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PROBE Version 7

by Tom Swisher, WA8PYR

National Communications - January / February 2003

Ever since I first reviewed Probe (version 2.0) six years ago, Perry Joseph of Datafile has made steady and constant progress upgrading and improving the program. Designed specifically for the Optoscan-equipped receivers from Radio Shack (the Pro-2005/2006 with the Optoscan-456 or Optoscan 456-Lite board, or the Pro-2035/2042 with the Optoscan-535 board), and the Optocom from Optoelectronics, Probe is still about the best computer-aided scanning program available.

Probe is designed around a true database engine rather than using text-based files of one sort or another. This makes entering and editing frequency records quite easy, makes possible such powerful database features as variable indexing, and also makes a variety of file import/export options reliable and easy to use. One can even enter transmitter locations for each database entry, and in the general program configuration, enter the monitoring station location. Active frequency screens will then give the distance and compass bearing to an active transmitter.

Probe also allows scanning files of almost incredible size; files are arranged in Groups, with each Group holding 99 banks of 1000 channels each. This means the user can set up a local group, a travel group, a military monitoring group and so on, and each group can have individual bank and scan settings. With a capacity of 4000 groups, the database can accept a total of 396,000,000 channels; if anyone can fill up that many, I salute you.

Other software requires more computer power and memory, and these requirements often increase which each new generation of the software. Performance can also suffer as the computer is asked to perform more and more simultaneous operations in a multi-tasking environment. One of the big advantages Probe has is that it runs well on just about any computer, from an old 4.77 MHz XT to a new Pentium-IV class machine. I found earlier versions of Probe to run quite well on XT and 386 class computers, but I ran this version of Probe on the following computers:

486DX2-50 laptop (DOS and Windows 95, 24mb RAM)
Pentium 166 laptop (DOS and Windows 98, 64mb RAM)
AMD K6-2/300 desktop (DOS and Windows 98, 64mb RAM)
AMD Athlon 750 desktop (Windows 2000 Professional, 320mb RAM)

Probe performed well on all of them, the only real difference being scan speed. Running from DOS on the AMD 300 MHz machine gave a scan speed in excess of 100 channels per second. However, running under Windows 98 causes slower scanning (about 15-20% slower), and I did have to do some careful tweaking of settings on the Windows 2000 machine in order to get good performance from the program. This was due to Windows 2000 rather than Probe; while it will run DOS software in a DOS window, Win2k has no native DOS option, and controls access to hardware tightly. DOS software requiring direct access to hardware thus has to contend with Windows 2000 getting in the way, and results with many programs are often poor or nonexistent. Still, I was finally able to get scan rates around 70+ channels per second with this computer, which is still better than anything else out there on the market. I have not tried Probe under Windows XP, nor have I any intention of "upgrading" to Windows XP. I understand, however, that Micro$oft has made changes that allow better access to hardware by DOS programs under WinXP. My next project will be to see if I can get Probe to run in the Linux operating system with the DOS emulator utility; I have high hopes for success.

Probe is very easy to use, almost intuitive, with easy-to-use menus offering various choices for program operation and scanner control. The main scanning screen is very easy to read and understand. There are also a host of excellent features, including the Hyperbank feature. Hyperbank allows you to "memorize" a particular grouping of scan banks under one of the function keys F1 through F10. For example, F1 can be set for "Normal", F2 for "Fire only", F3 for "Police Only", F4 for "Fire Tac" and so on. This makes it really easy to instantly select a specific scanning target when something really interesting happens that you would like to focus on. An adjunct to Hyperbanks is Hypersettings. This allows the user to change any of the 84 different scan settings and memorize them to the desired function key along with the chosen bank settings. This feature is very useful as it allows various changes in the delay timing and other settings to be tied to a specific Hyperbank.

Probe also has a "Priority Channel" feature, which allows one to set a specific frequency as the priority, and set any desired time interval for priority channel checking. There is also "Custom Delay", which allows one to set a custom delay time for each frequency entry; "Templock", which allows an active frequency to be temporarily locked out for a desired period of time; a "Total Frequency Counter", which shows a count of the total number of frequencies being scanned as well as the number of active frequencies in a bank; and a "Mute" function, which allows the user to mute or unmute audio. This is a really handy feature that saves having to monkey around with the volume control when, for example, the phone rings. There are also a whole variety of features for limiting monitoring time of active frequencies based on presence or absence of modulation or amount of time active. One can also use a mouse to move around when in DOS or a DOS window.

The program has detailed logging features. Active frequency "hits" are entered in a log file with user information as well as date and time stamps for later review. Probe also has excellent tone features. DTMF tones can be logged, and one can set a specific PL or DPL tone on a frequency (as well as carrier squelch only). These features allow scanning of specific users only rather than all users on a frequency. By making separate entries for each agency on a frequency and putting the proper PL/DPL code in for each agency, one can use the logging features of Probe to make a determination of activity levels by user.

Probe also allows importing of FCC data from Mr. Scanner, Betty Bearcat and other similar frequency file CDs, as well as import/export of data in the UFDBF format, which has become a defacto standard for database file exchange. When importing data, or copying data from one group to another, Probe uses it's "Compare/Copy" features to compare the imported and existing records for duplicates. Duplicated records are highlighted and new records are not, which makes it very easy to go through and delete those records you do not want to keep.

In addition to the features carried over from previous versions, Version 7.0 has some excellent new features. "TacScan" is one of the most interesting; this assigns an active frequency to a priority postion in the scanlist for a specified amount of time. TacScan allows you to more easily identify transmissions when searching a wide range of spectrum, as you can quickly put a frequency of interest in a temporary priority status, making it more likely that you will hear a full communication on the frequency. TacScan can be set to happen automatically, or when a frequency is logged, and the TacScan priority sample rate & time can be changed. I tried out the TacScan feature in conjunction with the fire frequencies in the county to my north. When an interesting incident was dispatched and assigned an operations channel, I was able to add the operations channel to the TacScan list, which made it a priority for the time I assigned. There is even a "Killtemp" option (renamed "Kill" in Version 7), which allows selected TacScan and Templock frequencies to be removed from that status. These are very handy features!

Also new in Version 7 is the capability to import CSV files, which opens even more possibilities for sources of data, including spreadsheet programs and some database programs that do not offer DBF as an output possibility. I prefer maintaining my frequency files in a spreadsheet program, and the new CSV export capability allowed me to export my files in a format easily imported by the Open Office spreadsheet program.

Version 7 also allows screen data (as seen on the screen) to be sent to a printer, text file, CSV file or mapping file. I found this also to be an interesting feature, as I was able to quickly send an active frequency display to the printer for making notes.

While every program I've tried for my Pro-2035/OS-535 radio excels in some way or another, I'm running out of descriptive new words and phrases for explaining what a fine all-around program Probe is. There are so many excellent features I can't even begin to cover all of them in detail. In spite of being a DOS-based program, Probe is still the most useful program available for searching, scanning and logging of conventional frequencies and PL / DPL / DTMF tones.

Reprinted with permission
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