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PlusPak: PMINews for OS/2- by Chris Wenham


PlusPak: PMINews is a beautifully elegant, flexible and powerful newsreader for OS/2 that was built by the same guys that brought you PMMail and distributed by the same people behind Object Desktop, Trials of Battle and PlusPak: Themes. The user interface is a dream, Agent-like and consistent throughout the program, but it is tragically spoiled by one problem: it was released too soon. More on that later.

Installation

PMINews uses the standard IBM Installation program we've all come to know so well. Users of PMMail will want to change the default installation directory to the one where their other SouthSide product(s) are kept (by default C:\SouthSide, but in my case it was D:\Applications\Southside) since this will help PMINews integrate with PMMail better. I found that you don't need to worry about PMINews overwriting or changing any of your PMMail settings, either as you install or uninstall the product.

A tour of the interface

The best part of PMINews by far has to be the user interface (GIF, 18k). It matches PMMail remarkably well with similar icons, menu structure and window layout. Many standard features of PMMail are reflected almost identically in PMINews, such as filters, signatures, read and composition windows, settings notebooks and more. The program uses the style of newsreader layout pioneered by Agent for Windows with a split window, storing newsgroup lists on the left side and article lists on the right. However, unlike Agent, users of PMINews can not rearrange the layout to some other scheme and the Read window is separate, not integrated as a frame of the main window.

[Tabbed grouplist showing filter] PMINews also handles subscribing to newsgroups a wee bit differently from most other news readers. Instead of having a master "Subscribe" list, the user must first create one or more Grouplists in which subscribed groups will be ordered. These Grouplists, along with the Server list, are arranged in a vertical tabbed notebook in the left side of the main window. Each Grouplist has its own tab so you can flip back and forth through them quickly and easily. Each Grouplist also has its own individual configuration that is independent from all the others. This means you can have different sets of signatures, filters, killfiles, mail settings, sorting priorities an so on for each Grouplist you create.

This can be both powerful and inconvenient at the same time. Your "Binaries" Grouplist could have the "Binaries only" filter enabled that removes any article less than 100 lines long, but this won't affect any other newsgroups that you have put in a different Grouplist with a different set of active filters. You have twice as many settings to keep track of. You can't share filters between Grouplists, nor can you share signatures or killfiles. Usually, given the nature of Spammers to hit thousands of newsgroups at once, you'll want the same killfile to be active in all groups you subscribe to. But with PMINews there is no set of global filters available.

There is another really useful feature that waits quietly and persistently beneath the Tabbed newsgroup book though: a filter entry field. Type any string into the box, click the button or press enter, and PMINews will trim a huge 27,000 newsgroup listing down to only those that contain the string you just typed. Clear the filter and the full newsgroup listing is brought back again. For example, say you typed "os2" and pressed enter; you'd immediately get a listing of every OS/2 newsgroup available on that server.

Multiple server support

Multiple server support is handled very well indeed in this release of the program. With PMINews you can mix newsgroups from different servers into the same Grouplist and read through them transparently -- you literally do not have to worry about what newsgroup is on which server, and do not have to disconnect from one before you can connect to and read newsgroups from another (all the connecting and reconnecting is handled for you in the background). This was especially handy for me since I need to keep track of three different servers (a long story, but it involves my ISP dumping the alt. groups and hiring the services of Supernews -- a company with an ungodly amount of hardware and bandwidth).

PMMail Integration

Even though PMINews was developed by the same company that made PMMail, there is surprisingly little integration between the two. The interfaces are remarkably similar, of course, but I was disappointed with how little each program shared with the other. The address book is shared -- pull it up from the tools menu and you'll see that it has all the same addresses in it as your PMMail address book, if you have one. Likewise, if you change or add to the address book in PMINews, the changes will be reflected in PMMail's address book and vice-versa.

It's also possible to drag-n-drop an article from PMINews' article list to a folder in PMMail's mail account tree. (If the article hasn't been downloaded yet, PMINews will do so before it gets dropped into the PMMail folder.) This way one can store articles easily as well as reply to them using PMMail's facilities instead of PMINews'.

This is about where the integration ends, though. You can not share or import signatures from PMMail, nor can you share filters, canned replies or mail server configurations -- several things I would have liked to import into PMINews. It is possible to cut-and-paste signatures back and forth between the two programs, but this is not really an elegant solution.

Filters

However, the filtering capabilities of PMINews are really exceptional. Being almost identical to PMMail's filtering abilities makes it easy to get up to speed if you're already a PMMail user. The filters can use either simple queries (search for strings in places like the subject or poster's name) or SouthSoft's ICSL (Internet Communication Search Language) that gives you considerably more flexibility when it comes to searching for keywords or matching patterns. Actions to be performed on a match include coloring the text to make the article stand out, removing the article, downloading the article, printing, forwarding, or replying with canned replies -- almost any function of the newsreader is available.

PMINews will also automatically create filters for you on the fly, since the killfiles and "Mark replies to your posts" features are both implemented this way. In fact, if you're looking for a "Killfile" tab anywhere in the Grouplist settings, you'll find it by clicking on the "Filters" tab. When you add a poster or subject to the killfile, a filter is automatically created or updated here. I found that this was actually a very elegant solution and gave the user much more flexibility and power than EmTec Newsreader's killfile ability.

A couple of example filters are provided to give you a starting point for your own, as well as to provide a few useful functions. One is the Binaries-Only filter, which, as I mentioned, will remove any article less than 100 lines long from your Grouplists. Another will highlight and automatically download any article that mentions PMINews, PMMail, SouthSide Software or Stardock in the subject. Both of these are disabled by default, but by modifying them you could really boost your off-line reading, having PMINews automatically download articles of interest to you before going into off-line mode.

Off-line

PMINews is designed to work off-line as well as on-line for those who can spend only a limited time connected to the Internet. A typical session might involve starting the program, going on-line to retrieve new headers, going off-line and then browsing through each newsgroup selecting articles for download, then jumping back on-line again briefly to download those articles and sign off. This is done by clicking the connect button (represented by a picture of a light switch) every time you want PMINews to connect to the server and perform all the queued commands. PMINews does not actually need to have a network connection present at all times, only when it must communicate with the server.

Decoding attachments

PMINews' system for decoding attachments leaves much to be desired. It works, and claims to handle multipart postings, but I and other users have had trouble with this feature. There's no default directory for downloads, the program doesn't automatically select multipart postings (and won't warn if they're incomplete), it spawns a separate decoder window for each batch job and it forces you to select and save each decoded file individually.

There is a work-around for the "saving problem", though. Each Grouplist has its own BIN directory where decoded attachments are stored. You can open this folder and move files around en masse as you like, but this isn't really an acceptable solution.

Little details

Still, it's worth mentioning a few of the little details that make PMINews a great convenience. If you highlight a URL in an article and right-click the mouse, PMINews will give you the option of viewing it with a WWW browser. What's more it will send the URL to a currently running Netscape session if you already have one open.

PMINews keeps good track of cross-posted articles as well. Press Ctrl+L to mark all articles as read in comp.os.os2.advocacy and you'll suddenly notice the article count drop for all the successive OS/2 newsgroups too. This is because PMINews has gone through and zapped articles that had been cross-posted.

Two more options I almost overlooked, but which could prove handy for some people, were the ability to reverse the way newsgroup names are displayed (announce.os2.os.comp instead of comp.os.os2.announce, for example) and the removal of the letters "RE:" in article subjects. Both nice touches.

But I don't like spam!

Worried about spam? On the first page of each Grouplist's settings notebook, there are spaces for users to enter their real e-mail address, but there is also a "No Spam Address" space where you can make up anything you like. I usually enter "no-spam-please@os2ezine.com" which will foul up any Junk E-mail artist who decides to sift through the newsgroups I post to. When you post to a newsgroup, PMINews will use the No-Spam address instead of your real one in the header.

The No-Spam address in effect

PMINews' third example filter is also for intended for dealing with Spam. The "No-Spam!" filter will remove any message that contain too many exclamation marks, dollar signs, pound signs or triple-X's in its subject. If this is not enough, you can easily edit this filter to add more keywords to your liking.

Problems

It's sad to say, but PMINews feels like it was released without enough testing. That's not to say there has not been a lot of testing -- the PMINews beta list has been extremely active for some time -- just not enough testing. When I tested the program I had numerous headaches and problems trying to make it last into a second session without crashing moments after being launched. Deleting Grouplists seemed to help at first, but I ended up re-creating them laboriously 3 or 4 times, in addition to a complete uninstall and reinstall of the product. There also appears to be a problem on some users' machines where PMINews will crash with a SYS3175 error as it goes to retrieve new headers from the server. (I was told that this was probably due to a corrupted database and that deleting the GL.DAT and GL.LVS files in each grouplist's folder would fix the problem. It seemed to do the trick.)

Setting the codepage to ISO-8859-1 does not work which is inconvenient for those who read European newsgroups. I found PMINews frequently got stuck on "100%" when refreshing headers and wouldn't progress to updating the next newsgroup. Sometimes I was even given outlandish article counts (GIF, 4k) for relatively quiet newsgroups. There's no "STOP" button to force the newsreader to drop its connection in an emergency. Likewise, there doesn't appear to be a way to limit the number of newsgroup headers downloaded at one time.

And there are many other places where the v1.0 copy of PMINews I tested just doesn't feel finished. In the "General" tab of the PMINews settings the "Work in off-line mode" feature is not documented in the help file. Selecting the "Keys Help" in the help menu doesn't work. The help buttons of individual tabs of the settings notebooks are not directly linked to their respective help pages; you have to wander through from the main help page of that notebook instead. And the phone number in the "How to get support" section of the on-line help is not valid (a recorded message will tell you it has been changed to (313) 762-0687).

The spell checker has a limited dictionary, not even recognizing the words PMINews or PMMail! Plus, anything you add to the dictionary will not be recognized until the next message you compose.

Key bindings feel awkward too. While EmTec newsreader will let you advance back and forth through articles using 'N' and 'P' for Next and Previous respectively, PMINews uses F7 and F6 instead. Not great choices in my opinion.

I should stress that not everyone who uses PMINews has experienced all these major difficulties, but a considerable number have. Checking the newsgroups themselves, especially comp.os.os2.mail-news, reveals a number of people who are having these same problems trying to get this program to work. My own experience was not a favorable one; I love the product's features and interface, but all too often it felt like walking through a paradise that had been dotted with land mines.

So is it ready for prime time?

This is a hard question, but I think the answer is, "no". I spent a long time checking my own configuration and corresponding with other users to make sure I wasn't stepping out over a cliff that had no bridge but, in short, I believe PMINews needs its stability problems addressed quickly by both Stardock and Southside Software before I can seriously recommend buying it. (Both companies do have a reputation for delivering fixes on a timely basis though, and I've been informed by SouthSide that both a bug fix and a demo version of the product will be available in July.)

PMINews is still a wonderful newsreader that has had a lot of thought put into the design process, but my final recommendation is: it's worth it, but wait until the fixpack.


 * PlusPak: PMINews for OS/2
by SouthSoft, Inc.
published by Stardock Systems Inc.
MSRP: US$34.95
Chris Wenham is a freelance web designer, writer and Englishman who now lives in Endicott, NY. In the past he has written comedy, sci-fi, Pascal, Rexx, HTML and Gibberish. He has been using OS/2 exclusively for the past 2 years.

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