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Software review

WinCAP Wizard propagation analysis and prediction program (II)

Forecasts, charts and reports

This is only after have entered all a circuit and both locations (home and target) that you can get a forecast. Time consumed : at least 1 minute per circuit if you master the program and don't use the user batch manager (see below), otherwise much more time... This is the second major drawback of the VOACAP model : its settings are long to configure if you want an accurate forecast reflecting the closer as possible your working conditions and all the associated communication circuit.

WinCAPw does not display any map except the gray line (in azimuthal, cartesian or spherical projection) with or without beacons. All forecasts are displayed in two charts (MUF and BUF, and using colored dotted-lines by default) and as many text reports as you activated reproducing the same data in a tabular form (much less practice and readable).

The few charts (BUF and MUF) and map available in WinCAPw Wizard 3.

There are at least three methods to display a chart, two too much. When all data are encoded in the various groups of the "Circuit" dialog, select the "Location Manager" submenu in the "Analyze" dialog, and double-click on a target location to get a forecast; or staying in the "Location Manager" window, simple-click on a target location, then select "Analyze" in the menu; or, at last, come back to the "Chart" dialog, select the "Chart" submenu, then click on "BUF".

No, really I don't understand the underlying logic of all these options, except out of concern for some ergonomic purposes and speed up some actions.

However, I recognize that if you already have selected your target location you want maybe to access directly to the "Chart" menu, and therefore you 'd select the third option. But in this case why to not remove the "Analyze" feature from the "Location Manager" and, more logically, to use only the "Chart" dialog to display the chart... That 'd make one risk less of confusion.

That being said, WinCAPw displays most of its results either in chart or in tabular form (Reports), all static. There is for example no propagation or iso-contour map available that should be incrusted on a gray-line map or cross-section maps of the ionosphere.

Reports must be printed; they are difficult if not impossible to read on screen. However, these reports can be customized or even disabled (see below).

WinCAPw uses very few dynamic maps. There is only one, the gray-line map, in which you can shift-click to get a BUF forecast with additional data for the targeted location or use to monitor beacons. In all other cases you have to enter in each submenu item to modify the individual fields, validate the change and rerun the chart or the report. Note that the only other "dynamic" features are the various circuits that you created and which forecasts can be displayed one after another in point-to-point charts (see below).

Beacon Chart

Many propagation programs create not only forecasts for a single circuit but provide also a feature to follow in real-time the 18 NCDXF/IARU beacons installed on ham bands from 20 to 10 meters.

WinCAPw supports this functionality in its "Charts" dialog, selecting "Beacon", "Beacon Chart". A status window opens and, using your default location and other data sets previously encoded in the "Circuits" dialog (antenna, power, reliability, etc) it calculates its forecasts to (rather than from) your QTH. Depending of the speed of your computer, the chart is displayed after some tens of seconds.

The forecast reads a series of beacon data which list and settings are available in the main "Menu" dialog, under "Beacon Manager".

The chart displayed is in fact a group of point-to-point charts showing at your request various variables like any other chart (the takeoff and receive angle, signal strength, SNR, Reliability, SNRxx) but of course without BUF nor MUF except the fraction of the day during which the working frequency is below the MUF, MDay.

Like all predictions for multiple circuits, the beacon chart is in fact constituted of 18 individual charts, one per beacon, that you can browse one at a time using the arrows located below the chart. In the main "Chart" dialog you can also ask for a "Comparison Chart" that superposes all beacon forecasts on the same chart... a big mess !, but that could be useful, I don't dismiss the idea. Hopefully, in this mode you can only display one variable at a time (e.g. SNR or dB>mV, etc).... Ouf !

Positive point, if this chart is static, like all others, the gray-line map provides a beacon monitor (via the "Map" dialog, "Beacon Prediction", then "Activate") that helps you to follow propagation conditions online in tuning your transceiver on the beacon frequencies (14100 kHz, 18110 kHz, etc). However there is no physical connection between the program and your transceiver.

Contrarily to other programs, the signal strength and SNR are displayed in this "smart-map" geographic view near each beacon (an option). The signal quality of each beacon is also displayed in an additional window as shown at left.

For this review I run simultaneously two other propagation programs including also a beacon monitor, HFProp and DX ToolBox, to evaluate the accuracy of WinCAPw forecasts. The propagation and band openings were check manually in these comparison programs, for one beacon at a time.

At left WinCAP Wizard 3 Beacon monitoring and forecasts calculated for all 18 beacons. In this example the SNR is set too high (50 dB instead of 38 dB or less). At right the main screens available in Beacon-Time Wizard, a beacon monitoring utility provided free with WinCAPw.

I was surprised by their results. Setting a power of 100 W in an omnidirectional antenna, a 50% reliability and a SNR of 38 dB in WinCAPw, and taking only into account the date, time, SSN, power, and the band in the other programs, globally the three applications were on part and all predicted... as bad the signal strength and propagation for beacons. The forecast was identical using an output power of 1 kW, a lower SNR or a better antenna (Yagi).

That already means that algorithms used by the VOACAP model are not necessary better, more accurate, than those used in simpler programs in this matter. Bad for WinCAPw's reputation.

The three programs gave sometimes an excellent propagation from a beacon to my location (low LUF, MUF over the working frequency with a signal strength over 20 dB>mV or S-7) or a high reliability (80-100) for a SNR of 38 dB (1 Hz) although it was unreadable with some noise or, conversely, forecasted no propagation, reliability 0 with a SNR almost null (<5 dB) although the beacon displayed a strong QSA (e.g. S-4 for KH6WO considered as unreadable from ON in the simulation).

In most cases, signals heard or that could be heard fell outside the forecast calculated by WinCAPw. I couldn't believe charts : at the time of my check, the propagation was so-called open, with an SNR close to 50 dB (very strong) and a high reliability over 50%, thus qualified as "good", but no signal was heard during several cycles extending over several tens of minutes at the specified hour, and vice versa for other beacons ! That means that this kind of forecast displays close to 0% of confidence or, said in other words 100% of uncertainty, as the opposite value is often the rule and more conform to the reality ! Conclusion, if you want to use this feature to check propagation, set properly the SNR and required reliability (check the help if necessary) and interpret these charts with much care.

However, there is at least one situation in which this feature is helpful; this is when you can't recognize the beacon call sign transmitted in CW at 22 wpm. The gray-line map can be used to verify the propagation to and from each of them. This is also an excellent method to "feel" the propagation on the air before working DX stations, but do not count too much on WinCAPw forecasts to know if a beacon is readable or not.

NB. WinCAP Wizard 4.1 now includes several additional "smart windows" dedicated to propagation of NCDXF beacons, including a quick chart in form of table.

Chart settings and customization

All data sets encoded in the various circuits are automatically added to external data files that will be read by the VOACAP engine. These text files (.dat, .inp, .out) are saved by default in the VOACAP subdirectory \itshfbc\run. Most graphic settings are saved in the folder \WinCAP\WW3.ini.

NB. If you upgrade to version 4, the new engine will reuse the old settings without renaming setting files and without overwritting them, hopefully !

If you do a mistake entering a value in a field, you have just to edit the field and validate the data set (usually all fields displayed in a same submenu or window) so that the new data will be available for the system. But if you add a new record, it is sometimes easier and faster to delete it or even to clear all data at once. 

Don't forget, if the system don't remind you in displaying a warning message, that each time that you modify a data, you must rerun the analyze for the system takes your new conditions into account. Only then you can request a propagation forecast.

The only objects that can be saved independently are reports in form of text files, and charts in form of image (bmp, jpg, metafile) or data files.

At left the "Customize Chart" window available only in charts ("Customize" menu) in which you can set save, print, export and other chart settings. At right some of the reports provided to the end-user. All are static. They can be printed as any document, edited on-screen or saved as text files.

Save, print, export and chart settings can be configured but not logically through the main menu (the "Master Control Palette"), but rather in the "Customize" menu of a chart. So, as long as you didn't display at least one chart you cannot check its layout. Idem for the reports : you have to display at least one report to verify fonts, and what is more logical, to check the print preview or to save it as text file.

Like in Excel any setting of a chart series can be modified up to the color of the series, fonts, the border style or the gradient color used for the background. There are here more options that necessary.

You can export series and the layout of a chart in text, XML, HTML or Excel format. The size of these files is ranging between a few KB (HTML, XML) to some hundreds KB (xls). After have seen what is exported in HTML format you will quickly understand what are the data saved in the Excel file.

In this matter, WinCAPw lacks seriously of a direct link to Excel; at the time of the multi-session windowing objects, OLE and DDE, its ergonomy could be much improved with very few development although I feel that the publisher tried to create a good interface starting from a very complex application.

Note that very few propagation programs provide so many options to draw their charts or to print their reports. In fact, most of them provide not the least option ! So WinCAPw shows despite appearances one more time all its flexibility in this customisation.

Group management and User batch

Say a short word about the various management options accessible in the "Menu" dialog. These screens have been created to provide you a global view of all groups and data sets that you are using to establish your forecast. You can use them to compare several receive-system configurations, system or even circuits configurations and select between them. 

When you will be used to work with these managers you could use them to add, edit and delete records as easily as using the different configurations in the "Circuits" dialog.

The User batch manager

The "Menu" dialog gives you access to the "User Batch Manager". It is also accessible from the "Master Control Palette", by clicking on the "Analyze" dialog then selecting "User Batch". 

A "user batch" is a sort of group or set of point-to-point circuits using references to records stored elsewhere. The main difference with the classical encoding method is that you don't have to change all inputs between each prediction. If you need to change some particular parameter in one of the three sets of records associated to circuits (consisting in a "system" record, a "transmit antenna" record and a "receive system" record plus two locations) you can only change it once using the "Circuit Configuration Manager". 

Thanks to relative addressing of references all other circuits using or referencing that particular record (System, Xmit Ant, Receive) will also be changed.

At last the user batch type prediction works the same way as the beacon type prediction, but provides much more flexibility. If you regularly work with several circuits, I suggest you to work with the User batch option. 

The option being as complex as all others, you will find more information about its settings in the online help, "Tutorial - User batch" section. But don't be afraid to look at its features, it is worth a try if you need of a tool to manage numerous data widespread in many simultaneous circuits.

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