Hotline 1.8.5, by Hotline Communications
Posted: 23-August-2001

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Hotline Comm Type: SHAREWARE

Reviewer: Bill Catambay Class: INTERNET
     
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Hotline has become a widely used alternative to FTP for file transfers, and includes features such as instant messaging, real-time chatting, and news postings. A Hotline host computer is a computer which contains files to be shared, and the files are made available by an application known as the Hotline Server. Other computers, including the hosting computer, can then run the Hotline Client application to communication with the server, download and upload files, chat, and read and post news.

This review is for the latest version of Hotline, version 1.8.5, and will include a review of both the server and the client applications. There are Mac and Windows versions of Hotline, and this review is on the Mac versions.

The Server
The server application runs on the host computer, and includes functions to change server options, broadcast messages, connect as admin, reload server files, display the log, display statistics, and quitting. The server options provide a variety of settings for controlling the hotline server, such as how many clients can connect simultaneously, simultaneous downloads, etc.. For those with limited bandwidth, controlling the number of simultaneous downloads is very important. You can also toggle certain logs on or off, provide a name for the server, ban IPs that you know are troublemakers, setup trackers, and a few other administrative settings. The options are organized by tabs: General, Info, Banner, Ban, Trackers, Admin, IP.

The option tabs which I found most useful are "General" and "Trackers". Under the General tab, I frequently readjust the number of simultaneous downloads depending upon how much I plan on using my DSL connection. When too many downloads are going, those count as uploads from my machine, and can really bog down my DSL connection. Your mileage with bandwidth will vary depending upon your connection and modem type.

Under the Trackers tab I frequently toggle the "Lists with Hotline Trackers" button. I always keep a good list of hotline trackers in the server fields, and with the "Lists" function on, these hotline trackers search my server, providing my IP address to clients around the world when a file they are searching for is found on my server. This increases the number of visitors I receive. A lot of visitors makes for a happy server; on the other hand, when I want the bandwidth to myself, I prefer the server to temporarily not be listed, and that's when I turn this function off.

While the Hotline Server application handles most of the admin controls for the server, there are some management tools which are only available from within the Hotline Client application. The client is commonly used for accessing the server for file transfers, but it is also an indispensable tool for setting up new news categories, posting announcements, and managing accounts. Accounts are managed quite easily within the Hotline client, providing several privileges which can be toggled on or off for each user, including the "Guest" user account. If you are going to run a server, I recommend limiting the privileges for guest access.

Many servers do not allow guests to download; instead, making the visitors jump through hoops to get an account (and there's never any guarantee of receiving an account). I chose to allow Guests to download, and only allow uploads by privileged accounts. Uploads can be far more dangerous for your server than a download.

Beyond the controls provided by the Server and Client applications, you can also manipulate accounts simply by moving folders around and using aliases. For example, you can set it so that Guests have access to only some directories, while privileged accounts have access to much more. While you are in your server folder moving files around, don't forget to create an agreement file for your users. This is an agreement that is displayed for users when they sign on to your server, usually requesting honorable behavior, and whatnot.

For the most part, the Hotline Server application is quite stable. It does seem to have a problem with large download files. I had a popular file of over 300MB on my server, and the server was experiencing crashes on a daily basis. I removed the file, and the server crashes now are quite infrequent.

The Client
The client application is the program which gives users the ability to access hotline servers, download and upload files, chat with other users, and read and post news. It also provides some admin tools (covered above in the server section). Hotline provides a fairly decent community, with the file transfers being the heart of the action. When running the client for the first time, you are asked to pick a name (or handle) for yourself, and an associated icon. Your handle and icon is what will be displayed in the user list of the hotline server you sign on to. Version 1.8.5 comes with a very large variety of icons to choose from.

There are various windows that can be open and closed in the client, with the toolbar window always being open (closing the toolbar window is the same as choosing Quit). The reason why the toolbar window is a must-stay-open window is because it contains the Hotline banner ads, a primary source of income for the makers of Hotline. The client grabs a new ad every few seconds and displays it in the window.

New in version 1.8.5 is the ability to register the client for a small fee. Registered versions turn off the ads, provide resizing options of the toolbar, and 2-click server bookmarking. If the ads do not bother you, however, you get all of the basic features of the client application for free. With a registered version, if your client bumps into another client with the same registration number, the client that has run the longest is bumped back into ad-mode and continuous error dialogs reminding you of the collision. In my case, I have a server on one machine, and the registered client on another. However, I also run the client on the server machine for the purpose of monitoring the server. I registered it with the same serial number, and ran into the collision error loop whenever I started up the client on the other computer. I tried to "unregister" one of the versions, but I only found an option to change the serial number. If I tried to blank it out, it gave an error message and reverted to the original serial number. This was a hassle.

The other Hotline windows are: user window (lists all users connected to the server), chat window (for online chatting), file list window (for browsing for files on the server), task window (monitors actions, such as downloads), and news window (for reading news and announcements, and posting notes on bulletin boards).

The strongest feature of the client is the file list window, providing a robust method for downloading and uploading files. The file list window behaves similar to the Finder's file list, supporting dragging files and comments. On my server, all the files are commented with a description of the file. That way a user can do a Get Info to find out what the file is before downloading it. Browsing through the files is quite easy. The best part of the downloading process is the ability to "resume" downloads. That way if your connection is dropped, you do not have to start all over again (which is a real headache when trying to download large files). The resume is intelligent, not requiring you to remember if you already had started the download in a previous session. You just double-click a file to download, and if you had already downloaded a piece of it, you are automatically presented with the option to resume the download where you left off.

The file list window could be taken a few steps further as far as emulating the Finder's file list windows. For example, it would be really nice to have a column displaying the creation date, and it would be nice to click on a column heading to sort by that column (i.e., sort by name or sort by date).

The weakest feature of the client is the news window. The basic features of the news are quite functional. You can create categories, read and post articles, and read and post replies to articles. From an admin standpoint, however, it lacks the ability to easily manage the news. An admin privilege is needed to allow for copying categories, renaming categories, and moving posts from one category to another. I wanted to move a category into a sub-category, but the only way to do it was to delete all the articles in the category, then re-create the articles in the sub-category. There were some other annoyances with the news section as well, like the lack of search capabilities, but the above is the one that sticks out in my mind the most.

In the middle ground is the chat and instant messaging functionality. I've used both of these functions pretty extensively, and they seem to work quite well. Instant messaging works one-on-one with another online user, and the chat window can be setup to include from one to several people, all chatting live on-line. The one thing I would like to see improved is how to deal with messages being sent in reply to a user who has logged off, and then back on. If someone sends you a message, then logs off and then back on, and then you reply to that message, you get an error that the user is no longer logged on (even though they still are). In the cases where the user you are replying to is really no longer there, having some kind of email functionality built into the client would be a nice option.

There are options to enter a proxy address for the client, and to use HTTP tunneling, but this did not work for me. I have used other applications that support HTTP tunneling to get out from behind a firewall, but this version of the client could never connect to any hotline server beyond the firewall, including servers I knew were at version 1.8.5.

Lastly, I was somewhat annoyed at the prompt they added to this version which is displayed every time I quit the client program. The feature was added to help avoid disrupting tasks in progress (such as downloads), but it displays regardless of whether there is a task in progress or not. That's like having MS Word ask if you are sure you want to quit when you don't have any documents open. Hopefully that will be fixed in the next release.

Summary
Between the web, FTP and Hotline, I prefer using Hotline. The file transfering seems to be more stable and has a better resume feature than any FTP client or Web browser that I've used. In addition to the file transfer, Hotline also provides a nice community environment. It provides some of the best features of AOL, bullletin boards, online chat and messaging, without all the other junk that AOL comes with. An email function would also be nice, as well as better news managing features, a date column in the file list, and column sorting. The features and improvements have been coming along a little bit slow for my tastes. I look forward to future releases, with improved performance and stability, as well as other enhancements. With strong clients for both the Mac and Windows, it's a great tool to bridge the two worlds.

PROS:

  • Rich file transfer with intelligent resume
  • Includes chat, messaging and news (aka, bulletin boards)
  • Full featured client for free (with ads removed for a fee)
  • Highly customizable server options


CONS:

  • News functionality lacks manageability and advanced features
  • Messaging can be a little more intelligent
  • Firewall proxy feature does not appear to work
  • Unable to unregister, and collision error loop annoying


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice