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Probe Scanner Control Software

by Rich Carlson, N9JIG

CARMA Newsletter

Probe is intentionally written to run from the cheapest, oldest, and slowest computers you can scrounge up from your basement. Why should you devote your super fast Pentium Pro 133MHz with a 2GB drive, 12x CD-ROM, and 20 inch monitor that you just spent $5,000 on to your scanner when you can use that for web browsing, database crunching, or CAD rendering. Use that old box that your kid won't even use, and the local computer club had a laughing fit when you asked if anyone wanted it. Probe will run just dandy on it, and let you use the expensive computer for more challenging chores. If it will run DOS 3.3, it will run Probe.

Probe software is dedicated solely to the OptoScan OS456 and OS535 scanner interface boards in the Radio Shack PRO 2005, 2006, 20035, and 2042 scanning radios. It will not operate AR8000, R7000, or other radios. This allows the programs feature set to achieve higher performance levels. And perform it does!

After I received Probe, I was immediately impressed by the professional manual provided by DataFile. Almost 60 pages chock full of info on how to get the most out of your computer controlled receiver. Operation of the program is spelled out in enough detail to satisfy the technically oriented, but not so much to bog down the novice user.

That evening I installed it to my Tandy 1800HD 286-12 laptop computer. My little laptop, which barely runs due to age and abuse, accepted this software without complaint. The installation took almost 2 minutes, after the install batch file did it's job, I was looking at the "C:/Probe" prompt beckoning me to explore.

After tapping in "Probe", I was greeted by a menu in the upper left corner. This menu is the heart of the program. Probe uses a cascading menu system that allows you to use the arrow keys or a highlighted key letter (similar to the "ALT" key set up in DOS / Windows) that chooses the option or the next menu. Each menu has the key letter in CAPS so you can tell right away the correct key. Most are the first letter of the option title, but some can not be due to prior use.

The "Scan" option brings you to the main scanning window where you will do most of your monitoring. The "Scan" window has portions that display the scanning status, frequency and user information, PL tones or DCS codes when present, and a separate line for DTMF (Touch-Tone) info. The bottom third of the window is for the current log data, and shows the last 9 channels received. The "Configure" option brings you to the various settings that you will need to adjust. This is also where you will enter your scan channels. This has several sub-options:

The "Utilities" window allows one to import data from PerCon or other data sources, create search limit programs, export data from your log to another file, and perform other housekeeping chores. This is also where you would enable full coverage on the OS535, if you had the password to do it.

Great Features

SmartScan: This allows you to designate any frequency with a bank of channels called a "SmartBank" (which can be any one of the 99 banks). If one of these is received, then the radio will only scan the "SmartBank" for a certain amount of time, such as a minute. This allows you to have a better chance at hearing the responding traffic. Let's say that there is a large fire in your town. When they go to the Mutual Aid channel to call for help, you will also want to listen to the Fireground channel, EMS, ESDA, and the neighboring town's fire channels.

Distance: When you enter the latitude and longitude of your monitoring post, and using the coordinates supplied in your data, Probe will determine the distance you are from the transmitter! While this relies on accurate data, it is a fascinating feature.

Scan Speed Display: The scan window displays the scan speed of your set-up. The speed you scan at depends on your computer, resources available to the software, and the settings you choose. When I first installed the program, it scanned at about 15 Channels per Second (CPS) as shown on the display. After tweaking some settings, I was able to get it up to almost 40 CPS. If your tweaking gets too fast then the software will give you an error message and even offer to slow it up a little for you. Other, faster computers will run at even higher scan speeds.

My Suggestions

All frequencies are shown in a "xxxx.xxxx" format, with 4 characters before and 4 characters after the decimal point. This allows freqs above 1000 MHz to be monitored with this program, but it also makes it a little aggravating to see the leading zero on the vast majority of freqs below 1000 MHz. DataFile says that they have worked on a way to get around this, but they need to maintain set field lengths in data files to work with ".dbf" files such as the PerCon CD's.

The manual, which by far is the best of any software package I have seen, says little about the hardware aspect of the computer used to run the program. I would like to see if they recommend the program to be run in straight DOS, or would a DOS Prompt in Windows be sufficient. What about Windows 95? DataFile reports accurately that this will run on just about anything that will run DOS, including the new Palm-Tops, and the old AT that is rotting away in your basement. Perhaps a section of the manual for advanced users would work. I would have a set of pre-set scan and search limits, and perhaps a sample scan file with the most common scanner freqs. This would allow the novice and impatient buyer to start up his new toy without having to program in freqs.

With the increase in data streams heard on scanners, it would be nice to be able to decode some of these. Perhaps some paging codes, or other data codes can be decoded in future versions. How about a Trunked data signal recognition to restart the scan when the radio hears trunking data. This is something that is hardware dependant, and could be adopted in future versions. In order to allow the user to use any old junker of a computer, there is no mouse support in Probe. I would have made this an option, so long as it doesn't deter from performance.

Summary

Of all the DOS / Windows programs I have tried for my OS456, Probe is by far the best. It installs effortlessly, and allows the user to do almost anything he wants with his radio. With the increased scan speed over other programs, Probe users will not miss any action.

The handling of PL tones is top notch. Other programs will show the last PL received on a channel if no PL is currently present, Probe will only show a PL if one is present. With a separate window area for DTMF tones received, it allows for simultaneous reception of PL and DTMF. Other programs make you choose whether to receive PL, DPL, or DTMF, and won't allow for simultaneous reception of these tones. The manual beats all the competition. It is well laid out, and easy to use. Aside from a couple minor differences in how I may have written this, it is obvious that the writers of Probe are true scannists, and they wrote in the features that other scannists want. Now if they can only make the radio more sensitive...

Reprinted with permission
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