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-- by Rick Broida
Planning to turn your PC into a one-stop communications station? A voice-enabled modem is only half the equation. You'll also need software to manage your faxes, voice mail, data communications and e-mail. Communicate is an ambitious package designed to tackle all that and more, but it's not quite ready to be left in charge of your office.
Communicate puts its best foot forward with an elegant telephone-style interface as its base of operations. This speakerphone look-alike offers 40 speed-dial buttons, a hold button complete with music (you pick the WAV-file tune), call screening, a do-not-disturb option and a conversation-recording button. It also includes a basic phone-dial keypad plus buttons for faxing, e-mailing, data communications and activity logs. However, the program's stylish veneer conceals confusing modules and poorly designed dialog boxes, and its underpinnings make the learning curve regrettably steep.
The core of Communicate is its phone book, a surprisingly robust contact manager that lets you phone, page, fax or e-mail with just a few clicks. Each listing contains 10 tabs' worth of information, including telephone and pager numbers, e-mail addresses and a notes field. Although there's a field for Web addresses, Communicate cannot launch a Web browser.
However, you're not likely to use this contact manager: It lacks an appointment calendar and to-do list. In addition, you can't customize the spreadsheet-like interface. Even if you wanted to switch from your current PIM, Communicate's limited import filters hinder the process. It can import ACT and dBASE files, but not comma- or tab-delimited databases.
Ostensibly, Communicate could get by with its voice mail and telephony features, which are undeniably attractive. You can create an unlimited number of voice mailboxes, each with its own messages, passwords and capabilities (including fax-back services and remote message retrieval). Additionally, Communicate supports Caller ID, distinctive ring and call forwarding.
But setting up these features is no easy task. A series of confusing dialog boxes make configuring the program's voice service an extremely frustrating process. The thick, spiral-bound instruction manual illustrates the procedures involved in creating a voice-mail script, but it doesn't guide you to a satisfactory setup. Eventually we cobbled together a basic voice menu, but when tested, Communicate played the sample menu instead-even after asking if we wanted to use our own menu as the default.
Additional problems cropped up with the fax module, tested with a U.S. Robotics Sportster Voice internal modem. When faxing to another modem-equipped PC, the process seemed to complete properly, but nothing appeared at the receiving end. When sending to a fax machine, the document arrived, but with an error message attached. We were able to receive a fax, but Communicate crashed when we tried to view it. At press time we hadn't yet identified the source of these problems, but we had no difficulty using WinFax PRO 8.0 on the same hardware.
Technical problems aside, Communicate offers some admirable fax functions. It can automatically forward incoming documents to another location-a useful feature when you're on the road. The program can also dial your pager to notify you when a fax has arrived. Using the contact manager, the fax module makes it easy to set up broadcast faxing. Alas, it's not smart enough to place a "1" in front of long-distance fax numbers.
The combination fax viewer/graphics editor features drawing tools, signature and letterhead stamping, and an OCR engine. When we ran sample faxes past the OCR engine, however, Communicate produced an error message and failed to write the converted file.
As for e-mail, Communicate supports only POP3- and SMTP-compliant service providers, leaving CompuServe and America Online out of the picture. We tested the program with an AT&T WorldNet account and had no problem sending or receiving mail. Communicate can also forward incoming messages or notify you by pager that mail has arrived.
Communicate's terminal module is adequate for occasional BBS visits, though it lacks the bells and whistles found in dedicated connectivity applications. The terminal applet supports most file-transfer protocols and has an autolearn feature for creating script files. The external-modem-style status lights, which reside in a corner of the terminal screen, were handy.
The modules that lurk behind the classy front end need overhauling, both in structure and appearance. Communicate's problems contrast sharply with the easy installation and smooth operation of our WinList product, Global Village's FocalPoint 5.5.
Don't judge this book by its cover. Beneath Communicate's stylish, phone-like interface lie confusing dialog boxes and poorly implemented program modules.