By the time you read this, PC PakRatt for Windows (PPWIN) should be shipping. It's been a long time, but, if you use Windows and own an AEA controller or TNC, you'll be glad you waited. The product I looked at was marked "Preliminary," but it was pretty much the product that will ship, with a few rough edges still there. The fact is, even in this pre-release state, I prefer to use this product over any ham radio digital communications software on the market.
The Next Generation
I used PPWIN to control the new PK-900 which you will find reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Together, these two make a truly state-of-the-art digital station for the avid operator. Think of PPWIN as a very-pleasant-to-use soft front end for the AEA controller hardware. It doesn't offer features found in other terminal programs like LAN0Link or PK-Gold--it wasn't designed to. Instead, you will find it an excellent replacement for learning the multitude of command line incantations required to make the hardware do all its tricks, and it offers the very user friendly Microsoft Windows environment.
PPWIN really knows AEA hardware. Through easy-to-use combo boxes--editable fields with drop-down lists--and directly accessible buttons, PPWIN lets you control every aspect of any AEA controller. Forget hours with the manual trying to figure out everything your new controller does. With PPWIN all the options are right in front of you--or a few mouse clicks away.
The Main Screen
At start-up, PPWIN greets you with a blank gray window and a menu bar, typical of any Window application. The first step is to configure the program using the aptly named Configure menu. PPWIN can handle two different controllers, called TNC1 and TNC2. These can be any AEA product, from the top-end DSP-2232 to the budget-level PK-88. Selecting TNC1 from the Configure drop-down pops up a second menu which allows you to set various parameters relating to the controller.
This option invokes a dialog box which can be used to set the text colors for text messages displayed in the TNC1 window when it is visible. Different colors can be set for text depending upon whether it is received, echoed, or a message from the controller. These color schemes can be different for each of the controller's virtual channels. This is a very useful feature for those who run multiple connections.
This menu option offers access to the communications parameters used to talk to the controller, and allows the specification of a particular model. It also provides an array of check boxes for selection of initialization options.
This option provides a way to specify files used by PPWIN for messages and other use. The files are specified by DOS path name, and push-buttons invoke standard browse boxes to help locate the desired file. There are quite a few files settable from this dialog box: AMTOR Connect file, Buffer File, Port 2 Buffer File, Capture File Default, Macro File, Maildrop File, TNC Parameter File, Packet Connect File, PACTOR Connect File, QSO Log File, QSO Default File.
This dialog lets you specify a macro to execute at startup, and one for exit--a nice feature. This can save a lot of trouble if you normally do several things at either time. Also available in this box are the buffer sizes for each port (this defaults to 64K), and check boxes to decide whether one or both controllers will automatically open on start-up.
QSO Log Defaults
This dialog offers fields for default entries in your QSO log. You can specify rig, antenna, frequency, and power. These can be overridden at logging time.
Opening a TNC
Once you have specified the various parameters you are interested in--the only required ones are in the TNC Configuration--the TNC menu on the main menu bar will show the hardware you configured. Selecting either TNC will open and initialize your choice. If you have a two-port unit, like the PK-900 used to test the program, port 2 will be an additional choice on this menu. By cleverly using the controller's host mode, PPWIN can let you access both ports concurrently--each with its own visible window.
PPWIN opens a window for each controller or controller port that is opened from the TNC menu. Each of these windows has a gray bar at the top, with various combo boxes, buttons, and status windows. Below are two panes with scroll bars, one for received text and messages from the controller--the other for locally typed text. This is where you communicate with other stations, but not with the controller itself. Herein lies one of my wish-list additions to the program. Those of you who, like me, are used to operating controllers in a command-line fashion will probably find yourself typing things like MH and C AA9FP. These just won't work, since anything you type goes out on the air. I wish that AEA had included a command-line window where direct controller commands could be typed--sometimes command line is just easier.
The initialization process will be familiar to those who are current PakRatt users. A small box shown each parameter's name as it is set. The time required for the process can be greatly reduced by checking the Fast Initialization box in the TNC Configuration dialog.
Controller commands are all sent through the combo boxes and buttons at the top of the window and, to be honest, I would much rather have just these, rather than only a command line. On the left-most side of the control bar is a combo box to select operating mode. Pressing the down arrow on this box drops down a list of all operating modes available for the controller/port that is active. Choosing one instructs PPWIN to set the controller for operation in the selected mode, including the modem and shift required. Just to the right of the mode box is another combo box which selects data rate. This works the same way and displays the available rates for your hardware.
A set of push-buttons and a small box directly adjacent to the mode and data rate controls provides a way to select the virtual channel to be monitored. It is possible to select all channels or any particular channel.
Directly below these three controls are the status line and time/date. The status line displays messages appropriate to the operating mode--with information like un-ack'ed and received frames, and the state of the link. The date and time are displayed just below the status. The time appears in UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, also known as GMT--Greenwich Mean Time) to the left, and local 24-hour format time to the right of the date. Two small buttons allow you to select the desired version of the time, whose color switches to red when chosen.
One of the nicest things about PPWIN is the push-buttons that give you immediate access to your controller's functions. Some buttons do something immediate, like the one that turns on the maildrop--AEA's term for mailbox--and the CONPERM button that makes the current connection permanent until you turn it off. Most other buttons produce dialog boxes that give you an easy way to do things that otherwise would require multiple command lines or tedious linear input.
PPWIN has so many useful features that I find myself wanting to say, "This is a great feature!" over and over. So, at the risk of repetition--this is a great feature. Macros are used by PPWIN in two basic ways. First, these are standard macros for various operating modes. In AMTOR, for example, these is a CQ-AMTOR macro which you edit to contain your personal CQ text. The other type of macro is one you can choose from a listbox by pressing the Macro button from the main bar.
This dialog lets you create your own macros, which can be used to send special text and to control some controller functions. This is not the intention of the macros, unfortunately. To accomplish this, the function that you are interested in must have a keyboard shortcut and you must use a separate editor to get that shortcut as text. As an example, CTRL+F, in AMTOR mode, stops transmitting and send a Morse ID. To include this in a macro, several steps are required:
You know have a CTRL+F in your macro. While this works, it's no fun. The next version of PPWIN needs improvements to the macro capabilities.
All Those Pesky Parameters
On the main menu bar, the Parameters menu offers a way to set parms for each operating mode separately. Each choice provides a dialog with each param available. Depending upon the nature of the parameter, it can be changed with a push-button, a drop down list, or an editable field--and they are all right there in front of you. To top it off, help is just a button press away. This is not only a great way to set the parameters, but it's a great way to learn them, too.
More and More...
As much as I have written about this product, there is more to it. There is a lot of depth to PPWIN, which is really designed to make operations easier. It is not wart-free, but it is, in my opinion, the best way to do digital ham radio I have ever seen, especially teamed up with a PK-900 or DSP-2232 and their state-of-the-art capabilities. PPWIN will not be everything to everybody, but I can say that I feel a little sorry for those of you who don't own AEA hardware, since you need it to run this great program. If you own a Windows-capable computer and an AEA TNC or controller you have to own PPWIN!