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Probe Version 4.0

by Ken Reiss

Popular Communications - Volume 16, Number 10

Probe Turns 4.0

DataFile of St. Louis has once again upgraded their popular Probe software for the Optoscan 456 and 535 products. As usual, the resulting product offers many enhancements for the seasoned Probe user, while maintaining the simplicity that Probe has become known for - great news if you're just getting started.

If you're new to computer-controlled scanning, Probe is probably one of the easiest software systems to configure and use with your scanner. It runs on any old DOS computer, although it also runs just fine in a window under Windows 95. With just a few minutes in the manual's "Quick Start" section and a few key presses, you can be up and scanning. Then, as you get more comfortable and begin to read the rest of the manual, you start to uncover some very powerful settings. Probe preconfigures most of these so that you don't need to mess with them to get up and running, but at the same time, you don't get the full power of the software without understanding what it's capable of doing. It's truly a program that can grow with you.

Probe stores files on your hard disk in "Groups". You can have up to 4,000 group files. When you're scanning, you will be scanning one, and only one, group, but having 3,999 extras preprogrammed can't hurt. In reality, I know a lot of people who only have one group programmed which may be plenty. But it's nice to have expansion capabilities. It's also fun to exchange group files with other users. There are some available for download on the Internet for download that tend to be of some use to everyone. Things like Maritime, air bands and common ham radio frequencies have been preconfigured and can be downloaded and scanned right away. (For further info on these, see the "Links - Resources" page.)

Entering Data

Once you've selected the group file that you want to work with, you're ready to begin entering data. Probe provides 99 banks in each group, and up to 1,000 frequencies per bank. If you do the math, that's up to 99,000 frequencies that you could potentially be scanning at once, and if you multiply that by the 4,000 groups that you could have stored, you shouldn't run out of capacity anytime soon.

Probe will import data from a variety of sources as well as its own format. Most of the major CD collections of FCC data are supported, including ScanerBase, Betty Bearcat, Mr. Scanner and Percon. While you can import this data as a good resource for finding what's around you, and as a starting point, you'll pretty quickly find yourself wanting to set up your own files with just the stuff you scan on a daily basis. Don't worry; it's easy to have both. Just create another group file!

Of course, good scanning sense and your time to type frequencies in will dictate that you really don't want to scan that many channels at once. The real power in having 99 banks is how you can divide your scanning interests: a few police frequencies here, a few fire frequencies there, and some other stuff scattered in various banks.

In version 3.0, a feature called HyperBanks allowed you to attach a set of banks to a function key. By pressing that key, those banks would be loaded. One of version 4.0's cool new features is that now, in addition to switching banks on and off, HyperBanks can also switch any of about 54 settings at the same time. So you could configure one HyperBank to load police and fire freqs, and log that to a certain file. You could then configure another hyperbank to load police and ambulance frequencies, but log them to a different log file and turn on the priority function. It is truly a way to expedite a whole host of changes in a very short time. With a little preparation, you can be prepared for almost any scanning situation at the press of a button.

Improved Priority Function

Speaking of priority, Probe has added an improvement here too. Probe's priority function was always a bit different, but once you figured out how it works, it's pretty cool, and very functional. The priority function allows you to designate a priority bank. This, of course, has to be one of the banks that you are scanning. You also designate how often you want this priority bank checked in terms of frequencies scanned. The higher the number, the less often Probe will go back and check this bank for activity.

As an example, suppose you designate bank 1 as your priority bank, and tell it to check every 50 frequencies. The program will scan everything in your other active banks, counting as it goes until 50 frequencies have been scanned. Then, it stops where it's at and goes to check the priority bank, regardless of how many frequencies you have in that bank. Once the priority bank has been checked, and assuming no activity was found, scanning resumes where it left off. When 50 more frequencies have been scanned, it checks priority again. By increasing or decreasing this number, you can dramatically affect how often the frequencies in the priority bank are being checked, and as a result, how much emphasis is on them in your scanning routine. It truly allows you to focus on key frequencies while still scanning other frequencies.

In version 4.0, there is a new "active priority" feature. Under the priority system in Probe 3.0, when the scanner is stopped on an active frequency, the priority frequencies were not being checked. In version 4.0, you can designate one "priority check" frequency that is sampled while another frequency is active, much like a conventional scanner does. You'll hear a slight interruption to the audio of the active frequency. This one frequency can be checked as often as you like. The setting range for this runs into the fractions of a second, so you can get quite a bit of control. It takes a bit of experimentation to find the ideal settings for the frequencies that are important to you, but you will be repaid with an improvement in the continuity of conversations.

Unmatched Tone Control

Probe has always offered excellent CTCSS and DCS tone squelch controls. You can use tones both to help identify who is transmitting and, in a true tone squelch mode, so only those transmissions with the appropriate tone are monitored. Its abilities in this regard are quite extraordinary. If a user with a particular tone transmits and the scanner stops on that frequency, Probe will look to see if it has a user with that tone in the bank. If it does, it will display that user's information on the screen. After the transmission is complete, if another user with a different tone transmits, it will display the information for that user, just like you'd expect. And you can also lock out individual tones and users if you prefer. In version 4.0, you can also tell Probe to unsquelch only if there is no tone. You can also set tone parameters in the manual tuning mode if you like.

Information Please

One of the things that has always set Probe apart and contributes greatly to the ease of use is its database features. The data worksheet is integrated right into the main program so it is always only a few keystrokes away. There are lots of neat functions available here, probably more than we can tell you about. These include free editing of any record in the database, sorting and finding data in a number of ways, and the ability to configure columns in any order you wish for both display on screen and printed reports. You can also copy and move banks from one group to another, or within the same group.

New in version 4.0 is a "compare" function. This handy feature allows you to compare the contents of one group file to another. The way it works at first glance is a bit confusing, but once you've used it a couple of times you'll appreciate the flexibility this new feature offers.

You access the extra options from the frequency viewer by pressing F10. Then, you select a group that you wish to copy / compare the data FROM. You can select just a single bank, or the entire database for that group, or you can opt for just the marked or unmarked records. The records are copied from that group into the currently active group, in bank 00.

Bank 00 has been around for a long time, but most Probe users probably didn't know about it. You can't scan 00, but you can use it to store information, either on a permanent or temporary basis. I'm not sure why you'd want to store stuff there permanently, but as a temporary workspace, it can make life easier.

As the records are brought into bank 00, duplicates of any frequency in the current database will be marked (it's helpful to unmark any records you might have had marked, so that you'll be looking at just the results of the comparison). Marked records represent frequencies that are already in the database somewhere else. Unmarked records represent frequencies that are new. From here, you have a lot of options.

There is a command to just delete the marked records. That will leave you with only new stuff in bank 00 that you can then go back and assign to banks as appropriate. Or, you might elect to change the index (sort) so that records are shown in frequency order. Marked records will still be the duplicates, but they will appear right next to the record that they duplicate. This way, you can look through and decide on a case-by-case basis what to keep and what to delete. You can even reassign banks as you go, so that the new records that you decide to keep will replace the ones that you are deleting in the correct bank. Of course, all of this requires a bit of time to sort through, but it makes central "master" databases possible, and it makes exchanging groups with friends that much easier. You'll like this feature after you use it once or twice. Or, in typical Probe style, you can just ignore that it's there and keep on scanning.

Also related to data operations is a new export function. Probe now supports the UFDBF format in export operations. Probe has always been able to import records in this format which come from all sorts of sources including most of the popular FCC database collections. Now, files can be exported in this format also for use with other software.

Wait, There's More!

Version 4.0 also offers a custom delay function. Each frequency can now have it's own delay setting if you choose. Of course, you can still have a "delay all", and "delay flagged" settings too. However, if you assign a custom delay to a frequency, it will override the delay all and delay flagged times. This will prove a useful feature for certain applications where additional delay time is warranted.

Once again, hats off to DataFile for a superior product. It's retains its ease of use for those just beginning, while continuing to offer superb control over the scanning process for those who choose to dig a little deeper. And even with the new features, Probe will still run on virtually any DOS computer, making a dedicated system both desirable and affordable.

Reprinted with permission
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