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Probe V2

by Larry L. Ledlow, Jr. NA5E

Scanning Enters the Fast Lane

Radio Shack PRO-2005 and -2006 radios have been the mainstays of serious scanner listeners for many years. Their scanning speed, wide frequency coverage, and memory capacity yielded excellent value for mid-priced radios. Unfortunately, both radios lacked computer control as sold off the shelf, and many users found the early modifications risky to install and awkward to use. In 1994 Optoelectronics introduced the Optoscan OS-456 computer interface for these scanners, and shortly thereafter the company produced the OS-535 for the popular PRO-2035 and -2042 receivers. The daughter boards' ease of installation and protocol based on ICOM's CI-V interface offered great promise to devoted, computerized scannists.

While several popular, general purpose radio control programs support the OS-456 and 535, their performance is far from optimized for the interfaces. DataFile's Probe for MS-DOS, however, was designed specifically for operations with the Optoelectronics hardware, not simply an afterthought or add-on to an existing program. Since its introduction in 1994, Probe has undergone steady improvement. It has always been a stable design, and most of the previous upgrades have been largely to accommodate changes in Percon FCC frequency data. Version 1.4, released in August 1995, introduced several important new features for COM port configuration and improved search performance.

New Features

Probe version 2.0, debuted in February 1996, represents a major upgrade, with several performance enhancements and exciting new features. The manual lists at least 30 changes and improvements. Among them:

The bound, 55-page manual is much improved over previous versions, too, and it includes a new, useful quick start section.

The program requires OS-456 or 535 Optoscan computer interface system installed in the receiver; an IBM or compatible computer running MS-DOS or PC-DOS 3.3 or higher, 640K RAM; 512K free conventional memory; a serial port; and a hard drive. Hard drive requirements are not specified in the manual. The program itself requires only slightly more than 400K, but specific scanning data files may require much more, depending on the number of frequencies in each group. Probe will run very well under MS Windows 3.x as a DOS window, although some adjustment of .PIF file parameters are required to get best scanning speed.

Probe was designed to work with only one receiver for maximum performance. Future versions may accommodate more than a single Optoscan-modified radio, but probably at some scan speed disadvantage. Since most listeners are likely to have only one OS-456 or 535, this does not represent a problem. Although two or more CI-V controlled receivers can be daisychained on the bus, messages from non-Probe devices may cause communications errors in the program. Probe does not fail, but the error messages can be annoying. If I want to use my ICOM R7100 while operating the PRO-2005 under Probe, I disconnect the interface cable from the R7100. The program will not control radios other than those compatible with the Optoscan interface boards.

Operational Concepts

Probe organizes scanning data into a certain hierarchy of groups, banks, and frequencies. A group may contain multiple banks, which in turn may contain multiple frequencies. The concept of banks is familiar to most scanner listeners. The PRO-2005 and -2006 radios, for example, may contain up to 40 frequencies in each of ten banks. I organize my scanner banks by service; e.g., banks 1 and 2 are police, 3 and 4 fire, etc. Probe banks are no different conceptually, but each bank can contain up to 1000 frequencies. Moreover, each group can contain up to 99 banks. One may think of groups as different radios, any one of which may be selected and used at a given time. Probe supports up to 4000 groups!

The variations of organization are endless. Someone who travels a lot may choose to have groups representing different cities or states and then banks organized according to service code. I use public service, aeronautical, and amateur radio groups. My public service group has banks for each service code.

The aeronautical group contains separate VHF and UHF search banks along with banks of enroute and local airport operations frequencies. The amateur radio group contains search banks by frequency band and a single bank for local repeaters

Once the listener understands the hierarchy, data entry and maintenance are simple. Extensive frequency data can be entered manually, imported from compatible FCC license databases, and edited. Banks of search frequencies may be created from the utilities menu, specifying to which group the bank should be added, upper and lower search frequencies, frequency increment, and mode.

Although basic scanning operation is straightforward, the user should carefully review the manual for explanations of configuration and setting options. The extensive menu selections and their relations to scanning performance are not necessarily intuitively obvious.

Once scanning starts, a comprehensive status display appears. The top portion of the screen lists group and bank details, frequency, signal strength, CTCSS tone, DTMF data, licensee information, distance, and more. The bottom half of the screen contains summaries of the last several active channels, and additional menu options. Manual frequency entry is possible from the scan display. This permits the user to enter a specific frequency and mode, then to manually increment or decrement tuning with a single keystroke. Previously logged activity may be accessed from the scan display, too.

Overall Impressions

I have been a Probe user since last fall, just after version 1.4 was introduced. My main interest then was to use the program to control my PRO-2005 receiver using data imported from Percon's regional FCC database. I didn't want a program to control a vast array of radios. I wanted a program to control one scanner extremely well, and I was not disappointed. A side-by-side comparison with other programs such as Scan*Star (which I also own and use) is not appropriate, because their intended applications are different.

As with most software buyers, reading the manual was second on my priority list with that original installation. Although installation was (and still is) a snap, I was quickly overwhelmed with questions, because I failed to understand some of the basic concepts of Probe operations and configuration. Things became much clearer after a short while reviewing the manual, and I soon became a reasonably proficient user. In fact, the more I used version 1.4, the more impressed I became with Probe's power. Moreover, the program was very, very stable with my configuration under MS-DOS and Windows 3.11, something I cannot say is true for many of the other control programs I have tried.

When the product's developer, Perry Joseph, offered me a chance to beta test 2.0, I leapt at it. (I have no other relationship with DataFile, Inc.) The new features sounded intriguing, and SmartScan was just what I needed for some of my monitoring activities. In approximately 50 hours of testing over several weeks, I uncovered only a few very minor bugs with the beta software. This is quite a testimonial for the quality of programming behind Probe, especially since version 2.0 represents a major upgrade. As a telecommunications systems engineer for a major aerospace corporation, I have had enough experience with software design to have a good feel for what goes on "behind the screens". This new version has eliminated the use of internal overlays, and it subsequently makes more efficient use of memory and reduces disk access. Execution speed improves as a result.

Perry's main strength as a developer lies in database applications, an area where many programs roll over and die. Not so here. Probe's database tools prove even more powerful in version 2.0. Revised and additional import/export utilities and data viewing functions make up a significant fraction of the listed improvements in the manual. The changes reflect Perry's responsiveness to user feedback, too.

Reprinted with permission
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