(Note: This software review is based on a beta (or pre-public release) version and thus, differences may exist in the final version. Also, it should be noted that I was a beta tester for this software package.)
Introduction. I have had a lot of fun using a computer with my radios, both for keeping data bases of all the frequencies as well as controlling the radios themselves. The AOR AR-3000 has been my receiver of choices for some time now; in fact, I even wrote a program in Visual Basic to control the radio for a friend of mine. The AR-3000 proved to be a very good receiver using computer control. Next, I purchased an AR-8000, also by AOR, partially based on the fact that it too provided computer control. The promise of being able to dump a data base into a handheld proved too irresistible.
My first introduction to the OptoScan 456 (OS-456) by Optoelectronics was in March 95 when Dave Marshall demonstrated his to the Scanner Scum at Kulpsville. I took a closer look while we were at the annual Sand N Scan retreat in Virginia Beach. I quizzed Dave on his experiences with the OS-456, both during installation and during operation.
What really attracted me to the OS-456 was the ability to log subaudible tones, both CTCSS and DCS. Dave used a software package called Probe and I was intrigued by how well it logged frequencies and tones. For a scanner listener like me, who enjoys hunting out new and different frequencies as well as checking up on my frequency list, the logging was a real eye-catcher.
I purchased my OS-456 not long after this and following Dave's advice, I acquired a new soldering iron and a few other items to facilitate installation. I spread the installation out over two days (a Friday and a Saturday) and I found by not rushing and reading the instructions carefully, the job went fairly smoothly. After completing the installation, I powered the radio up. After checking the PRO-2006 out carefully, I connected my computer. I then proceeded to look at the demonstrations provided with the OS-456. One demo I could not get to work at all (I believe the disk was bad) and the other two, Scan*Star and Scancat, was already familiar with from my experience with the AOR AR-3000. I had previously decided to go with Probe based on Dave's recommendations, but while I was waiting to order and receive the software, I played with Scancat the most.
Probe is a software package designed for the Optoscan units and only for the Optoscan units. It will not operate any other receiver. This may seem like a drawback but after using it it was nice to have a package that concentrated on the strengths of the radio it was intended for and not include features I would most likely never need or use. One of my biggest complaints about Scan*Star is that the really premier feature of it, Monitoring Assistant, is not available for the receivers I use.
Probe, however, really extends the functionality of the OS-456 and maximizes the radio/computer combination. Unlimited groups, 99 banks per group, 1000 channels per bank is the first feature I noticed about Probe. Imagine, I could have a group for home, camp, Kulpsville, Virginia Beach and even for searching. Then, 99 configurable banks would satisfy even the fussiest scanner listener (take that 64,000 channel memory upgrade.) Each frequency can store the following data: Frequency, Tone, Modulation, DBA Name, Address, City, State, County, Latitude, Longitude, Callsign, Delay, Recorder, Lockout Log Alarm and Service Code.
Modulation, of course, is limited to AM, narrowband FM or wide FM. Frequency is limited to the range the PRO-2006 covers but with the added bonus of restoring the forbidden cellular frequencies. Latitude and Longitude (which can be easily taken from the PerCon Spectrum CD - more about this later) is used to calculate the distance from your receiving site. Neat huh? Now I know that the furthest reliable distance for a base station that I can receive is on the order of 37 air miles. Not bad for a discone antenna mounted about 20 feet up.
Probe also conveniently uses .dbf format data files, which means that I can take a program that reads .dbf files, such as dBase or Microsoft Access and read them or change them or sort them or do most anything my little ol
programmer's heart desires. Then, after exchanging some e-mail with Perry Joseph, the President of DataFile, I discovered that I could import the log files into Microsoft Access (using import FoxPro 2.6) and voila! Now, I can
save my logs very conveniently and share them with my friends.
These are just some of the highlights of Probe (before version 2.0). If you would like to learn more, read some of the earlier reviews of Probe. Suffice it to say that the old Probe was a formidable package.
New Features of Probe
Probe 2.0 has retained the look and feel of Probe 1.4 but added some really nice features. These features may not be immediately apparent to the user without digging a little. Let me enumerate the most important ones:
SmartScan - When I saw this mentioned in the documentation, I groaned. Oh, no, not another gimmick Oh, no, friends, this is NO gimmick SmartScan really is a neat feature. You may not think of an immediate use, but let me give you an example. SmartScan is designed to activate a bank of frequencies should a frequency in your scan bank become active. Why would you want to do that? Richmond (VA) Fire has five frequencies that they make use of during a fire. Normally, the only channel I monitor is the dispatch frequency. Should that frequency become active, Probe will kick in a bank with the other four frequencies programmed in so that immediately I can tune into Richmond's fireground and mutual aid channels.
Improved Search Banks - Unlike other software, Probe creates a search bank by creating a frequency for each channel. This emulates loading a frequency in each channel of the scanner and then scanning them. This is a nice feature because you can easily lock out frequencies you already know or may be troublesome, due to birdies or intermodulation. The new Probe improves this function and also adds some frequency steps that were not available in version 1.4.
Options for configuring display. The user can truly customize the main screen to his liking. For example, while the unit is scanning you can display: a rotating box, a channels-per-second (cps) display or even the frequency being scanned (the one I use the most). On a VGA monitor you can have 43 lines or 50 lines display, which is nice if you are not sitting right at the monitor. You can come back by and see much more of the loggings at one glance. With a. 24 mm pitch display, the screen is very readable, even with my bi-focals.
Scan rate. Probe really zips. I have gotten scan rates in the 60 cps range. This is fantastic if you are scanning several hundred frequencies. Normally, I stick to 40 or 50 channels at a time and a 60 cps rate means you are looking at each channel in less than a second. Typically, the scan rate stays well above 30 cps, and usually hits the 50 cps range.
I have two major likes about Probe. The first is the use of .dbf files. This standardization is becoming more and more apparent and I believe will continue over all the radio control software. The documentation for Probe does a very good job detailing the structure of the files without becoming too technical. The second major like I have for Probe is the look and feel. I quickly became comfortable with Probe and found he commands to be rather intuitive. There are no bizarre function key sequences to learn, as in Scan*Star. (In defense of Scan*Star, I must admit it is very powerful, but that can be a drawback, too.) Minor likes are the ease of editing a record and the amount of functionality crammed into one record. I'm sure I am not taking advantage of all of its features, but I find that does not get in the way of my enjoyment of the combination of the radio, interface and software. I also must mention the terrific support given to users of Probe. The accessibility of the software developers to user questions and inquiries is fantastic. I use e-mail and have never waited more that 2 days for a response, and usually, less than a day.
Oh, yes, I have a couple. First, I would really like a Windows version, or at least a version that behaved well in a Dos window in Windows. ScanCat did this pretty well; Probe does not. I tried, but I had problems with the serial port contentions. Probe will run in Windows, but it gobbles up resources and I had a couple of lockups. I blame this as much on Windows as I do Probe, and certainly, Probe does not pretend to be a Windows program. If you must have a Windows program, Probe probably is not the one.
Next, and this is being nit-picky, I know, but I would like to see the export feature or the print feature improved. DataFile added an export feature to version 2.0, but it is limited because it does not create a straight dump of the data base, such as an ASCII listing. If I do create a dump, the columns don't line up nicely. Call it being compulsive, but I think this feature could be improved, and I'm sure it will.
Help files on-line are non-existent. Even if it were just an ASCII dump of the documentation, an on-line help feature would be nice. If I were to press F1, I should at least get a look at the documentation. Context-sensitive help would be even nicer, but I know how labor intensive that can be and would only add to the cost of the program.
Needless to say, I am a very satisfied user of Probe. This is a program that does what it is intended to do, is easy to use, adds features to a great system and works day-in and day-out with no problems. It gives me all of the functionality I want and it does tie up a lot of system resources. I know Dave makes use of a XT-class laptop with a mono lcd screen and Probe works fine. You do not need a Pentium class machine with 8 MegaBytes of memory and a 540 MB hard drive to use Probe.
I just cannot sing the praises of this software package enough. If you have an OS-456, you need this program.