Digital Modes Software Review
To Join in the Fun - Pick the Best Software to meet your needs!There are a number of software applications available that will run on Windows, Mac OSX and various forms of Linux. So no matter what operating system you run on your computer, there will be a digital mode application available for your operating needs.
The most prevalent operating system in use by hams is Microsoft Windows. I know there are plenty of hams using OSX and Linux, but it seems a majority of hams use Windows. However, since I use Windows, Mac OSX and Linux in my shack, I have experience with many of these operating systems and applications and still use them all, at varying times, depending on the mode I am using. I like some applications better than others depending on the mode and whether or not I am working a contest. So I will try to cover this subject as objectively as possible. There is no single best application for everyone. Some are better than others. Some are better at various modes than another. This information is meant to help you choose the best program for the modes you want to operate, or at least narrow down the applications you want to test and therefore need to learn how to use.
Windows Based Applications
Ham Radio Deluxe/DM-780Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD)/DM-780 is quite a bit more than just a digital mode application. In fact, the HRD Suite is made up of several independent modules or applications. The module known as DM-780 is the digital mode application that is part of the HRD Suite. While each module can run without the others, they all integrate together. So the base HRD module controls the radio; DM-780 is the digital multi-mode application, HRD Logbook obviously does logging and has a built in DX-Cluster; there is also a satellite tracking module that can control your antenna rotator to follow the movement of the satellites.
A user can start DM-780 and use it stand-alone. Or, they can start the HRD base application itself which will control the radio (via an interface or directly with a cable depending on the radio). If HRD, DM-780 and Logbook are running at the same time, they are all integrated and working together. You can then make contacts on any digital mode, log them with the click of a button and the log will automatically be populated with the time, call, mode, report, name and frequency.
I am concentrating mostly on the digital capabilities of the programs, but there is one item related to digital modes that I need to mention. That is the HRD Logbook. The feature that I use most is the LoTW upload. I can easily and quickly upload QSOs to LoTW directly from HRD Logbook. This makes award chasing so much easier.
So let's talk about the DM-780 digital mode application within HRD. DM-780 provides support for most of the popular digital modes. It supports the following digital modes and their respective variations: RTTY, PSK, Contestia, CW DominoEX, Hellschreiber, MFSK, MT63, Olivia, Thor, Throb and even SSTV. It does an excellent job with all these modes including CW. CW as you may be aware is in fact a digital mode, and the first digital mode. Obviously it does better at decoding machine generated CW, but as long as the other op is not sending with his/her left foot, it will do a very credible job with hand generated CW.
I would like to see packet added to the list of supported modes.
I have used DM-780 for CW contesting and it preforms very well during contests. The nice thing about DM-780 when it comes to CW, is the program with appropriate interface, can key your transmitter via the CW key jack. Some programs like FL-Digi can only send modulated CW which is a real drawback in my mind.
DM-780 is laid out very well, though the receive and transmit screen is compressed a little bit from the left side. But still very easy to read. It also offers a Supersweeper function which allows you to monitor and decode multiple transmissions at one time. Great for the op looking for particular stations or stations calling CQ.
Logging is available on the same screen as well as basic radio control (if using HRD Base application). It also has the ability to create all sorts of macros which are a must with any digital mode program.
The logbook function will also interface to many callbook databases that you can install on your computer and it will also interface to on-line callbooks like QRZ.com.
When all said and done, I tend to use DM-780 now more than another other digital multi-mode program. You can purchase the license and support from http://www.hrdsoftwarellc.com. Of course, they do offer the software on a trial basis. There isn't a more full featured, fully-supported, complete, integrated software application out there like Ham Radio Deluxe/DM-780. It is well worth the license/support fee.
Also, and this is important. The license key is tied to your call. So you can move it from one computer to another without having to get another license key. Software such as AGWPE Pro, N4PY, etc. that generate a code based on the system it is installed on. You then send that code to the software author, who then send a key based on the machine dependent code. I will just not buy ham radio applications that use that scheme. Every new install or machine change or additional machine requires contacting the author for a new code. Remember this: authors pass away and stop supporting software. How do you get a key when the author is no more? HRD did it right. I do recommended HRD/DM-780
MixWI used MixW for many years and still do, but mainly for contests now. It does interface to the radio so you can pull in the frequency/mode for logging purposes and it has a very nice basic logging program. It has a DX Cluster client built-in just like HRD.
At one time MixW was one of the most widely used digital mode software applications. It is very stable and supports a number of modes and their variations including: PSK, RTTY, Packet, Pactor (FEC Only), Amtor (FEC Only), MFSK, Throb, MT63, Hellschreiber, FAX and SSTV. Other modes can be added by downloading a DLL file for that mode.
It also supports user created macros, and probably has the most extensive macro capability compared to any of the other digital programs.
To my knowledge, not may hams are using Pactor and Amtor in FEC mode. But the addition of Packet with MixW is very nice as some people still do packet on HF. MixW will even run at higher speeds for VHF/UHF operation which is nice.
The authors website (http://mixw.net) says that they are developing a new version of MixW that will run on Windows, Mac OSX, or Linux which would be great. But that was two years ago and I have seen nothing out there, so I am a bit skeptical that we're ever going to see something like that which would be very exciting.
My opinion is that when the folks behind the MixW software started developing and selling the RigExpert line of digital mode interface product and some antenna analyzers, MixW seemed to go to the back burner. It's a shame because this was once a great program. It still is, but just has not kept up with the developments like some of the other programs. Still recommended, but I'd like the developers to start paying attention to additional development and enhancements.
If they ever release a version for all operating systems, this could shoot to the forefront once again.
MixW allows you to try the program for free for a reasonable period, after which you need to pay for a license to use the program. Very reasonable and updates have been free within the same version (2.0, 3.0).
MultiPSKThis is probably one of the more interesting programs out there. It is both hated and loved by many users.
The user interface is probably the ugliest out there. I have a ham friend who is a programmer and he despises MultiPSK and says it is the worst design in a user interface that he has ever seen. That being said, it is much better than it was when it was first introduced. In other words, if you think it is bad now, you should have seen it way back when. Originally it was a cluttered mix of poorly chosen colored buttons that were poorly arranged. Now it looks better, but still very cluttered.
I admit it is hard to work with when you first start using it. It could have been designed better, but part of what contributed to the clutter on the screen is that MultiPSK supports about every mode known to the digital ham! It is even a great tool for the hobby listener since it supports decoding many commercial digital modes.
It has a logging program built-in, but it has a horrible user interface on the logging page. The good news is that you can export the contacts into an ADIF file to import into a more robust and user friendly logging program.
It can also interface to most radios through use of an external program. So in my opinion, it is a good program for general digital communication, but not something I would ever use for contesting.
The good news about MultiPSK are the number of modes it supports. No one else comes close. It supports the following modes including numerous variations: PSK, MT63, CHIP, DigiSSTV, CW, CCW, QRSS, Packet and APRS, Amtor (FEC), Navtex, ASCII, RTTY, Lentus, Pactor (FEC), DominoF, DominoEX, Throb, ThrobX, MFSK, PAX/PAX2, JT-65, Olivia, Hellschreiber, ALE, ALE400, FAX, SSTV, Sitor, GMDSS, 1382, ACARS, DGPS, Synop, SELCAL, Amtor ARQ. You name it, if it is a digital mode, I think MultiPSK supports it.
So from that standpoint, MultiPSK makes it fun to be able to explore different modes and how they work. And you can occasionally listen to commercial services. I enjoyed using the ACARS decoding capability to capture the airplane positions on the maps built into MultiPSK.
But if you are trying out digital modes for the first time, get your feet wet with another program like MixW first, before trying to tackle MultiPSK. Just my humble opinion.
You can find MultiPSK at http://f6cte.free.fr and there are two options for the ham, one free and one paid. Like most other programs, the fee is very reasonable.
FLDigiFLDigi and its companion messaging program FLARQ is an excellent application. Like many other programs it has the ability to interface to most radio and offers basic control of the radio as well as grabbing the frequency and mode for the log. The interface is nice and clean and easy to use.
The only issues I ever had with FLDigi was that I found it difficult to set-up the radio control interface. There are two methods you can use to do this. Now just to be clear we're not talking about interfacing to the radio with the PTT and audio lines for using digital modes. I am only talking about the radio control to grab the frequency and tune the radio, change mode (LSB, USB, CW, etc.).
There are two methods that you can use to interface to your radio. You can use RigCAT or HamLib. HamLIb is usually used with Linux systems while RigCat can be used with any of the operating systems. Neither is well supported in my opinion. Sometimes I just could not get either method to work with some of my radios.
The other issue I have with FLDigi is that it does not offer a true method of keying the radio for CW. It only offers modulated CW, so it truly turns CW into a "sound card" digital mode. That alone kept me from seriously using FLDigi. But if you do not care about CW and can tolerate the possibility of having to take some time to get the radio control interface set-up, then this is a very good program and it is free which is all important to many hams.
The digital modes and the variations that FLDigi supports include CW (modulated), Contesia, DominoEX, Hellschreiber, MFSK, MT63, Olivia, PSK, RTTY, Thor, Throb, WEFAX (reception only of course). So it is very complete with many modes.
FLDigi also has a nice ability to create macros for general chat and contesting. It will also interface to QRZ.com to grab the operator information once you enter the call into the logbook.
Another nice feature that FLDigi has in a module or integrated application that installs with FLDigi known as FLARQ. FLARQ is a messaging program that sends and receives error free messages. This is very handy for emergency message handling. Unlike most all digital sound card modes that are only Forward Error Correcting (FEC), FLARQ is error free in that it use ARQ (ARQ stands for Automatic Repeat Request) meaning that if the receiving station found an error in the transmission, it automatically sends a request to the transmitting station asking it torepeat part of the transmission and to do so until the receiving station get it accurately. Really a nice feature. I have used it experimentally with other stations and it does work very well.
So if you are into EMCOMM, this is something you really want to try.
You can find more detail and links to download the FLDigi/FLARQ at http://www.w1hkj.com/Fldigi.html
Mac OSX Based Applications
cocoaModemThis is a nice basic multimode digital program that will work with Apple Mac computers. It notes it only support OSX up to 10.7, but I am running it on the latest 10.8 version of OSX without issues. It has a basic logging function built-in and a user can create macros. It is more limited in the digital modes that are supported. These include the following and their variations: RTTY, PSK, MFSK, ASCII, DominoEX, Hellschreiber, CW, and reception only of FAX, Sitor, and Synchronous AM.
While the modes are a bit more limited in number, never the less it is supporting the modes most commonly used. The program is free, but I would suggest donations to the author if you are using this as one of your main programs.
For more information and to download a copy, visit http://www.w7ay.net/site/Applications/cocoaModem/index.html
Programs for Mac users are a bit more limited. This is a nice program so if you are using a Mac, this is one to try. The other is FLDigi which runs on Windows, Mac, or Linux.
Multiple Operating Systems Supported
FLDigiFLDigi and the companion FLARQ (see review above) work on Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux
MixWMixW claims to be working on a version that supports Windows, Mac OSX and Linux but they have been making that claim for over two years and we still have not seen any multi-OS versions. Check back here periodically for any update.
Free versus Paid Software - or the argument for Software for a FeeMost hams are notoriously cheap. As a result, they will flock to using good software that is free. Why not use free software? Doesn't cost anything right?
Let's take a look at Ham Radio Deluxe. The author originally created an application to control the FT-817 QRP radio from Yaesu. Then he expanded the program to control other radios. Then DM-780 was created and Logbook came along as did satellite tracking. He asked only for donations and in the early years many people donated and he seemed to be happy. But as time went on, hams kept asking for more features and enhancements, but donations started to wane. In my opinion, as a result of the lack of continuing donations, his interest in HRD diminished and he moved onto other things. For a long period of time very little coding for enhancing the application or fixing bugs was being done to the HRD application.
To the rescue came a consortium of hams who purchased the HRD application suite and all rights to the product from the original author. So development and support are happening once again. In fact, the new owners just released version 6.0 in early 2013. However, they have also instituted an annual support fee to help pay for the development.
Moral of the story is that free software is a dinosaur in my opinion. If you want a great application to stay great and supported, you have to pay for it. The folks doing this coding work devote a tremendous amount of time to doing so. They need to be compensated for their time so they also stay interested in keeping their applications alive and well. Let's put an end to free software and cheap hams. Pay and donate!
Disclosure StatementI am not a programmer of any of the above applications. In fact, I am not a programmer at all. I do not know the first thing about programming (well I did do some Basic Language programming back in the day).
I do not have any vested interest in any of the programs I have reviewed other than being a user. I do not benefit or receive compensation for using, writing about, or reviewing these programs. In one case, the application was offered to me for free and I declined and paid the license fee like everyone else. Honestly, not because of any review, but because I believe these people need to be paid for their time to keep them interested in maintaining and enhancing their applications. In any case, my reviews are objective without any monetary interest or motivation.