For several years now, computer-assisted monitoring has been available to scannists. At first, the software seemed to almost get in the way of using the radio and various attempts at taking advantage of the computer's strengths always seemed to fall short. Only in the past year has the software begun to really merge the strengths of the computer with the flexibility a scanner offers.
Now, a software package exists that takes advantage of and adds to the system that is made up of the Radio Shack PRO-2005 or PRO-2006, the Optoelectronics OS-456, the personal computer and the software. It is an upgrade to a package you are probably already familiar with if you use the OS-456 or if you have been keeping up with the software reviews.
This past fall, Perry Joseph of DataFile, Inc. asked me to beta-test the newest upgrade to the Probe software package. If you are new to computer-controlled scanning or the Probe software, you may want to find a copy of the review I wrote of Probe 2.0. It is available on the web in several locations (notably, here).
On the surface, Probe 3.0 looks just like Probe 2.0. This is not accidental. Probe 2.0 is a near-ideal interface for the OS-456. (While I focus on the OS-456/PRO-2006 in this review, these comments apply equally to the PRO-2005 or the PRO-2035/PRO-2042 and OS-535 interface.) The main scanning display presents all of the information to keep you informed. Even a log of recent activity is displayed. With the touch of a single key, you can view the frequency file, the log file, the settings menu and more.
It is, however, what is not so readily visible that makes Probe 3.0 the outstanding upgrade to what was already, in my opinion, the best software package for the OS-456. Some of these new features are visual / audible multi-level alarms, record marking, Hyperbanks and configurable viewers.
The first feature is the "mark" command. When scanning, you can have Probe mark frequencies that it gets a signal on. This feature is great to check active frequencies in unattended operation. Probe also makes it very easy to set-up the colors and now even includes a blinking attribute. Once the frequencies are marked, which can also be done manually, one can copy the marked frequencies, delete the marked frequencies or just as easily, unmark them. Also, you can export the data to a text file for use with another data base program, such as dBase, Fox Pro or Microsoft Access, or to share the frequencies with someone else.
The next new feature is the configurable viewers. At first, this configuration entry confused me because of the name 'Viewers'. Trying this option out, I discovered this allows the user to configure the columnar order of the frequency and log data files as viewed. This is a very nice feature as some folks may want to look at certain data without having to scroll horizontally through the data file. I believe Probe is the first receiver control application that allows the user to configure the columns like this. It is really a nice feature as you can set the display to suit your tastes. This also allows one to configure the printer output.
The exciting new feature is Hyperbanks. What are Hyperbanks? Imagine having ten scanners sitting on your desk. Each scanner has banks and frequency configuration to suit each of your listening scenarios. Perhaps one scanner has fire, media and local government. Another has federal law enforcement and local / state law enforcement banks. Still another has banks devoted to snow removal and tow trucks. Taking advantage of the computer's ability to memorize information, Probe allows the user to setup ten function keys with separate banks depending on a listening scenario. Setup your banks (each bank can store 1000 frequenciess and there are 99 banks) to suit your interests. Then setup the Hyperbanks as virtual banks. For example you could have a media bank, a fire bank and a local government bank. Then configure the F-1 key to activate these three banks. Add a description (up to forty characters) such as "Working Fire Setup". Setup the F-10 key with your "favorite frequencies"bank, perhaps adding a description "Favorite Frequencies". Then if a major conflagaration occurs, you can press F-1 and the fire / media / local government banks are activated. When everything is finished, press F-10 and you are back to your "normal" configuration.
This feature allows Probe and the OS-456 to become a tactical system, where it is quickly (and easily!) reconfigured to the needs of the moment. Rather than switching to the banks screen, deactivating and then activating the appropriate banks, you only have to press one function key and go. Thus, with the ten function keys having a separate configuration, it is like having ten scanners available, all at the touch of one key.
The last new feature I want to mention is the visual alarm feature. One can configure certain frequencies to sound and display (by using color / blink attributes) an alarm when they are active. Again, if you are interested in activity on a specific frequency, such as, a surveillance frequency, this is a way to highlight that on your video display. This allows for configuring Probe to do more than just scan and log. I can have Probe running on the computer behind me, and if I hear the alarm sound, I can turn around and look at the display. This allows me to focus quickly on high-interest frequencies as they become active.
One addition, that isn't really a new feature, is the ability to now configure Priority and SmartScan to work together to provide more flexibility to your scanning setup. I haven't made much use of this feature, but, again in a system such as this, you will now be able to tailor the scanning scenario more to your needs.
In my last review, I had two knocks against Probe. Sadly, I cannot report that either of those have been addressed, but as neither detracted from using Probe, it is more a matter of personal taste. My first complaint was that Probe was a DOS package. It still is, and this will be a comfort to those who are using an older IBM XT or AT clone to run Probe. Probe is quite capable of using just 512 kb of memory. I know Tom Swisher and Dave Marshall both use an XT laptop to run Probe with excellent results. XT laptops are available on the used market for next-to-nothing; in fact, you will probably pay more for the Opto board. This makes a nice portable setup. (For day-to-day use of Probe, I use a 386 computer that was given to me. I get 40 channels per second consistently. The computer has 1 MB of memory, an EGA monitor and 110 MB hard drive. The whole computer setup cost me less than $25 because I had to buy the keyboard.)
My second complaint was about on-line help. And on-line help is still not available. However, from a programming standpoint, Probe would grow as an executable with on-line help. The trade off to run on a 640 kb computer versus having on-line documentation (or help) is one Perry made wisely. Keep the very well written manual next to the computer. You will not need it after you familiarize yourself with the features of Probe.
If you are using Probe 2.0, Probe 3.0 will seem very familiar to you and I am happy to report that your 2.0 files will convert nicely to Probe 3.0. This makes the upgrade painless. It is horrible to have to re-input all those groups, banks and frequencies.
So, am I happy with version 3.0? Yes, very much so and without qualification. Probe is in my estimation the best software product for the Opto OS-456 / 535 boards. It's ease of use, speed, features and ability to run on anything from an XT to a Pentium make it the software champ for the OS-456/535. It runs very nicely under Windows 95. While it still is not a true Windows program, it behaves nicely as a multi-task application and using Microsoft Access or another Windows data base application will alleviate the need to have access to the data in the Windows environment.
I want to thank Perry Joseph for the opportunity to again be a beta-tester and to have the advance look at version 3.0 for this review. Perry is very accessible via e-mail to answer questions and provide assistance for the user of his product. This is a comfort to the user who may have some anxiety about starting with a product of this type. I thoroughly enjoy the chance to interact with the software author of any product I use and in this case, it has been a most pleasurable experience. Perry listens to his users and tries hard to satisfy their needs and desires.