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Probe Version 7.0

by Ken Reiss

Copyright © 2002

Popular Communications - Volume 21, Number 1

Probe Turns 7!

Datafile has recently released their new version of Probe software for the Optocom and Optoscan receivers. The Optocom is a stand alone "black box" receiver while the Optoscan interface is a board that plugs into either the Radio Shack PRO-2005/2006 series or the PRO-2035/2042 series. Sadly, the receivers are no longer available, so you'll have to have one sitting around someplace to take advantage of the powerful features of this receiver control software. The OS-535 interface board which fits the PRO-2035 and 2042 is still available if you can find a radio to put it into.

Probe's greatest strength has always been that it was written from the ground up to take full advantage of these receiver control systems. While other programs such as ScanCat and ScanStar offer excellent features for many radios, Probe's focus on the single receiver means that it can take full advantage of that receiver's abilities.

I'll have to admit that I really didn't think much could be added after version 6.0 released a while back. The program features a complete frequency database as well as a myriad of scanning controls all designed to improve, or at least allow extreme control over, the type of signals that you receive. There's far too many features to enumerate here, but let's take a look at a couple in the context of one of the new features in 7.0.

Smartscan has always been one of my favorite features of this software. With it, you can set certain frequencies of interest to act as "triggers". If one of these trigger frequencies goes active, say the aircraft emergency frequency of 121.5 the program (assuming you've set this up beforehand), will shut down whatever else you may be scanning and turn on a special "smart bank" that you've programmed beforehand to be just for listening to things related to aircraft emergencies. You might put the tower frequencies in there, the airport fire and rescue as well as anything else you think might be related to an aircraft in trouble. If no further activity is heard related to the incident, after a timer expires the special bank is shut off and normal scanning resumes.

Well, as cool as this is, Probe 7 goes one step further with a new function called "TacScan". The idea is that any frequency that goes active is more likely to go active again in the near future. If you think about how two way communications work, this will make perfect sense. A call is initiated by someone, and within a short period of time, somebody else is quite likely to reply. This may go on for several exchanges and then the frequency goes quiet again.

TacScan watches for activity in the frequencies being scanned. Once something is found active, it can be put into the TacScan list for follow-up. Every so many frequencies (a number which you can set) the program goes back and checks those frequencies that were active just a few seconds or minutes ago (how long this goes on can also be adjusted). Since we know there was activity there once, it's much more likely that there will be activity there again, and this activity is likely to take place before the scanner circles through it's entire list if you're scanning any number of frequencies.

Once that conversation ends and a timer expires (you can also set this time) the frequency is dropped from the TacScan list, but still left active in the regular scan list. If another conversation is encountered, the whole process starts over. All of this is done without any user intervention once the options have been set to turn TacScan on and adjust the settings.

The net effect of all this is that you simply hear more of the conversation! Not only do you hear the initial call, but you also hear the replies. In a lengthy conversation you are much more likely to hear much more of the traffic than you would with a conventional scanner. I've run TacScan and a conventional scanner side by side, and there is no question that you do hear more "continuity" on the TacScan unit. You may miss a few other things if the frequencies you're scanning are busy, but you can always turn TacScan back off!

Perry Joseph of Datafiles says that TacScan was originally developed as an aid in searching operations. By going back and listening to the frequency more often it was hoped that you'd be able to identify the channel more quickly and then either decide to keep it or get rid of it so you could concentrate on listening to other things. It didn't take long before the early testers of the software figured out that it worked very well for normal scanning operations too.

Probe's largest apparent Achilles heel is that it runs under DOS. Remember that stuff? With the widespread use of Windows computers, it would seem at first glance like it was a relic of a quickly passing era. I'm told this was done originally because the communications modules in Windows are not as efficient and the scanner operation and performance are compromised under Windows. Probe's emphasis on performance results in it outperforming most competitors. Probe will run under a window on a Windows 95/98/ME computer, although somewhat slower. Even with the speed reduction the program is fully functional and faster than many windows programs. Of course, programs like ScanStar and ScanCat have the windows graphics interface and support many other radios if that's what you're after.

You might want to have a second look, however... It quickly became apparent when I started using Probe some time back that I didn't really want to run my Optoscan equipped scanner without it. I certainly don't want my main computer tied up with scanner software. A 386 or 486 computer is enough to run Probe and DOS efficiently, and these machines are just about throw-aways at this stage of the game. I found a 486 machine with plenty of hard disk space for $20 and set it up to start Probe in the autoexec.bat file... it's a scanner computer and nothing else. I probably wouldn't want to do that with a more powerful machine. Apparently I'm not alone, according to Datafiles, and that's part of the reason this version is still in DOS.

Reprinted with permission
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