Andy Boze, Editor
Since this column will appear in the December issue, following is a trio of useful applications suitable for holiday gifts for yourself and others. They all have the advantage of being free or inexpensive.
TightVNC is a popular remote control program that makes it possible to use a computer at another location as though you are sitting in front of it. WinSCP is a file transfer application that uses the Secure Copy Protocol. All data are encrypted so that you don't have to worry about your files and passwords passing over the network in clear text and being vulnerable to snooping. Finally, Mailbag Assistant makes it easy to manage all that e-mail that you've got piling up on your hard drive.
System requirements: Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000, XP, or ME; Unix/Linux (various versions)
You're at home, or maybe you're at a conference. Wherever you are, you'd like to use that computer back in your office where your files and your software are. With TightVNC you can remotely control your office PC, or any other PC, from wherever you happen to be, as long as you have a computer handy.
TightVNC is one of a family of products, all based upon Virtual Network Computing (VNC), which was developed at AT&T Laboratories in Cambridge, England. To quote from AT&T's Web site, VNC is “a remote display system which allows you to view a computing ' environment not only on the machine where it is running, but from anywhere on the Internet and from a wide variety of machine architectures.” What this means is that you can have a PC running Windows in your office, and you can use your Macintosh at home or a Linux machine at your friend's house to view and control the PC back in your office.
TightVNC is available for Windows, Unix, and Java. If you use Google (www.google.com) to search for “VNC,” you'll quickly turn up members of the family that support other operating systems. Interestingly, there are even versions of VNC for the Palm OS and for the Pocket PC. This review refers to the Windows version, which was used on PCs running Windows NT, 2000, and XP.
The installer can be downloaded from the TightVNC Web site at www.tightvnc.com. The installation is quick and uncomplicated. All you need to do is run the installer and accept all the default values that are offered. During the installation, a new folder is added to the Windows Start menu. One of the items in the folder is for installing TightVNC as a service. You'll want to do that if the machine is the one you want to control remotely. Installing the TightVNC service means that it is automatically loaded at every system start. That's useful in case the computer gets restarted while you are away, otherwise you wouldn't be able to connect to it until someone logs in and manually starts the TightVNC server. Of course, in order to control a computer remotely, you need to have VNC installed on a second one.
I use TightVNC on my office and home PCs. Usually I want to connect to my office PC from home, so I keep the VNC server running on the office PC and use the viewer on the home PC to make the connection. I'm fortunate enough to have a cable modem at home, so the PC there is online all the time, just like the office PC. I keep the VNC server running on my home machine in case I want to connect to it from the office.
You might wonder how you can use VNC from a machine that you don't own, if you're at a conference, for example. I installed TightVNC on a PC at a recent ALA conference without any difficulties. Making a connection to my office PC worked fine. However, there's an even easier way to connect to a remote machine. Conveniently, TightVNC includes an HTTP server, which can be disabled if you wish. You don't actually need to have VNC installed to control a remote machine - all you need is a Java-enabled Web browser. Thus, using nothing more than Netscape, I was able to control my office PC from a PC at an ALA conference. The only difficulty I ran into using the Web browser method was an occasional disconnection from my office PC. It was easy to reconnect and resume what I was doing exactly as I had left it.
TightVNC gets its name from a type of encoding it uses. The tight encoding is optimized for slower connections, making TightVNC a good choice for use with dial-up modem connections. You don't have to use tight encoding. In fact, you can choose from among several types of encoding and compression methods. It's worth experimenting with different settings to tweak performance and image quality. By default, tight encoding uses a high degree of graphics compression so that less data has to pass over the network. I've found that high compression produces a perfectly acceptable image quality. If you demand that colors and clarity be exactly as on the remote monitor, you can use lower compression or disable compression, at the expense of performance.
Using TightVNC to connect to a remote machine is simple. From the Windows Start menu, you select TightVNC Viewer, and fill in the dialog box with the host name or IP address of the remote machine. You can also select specific encoding and compression settings and various other options. Then click the OK button to make the connection. The remote machine will prompt you for a password that you should have set after installing the software on the remote machine. Without setting a password, anybody could connect to your machine and use it. Depending upon network speed and the options you select, you'll see the remote screen almost instantaneously or after a few seconds. At this point, you can use the remote machine exactly as though you were sitting directly in front of it.
If you frequently connect to the same machine using the same settings, you can save all the connection information. While the connection is active, you right click on the TightVNC button on the Windows Task Bar. One of the options on the pop-up menu is to save the connection information. Selecting it will save all the information to a file. Subsequently, you can double click on the file to start a new connection using all the saved settings.
TightVNC has a couple of features that I find particularly convenient. The screen area of my office PC is set at 1600x1200 pixels, but my home PC is set at 1280x1024 pixels. When I connect from home to office, the remote screen is too large to fit entirely on the local screen. Moving the mouse cursor to any edge of the screen scrolls the view in that direction, so I don't have to use scroll bars or press keys. What I like even better is that I can scale the remote screen so that it will fit entirely on my local screen. This feature is labeled as experimental, but it has worked well for me. I used a scaling of three-quarters and was surprised that the text on the remote screen was still very legible. Also handy is the fact that anything I copy to the clipboard of the remote machine can be pasted into a local document.
One thing that is slightly inconvenient about TightVNC is the inability to use the local keyboard to send a Ctrl-Alt-Del to the remote machine. To do that, you have to right click on the TightVNC button on the Windows Task Bar and then select Send Ctl-Alt-Del from the pop-up menu. A feature that I would like to see added to TightVNC is to be able to access the remote machine's file system so that I can copy files directly between the remote and local machines. For now, you can always connect to the remote machine and transfer any files to an intermediate location that both machines can access, using FTP, for example. A toolbar for common functions would also be useful, and apparently is planned for a future release.
It's important to remember that installing software of this type can expose your computer to security risks. Talk to your IT or network support staff to be sure that it is installed and configured properly.
WinSCP 2.0 Beta
System Requirements: System requirements: Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000, XP, or ME; SSH server for remote connection
Organizations are becoming increasingly conscious of security. Instead of Telnet and FTP, Secure SHell (SSH) is becoming increasingly common. If you want to transfer files, this can be something of a problem since Secure CoPy (SCP) clients, which use SSH, aren't as numerous as FTP clients. Most Web browsers will let you download files by FTP, and Netscape Communicator and Internet Explorer will even let you upload files by FTP. But what if your files are on a secure server? Your organization probably provides your work computer with an SSH client, but if you are at home or elsewhere you'll need an SCP client to transfer files. WinSCP is just the thing.
You can download WinSCP from the author's Web site at http://winscp.vse.cz. No installation is necessary. There's a single executable file that you can run immediately after downloading. An older version does have an installer, if you are so inclined.
After starting WinSCP, you'll get a dialog box with several tabs for various options (see figure 1). Since the default options worked when I connected to my server, I didn't change most of them. In the Basic tab, you fill in the host name you want to connect to, your user name, and your password. You can select from one of two interface styles. One style is similar to the Norton Commander with two panels, one for local files and the other for remote files. The other interface choice resembles the single-panel Windows Explorer, showing only the remote files (see figure 2). If you plan on using this connection again, you can store the session settings for future use.
WinSCP has a drag-and-drop interface, so you can use it almost exactly as you would Windows Explorer. Dragging any file from the remote panel to a local panel will copy the file locally. Dragging a local file to the remote panel will copy it to the server. Right clicking on a file will let you copy, move, rename, or delete it. You can even have two or more WinSCP sessions running simultaneously to different servers and copy files between them.
WinSCP support SSH1 and SSH2, and authentication can be done either by using a user name and password or by using an RSA key. The author's Web site includes a utility that you can use to generate an RSA key file. The program supports DES, 3DES, and Blowfish encryption and also support compression.
Even though WinSCP 2.0 is advertised as being a beta version, it has worked without any problems for me. For those uncomfortable using beta software, version 1.0 is also available from the Web site.
Mailbag Assistant 3.0
System requirements: Windows 9x, 2000, NT4, Me, or XP operating system; 16 MB of RAM (32 MB for NT), 32 MB recommended; approximately 4 MB of free disk space, 8 MB recommended; IntelAE 486 or greater processor.
Do you get a lot of e-mail, and worse, do you never delete any of it? If you've saved every e-mail you have ever received, or if you just need to manipulate your e-mail efficiently, Mailbag Assistant may be exactly the thing you need.
Mailbag Assistant can open mailboxes (e-mail files) from about a dozen different programs, including Agent, Calypso, Eudora, Foxmail, Netscape, Netscape 6, Outlook Express, Pegasus, and more. Oddly, perhaps, it can't open Outlook mailboxes, but the help file does mention that Outlook Express can import Outlook mailboxes and then Mailbag Assistant can open the imported mailboxes. You can open one or many mailboxes simultaneously, even if they are from different programs. Mailbag Assistant doesn't change anything in the original mailboxes, so there's no danger that your e-mail program will no longer work with them.
The first time you start Mailbag Assistant, you'll get a wizard to help you select your mailboxes. The first page of the wizard asks you what type of mailbox you want to open. The next page asks you to locate the mailboxes and whether you want to open all of them or just specific ones. The third page of the wizard lets you specify search criteria if you want to open only messages containing particular text or dates. The final page of the wizard asks whether you want to perform any specific tasks with the messages that will be opened. You can opt to do nothing, to sort the messages into groups, to make an archive, or to export them into various formats. If you choose to do nothing, a list of the messages is displayed in a view probably much like your own e-mail program uses. The display uses two panels, the upper one for the list of messages and the lower one to show the selected message (see figure 3).
The upper panel actually consists of several tabbed views, one of which, Grid View-Main, is the list of messages. The Message Header view lets you see the raw message header, and the Message Body view lets you see just the body of the message. These views can be handy if you want, for example, to clip just certain parts of many messages. If you right click in the Message Body view and select Copy to Output, the message body will be copied into a new tabbed view labeled Output View, which acts as a clipboard. Each time you select Copy to Output, the new text is appended to what is already there. Ultimately, you can copy whatever you have in the Output View into another application or you can print it.
Within Grid View-Main there are several ways to manipulate the messages. As you review the messages, you can transfer any of them to a subset view to keep them separate from the main list. A useful option is the ability to extract attachments from messages and save them separately. From the menu you can also extract HTML pages and lists of e-mail addresses from messages. Messages can be sorted in several ways, including by subject, domain (e.g., yahoo.com), or mailbox name.
Mailbag Assistant has powerful capabilities for searching and filtering messages, including Boolean operators and options such as date ranges, regular expressions, and Soundex. One notable feature is its ability to interact with your own e-mail client. Double clicking on an e-mail address in a message header will open your e-mail client to compose a message to that address. There's also a button on the toolbar that let's you reply to or resend the message, again by calling your own e-mail client. Mailbag Assistant has a built-in scripting language that can be used to extend its functionality. Several scripts are included. One of them converts messages to individual HTML files and creates an index page to them, useful if you'd want to archive batches of messages on a Web site.
Mailbag Assistant is rather like a Swiss army knife for e-mail management. There's something here for everyone and a there is a tool for just about any conceivable task. As much as it can do, I found that it was easy to use. After a little tinkering, I quickly became comfortable with it, although learning its advanced features, such as scripting, will take a little time and practice. The program can be downloaded from the company's Web site for a thirty-day trial at www.fookes.com/mailbag.