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Show all reviews of the DXLab by AA6YQ
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of the DXLab by AA6YQ.
May 15, 2004 01:02
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Time owned: more than 12 months
DX Lab Suite – review by Ian Kitchen (3b8ik)
The DXLabs suite written by Dave Bernstein (AA6YQ) is a dynamically linked set of programs embracing the digital modes : PSK/RTTY and HF radio. The suite includes comprehensive logging (DX Keeper), geographical mapping (DX View), propagation prediction with real-time beacon monitoring (PROP View) on line database searching (Pathfinder), on line spotting (Spot collector) as well as a universal transceiver controller (Commander) and, of course, the front end modem interface (Winwarbler). Each component program will run as a highly configurable stand-alone application or in any linked combination convenient to the operator. The suite may also be linked through the DDE interface to other software, and various 'bridges' exist to support this. Last but not least, the suite supports multiple monitors and although not tried by this author, promises to offer even more convenience to the busy and discerning operator.
The suite is under continuous development and updates can often be available almost daily on the WWW at Yahoo Groups / DXlabs or qsl.net. It is entirely free with enthusiastic high quality technical support given by the author himself and other knowledgeable users at the sites mentioned.
The following attempts to cover concisely, the various components of the suite with comparisons where appropriate with similar available software. However, such is the range of detail covered in this work, this author can only hope to 'scratch the surface' and whet the appetite for the reader to go download and try for himself.
Commander: (reviewed at version 4.7.3)
This is a transceiver controller which will interface though the RS232 serial interface to most modern rigs. The GUI is utilitarian and functional. Three main tabs present the user with the various common functions such as frequency control, modes, memory, S-meter, PTT etc. Further to this a set of 16 user defined sequence buttons will enable customization to a particular rig through its CAT commands. Particularly interesting within the sequence's macro language is the ability to perform conditional branching, allowing a single button to perform a number of related tasks in sequence. For example: all those complex menu manoevers just to dim the lights on the K2K! – my user button just says “day” or “night” and puts together all the necessary commands to turn on or off the rig's display and/or front panel illumination. You can even run a time dependent macro which eliminates the button entirely! A separate configuration tab enables selection and customization of the radio interface with up to 16 PC com ports supported. Up to 3 rigs may be connected concurrently and selected through buttons on the main GUI window. A further 'debugging' interface allows the user to view and capture serial traffic between the rig and the PC. Another button switches the right hand side of the display to a filter selection panel and below this a custom mini database which will track the settings on your frequency dependent add-ons such as ATUs and amplifiers.
Compared to the various software controllers that exist 'commander' is by far the most flexible. It is fairly simple to use while providing a degree of rig management equaled only by proprietary software – and then some! All this and yet Dave has managed to cram an easily readable GUI into a window which occupies only about a quarter of the average desktop!
Winwarbler (reviewed at version 3.0.5)
The basic “warbler” screen presents the user with three simultaneous receive windows, each relating to a movable marker/cursor on the re-sizable waterfall/spectrum display. The top of the display is used for logging information. A set of 32 user configurable macro buttons lies roughly centrally in the screen window. Any other spare real estate is occupied by numerous user controls and information slots. One such control is the configuration button which leads to a tabbed form enabling a huge range of possible configurations to suit most users purposes. Recent versions of the program have included a “broadband” mode which will decode and display up to 48 psk channels simultaneously. Clicking on any of these will quickly tune the active receive cursor to the appropriate audio frequency and allow the user to monitor or reply at will. A nifty addition for the analysts is a “stations heard” screen which as well as being configurable in terms of call sign age etc can be linked to “spot collector” if running, providing a stable and nicely filtered list of band activity. If “commander” is running, the macro buttons can be programmed to link through CAT control directly to your transceiver. There is so much to play with in “warbler” that this review would occupy several pages to do it justice – I have not even mentioned that it will also encode and decode RTTY using the MMTTY decoding engine and latest versions offer morse transmission from your PC keyboard.
As far as this user is concerned, warbler is an invaluable laboratory tool which I tend to have running in the background with a selection of the other programs in the suite. I still prefer the slick and easy operator interface of MixW for actual QSOs and there is a cute little DDE application (Mix2DXlabs) which will link the two together. This can have even more interesting implications which I will touch on later.
Spot collector (reviewed version 2.3.6)
Spots are captured from up to 5 telnet-accessible clusters and WinWarbler's broadband decoder. If you have a TNC connected, spots will be collected from the local packet cluster. Normally, assuming a cluster or internet connection is present, DX spots will be relayed to screen from these sites and clicking on an entry will tune and setup your transceiver through the auspices of 'commander' if running. Once again, MixW will provide the same basic functionality, but 'spot collector' is a dedicated application and is more flexible and configurable. For example – multiple spots of a particular DX received from various sources are aggregated and filtered by 'spot collector', not merely displayed as a rolling list in chronological order. The resulting display will colour the DX spots as to the need, ie unworked, unconfirmed or un-needed providing valuable intelligence for the keen DX chaser.
DXview (reviewed version 1.9.1)
This is a clever geographical plotting program which will assimilate data supplied from Winwarbler, Dxkeeper, Spot collector and also data typed in manually to its input form. The calculated results are output both graphically to an atlas and will also drive an RS232 antenna rotator controller. Unfortunately, since the antenna at this location remains fairly static, I can not vouch personally for the rotator controller parts. Once again, the configuration seems very comprehensive and should operate most commercially available serially controlled rotators. I tend to use the mapping system mainly to view my contacts geographically, which since it is all in real time can make for some interesting QSOs! Although 'DXview' has its own internal world atlas, it also supports the excellent 'DX Atlas' by VE3NEA. Using this option, your current contact will be displayed on the superb high detail, zoomable world map complete with symbols, cities and the great circle path with distances and beam headings etc. If Spot collecor is running then spots will also be plotted on your chosen atlas. The onboard atlas will display your filtered spots in colour with details shown as you hover the mouse cursor over a spot location. This colour/hover facility does not extend to DX Atlas however, one of the few disadvantages of choosing this. Of course, this does not prevent you from switching between the two.
Prop view (reviewed version 1.1.2)
This program uses the tried and tested IONCAP engine to predict propagation probabilities using the data you supply and presents them in simple graphical form on a coloured plot. This all works perfectly well, but the real “icing on the cake” for me is a very comprehensive NCDXF beacon monitoring system to check your predictions in real life. Ideally, you will need commander to be controlling your transceiver/receiver at the time. Further to this, if DXview is running, the beacons will be plotted and shown in real-time on the chosen DXview map.
DXkeeper (reviewed version 3.3.4)
Essentially a logging program this application has been written to cater for DX chasers as well as the casual station log keeper like yours truly. It caters for eQSLing via internet and will also print and address the physical cards and labels. Electronic “callbooks” of various types are supported. Pre-programmed sorts and searches can be performed and the incorporated SQL enables you to personalise these down to the finest detail. There is so much to explore in this program that to precis it here can not possibly do it justice. I will not attempt to quote or reproduce a “user manual”. ( you can download it yourself from “Yahoo Groups” or “www.qsl.net”). Suffice it to say that it is a trustworthy and comprehensive piece of software and performs the job well. I use it as my main backup log, retrieving the data usually via the 'MixW2DXlabs' DDE interface program. It integrates seamlessly into the rest of the DXlabs environment. It creates standard mdb files and although not tested here, can probably be manipulated in such database managers such as microsoft access or even excel and derivatives.
Pathfinder (reviewed version 4.2.2)
This is a neat little on-line callsign look up browser supporting twelve pre-designated online callsign data bases through twelve simple on-screen buttons. It all appears to function well and is great for those who do not want to go to the trouble of booting up their heavyweight internet browser just to look up a callsign or verify QSL information. As is so often the case with Dave's software, the simple user interface belies the underlying comprehensiveness of this application. For example - by clicking the thirteenth button the system will determine the DXCC entity from the target callsign and automatically access the local on-line callbook of the specified country, if it exists. Currently some 100 CBAs are catered for in the onboard datbase. It is thus a powerful search tool, requiring only an initial entry of the callsign by the user.
DXlabs launcher (reviewed version 1.1.7)
When I first saw this little program I almost “tossed it aside” as being little more than a launchpad containing “shortcuts” to the various applications in the suite. While that in itself is a handy function, DXlabs launcher has a bit more intelligence under the hood. This little app. actually monitors and displays the condition of all the programs it launches, allowing you to selectively start, terminate and/or minimise any combination. The current version also supports the launch of two additional non DXlabs apps. and you can selectively or “bulk” launch these too. Finally, you can save your precious Dxlabs registry setups to a separate files for inspection or retrieval at a later date.
Not Officially part of the DXlabs suite:
Mix2DXlabs (reviewed version 1)
As aforementioned, I tend to use this suite of programs alongside MixW, linking them with this neat little application written especially for the job by N2AMG, Rick. Besides the obvious functions of transferring data from logging fields for plotting etc, there is at least one lovely side effect which I use here to my great advantage:
I have commander setup for control of two transceivers – one my main rig (normally controlled by MixW) and the other my standby and monitor transceiver ( employed so that I can hear all the nasty distortion and noises my system may produce if incorrectly adjusted) With the monitor transceiver selected in commander, any change in dial frequency either instigated through commander or even by physically turning the tuning knob on the standby is immediately transferred to the main rig. Hence the two stay in perfect sync – all thanks to DDE and this Mix2DXlabs link – really nice, and I can still carry out all the CAT functions using MixW on the main rig and have all the extended memory functions of commander also available to the main rig and monitor alike.
HRD DXLab bridge (reviewed version 1.0.2)
If 'Commander' is not pretty enough for you, you may wish to use 'Ham Radio Deluxe' as your transceiver controller. Dave has kindly provided this bridge 'applet' to link it to his software - so for example frequency or mode changes in HRD will be reflected in the various Dxlab applications. Those who prefer HRDs 'PSKdeluxe' to 'Winwarbler' will find that the bridge does not extend this far. In particular, logging to DXKeeper is not supported directly by the bridge but the minimal PSKdeluxe logs are at least ADIF format compatible, and thus may be imported.
Enough said. Go get it for yourself!
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