When I first started writing this op, I got terribly bogged down with describing what newsgroups are and how you use them. I've trashed that bit now, and have decided instead to concentrate on these programs and how they work, and only briefly touch on what newsgroups are.
Warning: this is going to be a fairly long op, and I apologize for that in advance. I probably should have asked DooYoo to open a separate category for the free version of this program, but I didn't. Mea Culpa and please forgive me! Now, on to the op.
The two programs that Forté, Inc. (http://www.forteinc.com/main/homepage.php) brings us are Agent and Free Agent. According to their web pages:
Agent is the top-rated USENET Newsreader on the Internet:
§ Streamline the process of collecting binaries such as music, pictures, and movies. Agent supports MIME, UUEncoding, and yEnc.
§ Avoid all the SPAM and find the good stuff with Agent's filters, kill lists, and watch lists.
§ Customize the behavior for each Newsgroup with Agent's feature-rich Group Properties.
§ Move effortlessly between USENET and Email interaction with Agent's fully-integrated Email client.
§ Still only $29.00 US after a 30-day trial period.
Free Agent is a scaled-down version of Agent that is free:
§ In the early days of the Internet, software companies always provided customers with free software.
§ In return, customers provided free consulting on how to improve the product.
§ In keeping with this unique collaborative business model, Forté proudly continues to offer Free Agent.
That might not help you much, huh? Let me just say that USENET is sort of like a huge bulletin board that is divided up into subjects. You find the subjects that interest you and with newsreader programs like Agent and Free Agent, you can read what people put up in these areas - in messages called posts. You post can answers and replies as well as start new topics in these areas. When a discussion develops on a subject, its called a thread. Sometimes people post things like music clips and pictures to these groups. If you want to hear the music or see the pictures, you'll need to download them since they are posted as attachments to the messages in files called binaries. (I don't visit these types of groups because a large amount of them are pornographic.)
In short, its sort of like having a plethora of discussion groups where you can talk about anything under the sun (and trust me, there are literally hundreds of thousands of groups out there, so you're sure to find at least a few that interest you!). Personally, I regularly read and post to groups about chocolate, baking (general and specifically bread), Jewish cuisine, Jewish humour and, of course, writing.
But I bet you're thinking "well, there are lots of things like that out there, like Yahoo! Groups, for instance". And yes, that's very similar to those types of groups. But for a better understanding of USENET is, I suggest you read this http://www.faqs.org/faqs/usenet/what-is/part1/.
The biggest difference between reading USENET and say, Yahoo! Groups is that programs such as Agent and Free Agent allow you to download the posts into these programs and then read them when your computer isn't connected to the internet. That's what an "off-line reader" is. In fact, you can even write a whole bunch of replies and new posts and then send all of them to the groups at a later time, when you're connected again. Of course, if you're connected 24/7 then this may not seem so advantageous to you. However, since these programs automatically take themselves off-line after a certain amount of time, even if you're still connected to the internet, you'll be freeing up bandwidth for other things, like going into your browser for research or downloading your emails. This is actually invaluable for those reading email or newsgroups from a laptop on the go, or for those people who just can't afford to be on-line all the time because of phone rates (like me). For more information about what an off-line reader is, please read http://www.faqs.org/faqs/off-line-readers/usenet/intro/section-8.html.
OK, so that out of the way (hopefully. But if you're still confused, leave me a note in my Guest Book), what do these two Forté, Inc. programs offer that makes them better than other programs of their ilk?
Let's start with Free Agent. I got this program with my first connection to the internet back in 1995 (only a year after Free Agent was launched), along with two other free USENET programs - XNews and the newsgroup reader that came with my browser (at the time I used Netscape). After trying all three, I decided that Free Agent was the best for many reasons, some of which are:
1. I had almost total control over how the program looked. This means from changing the fonts and colours to arranging the windows inside the program.
2. The program was very easy to configure, and for someone just starting out, this was very important to me. For instance, in the other programs, I wasn't able to figure out why posts that I'd already read and discarded would come back again and again. With Free Agent, I was able to stop this from happening.
3. I also was able to quickly figure out fun things like how to make a signature file that would appear at the bottom of every message I sent out. In fact, I found that I could make a whole bunch of signature files and then choose which signature would be used for which groups. None of the other programs seemed to have that ability to customize each and every group separately.
4. Free Agent gave me excellent instructions, was easy to both install and upgrade, and had great help files to teach me how to use the program. Even so, I was able to discover many features on my own without referring to the help files since this program is put together very logically.
5. Free Agent gives you the option of hiding your real email address on USENET posts. One of the problems with newsgroups is that Spammers like to "farm" the posts there for email addresses. However, its well known that they only can "farm" an address from the "From" field, and in some cases from a field called "Sender". With Free Agent, I can use fake addresses in those fields and only put my real email address into the "Reply To" field. Spammers won't find this because they use robots to find these addresses from the vast archive of http://google.groups.com, and since that has no email capability, there's no "Reply To" field listed on the posts there. (BWAHAHA! Got you, you ^@$#$!@$ spammers!)
6. Finally, I really took to the look and feel of this program. I know, that's not really much upon which to base a recommendation, but if a program makes you feel comfortable when you use it, you'll probably not start looking for another one. That is precisely what happened to me.
In fact, I so much liked Free Agent that I only once updated my original version (from 16bit to 32bit when my office moved to Windows), and then never again until I decided to buy the full Agent program. You see, the biggest thing that Free Agent doesn't have that Agent does have is email capability. Since I had perfectly good email programs for such a long time - both at work and at home - I couldn't think of any reason to switch from Free Agent to anything else, let alone pay out good money for Agent.
Why did I eventually buy Agent? Well, that's very simple. My original email program at home was actually a DOS program (16bit!). When I upgraded my home computer to Windows95, this old email program was no longer compatible, and the internet provider that gave it to me no longer gave support for it. Furthermore, they no longer provided any separate email programs for their customers (it wasn't a great program, so no great loss). Their suggestion to me was to use the email on my browser. Well, I didn't like the one that came with Netscape, and at that time Explorer was a totally crappy browser. I tried downloading a few email programs from the internet, but none of them made me feel like I was in control (Eudora and Pegasus, to name just two) and I didn't much like the look or feel of them.
Since I knew that Agent allowed you a 30 day trial period before you had to buy the program, I decided to see how it worked. Having already been a long-time user of Free Agent, the format was, of course, very familiar to me. I decided to keep my Free Agent for reading the newsgroups during the trial period, and just use the Agent for emails until I decided if I was willing to pay almost $30 for this program. Luckily, Forté seemed to know that people do this, and there was no conflict or problem with installing the trial version along side the free version. Very smart of them and a definite thumbs up for that.
What I discovered when I started using Agent was the same comfortable feel of Free Agent but with a whole slew of new options. With Agent I can customize my toolbars, make an email address book that included being able to make mailing lists, make folders to put emails and posts into, as well as filter both emails and newsgroup posts so that I don't see Spam or other undesirable messages or posts. Basically, it was everything I needed.
I also found out that once I bought Agent, I was eligible to get free upgrades - and not just for a limited time. No, upgrades are free FOREVER! That's pretty cool, and I took advantage of one of them when they added a trash bin feature. Before that, anything deleted was gone - totally and forever, it didn't even show up in your computer's recycle bin. So, if you accidentally deleted something, you were screwed. I didn't bother with the other upgrade they offered me because most of the changes in that version weren't things I really needed.
You should know that those filters I mentioned before aren't just for getting rid of bad things, but also for organizing messages and emails. For instance, whenever a message comes in from Forté, I can have Agent move it directly out of the inbox and put it directly into a folder called "Net", or the emails that I get from my work colleagues are filtered into a folder called "work".
As for the newsgroups, the addition of the filters in the Agent program helps me avoid reading offending posts from Spammers or just people that are naturally offensive. It also helps make sure that the program will not miss out on any posts that are of particular interest to me. That feature is called a "watch file" and although this seems to appear on Free Agent, it isn't fully functional until you buy Agent. Moreover, previously when I wanted to send an email to someone who posted something on a newsgroup, I had to copy and paste the email address from Free Agent into my email program. Not so with Agent. Since Agent has fully integrated both the email and newsgroup functions, I can do any combination of emailing and posting I like (within reason, of course).
I should also mention that Agent keeps you from getting viruses since there is no automatic launching of attachments. This means that if you open an email that has an attachment with one of those automatic viruses, it won't suddenly start that program which will move the virus onto your computer. The virus will be harmless and remain with the email and you'll only see the icon, so you can easily delete the infected message and stay virus free yourself.
I'd have to say that the weakest part of these programs is the fact that in certain situations you can't have two different program windows open at the same time. I mean, you can, but you can't, really. Hard to explain but let me try. Say you want to open your outbox to take a look at all the posts and emails you sent and make sure they all succeeded in going out. In order to do this, you click on the word "window" in the top bar of the program and then choose "open outbox". What will happen is you'll suddenly see the outbox, but if you look at the Windows toolbar, you'll still only see one icon for Agent or Free Agent. You'll then wonder how you can get back to that original screen. Well, the only way to do that is click on that word "window" again. There you'll see that you can tile or cascade all the windows or if you look at the bottom of the options you'll see a check mark next to the window you're presently in. To get back to one of the other open windows, you just choose one the you want from that numbered list.
Does that sound complicated? Actually, it isn't. If you recall back far enough to a time when MSWord wasn't a generally accepted standard and couldn't hold a candle to the (still) vastly superior WordPerfect, then you'll also recall that WordPerfect (and many other programs like it) didn't put new icons on your toolbar every time you opened a new document. The only way you could see them all was to tile or cascade the documents into the program. If you just wanted to go from one document to another, you'd choose which one you wanted to look at from a list. Since I've always preferred WordPerfect to Word, having this type of window manipulation doesn't really bother me. However, I have heard some MSWord lovers (yuck! How could they?) complain about this.
I'd say that the only thing that Agent is missing as an email program is the ability to make more than one address book. Of course, this might be asking too much, since I believe there are very few programs around these days that let you store several different personal address books. But it is something I had way back when in the days of 16bit email and that now defunct program, and I do miss it. I certainly can't mark these programs down for not having what no one else has, can I? Well, I can, but I won't. Of course, there are some people who would want to configure more than one internet account. This isn't a problem and Agent will be happy to tell you exactly what to do in order to get emails from different accounts on the same computer (I won't go into it here since this op is already too long).
As for anything missing as a newsgroup reader? Well, I've tried and tried but I can't think of a thing. Oh, wait. Yes I can. There seems to be some sort of a strange bug in this program that whenever you post a follow-up message to a thread, it automatically adds a "Re:" to the subject line. That's fine when you're replying to the first message of a new thread, but if you're replying to a message where the subject line already has a "Re:" in it, both Free Agent and Agent add another "Re:" to the subject header. When that happens, USENET thinks that it's a brand new subject and starts a whole new thread. I've been in contact with Forté, Inc. about this, but they've not been able to fix this.
Which brings me to Forté, Inc.'s support. I have to say that with this one exception, I've always received excellent support from Forté and they've gotten back to me on many questions, very quickly, even if they don't always have an answer for me right away. While they don't have on-line support for Free Agent, they do tell you where you can look to get answers to most of your questions. And although they say they only give 90 days of free email support to Agent users, I'm sure I asked for help after those 90 days were up, and they never charged me anything for it. Maybe I was just lucky, I don't know, but I'm certainly not complaining or dropping a star from them on this.
There's so much more I could tell you about these programs. How the icons look in the toolbars, how you can minimize the amount of disk space it uses, how you can change that little symbol at the start of lines of quoted text, and much, much more. But the truth is, part of the fun in using these programs is discovering these things for yourself. And I have to admit that I'm always finding something new about this program myself. But mostly, if I told you about all those things, I'd reach the maximum word count here, and no one would want to read this op (which is already way, Way too long).
All in all, these two programs are both excellent. If all you want and need to do is read newsgroups, you'll probably not find a need to pay for the full Agent program. However, if you're like me and want something that can integrate both email and newsgroups, then I think Agent is well worth the $29 to buy, and I've never regretted spending money for this program. Moreover, since Forté, Inc. found out that only 25.4% of Agent owners use Agent as their primary email program, they're working on a new version that will make it attractive even to people who never use newsgroups. I'm already convinced and give both these programs a full five stars.
Thanks for reading!
Forté, Inc.'s web page is at http://www.forteinc.com/main/homepage.php where you can download Free Agent for Free, as well as the latest version of Agent.
All the contact information can be found at http://www.forteinc.com/main/contact.php where they also list a snail mail address of Forté, P.O. Box 131477, Carlsbad, CA 92013, but I saw no 1-800 number for them. Sorry!
Although Agent does have e-mail facilities, they are fairly basic. No, the real reason to use this app is for the news reading capabilities. It is truly the most powerful news client available. When you first load it up, you would be forgiven if you thought that you had just stepped into Windows 3.1. The interface does look rather ancient. Don't let that fool you, though, because it is highly customisable. You can do the usual things such as select which columns to view in the various windows, but you can also change the arrangement of windows, which ones are visible, screen fonts and colours and customize the toolbar and menus. You are sure to get it to look how you want it. But what are these high power news-reading functions that I mentioned earlier? Well, thread watching, which always downloads new messages in particular threads, customisable purging, which allows you to set filters on which messages can automatically be deleted and when, message joining which allows you to join parts of threads together, scheduled downloading, which allows you to set exactly when messages are downloaded and which ones and selective message body downloading, which only downloads message bodies if they meet your (customisable) requirements. Whew, that was a long sentence! And that isn't even a complete list of features! One feature does deserve special attention, though, and that is the message filtering. You can set up filters that remove messages based on numerous factors including, but not limited to: subject, size, date posted, author, group posted to and whether it was cross-posted. The filters are very powerful, and allow you to look not just for literal strings, but also use various variables. For instance, you could set up a filter that removes messages that contain '$' or 'cash' in the body and are cross-posted to groups 'x', 'y' and 'z'. These filters can be used to give you a customized news fee
d that only contains messages that you are interested in. Clever stuff. The filters are written in a custom scripting language, although it isn't very difficult to learn, and there are plenty of ready-made filters too. I mentioned earlier that this app looks like a relic from the past, and that is because it is based on a 16-bit app. This means that it is still not perfectly compatible with 32-bit OSs. By this, I mean that it doesn't take advantage of many Win32 features, and it is prone to crashing. The thing that is going to put most novice users off though is the sheer complexity of it. All the features I have mentioned are not immediately accessible or easy to use, and the whole app does have a certain chunkiness about it. This is not helped by the cryptic options screens, of which there are many. The Agent help newsgroup is often packed with messages asking what option x does. If you are prepared to put the effort in though, this is far and away the greatest news-reader available. If you are unhappy with the news features of Outlook or Netscape, you should certainly consider this.
After struggling with Outlook Express for too long, Forte Agent came as a blissful relief. It has sensible filtering, easy keyboard-driven use, and basically fulfills all my expectations of a newsreader. It's difficult to wax lyrical about something as mundane as a newsreader, but I must stress that I use this product at least an hour each day, and I've no cause for complaint whatsoever. It's very easy to set it up to (for example), automatically retrieve message bodies for your own posts and any others in threads that you reply to, or filter out spam on the flimsiest of criteria. You can set it up to work with multiple news servers, get it to dial out automatically, easily hide your email address as mynameDELETETHIS@myisp.com, and all the stuff you might not even realise you need. It lets you set up folders to archive messages easily, and on top of all that, it's a small, tidy installation. Handling of multipart messages and binaries is a dream, and you don't need to be a guru to use it, either. The only drawback is that you need to set it up to purge properly to avoid the message database growing too large, but this isn't hard to do when you know how, and there's a good newsgroup (alt.usenet.offline-reader.forte-agent) to support you for free.