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The Optoscan 535 / Probe V2.0

by Thomas R. Swisher, Jr.

National Scanning - Volume 8, Number 6

After hearing a great deal about the Optoscan 456 board, a computer interface board by OptoElectronics for the Pro-2005 / 2006 scanners, I was hoping it would work with the Pro-2035 so I could put it through it's paces. Alas, the OS-456 board will not work with the '2035. But fret not Pro-2035 owners, for OptoElectronics introduced the OS-535 at the 1995 Dayton Hamvention. And so, the time had come to perform a little minor surgery on my beloved Pro-2035.

A computer interface for the Pro-2035 / 2042 scanners, the OS-535 allows a computer to connected to your scanner for control purposes. Depending upon the software package you use, it enables you to do scan, limit search, search logging and a variety of other functions. It will also do this at speeds quite a bit faster than that provided by the scanner alone. These features make it ideal for the job of searching out those new frequencies and logging them for later perusal, thus saving you the effort of sitting there with pad and paper, noting each hit as it happens.

The OS-535 comes packed in a flat box complete with all parts and a detailed installation manual, which includes a checkmark space for each completed step. Installation time can vary; it took me an hour and a half. The OS-535 package also includes a disk containing OS456 / OS535 diagnostic software, and demonstration versions of 3 popular computer-scanning programs. You also need a few small hand tools such as screwdrivers and a soldering iron to complete the installation. The only fairly specialized tool needed is a nibbling tool, available at Radio Shack for about ten bucks.

Disassembly of the Pro-2035 was no big deal. It simply involved opening the plastic cabinet, setting it aside and removing the main circuit board and front panel assembly from the framework of the scanner. I found one minor typographical error with the installation instructions at this point; the manual lists 7 gold screws holding the circuit board down, where there are actually nine.

After removal of the circuit board, an opening needs to be cut out in the rear panel of the scanner to accommodate the connector panel of the OS-535. When the rear panel is cut out, you must reinstall the front panel assembly and the main circuit board, and then install the OS-535 board. This board sits on spacers above the main circuit board, and is connected between it and the front panel using the existing cables from the front panel and the supplied cables to connect to the main board. There are also two wires which must be soldered to the main board; one of these provides discriminator audio to the OS-535 for decoding CTCSS, DCS and DTMF tones, and the other is an analog signal wire. Soldering the audio wire is no problem, but the analog wire is a wee bit tricky, so be careful. After the soldering is finished and the connectors are all hooked up, the OS-535 board is placed over the main board of the '2035 and fastened in place with the supplied screws.

The final steps in the process are to install the new rear panel (supplied with the OS-535) over the connectors and fasten it in place, then close up the cabinet. Before you do this, plug in the scanner and make sure it works. If it does, close up the scanner and move along. If it does not, go through and make sure you reconnected the power supply leads, and make sure that you don't have any solder bridges or loose connectors.

I found installation was pretty much a breeze; take your time and double check your work and you should have no problems. With the installation completed, you're almost ready to go; you've got the foundation of an excellent scanning tool. But, you need software! Included with the OS-535 are several programs to run on your computer. First is a simple OS-456 / OS-535 diagnostic program, which runs through and makes sure everything works. You then have a selection of different terminal programs to try with your OS-535: a fully functioning version of Radio Manager, and demo versions of ScannerWear and ScanStar.

The first of these, Radio Manager, is a shareware program which requires Windows 3.1 or better. It is a good general scanning and receiver control program that is easy to use, but it is a little thin on some of the special features such as logging search results. It's main screen is quite easy to use and is very uncluttered, making it easy to read at a glance. Radio Manager includes the capability to set up and scan various banks which can be arranged in any manner that suits the user, and is capable of using an almost unlimited number of programmed frequencies. I found this feature very nice, as there are certain ways I like to arrange the programming in my multi-bank scanners for ease of use.

Unfortunately, like many shareware programs Radio Manager is kind of thin on documentation. Entering frequencies into the program database is rather slow. This can be overcome with a separate program (from the same author) called Frequency Manager. I had some difficulty finding an up-to-date version of Frequency Manager on the bulletin boards so did not get to check it out. Radio Manager itself is also very dependent upon computer clock speed for scan and search rates. It ran fine on a 386SX16, but was painfully slow.

The next program is ScannerWear 1.3, which is a commercial program that requires Windows 3.1 or better. Easy to use, it is also a very good program, and includes an interface with the Percon frequency database that displays frequency info when it stops during search or scan (if you have the Percon database). The selection of scan banks and search ranges is also very nice; it lists all scan bank files and search bank files, which includes upper and lower limits, step size, and so forth; all you have to do is select one with the mouse.

Unfortunately, the demo version uses an operating time limit and had the capability of entering one's own local search and scan frequencies disabled. This limited me to the pre-programmed search banks, the only one of which offering any possibility of reasonable levels of local activity was the 2-meter ham band (144-148 MHz). The preset step size here was 20 kHz, which is only good for the 145 MHz portion of the band in many parts of the country, meaning that reception in the 146-147 bands was generally slightly off frequency.

ScannerWear also is very dependent upon computer clock speed for scan and search speed. And, since the Percon interface is always displayed (whether you have the Percon database or not), the search and scan screens are a bit too "busy" for my taste. I would have preferred the ability to switch off the Percon interface for a simpler screen. It also would have been better to make the program time limited but fully functional so prospective buyers could try everything out, in order to make a reasonably informed decision before spending around $100 on a software package.

Next in the software pantheon is ScanStar (there are two versions; Commercial and Professional). ScanStar Commercial requires a 386 or better, with 4 meg of RAM and a VGA monitor, while ScanStar Professional requires a 286 or better, 2 meg of RAM, and an EGA / VGA / MONO monitor. Neither of these programs will run under Windows and must be run from the DOS prompt with Windows deactivated. I had trouble getting ScanStar Professional to work properly with the OS-535; apparently there are minor differences in the way the OS-456 and the OS-535 communicate with the computer. However, there are few differences between the Professional and Commercial versions (except Commercial has more features).

With simple menus and information screens, a really nice graphical scanning screen, and the ability to import and export frequency data and text files, I found ScanStar to be easy and fun to use. Like ScannerWear, the demo version of ScanStar is time limited and has certain features locked out. The demo version will not allow frequencies that end in odd numbers (153, 453, 855, etc) to be entered into scanning banks, but they can be searched using the limit search function. There are still enough active, even-numbered frequencies out there that this was only a minor inconvenience. The logging function is also very nice; ScanStar outputs log information (frequency, hit time, transmission duration, CTCSS or DCS tone and so on) to a text file which ca be read with any text reader. It also shows this list on screen during limit search.

However, since I (as well as many other scannists) prefer to do other things while listening to the scanner, I was bothered by the fact that both programs require as much computer as Windows, but will not run under Windows. Very few people have a separate 386SX16 (or better) computer to dedicate to scanning purposes.

I've also reviewed ScanCat and Probe, which are not included with the OS-535. ScanCat is a nice program, which will run on a "bare-bones" computer. It also, however, is quite dependent upon computer clock speed. The main scan/search screen is also not very attractive. It is easy to use though, and offers features similar to ScanStar.

On the other hand, I would have to say that Probe is the nicest of all the software available at this time. Unlike the other programs, Probe was designed specifically and solely for the OptoScan 456 and 535 boards. It runs well on older, slower computers, does not require a color monitor, and is quite easy to use, with menus offering a variety of choices for program operation and scanner control. I found it to run very well on a variety of computers ranging from a 10 MHz XT to a 286 laptop, from a 386DX-40 to a 486DX2-80. The display screen is very detailed, and features an unobtrusive database section which displays data for the frequency that has been located. If scanning a programmed bank file, the database section will identify the specific entry and all other information. And, like ScanStar, Probe enters search and scan "hits" into a log file which can be used for later reference.

Probe uses a true database engine, which basically means the scanner control functions are designed around an actual database program. This makes file management really easy. Probe is capable of using 4000 program groups (only one group is scanned at a time), with 99 banks and 1000 channels per bank in each group. This gives a per group total of 99,000 frequencies, and a program total of 396,000,000 channels. For limit search purposes, Probe helps the user create a search bank (as many as desired). All one needs to do is enter the upper and lower limits, the step size and the receiving mode, and Probe does the rest. Then, when you're in a searching kind of mood, simply select the desired bank or banks and go to it.

Probe also has an interesting feature called SmartScan. This allows one to specify for each channel a bank that will be monitored when activity is located on that particular channel; the SmartBank can be monitored solo or in combination with the other selected banks, for any amount of time desired. To try this feature out, I used the Norfolk Southern police channel, 161.205 MHz, and set up a special bank containing nothing but Norfolk Southern railroad channels, for 5 minute solo monitoring. Sure enough, when the scanner heard NSPD talking during normal scan, it immediately jumped to the SmartBank, and stayed in that bank alone for 5 minutes. Cool!

The only real drawback I could find is that Probe only allows editing one frequency at a time through an edit screen called up only when needed. This makes large-scale editing of big frequency data files rather time consuming. I overcame this problem by doing all my really large editing, importing and sorting jobs in dBase 4, enabling me to move from record to record using the cursor arrow keys. Since Probe uses DBF compatible files, dBase 4 was able to read and write them directly.

Probe also allows one to import files from other databases, such as Percon CDs and other programs, change bank numbers or delete banks en masse, move frequencies from one group to another, and even reindexes files as needed. All in all, I would have to say Probe is tops.

All in all, the wide variety of software packages out there means that a scannist can find one to suit individual needs without too much trouble. Using one of these programs, the OS-535 is an extremely useful and fun device to have. It enables one to determine CTCSS, DCS and DTMF tones in use, will soon (when the add-on board and appropriate software become available) allow one to decode EF Johnson trunking, and really simplifies listening to frequencies you already have and searching for new things to listen to. I've already found (and logged) several new frequencies and tones with it!

Reprinted with permission
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