Friday, October 27, 2006

New PC-ALE Version Is Out

PC-ALE version 1.062G is now available from the new HF-Link site, in their beta-testing area.

As always, PC-ALE remains a rather amazing program, originally written by Charles Brain, G4GUO, ostensibly to teach himself DSP. I would say he learned fast, because this was an amazing programming breakthrough when it first came out. It rather seamlessly implemented most of a hardware Automatic Link Establishment controller, sticking close to one of the most complicated communication standards ever devised, while using only a PC and sound card. This was at a stage of the game when most other programmers were having enough trouble with sound-card RTTY and FAX.

In the seven or so years since, PC-ALE has lost some of its rough edges, improved greatly "under the hood," and in general made a good thing better. It remains ham software, meaning it is intended for use by technically sophisticated people, with the controls visible and with documentation that does not always tell you much about what to do with them. Like most great ham software, it also remains free.

The "G" version is in the line of evolution that began with the "MARS version" of PC-ALE. "G" has resolved some of the issues with this version, and greatly improved ease of use. It is coming close to the unthinkable - an intuitive ALE interface!

It remains a beta, of course. I've been giving it a good thrashing out on the NRD-545. There are some major differences from the older and better known "K" series of the program, which is still available on Charles' site, and as simple and reliable as ever.

For example, the QRG (frequency list) file is completely different, and incompatible. On the NRD-545, the G series no longer loads the QRG into your bottom 100 memories, meaning that you don't lose the data in these. Most NRD-545 users have become used to leaving 0-99 empty for PC-ALE to do with as it will, but this is apparently no longer necessary.

The grouping of frequencies is also different, far more intuitive, and generally better. The QRG that comes with the program on the HFLINK site is for use in amateur autolinking experiments, which due largely to the effort of this group have become far more common than before. However, it's easy to modify the file by hand and save it back out.

This particular release fixes a couple of little things. The receiver volume control, which was extremely clunky, is now as good as on the K. There's a new sound card setup screen, though the general interface to the sound card seems buggy. Closing the options screen sets the receive volume to 0 until this new setup is opened, at which point it goes back to where you had set it and you can close the dialogue without doing anything. A little thing, but irritating.

Trace mode is also greatly improved, with its own setup menu. One can now choose to trace every ALE word received without activating the more general debugging trace. This allows insight into the workings of the ALE mode, and can also uncover a few little hidden commands buried in some of the signals.

The program comes with transmit sounding enabled. Unless you want your shack to be a rather noisy place, you'll want to turn this off for receive-only.

ALE is a hobby within a hobby, largely due to Charles' efforts, and we thank him for his contributions to utility DXing.