If you've been reading this column for some time, you'll know that I'm a big fan of computer controlled scanning. And you'll also know that Probe is one of my favorite programs for doing computer controlled scanning on a daily basis. If you've just joined us, let me take a few minutes to introduce you to this strange world, and then we'll talk about what's new in 6.0 for those regular readers. You can skip ahead if you like, but you might learn something new if you keep reading.
Basic Computer Scanning 101
Computer connections to radios have been available for quite some time. However, most scanner enthusiasts don't take advantage of that connection, while many others use it for programming the radio and then revert to normal operation of the scanner. That's great, and in fact, that's fantastic compared to typing in all those frequencies by hand. On some radios, particularly handhelds, that's really all you'd want anyway.
Some of the more high end receivers and many of the newer generation of radios have a computer interface. What that interface is capable of varies quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer, and may severely limit your options. At the other end of the spectrum, the new generation of so called "black box" receivers that have a power switch and no other controls on them are obviously meant to be under complete computer control all the time.
One particular family has stood apart in the crowd.. the Optoscan series from Optoelectronics. Originally, the OS-456 interface was designed not as a computer controlled scanner, but rather an add on computer interface for the much touted PRO-2005 and 2006 receivers from Radio Shack. Many of these receivers are still on the used market, and command a premium if they're in good shape because of the combination of it's excellent features and receiver design. Many scanner enthusiasts swear by their 2006s and have done many extensive modifications to the radio over the years.
There have even been other computer interfaces made available. The HB-232 interface (now marketed as the CE-232 from Commtronics) requires extensive connection to various parts of the receiver, but allows for all radio functions, plus a few add-ons to be controlled by the computer. It makes an excellent programmer, but it's not a project for the novice!
The status of this unit may also be in question with the recent death of Bill Cheek (from lung cancer), Commtronics founder and owner. Many of Bill Cheek's publications dealt with modifications to the PRO-2004/2005 and 2006 series of receivers which were internally very similar. Those books are widely available through many electronics stores and have projects ranging from very simple to quite complex if you have one of these receivers and are interested.
What makes the Optoscan unit so unique starts with the philosophy of the controller. It was designed from the ground up as an add on controller to an existing receiver. Not as an external interface that can communicate with many devices, but as an internal unit that literally takes control of the receiver away from it's own internal processor.
What this means is that while you're under computer control, the radio's own processor is not only not used, but it's completely unavailable. Even the display goes blank. While this seems at first blush like an undesirable situation, in reality it makes for a very powerful combination. The Optoscan controller is capable of many things that the internal unit is not, while at the same time, when the computer is turned off, you have your same old scanner with its four hundred memories fully functional. It's a lot like having two scanners in one, although I almost never find myself wanting to turn off the computer and return to the stock scanner mode of operation.
The OS-456 was followed by the OS-535, the same kind of interface for the PRO-2035 and later PRO-2042 receivers that followed when the PRO-2006 was discontinued for compliance with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
One of the main features of these boards is that they add a signal strength function, and a tone decoder. While operating under control of the 456 / 535 interface board, the radio can report back to the computer on the status of CTCSS and DCS (tone squelch) tones, as well as read DTMF tones (touch tones used for dialing autopatch systems and other control). It's then up to the software to make something of this information.
There is a third interface board in this series, the OS-456 Lite. This board is essentially the OS-456 interface without tone decoding, and without signal strength. It is much more economical and easier to install. A key component of the OS-456 became unavailable some time back, and so the OS-456 lite board and the OS-535 interface are the only ones currently available. You'll have to locate a used receiver to put the unit into, since none of these radios is available.
There is one unit still available... the Optocom. This is a scanner in the so-called "black box" category of computer controlled receivers. There are volume, squelch and power controls on the receiver, and all other functions, including programming are done via the computer interface. There's no display on the unit either, so you'll need a computer to tell what frequency the unit is listening to.
The Optocom represents a complete, plug and go solution to computer controlled scanning. It is essentially a GRE receiver (same one used in the 2035 / 2042) combined with an OS-535 interface and a few extras added in. One of those extras is the ability to program up to one hundred memories on board the radio for use without the computer. There are no lockouts or display available to see what it's doing, but it does allow the radio to function independently, which is quite an unusual feature in this category of receiver.
One additional feature of the Optocom unit is that with software, the radio is capable of trunked system scanning both Motorola and EDACS used by many public safety agencies, and the Johnson LTR system used by many businesses. Alas, Probe is not capable of any trunking operation with this radio, but there are several others including the unique TrunkTrac software from Greg Knox, Scanstar from Signal Intelligence, and Trunker and E-Trunk which are available in the public domain on the internet.
Part of what makes Probe such a unique product is its design from the ground up to support the Optoscan series of radios only. If you have another type of radio, you'll have to find another piece of software, as Probe is not your ticket. However, if you have an Optoscan 456, 535 equipped radio or an Optocom receiver, this program is worth looking at closely.
Probe runs in DOS... yes, DOS. It can be run from a window under Windows 95 or 98, and I believe it has been run under NT and 2000, although I've never tested this configuration and Datafile (the program's developer) does not claim that these operating systems are supported. A bit of experimentation with Window's settings was all that was required to get the program up and running well under Win 95, although I prefer to run under pure DOS mode.
"Why DOS?" I hear you cry. Well, two reasons, one historical, and one completely practical. The historical one is that during the time Probe was first being developed, Windows 95 was relatively new, and it was common for serial and communications software to have problems with the implementation of serial protocols in the new operating system. Communications with the radio were slow at best, and often erratic.
The practical one is just how effective the whole thing is. I found that once I got used to Probe and how it operated, and the conveniences of logging, up to ninety- nine banks, on screen display of all sorts of information and tone squelch, just to mention a few, I wanted those features all the time. In short, I wanted a dedicated scanning system rather than a timeshare arrangement with my main system.
It wasn't long before I'd found something... that old computer in the basement. DOS requires very little overhead, and Probe doesn't take much either. Any 386 or higher processor works just fine, and 2MB would probably be plenty of memory, while 4 or more is fantastic. I used an old 386 in this mode for a long time, but recently, with the falling prices of used and new computer systems, sprang for a major upgrade that fit into my system a bit better. It was all of twenty dollars for a 486 with 4MB of memory and 500 MB of hard disk. Way more machine than I need for Probe, but it's now a dedicated on all the time scanning system. That computer is just a radio listening accessory. The external speaker cost more!
Probe was designed from the ground up as a scanning program for control of the Optoscan units only. Because of this, it has many features specifically designed to take advantage of the Optoscan while making the life of the user much easier.
Probe is based on a standard "dbf" type database file that can be read by almost any database program. It can also import data from many different programs providing they can write the data in a form that's acceptable. Once in Probe, you won't have to re-type the data ever. There are very extensive and convenient features to assist in managing data, moving frequencies or copying them from bank to bank or group to group. You can also take log data back into a bank of the program and start scanning just those channels that were active.
In practice, however, this proves unnecessary most of the time. Probe features a "mark" tool that will mark or highlight a frequency when particular things occur. After a number of transmissions have been received, for instance. If you're searching, you can choose to not only mark a frequency after it's been active so long, but also lock it out so that you don't waste any more time searching a frequency you know to be active. You can also tell it to resume scanning after the frequency has been active continuously for a certain length of time. This ensures that you won't get your search hung up on a birdie or other interfering signal.
Once all this has been done, you simply copy or move the frequencies that have been marked to another bank and start scanning. It's easy as can be, and terribly helpful in searching out unknown activity. In fact, when you create the search file, you can tell it to check against another group's frequency file and not duplicate anything you already know about!
For daily operation, ninety-nine banks of up to one thousand frequencies each provides a lot of versatility. And there are extensive settings controls to deal with taping, logging, tone squelch, scan speed and many other factors that might be of interest at some point. One of Probe's strongest features, however, is that you can have it up and running in a very short time without ever knowing that much of this stuff exists. It's an easy program to get into, and then you can grow into the advanced features as you wish.
Alright, already... so what's new?
How often does something happen in your area that causes you to want to reprogram the scanner? Around here, it used to happen with some regularity, but the scanner never quite got reprogrammed. It was just too much trouble, or I wasn't home to do it at the right time, or... Just having the ninety-nine banks of Probe available per group made this much easier.
One of my favorite features of Probe in the last couple of versions has been the hyperbanks feature. You can assign a group of banks and settings to an F-key, so that when you press F1 for instance, you're scanning your normal day to day stuff. Pressing F2 takes you to a configuration for fire only, F3 for state police, F4 for police only with priority on local stuff, F5 for frequencies used during a VIP visit, F6 for mutual aid and point to point frequencies that go active during a major disaster and so on. It's up to you to figure out how best to configure these for your local setup, but with some experimentation, you can get some pretty impressive setups which can be accessed in a hurry.
Version 6.0 adds a new dimension to this capability... HyperGroups. Probe stores frequency information in "group files" each of which has the ninety-nine banks that we mentioned. And each group also has 10 HyperBank settings. With HyperGroups, you can set ALT-F-Key combinations to take you to another group. Quickly you can go from normal operations to emergency operations, and have ten f-keys in that group for different kinds of emergency. Or an Alt-F-key can take you to searching groups for use when you're going to be away from the computer. Pressing Alt-H brings up a list of the Hypergroups that you have assigned, for folks like me with no memory for details. I'm just starting to get these configured, but already it looks to be a very powerful combination and addition to the arsenal of tools that Probe already provides.
Kind of along the same lines, Probe 6.0 also offers VFO keys. These keys act like VFO's on communications receivers that can be used for just tuning around, or almost like temporary memories. Probe also features a full "manual" mode for quick access to a frequency or tuning anything anywhere. The VFO keys simply preset the manual mode tuning for you.
I've found that putting some dispatch frequencies into these as well as some fire call-back channels has made it very easy to get to those channels when I hear activity there, or notice it on the screen. (You can also set Probe to beep when particular frequencies become active.)
Of course, the real way to deal with many of these "key frequency" situations is to set up Probe's "SmartScan" feature. It's not new in 6.0, but very powerful indeed. You designate a key frequency and a bank. When the key frequency becomes active, that bank is turned on (exclusively or just added to the mix) for a certain time period. If there's no activity during a preset time, the program returns to normal operation. It takes a bit of thought to get this set up correctly, but there is no question in my mind that I'm hearing much more follow up and continuity to the calls that I'm listening to with this amazing feature.
Probe 6.0 also adds a feature that has been widely requested, according to Datafile, Inc. president Perry Joseph. Mouse control! I did set this up on my dedicated machine, and I can see how it might be convenient in many circumstances, or if you were running the program under Windows while trying to do other things, but in my case, I found I just prefer the keyboard.
The Bottom Line
There are some excellent windows based systems out there if you're not willing to dedicate a computer. But you're likely to find yourself re-arranging windows on screen to see what's going on. If you have a radio other than the Optoscan series, you'll have to look at one of these alternatives, but for Optoscan units, I'd strongly recommend Probe! Check it out... it will change your whole scanning hobby!