, you can retrieve the subject lines of all the current articles in that group in a new window (see figures 13.18 and 3.19).

Figure 13.18: WinVN main window.

Figure 13.19: WinVN group window.

Notice the "punch card" look to the subject listing on the right side (you remember your IRS refund checks)? This is perhaps one of the more interesting features of WinVN. It indicates threads. As the holes go to the right, you know that messages are follow-ups to existing messages. A hole that goes to the left indicates where a message forked. That is, a particular message received two or more independent replies. I haven't seen this fascinating feature in a newsreader before.

By double-clicking on any of the subject lines, you retrieve the article associated with it in a new window (see figure 13.20).

Figure 13.20: WinVN article.

OK, do you have enough windows on your screen yet? The way that WinVN works, with each new item creating a separate window, can be a bit hard to keep track of, but it's also one of the features that I enjoy. I frequently read through more than one newsgroup at a time while sending mail to friends, family, and random news posters. With WinVN, this is possible without too much context switching and fumbling about with the Program Manager. However, many people think this feature is quite annoying, in which case, maybe News XPress is a better option.


Special Features

WinVN does threading, which I wouldn't consider to be a "special feature," except that many of the other readers do not.

Uuencoding and uudecoding work well, if you wish to decode binaries off of the binaries groups. This is where the new "Smart Filer" feature comes in handy, which translates extensions from other operating systems into extensions DOS can handle (i.e., JPEG becomes JPG). It also lets you decide just how you want to truncate filenames that are too long.

I also like the mail features of WinVN. It seems like I'm always finding some article in Usenet news that I would like to pass on to someone, and a decent email interface is the easiest, most convenient way of accomplishing this. The fact that WinVN also includes a simple interface for sending original mail is a bonus when I have a quick note to jot off.

NOTE: A number of people have complained that WinVN simply doesn't work on their computer. I've never actually seen this problem and I've tried to duplicate it on several different machines. Yet there is no denying that it simply won't work on some configurations.

Later, a testing friend traced the specific problem right down to a video chipset and associated driver. Windows programs are not supposed to be dependent on hardware, and yet this one seems to be. I hope that a revision of this fine program is forthcoming.


Administrative Details

WinVN, currently at version 0.93.11, is in the public domain. According to the readme.txt file, the primary distribution site is titan.ksc.nasa.gov, in the directory /pub/win3/winvn, but according to my latest peek, it looked old. Whenever possible, it's a good idea to go to the source for this sort of program to be sure you're getting the newest and the best. Thanks to Mark Riordan and the crew listed in the Help/About for an excellent newsreader! You can pick up the program at:

ftp://ftp.ksc.nasa.gov/pub/win3/winvn

I've only listed the directory because as the authors update WinVN, the filename changes. Be sure and get the latest one.


FTP


Although more people use email than any other Internet application, more data is transferred via FTP than via any other Internet service. FTP is one of the base applications that tie the Internet together. Despite the relative simplicity of its command-line approach, FTP works far better when you can use a graphical application to navigate through remote directories and files.

As in the previous sections, there are a number of FTP clients available, ranging from many of the minimal FTP command-line interfaces that come bundled with some WinSock implementations to programs like WS_FTP and NetManage's FTP, which provide much nicer point-and-click interfaces.

There are actually quite a few FTP programs available from FTP sites, but they fall into two basic categories: clients that look almost identical to NetManage's FTP, and clients that mimic the Unix command-line FTP.


WS_FTP


WS_FTP, by John A. Junod, is one of the graphical, "vertically split windows" variety. It has gained a lot of popularity since the last writing of this book, primarily because it's freely available and many bugs and performance problems have been cleaned up. There's also been a native 32-bit port done of this program for folks running on Windows 95 or Windows NT.


Basic Usage

Start WS_FTP by double-clicking on its icon in the Windows Program Manager. The first window that you see is the Session Profile window. This is where you can choose from a list of previously accessed FTP sites or choose to connect to a new one. Choosing to connect to a site that's already in your Profile list is as simple as selecting the Profile name from the pull-down list and clicking on the OK button.

Connecting to a new site is a matter of clicking on the button labeled New and filling in the new profile name (your choice), the Host Name, User ID, and password, and then clicking on OK. If you click on the Save button first, this new site will become a part of your list of usable profiles. Once you click on OK, the Session Profile window will go away, and you will see the main screen for WS_FTP, connected to the site that you have chosen.

Once connected to an FTP site, the files and directories on the remote machine are listed on the right side: directories in the upper window and files in the lower. The left side shows files and directories on your PC. You may navigate up and down directory trees by double-clicking on the directory that you would like to open, or you can just click on the ChgDir button on either side and type in the full path name of the directory that you would like to open.

Once you have located a particular file, you may download it by simply selecting it with a single click, and then clicking on the arrow button pointing left towards the local directory information. For FTP sites at which you have write access, you can click on the arrow going the other direction to indicate that a file travels from your PC to the remote FTP site.


Special Features

The are two features of WS_FTP that are great ideas: user-definable viewers and a debugging window. User-definable viewers allow you to associate file types (such as .txt) with specific viewers (such as Windows Notepad). Having associations means that you don't have to download files to your disk and then switch applications to view them. It's a real time-saver.

The debug window becomes useful when FTP host sites put textual information into their login screens (see figure 13.21). A typical graphical FTP client offers the user a terse version of the information presented by the FTP server -- mostly file and directory names. However, many sites put detailed messages into their login sequence to convey information critical to users of that site. The debug window, besides being an excellent debugging tool for problems with remote connections, can capture these login messages into a scrollable window for your perusal.

Figure 13.21: WS_FTP debugging.


Administrative Details

WS_FTP is included on the second Internet Starter Kit for Windows disk, and you can obtain the latest version of WS_FTP from:

ftp://ftp.usma.edu/pub/msdos/ws_ftp.zip

...and the 32-bit version from:

ftp://ftp.usma.edu/pub/msdos/ws_ftp32.zip


Telnet and Friends


I must confess up front to a certain bias against the next few programs that I talk about. This is not so much because they're bad programs -- on the contrary, they're quite good -- but because they provide access to standard Shell accounts and ugly command-line interfaces, and I have a WinSock-based connection and lots of great graphical software. Oh well, as Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, has said, "Scientific progress goes 'boink.'"

That's right, I'm talking about NCSA Telnet, TN3270, and the like. I may bash them a bit, but there's still a great deal of cool stuff that can't be accessed any other way. If you are the type of person who never drops out to an DOS prompt while running Windows, then Telnet's probably not for you, because it's going to feel like the same thing. The only difference is that you are dropping to a prompt on a remote machine which will probably be running Unix. If you are willing to deal with a character-based interface to get at programs that aren't written for Windows (or maybe they have been written for Windows, but haven't been written well), then Telnet may be your ticket.


NCSA Telnet


NCSA stands for National Center for Supercomputing Applications. As a group, NCSA has produced a ton of useful software for the scientific community. A fair amount of that software runs under Windows. Their best-known application is also their most recent -- NCSA Mosaic. The latest version of NCSA Telnet is beta 3, and rumor has it that NCSA may not devote any more resources to Telnet, marooning it at this level.

This is the most basic of Telnet packages, and there are much better programs out there, so I wouldn't worry too much about fussing with this one.


EWAN


EWAN is a solid little freeware Telnet application that does the basics well. It enables you to set up keyboard mappings and save a list of site names. It was designed to work well with Mosaic, so it allows several options to be specified in the command line, and it supports VT52, VT100, and ANSI (see figure 13.22). Setup is a simple matter of unzipping the distribution .zip file, and moving CTRL3DV2.DLL to your c:\windows\system directory (or wherever your Windows system directory lives).

Figure 13.22: EWAN Session window.