Welcome to the second in a series of articles about software that can be used to control the Optoelectronics OS-456 and OS-535 boards. As you may or may not know Probe was developed exclusively for the Optoelectronics Optoscan boards to fully exploit and focus on their capabilities without having to be concerned for the support of other radios. This is a big advantage to us Optoscannists. So lets take a look and see what the advantages are.
The first thing I would have to say, is you can run it on almost any DOS based computer. That means if you have an old 8088 computer lying around not doing anything, you would be able to use this program. DOS was that operating system we all used to use. But even with Windows 95 out and still lots of people using Windows 3.1 or 3.11 for Workgroups, it doesn't mean you're out of the picture. I have Probe running in a window in the background chugging away without any problem. I'm currently running Windows 95 on a 486 DX66. It's not that the developer has anything against Windows, it's just he felt you should have the option of running it on any computer you wanted.
The program comes on a 3-1/2" disk along with a operators manual and information on getting up and running quickly. Installing the program is a cinch. Just put the disk into the drive and type "INSTALL C" if you want it on your C drive. It will create a sub-directory called Probe for you. If you prefer, you can install it under what ever sub-directory you want by typing "INSTALL C (whatever the name of the directory is)" and press Enter. That's all there is to it.
After you have installed the program, you need to configure it to your radio. All that is needed is to identify what COM port your radio is connected to and what baud rate you want to use. The default is COM 1 at 9600 Baud. You can go up as high as 19,200, but more on that later. The I/O address and IRQ settings will automatically be set when you select the COM port.
When you have all of that set up you're ready to start entering your frequencies for scanning. Before we get into all of that we need to go over a term first. This will make it easier for you to understand what I'm talking about. The expression you need to know is "GROUP." A Group is one of 4000 user-configurable files, each containing up to 99 Banks with up to 1000 Frequencies. Think of a Group as almost like another scanner that has Banks and Frequencies. You could also use a Group file as a Work Group. What I mean that by that is, you could copy information from your main group to the work group that you can change and play with, without messing up the one you like.
When you first install Probe there will be one Group in your list of Groups labeled as the Default Group. From here you can create new ones. When you go about creating a New Group, you highlight the Default Group and select the Add function. The program will ask if you want to copy the configuration information from the Default Group to the New Group. You must select Yes or your attempt will abort. After you have selected Yes, another window will come up showing different items you can copy over to the New Group. You can toggle them on and off by pressing the space bar. Once you have selected which ones to copy over, just press Enter. If you don't select any of them the files will still be created, but there will be nothing in them, which is fine, you can enter the information later. If you were going to create a Work Group like I mentioned, just select all of the information in the window and you will have a duplicate of the Group.
Now that you have made your first Group it's time to enter your frequency information. It can be done in one of two ways. The first one is to type the information in by hand. Second you can import the information from a CD ROM FCC file, like those sold by Percon. Since we're talking about importing information from a CD ROM, I might as mention how easy it can be done.
From the Utilities menu, select the "Import FCC Data File." Just answer the questions asked. One of the things I think is really cool is that the
program can put each Service Code description in a different Bank. When you begin scanning you can select just the radio service, or services, you want to scan, such as police and fire.
It's also very easy to enter the information manually. From the Configuration menu select "Frequencies." If the group you have created is a new one with no frequency information in it you will see a blank screen. In this screen just select the "A" for add and the input information window will come up. Just enter the information you have into each slot. If you don't have the particular information, just press Enter and continue on. Do this for each frequency until you're done.
While you're entering all of this information you will come across a place that asks you for a "SmartBank." So what is a SmartBank, you ask? A SmartBank is a bank (any of the 99 Banks) that you can set aside to store frequencies that you don't scan all of the time, except for special occasions. For example, say you have a Red Cross frequency in a normal bank that will only become active when something big is happening. When that frequency becomes active you can then lock in you FEMA bank. With the SmartBank feature, when that Red Cross frequency becomes active, it will automatically have the other Bank become part of the existing scanning group. Some people like to call this "Focused Scanning." That's not the only thing you can do with the SmartBank. You can set it up to be to be Exclusive or Non-exclusive. What that means is that if you want to continue scanning the other Banks while at the same time scanning your SmartBank, then you would want it to be Non-exclusive. Exclusive would be, of course, to scan just that one Bank and no others. Another setting for SmartBank is that you can have it automatically turn itself off if there is no activity within a certain amount of time. That time is up to you, as long or short you want it to be.
Once you have all the information in the Bank you will see that the once-blank screen is now full of the information you provided. Note that all frequencies are sorted in frequency order no matter what order you put them in. Also, you should note that there are no channel numbers. There really is no need for them as each frequency is identified by the user.
While we are still on this subject there is another great feature. If you will move the Highlight bar, or cursor-whatever you want to call it, the radio will tune to that frequency. This is a great way to manually tune through frequencies.
Now is the time you can start scanning. To get there just hit the ESC key until you get to the main menu and select "S" for scan. Now that you're in the scanning screen you can see that Probe gives you a lot of information as to what frequency is being used and who it belongs to. Here is a list of what is displayed and what they are for:
Status - This indicates you what the status of the scanner is at any one time. It will show ACTIVE, DELAY, PAUSED, or INACTIVE
MHz - This indicates you what your current frequency is, or what the last active frequency was. Also the "z" will become a capital "Z" when there is modulation on the frequency
CTCSS/DCS - This indicates you the tone or DCS code that is currently being monitored, or the last active tone or DCS code
Signal - This indicates your received signal strength. It can be displayed as either a bar graph or dBm number. If you're using Signal Squelch then it will display "SQUELCHED"
Mode - This indicates the current or last active mode that was used, i.e., NFM, WFM, and AM
Priority - This indicates if the Priority Bank is on or off
Alarm - This indicates if there was an alarm set on a certain frequency and what the alarm setting is
Log - This tells you if the log function is on
Recorder - This shows whether the recorder will record your frequency when it becomes active
Delay - This indicates if there is a delay set and for how long it is set. After a station is done transmitting the counter will count down until "0" before it begins scanning again. This, of course, depends on how long you have the Delay set for, if at all
Active - This indicates how long a station has been on the air. It shows this information for either the current frequency being monitored or the last active frequency
Group - This tells you the name of the Group that your scanning
Bank - This is the Bank you are currently scanning. This changes as the scanner is scanning through the Banks. As you're scanning the Bank, the number of "Unlocked" frequencies for that Bank are displayed
Log - Shows the name of the Log file currently being used
DTMF - This shows any DTMF data if any have been sent. The maximum number of characters on the screen at one time is fifty. If there are more than that sent the oldest characters are scrolled off the screen
FCC - Name of licensee
Service - Radio Service Code and Description
Address - Licensee, or Transmitter street address
City, and State - City and State where the Transmitter is located
County - County in which the Transmitter is located
Callsign - Licensee Call sign
Latitude - Latitude of Transmitter
Longitude - Longitude of Transmitter
Distance - Distance from Monitor to Transmitter, only if location has been filled out
Latest Activity - This is the area of the screen that shows what the activity has been. The newest active frequency at the top with the oldest at the bottom. It shows the Frequency, Tone, Name, "R" if it was recorded, "L" if it was logged, Time, and Hit count. The hit count only works if you have the Log function on.
The Tone Squelch is one of the real nice features of this program that is done real well. In fact, I have yet to see a program that does it as well. And that is the scanning with Tone Squelch. For those of you that may not know what this is, it's a way of only hearing a frequency that is transmitting a certain PL (Private Line) Tone. So what is so special about Probe in this respect? Well other programs I've tried stop for a split second to check the channel to see if it's transmitting the correct tone to open the squelch. If it's not, it continues on. The problem with other programs is you can hear it stop and check. With Probe, you can't tell its stopping. What if you have two users using the same frequency on different tones? What if you want to hear them both? Not a problem. Just enter both users, using the same frequency but different tones. Then you're just going to check the same frequency twice, right? Wrong, Probe is smart enough that it only checks the frequency once, but checks both tones. Whichever tone it finds transmitting, it will stop on the frequency and display the record for that tone. Not only will Probe stop on a frequency that has the correct tone, but while on that frequency it will close the squelch if another user starts transmitting using a different tone and continue to scan. Pretty cool huh!
While in the scanning screen you also have controls to give you instant access to different parts of the program. They are as follows:
[B]ank - This will give you instant access to your Bank listing
[F]req - This will give you instant access to your frequency listing
[E]dit - When you are stopped on a frequency you can then go directly into the edit mode and change or add any information to that record
[R]ecord - This key will turn on the record option
[V]iewlog - This will bring up the log file if you have had the log function on
[K]illtemp - If you have any temporarily locked-out frequencies, this will unlock them
[S]ettings - This will take you directly to your setting's menu. You can then make any changes and escape back to the scanning screen
[M]anual - This key will allow you to manually tune the radio to what ever frequency you want. You can also step up or down in frequency a certain amount depending on what the step rate is.
When the scanner has stopped on a frequency you have some additional controls available. They are as follows:
[L]ockout - This will allow you to lock out the currently active frequency
[T]emplock - This is when you just want to temporally lock out a frequency for what ever duration of time you have set
Lo[g] - This key allows you to log the active frequency. Think of it as a manual log function
ESC - The escape key, like in the rest of the program, is used to take you out of the particular screen you're in, or to cancel an operation you may be trying to do
ENTER - The Enter key puts the scanner on pause so as not to scan until the Space bar is pressed
SPACE - The Space bar as indicated above will cause the scanner to continue scanning...
Do you notice something here? The commands to get you to different parts of the program are real easy to remember. Most of the commands are the first letter of the command name. Makes it simple!
Not only can you scan frequencies of your choosing, but you can also do searches between a range of frequencies. To get started select "Create Search File" from the utilities menu. Just input the information. You can put your search file in with your standard scan file, and it will be treated like a Bank. If you want to search that range, just select that Bank. I prefer to make a separate Group and put all my search files in that Group. It's all up to you. That's what's so great about this program. Think of it as a tool box full of tools and all you need to do is use them. Use your imagination. How I use them will most likely not be the same as you would.
When you have your search file entered, the program will enter each frequency into a file just as if you entered it yourself. Make sure that you have the the correct beginning and ending frequencies and the correct step rate. If you don't, then the proper frequencies won't be searched. If you have all that set up correctly, you can go back to the scanning screen and start searching that range.
Here is a DOS based program that it's sole basis for existing is performance for the Optoscannist! You can get the performance using almost any type of computer. This can range from an HP Palmtop to the latest computer out there.
Your scanning speed will vary, of course, with the type of computer you're using, but even using one of the slowest PC's out there, Probe will outperform many other programs using faster computers. One reason for this is that Probe takes full advantage of OptoScan's "Pipeline Tuning." As far as I know, Probe is the only DOS based program that incorporates this type of tuning. I did some testing of the scanning speed of Probe and this is what I found. Stock off of the disk, using default settings, I was able to get 48 channels per second on a 486 DX66 computer using 9600 baud rate. Now, by experimenting with the settling time (speed command), still using the 9600 baud rate I was able to get it to 55 channels per second without it skipping any channels. The danger is that if your settling time is too low, the radio doesn't have time to check the frequency and stop. I'm told by the programmer that if you play with that a little you can still get your speed up, if you don't mind the radio skipping over some of the weaker signals. If you really want to make the scanner fly, try using the program in 19,200. Beware, however, that the OptoScan OS-456 was not designed to work at 19.2 and doesn't perform quite as well as the OS-535, although 60+ frequencies per second have been reported by the developer. At a baud rate of 19,200 and playing with the settling time, I was able to get clear up to 120 channels per second! Remember, the stock speed of a PRO-2035 is 50 channels per second. That's quite a jump in speed. It seems that since the baud rate is up, I can take the setting time down, and up goes the speed! I was concerned that at that speed I would start skipping channels. So I did another experiment. I had one scanner scanning the same frequencies as the PRO-2035 using Probe. I found that I only missed one call in a period of 30 minutes. So I will let you make up your own mind.
The program is laid out very well and is very easy to use. The commands are very easy to remember because of the mnemonics use of the keyboard commands. With its advanced use of tones, anyone in an area that has intermod this will benefit tremendously. Probe will also do Signal Squelch. This allows you to tell the radio not to open the squelch below a certain signal threshold.
There only two things I can really say against the Probe software. The first one is we are becoming a graphical world. Computer users are going to Windows operating systems more and more, including me. If you want to take full advantage of the program, you will want to dedicate a computer of it's own to the task. If you're really into scanning and know just how much benefit there is to using a computer to control the scanner, you will have no problem with it. Probe will, however, run in Windows. In fact, I'm running it in Windows 95 without any problems whatsoever. I've been running it in a DOS window, and have it minimized on the task bar, and it seems to work just fine. The only problem is you can't see what frequency is currently active and what the status might be at any given time. You don't need a fancy computer for the program to perform. We've already discussed that. Some of the older computers can be bought at a very reasonable price. Just the other day I saw a 386 DX40 with monitor for $500.00. I'm sure you could get a 286 or 8088 computer for almost nothing. In fact I just gave away a 8088 computer with monitor. So there!
The other gripe is the fact that you can only import from an FCC data file, like the ones used from the Percon CD ROM. It would be nice to be able to import from any ASCII file. Mine is just a Beta version and who knows what DataFile will come up with. One thing to be aware of - this program is a new-and-improved version of the Probe most of us have heard of. There are over 70 new additions and enhancements other the previous version. The final version should be released by the time this article goes to press. The developer will be sending out upgrade notices at the end of January and will be shipping by mid February.
I'm sorry I didn't have the room to cover all of the features of the program, there are just so many. I don't think you can go wrong by buying this program, if you don't mind it being a DOS program. DOS does have its advantages.
This program does everything the author says it does. I rate it at 3 & 3/4 star out of 4.