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2017-09-21 06:49:03 UTC
 

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• Software for Digital modes. A Review

Added at 2014-06-17 08:02:34

by EI9KF



There are a significant number of programs available to the Amateur Radio operator enabling the use of digital modes. Some are self contained, others form part of a suite of programs designed for general logging etc (DM780, WinWarbler) . Choice will be made largely on the basis of cost or personal preference based on ease of use and available features. My own preference, having spend some time using all the programs discussed, is for DM780 which I judge to be state of the art. If computer screen space is limited or a simpler interface is required, next on my list are the more ‘compact’ programs of Fldigi and MixW. MultiPSK offers more modes than any other but is definitely not for the beginner.



Software for Digital modes. A Review


A number of computer programs have been written for Amateur Radio Digital Mode operation. These operate in conjunction with conventional HF SSB radio transceivers, and usually use the PC sound card as the means of input and output to and from the radio. The sound card of a PC is a cheap effective analog to Digital converter. Some programs allow for the use of an external TNC or multifunction controller (ie Kantonics or SCS PTC) as an interface between radio and computer. Digital modes use audio-frequency signals which are modulated in various ways according to the mode. The computer and software link to the transceiver also by a serial port connection (CAT) which allows the program some control of the radio .
Much of the software available is multi-mode, which means that they are able to operate many popular digital modes (ie DominoEX, MFSK16, PSK31, and RTTY) though not all are equal in this regard.


It can be difficult to identify some of the more obscure modes which appear on the amateur bands. Some digital software packages include the Reed Solomon ID protocol that sends a two second code before each text transmission informing the software at the other end what mode is being used to send the message and the center frequency for the transmission. At this time Fldigi, Digital Master 780 v5, and MultiPSK all implement this protocol.


Generally these programs have similar interfaces which include the following general features:

A receive Pane
Text from decoded incoming signals is displayed here. When you transmit, the transmitted text is also displayed here, making a record of the QSO.
A transmit Pane
Here is where you type what you want to transmit. Pressing a macro button will enter text into this pane.
A waterfall Pane
This is the main tuning facility. The signals coming in can be seen, selected and tuned to. The type of signal being received can often be identified by its fingerprint on the waterfall.
A set of Macro buttons
These programmable buttons enable blocks of text to be entered into the transmit window. Text can include predefined fields (i.e. call-sign, name etc)
Other controls and functions may also be offered.


How do we choose between the programs available for operating digital modes? All programs perform operations under the surface that affect how signals are decoded etc. I don’t believe that there is much to choose between programs in this regard unless the operator is very technically minded and anxious to have control over all the parameters of the signal processing. Of more relevance, particularly to the novice user, is the programs user interface that determines just how easy the program is to use. The following issues are of relevance when choosing a program to use for digital modes. :

-Does it have an attractive easy to use interface?
-Are the controls intuitive?
-Ease of signal identification and ease of selection.
-Multiple signal decoding (like CW Skimmer).
-Who is the caller? Have I worked them before? Have I worked this entity on this mode or band? Is this information readily available?
-How easy is it to get the caller and QSO details into the log?
-Integral QSO logging in a compatible format included?
-What modes are handled by a program?
-Easy switching between modes?
-Ample macro buttons that are easily identifiable and grouped
-How big a footprint does the program make on the screen? How much space does it take up in relation to what I have available?

The following programs have been reviewed

WinWarbler
HRD Digital Master (DM780)Digipan
Fldigi
Mixw
MultiPSK

WinWarbler
General.
Part of the DX-lab suite of programs and has thus the advantage of a comprehensive logging program (DX Keeper) as well as a spotting (DX Spotter) module and a transceiver controlling module (DX Commander). The Dxlabs suite is a free package made up of 8 separate modules which can be downloaded individually. While they are designed to ‘talk’ to each other and integrate together, each module will function on its own.
Standard interface with the Call detail on the top of the window, Rx and Tx windows in the middle with a waterfall at the bottom.
The program offers the user 3 independent receive windows which can independently and simultaneously decode incoming signals. For RTTY the windows can be customized to receive from different sources offering diversity in receive mode. A TNC / modem can feed one window with the soundcard feeding the second. Winwarbler can be configured to operate with a TNC/Modem for compatible modes.

Logging
Because WinWarbler is part of the DX-Lab suite it can feed its contacts automatically to the logging program DxKeeper. This will sniff out duplicates and provide DX information etc. It will also work stand alone recording a 'mini-log' which can be readily imported/exported.

Macros
The programs provides for 2 sets of 16 macros for each mode. It is not appropriate to use the same words or text in an exchange in every mode. For example, CW and RTTY typically use abbreviated text while PSK and Olivia use full words and are more verbose. Changing the mode in use requires the use of different macro sets. WinWarbler automatically selects the appropriate set of text macros for the mode selected. This package offers an unsurpassed range of fields that can be inserted into macros. The Macro buttons can be made colored and the text can be independently colored. This facilitates grouping macros neatly for the Runner and the Pouncer. None of the other packages tested shares this useful feature. The second group of 16 macros available in a given mode can be selected very easily by ticking a small box. The Macro aspect of this package is about the best and easiest to use that there is. Set up of the macros is easy and hovering the cursor over a button shows you what the macro is about to say before you press it.
Modes
Winwarbler works for all the most commonly used modes: CW, PSK31, PSK63, PSK125 and RTTY but nothing more than this. It will not decode MT63, Olivia, JT65, Throb, Pactor etc.
Rig Control
Winwarbler links seamless with the Commander module of the Dxlab suite. This module provides compatible CAT control of most available transceivers.
Receiving
In Rx - a signal on the waterfall is clicked and decode will start in the appropriate pane. Three panes can work simultaneously. One must click as close to middle of the signal as possible. In Fldigi and Digital Master and to a lesser extend in MixW, (discussed later) the cursor represents the bandwidth of the signal and this makes for ease of selection. Winwarbler, however requires one to enter a single point . WW can open a window which will display up to 47 simultaneous decoded signals reminiscent of CW skimmer. Any one of the signals being decoded can be passed over to the main window by clicking on it.

Transmitting
Given that there are 3 Rx windows, WW will transmit on the same frequency as the call being received. The other 2 windows can be hidden or restored easily without losing any streamed data. If required a frequency can be specified for QSY and this will be used for all Tx if operating split.

Cost
The program is available free of charge and updates are provided regularly.
Likes
A very capable and useful program which fully integrates with an excellent suite of DX modules. The program of choice for CW, PSK and RTTY if using a TNC/Modem or multimode controller. I like the way that it offers decode of three signals windows at once and that it also offers a ‘panoramic ‘ mode - decoding all the signals withing the band window at the same time. Clicking one will take it into one of the communication windows.

Dislikes
Selecting a signal on the waterfall is not as nice as with DM780, Fldigi or Mixw
I don’t like having the three communication windows and I generally close down two of them. The program takes up a lot of space on the screen particularly if the conrol (Commander) and logging (Dxkeeper) components are factored in .
Digital Master (DM780)
This program is part of the Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) suite of programs. Of all the programs reviewed here this is the most impressive in terms of its attractive user interface. As part of the HRD suite, this digital mode program relies on HRD Logbook to do all its logging and recording functions. The programs link with HRD provides it with information from the transceiver - frequency, mode etc. Likewise, DM can control the transceiver through the interface of HRD .

Logging
This is carried out seamlessly with HRD. On right clicking a Call in the receive window, there is instant access to info on duplication or past QSO’s etc. This is a good easy to use feature. A code can be inserted in the programs macros to instruct a QSO to be started and saved in the log. Useful when you are in a hurry.

Macros
Macros are customizable for all modes. Passing the cursor over a macro button reveals the text. The buttons cannot be colored but they can be arranged in groups according to functions (CQ / Reply/ Goodbye etc). Macro sets created for different modes will auto-select when the mode is changed.

Modes
DM handles most of the digital modes available with the exception of Pactor I, II and III. DM is not able to operate using a TNC/Modem but takes all its input from the Soundcard. It can decode just one mode at a time in its single window. A ‘panoramic’ option exists enabling the text of multiple decoded signals to be displayed on a band-map. Clicking on one of these will place the QSO on the main receive pane and enter the Call details into log section. DM offers Olivia as a mode.

Rig Control
Rig control is effectively done using the Ham Radio Deluxe CAT control. It is also possible to use the Commander module of DXLabs using an additional external free program. This means that DM780 can integrate with the DXLabs suite and be used in place of WinWarbler, a less capable program.

Receiving
In Rx - the mouse controls a pair of movable parallel vertical lines on the waterfall. These lines represent the bandwidth of the signal of the mode being used. This tuning feature is very useful making it easy to select a signal and also to identify what it is. (Ie a PSK-63 signal is easily identified.)
Right clicking on incoming information very easily populates the QSO fields. Ease of use is a big feature here. Interestingly, the program does not identify a Call unless you right click on it. MixW on the other hand spots a Call sign in the middle of a batch of text instantly and highlights it . In DM780, right clicking on a signal in the waterfall gives an instant reading at the mouse pointer of the decoded transmission at that spot. DM has a useful feature called Super sweeper which , like CW Skimmer, allows all the signals on a band to be decoded simultaneously. (Fldigi, Multipsk and Winwarbler have a similar ‘panoramic’ feature)
Transmitting
DM offers a feature whereby the Tx frequency can be locked enabling one to operate split. This feature is activated by pressing the small Lock icon on the TX menu bar.

Cost
DM780 comes as part of the Ham Radio Deluxe suite 6.0. This has a cost of $90.00
Older versions of HRD are available and can be downloaded and used free of charge. .

Likes
Ease of use. Selection of mode and picking out a signal from the waterfall is easy. Logging the call info is very straight forward. I like the way that when I hover the mouse over the call of a station currently on my receive screen, I am shown instantly if I have previously worked them, if this entity is needed and on what band/mode.
DM 780 will integrate with other logging programs such as the DXlab suite. A additional module is available for download that provides the link. Macros can be grouped easily and an almost infinite number can be used. The program can be told which phrases to use for which mode. In other words, for each mode (psk31, RTTY, Olivia etc), a different set of predefined macros is made available.
When used with the HRD suite, call lookup is automatic.
Dislikes
The logging program HRD Log which needs to be run simultaneously is cumbersome and difficult to share a screen with. The HRD radio control program need to be running also in the background. Setting up macros is not very intuitive. DM780 will not work with an external multimode device or TNC.
It takes up a lot of screen space, even with the logging and control modules of HRD minimized.


DIGIPAN
DigiPan stands for "Digital Panoramic Tuning". This was the original program that openened up PSK31 to the masses. It introduced the waterfall and a whole new way of visualising, tuning and selecting signals. The program is compact and had its own logging facility. Logs can be exported in a compatible format to other logging programs. The package links with QRZ.com for call sign lookup. The program is free to download and use. Since its introduction, other programs have been written to develop and improve on Digipan.

Macros
2 banks of 12 macro buttons are available for customization. These are grouped in three sets of four but cannot be colored and mouse-over doesn’t show the contents.

Modes

Modes are very limited. Digipan offers only PSK31 and 63 and limited FSK.
Rig Control
If you are trying to achieve PTT with DigiPan and CAT, be aware that DigiPan does not support PTT by CAT command.

Likes
Simple interface, easy to set up, small footprint and easy to use.

Dislikes
I believe that while the program functions well, it has been surpassed in sophistication and functionality by more recent programs such as Fldigi, MixW and DM780


MultiPSK
General.
This program is the most eccentric of the bunch. It is written by F6CTE though there is little trace of any stylish Gallic touches. It is freeware for the basic version but costs €30.00 for the full version.
When you first install and run this program your first instinct is to cut and run. Get me outta here! The graphic interface is appalling. However, the longer that you spend with this gem of a program, the more surprised you will become by its huge ability. This program is out on its own for the sheer variety of modes that it will decode . It even has its very own JT65 interface. The quirky nature of the interface can grow on you once you have dedicated a bit of time to get into this excellent program.


Logging
MultiPSK links very nicely with the DX-Lab suite of programs. The interface is seamless and very effective. DX-Keeper does all the logging functions needed. It will also link with Ham Radio Deluxe.
Macros
The program provides for a plethora of Macro sets . The down side is that the number of fields that can be inserted into the macros is quite limited though is certainly adequate for general day to day DXing and contesting. Compared to the vast range of insertable fields and commands available in Mixw and WinWarbler, the number available here is limited though not in my view limiting. The macro buttons are tiny, ugly and not very customizable -but they work. Changing the mode automatically selects an appropriate set of text macros. In this program change of mode creates lots of new buttons, options and settings.

Modes
MultiPSK manages the most comprehensive range of modes of all the programs reviewed. Many of the modes handled you may never have heard of. The decoder for RTTY and PSK are second to none. The program will work with TNC / Modems as well as up to three sound cards.
Rig Control
The program works both with Commander (DXlabs) and Ham Radio deluxe.
Cost
The program is available free of charge though some functionality requires that the program be registered at a cost of €30 and updates are provided regularly.

Likes
A very capable and useful program which fully integrates with an excellent suite of DX modules. The program of choice for CW, PSK and RTTY especially if using a TNC/Modem.
Has the most comprehensive range of modes available in any program and offers the greatest flexibility and amount of control over Tx and Rx parameters.
Dislikes
A really dreadful user interface. Badly laid out old-fashioned buttons everywhere result in lack of ease or comfort using this program. The program however has a dedicated band of faithful followers who swear by it! Selecting a signal on the waterfall is not as easy as with DM780, Fldigi or Mixw

FLDIGI

General
A very popular free program by W1HKJ et al. Compact easy to configure standalone program. It has its own logbook that allows the user to export entries into other logs etc. Documentation is very good. Unusually, Fldigi is available for multiple computer operating systems; FreeBSD™; Linux™, OS X™ and Windows™.



Macros
Up to four rows of 12 macro buttons are available. these are colored in three groups of four per row which helps in grouping buttons according to function.

Modes
Fldigi handles most of the available digital modes - a hugely comprehensive list. Including Olivia and other MFSK modes.

Rig control
Fldigi has its own rig control facility using “Rigcat’ and “hamlib’ which allow control of most transceivers.

Likes
I like the way that the width of the cursor on the waterfall changes according the mode being selected. Fldigi integrated with the log of Dxlab and Winlogger 32. The appearance of the program can be totally customized with the user selecting colors , fonts and such etc.
It is economical with screen space. The program, like MixW is self contained in a small window. This is a very popular program with users. It works with Olivia. Fldigi has a module called FLARQ which is a messaging program that sends and receives error free messages. This is useful for sending files and for emergency message handling.


Dislikes
Hovering over a macro button with the mouse does not reveal what the macro will say (as happens in many other programs). Not that easy to get information from the receive window into the log. Fldigi does not offer an effective method of keying the radio in CW mode.


MixW

General
This is an excellent powerful stand-alone program which has its own logging system built-in. Currently it costs about $50 for a license. The receive window is one of the nicest to use. I like the way that the call sign is recognized automatically and highlighted. MixW has its own WinKey and Rotor control facility and will work with an external TNC.



Macros
The program offers the possibility of fusing up to four horizontal rows of 12 macro buttons. Right clicking on any button allows the user to customise the macro. A host of fields are easliy included in any macro.

Modes
MixW offers most of the popular digital modes . Unfortunately it does not provide BPSK63 or Olivia, two modes increasing in popularity.

Likes
Very attractive interface. Callsign of incoming calls automatically highlighted in the receive window. Hovering over the call gives instant information of country of origin and beam heading.
Occupies a small amount of space on the screen so long as all the optional windows (clusters etc) are not opened.

Dislikes
Selection of signal involves ‘planting’ a small flag on the waterfall. No cursor lines (like in DM780 or Fldigi) are provided to help in centering on the waterfall trail to grab a signal.


Summary
There are a significant number of programs available to the Amateur Radio operator enabling the use of digital modes. Some are self contained, others form part of a suite of programs designed for general logging etc (DM780, WinWarbler) . Choice will be made largely on the basis of cost or personal preference based on ease of use and available features. My own preference, having spend some time using all the programs discussed, is for DM780 which I judge to be state of the art. If computer screen space is limited or a simpler interface is required, next on my list are the more ‘compact’ programs of Fldigi and MixW. MultiPSK offers more modes than any other but is definitely not for the beginner.




Digipan MixW MultiPSK WinWarbler Fldigi DM780
Cost Free €30 Free (or €30) Free Free €60 (suite)
Stand-alone Y Y Y Suite Y Suite
Appearance *** ***** * *** ***** *****
Ease of Use **** **** * *** ***** *****
Logging N Y Y Suite Y Suite
Modes ** **** ***** ** ***** *****
Compatibility N Dxlabs * HRD, DXLab HRD, DXlab DXlab HRD, DXLab
Multiple decode N Y Y Y Y Y
Macro Buttons 12 x 12 12 16 x 2 12 x 3 Infinite No.
Call lookup N Off line On & offline O n & off line On & off line
Rotor control N Y Y N Y
DX cluster client N Y Y Y
TNC support N Y Y Y N N
Documentation * ***** *** **** **** *****
MODES
CW Y Y Y Y Y
PSK 31 Y Y Y Y Y Y
PSK 63 Y Y Y Y Y
Olivia N N Y N Y Y
Domino N N Y N Y Y
Contentia N N Y N Y Y
MFSK N N Y N Y Y
MT63 N Y Y N Y Y
Hell N Y Y N Y Y
PACTOR N Y Y N N Y
Throb N Y Y N Y Y



EI9KF Hugh Bradley



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