If you've followed this magazine and in particular the ScanTech column for any length of time, you'll know that one of my favorite radios for computer control is the optoscan series of interface boards for the PRO-2005 and PRO-2006 as well as the PRO-2035 and PRO-2042. The OptoCom receiver has most recently supplanted this since it's an all in one system that accomplishes the same thing and more. You probably also know that my favorite software to control these units is Probe from Datafile Inc. Datafile recently announced the version 5.0 upgrade to this excellent control program. What could they possibly add? Lots of enhancements which we'll take a look at in a moment, but first, for those unfamiliar with the program, let's take a quick look at the basic features.
Unlike most computer control software that we've looked at, Probe only supports the Optoscan units. The author feels that this focus on a single platform allows him to extract maximum performance while keeping the software simple. It certainly achieves that goal, although underneath this DOS based program is a lot of sophistication in computer control. Why DOS? Once again, the author felt that keeping the program scaled down and simple would help ensure maximum performance. Some of the fastest scanning speeds I've ever measured have been with Probe... over 100 channels per second on the OS-535 and OptoCom units, although at those speeds some of the weaker signals may be skipped. I've been running an OptoCom quite comfortably in the 70 to 80 channels per second range. A lot of windows programs simply can't function at those speeds. Many windows users complain of reduced scanning and system performance when trying to use their systems to accomplish two things at once. And Datafile is quick to point out that many 286 and 386 computers are available for a song but make perfect dedicated controllers. I have to agree with this concept. It wasn't long after I started using Probe that I wanted a full time computer to control the scanner. I found an older machine that was unused for less than one hundred dollars and
it's been running a scanner since then! The power's gone out a few times. Outside of that, it doesn't even get turned off. I just use the mute function in Probe to quiet the system down when I won't be there to listen to it. I can do searching and scanning while I'm not there... looking for things I didn't know about. I've found a few frequencies that weren't published this way, although it does take some time to dig through the results. Mostly, I just let it run because I'm too lazy to shut the whole thing off.
Lots of channels, and data management:
Probe's specialty is ease of use and data handling. The program first creates a group file (this is the file that is saved on disk). Each group file can contain up to ninety-nine banks of up to one thousand channels each. Of course, you won't come anywhere near filling that up under normal operations, but it's nice to know that there's plenty of capacity if you need it. You can have up to four thousand group files on disk ready for action at a moment's notice. Since each group has ninety-nine banks available, you should be able to break your channels down into quite small groups that can be switched on easily and comfortably. In fact, Probe has a feature called "hyperbanks" which allows you to memorize sets of banks and recall them with a single function key. In addition, you can recall not only the banks, but also specific settings for those banks including log files, delay times, alarm options and a host of other scan related settings. It's almost like having ten preprogrammed scanners at your fingertips, and keep in mind that each of the four thousand groups can be set up this way! Probe also has a unique feature called SmartScan. This allows you to set up certain key frequencies as triggers for other banks.
For instance, here in St. Louis, our State Patrol uses a lowband system where the base is on one of two frequencies and the mobiles are on one of two others. With a traditional scanner, about the most you can hope to catch is the dispatch of a call or the response of the mobile sometime later. However using SmartScan, you can set the system to stop scanning all other frequencies except those four for a period of time if any of them goes active. It contributes a lot to the continuity of what's heard. There is also a mode where the "SmartBank" can be turned on in addition to the normal frequencies you're listening to. This might come in handy for air emergencies or fire operations. You might choose to scan 121.5 in your normal scanning mix. As soon as you heard activity on that frequency, a whole bunch of other things are likely to become interesting... airport operations, fire and rescue and possibly police operations as well. By turning on an additional bank with these frequencies loaded, you can continue to scan your normal activity while waiting to see what develops. Of course, with the press of a function key, you can change all the banks to focus on the air emergency if you have things configured in advance.
So what's new?
If you've been working with Probe for any length of time, you'll already be familiar with these options and a host of other enhancements to make your scanning life easier. But Probe 5.0 has a few tricks up its sleeve to help make life interesting. First and foremost, Probe 5.0 features support for the new OptoCom scanner (see August 99 Product Spotlight for more details on this exciting receiver). You may recall that the OptoCom is a computer controlled "black box" type receiver with very limited control functions available on the receiver itself. Some form of computer connection and control software is required to make the most of this radio, and Probe 5.0 does an excellent job with conventional scanning applications. It's worth noting that Probe 5.0 does NOT support the trunking features of the Optocom.
While earlier versions of Probe will run with the OptoCom, you'll want version 5.0 to take full advantage of the unique features and speed of this receiver. Many of the Optocom's special functions are supported including communications rates up to 38400 baud and download of frequencies from a Probe bank into the OptoCom's "off-line" memories for scanning while away from the computer.
Lots of features for OptoScan users too!
Of course, Probe version 5.0 has lots of features that will benefit both OptoCom and OptoScan users. Many of Probe's already extensive features have been enhanced or updated for better performance or additional control features. A great example of this is the tone control function in Probe 5.0. I have not seen any computer controlled scanner / software combination that rivals Probe for tone control (CTCSS, DCS and DTMF functions). You can use CTCSS and DCS tones in a true "tone squelch mode, or use them for logging and identification of users sharing a frequency. Version 5.0 enhances the tone control and error correction features to minimize the logging and reception of tones decoded in error (an inherent limitation of the hardware used in the OS-535 and OptoCom tone decoders). It's probably also worth noting that Probe is the only software on the market that I've found which will squelch for "no tone". If you have several users who use a particular frequency and they all use CTCSS, it's pretty easy to pick one and ignore the rest. But what if the user you want to listen to doesn't use a CTCSS tone? Probe can squelch out the ones who do, leaving only the no-tone transmissions if you wish. Of course, that's assuming only one user has no-tone, and that you don't receive interference on that frequency. It's of limited use, but very unique and quite convenient if you need that capability.
Also new in Probe 5.0 are some enhancements to the data management functions. You can now replace data in a particular filed over the entire database, just a single bank or marked records. This has come in handy for adjusting settings and enhancing the usability of the database that I maintain of my own frequency data. Version 5.0 also features some automatic marking and lockout functions to enhance data management and searching functions. You can, for instance, tell Probe to mark all the records in the database as activity is logged, or after a certain number of hits in the log file. It's then very interesting and simple to go back through your frequency file and see what's really getting traffic and what's not. If you're searching, there's no sense in searching a frequency again after you've identified activity on it. Here's where autolockout comes in handy. You can designate that after a certain number of times a frequency being scanned or searched has been active, to lock it out and concentrate on other things. You can also mark these frequencies, making it easy to look at the frequency browser and see what's active and what's not. Of course, once marked these frequencies can be exported to another group or bank for scanning in a more traditional way. Probe 5.0 also allows more control over the log functions, since several of these automatic functions depend on logged records to do their magic. One neat feature is to only log an entry that has been active for a certain length of time, rather than immediately once it's been found active. These features in combination with autolock and automark can help ensure that you have marked or locked out the truly active frequencies. One more trick is the modulation/no-modulation limits. You can specify that Probe should skip or lockout a frequency based on the presence or absence of modulation. Now those annoying birdie and control frequencies can be handled by computer control. Probe has always offered a wide range of tools for both the beginner and advanced level enthusiast. Version 5.0 continues this tradition by adding a number of truly unique features to the arsenal. However, it's still a very easy program to get up and running if you're a novice, and you can grow into the advanced features when you're good and ready. Nothing comes close for ease of use and versatility combined.