Afreet Software has a suite of programs out for the Amateur Radio Operator, which are very useful, and in some cases work together swapping data between themselves, I have a few of them and will review them all over the next few months. I will start with FAROS.
I like to see when the bands are open and have been using a program called HamCap, that program provides a nice little map of the predicted propagation, and it is free! I wanted real time data, not predictions, so I researched the available options for this, and found two programs which looked promising, FAROS, and BeaconSee. After downloading BeaconSee, and FAROS, I set about to see which one was best for my purposes of seeing real-time propagation. It soon became apparent that FAROS was superior in many ways for my use. BeaconSee while working, is a bit of a pain to set up, while FAROS is literally install, select your radio, and hit the go button. I don’t want to turn this into a FAROS vs. BeaconSee review, so I will not mention BeaconSee again.
FAROS can be located at Afreet’s web site here. The author correctly offers a full evaluation version of FAROS, (i.e. no restrictions on functionality), for free, which is good for a month. I downloaded FAROS and installed it. The install went as expected, I hit the file with the mouse twice, and the program installed itself. I soon was off using FAROS. The first thing I did was to check out the SETTINGS options. To my surprise there were few setup pages, they were as follows:
Under General there are two important options, Home Location, and Autosave. Home location sets your home location, using Lat/Lon, and Autosave sets what files you save, and how often, it would be nice if it allowed changing directories, but it does not. The saved files are History, and LP/SP. I entered my location, and selected the History Save, every two hours. This basically tells FEROS to save an image of the propagation every two hours for review later.
The first thing I did was to pull down the RADIO scroll box, it has 76 different radios, and a NONE option. My 756 PRO III was there, as was the PRO II, (you PRO III owners know why the distinction), and just about every other radio Icom, and most other manufactures make. As soon as I pulled down the PRO III, the menu options for baud rate, stop bits, Hex address, etc., all
autopopulated. I like this, as I don’t have to look them up every time and type them in. Further the software will let you operate two different radios, so if my backup radio were an Icom 706 MKIIG, which was on the list, (again, you Icom MKII G owners will understand the distinction between a 706 and a MKII), I could set that radio up as well. I have only one radio, so I did not play around with the twin radio options, beyond noting that they were there.
The audio settings box offered me both sound cards I have in my computer, so I selected the one connected to the station. Again, everything came up pre-populated correctly. I am running Windows XP, (Afreet needs to do all of their software for Linux by the way, they do not support Linux), and a soundblaster card.
There are a few map styles offered, and you just select one. It would be nice to have an apply button available, so one could select a map, and then hit apply to see it, as opposed to selecting OK, which changes the map, and closes the select dialog box. Two other settings, “Text Color”, and “Projection” are offered. By the way, Color is spelled correctly, (the way I think it should be), not Colour. Given this is from a Canadian company, that sort of surprised me! Both options control the color and text options for the map display.
After setting up the above, you hit OK, and then start the program running. It should take over your computer controlled radio, (it does not need to be computer controlled if you are looking at one band, you can set it and go), and then commands your radio to a beacon station. The first time this happened the radio dutifully changed frequency to 14.1000 CW mode, and I heard nothing! I promised I would not mention BeaconSee again, but I must here, BeaconSee was difficult at best to set up, so I also heard nothing upon starting BeacosSee. I had not set it up correctly. I erroneously assumed that FAROS was not set up correctly based on my BeaconSee experience. I started reading up on setup, resigned to the fact that this would take a long time, and suddenly I heard a beacon! That was easy, so I stopped reading, and started watching the radio and FAROS. FAROS will walk through each beacon, keeping itself timed with a really slick built in clock. I started hearing many beacons…
How Does FAROS know what the Propagation is:
The beacons work as follows:
1. At time X, beacon A sends a Morse ID, and then transmits a carrier of a certain power. A few milliseconds later the power goes down and that carrier holds for a bit, and then a few more milliseconds later it goes lower in power.
2. At time Y, that beacon shuts off and another one starts someplace in the world, and repeats the process in item 1 above.
3. At time Z, the second beacon shuts down and the third in the series starts, repeating the CW ID, and power lowering scheme.
4. This repeats for all 18 beacons.
What the above four steps give you is a set of beacons, from all over the planet, all transmitting, all available to you, and with various power levels. The lowering of power allows one to calculate the S/N ratios, and thus get some idea if a station could be worked from that beacon location. See the Northern California DX Foundations web page for more on how they work. It is very interesting, and informative.
FAROS has a built in clock, because as you can see from the above, timing is everything, and FAROS depends on EXACT timings. The author seems to not trust the built in clock of a PC for some strange reason, (that is a joke), so he constructed a very accurate clock, which polls a few NTP servers to keep itself correct. Looking at the clock setup, and how it works is fun in and of itself. It would be nice it FAROS also set my PC clock, but alas, it does not…
FAROS begins building a structure for itself to keep correct time no matter what your PC is doing, so it always stays on time looking for the correct beacon at the correct time, to the millisecond, and on the correct frequency. This allows FAROS to know what beacon is transmitting when, the power reduction scheme allows FAROS to calculate the S/N ratio of the beacon, and lastly, as FAROS has commanded your radio to a frequency, it now knows what propagation is like for that moment to a given location.
Back to Operation:
FAROS knowing what beacon is transmitting where, and when, listens for the beacon, when it hears one, it also listens to the signal as the transmitter reduces power. With this data, FAROS can now calculate S/N for an area, and time. The display for this is not intuitive at first, but it works… I am not sure how I would have displayed it better, but it is what it is…
On the left side of the screen, is a sort of overview of propagation at the moment, based on the past cycle of beacons. The colors, (spelled correctly), represent the S/N ratios of the heard beacons.
This is the part I dislike about FAROS, (again, I don’t know how I would do it better though), the color selection seems to not tell me at a glance the usefulness of a frequency. Grey means it heard nothing, while, the various colors of the rainbow mean it is stronger, as it approaches Red. I might have selected a different color scheme for this, using the saturation of a single color to indicate better S/N ratios. In any case, you get used to it, and after a day or so, you forget it, and just know which is better, vs, worse.
FAROS gives you three ways to view the current/past propagation using tabbed windows. The tabs are called MONITOR, DETAILS, and HISTORY. Each gives a different view of propagation…
Monitor gives you the current state of propagation, you look at the window, and you can tell if any band is open, and to where. If it is not grey or black, then the band is open, you then decode the colors to see how well… It also lets you see FAROS work. I have NEVER seen FAROS misidentify a beacon. I have seen it miss one or two, (not many at all; maybe 10 in a month of almost 24 hour a day use), but the few misses are not a problem. In any case, FAROS spots the beacons 99.9% of the time, and then shows you the results. Unlike any other software I have seen, FAROS has a detection algorithm which can detect the beacons under very heavy QRM. I believe other programs just look for any signal, while FAROS actually fingerprints the signal in some way. It really is amazing to watch it work!
The details tab is interesting, (see the Dopplergram post here for why), to me, as it will tell you if you heard the Beacon as short path, or long path. If you use a beam, this is handy, if not, then it is merely interesting. In any case, it is fun to watch FAROS work, and useful to see where the band is open, or if it is open at all.
History is by far the most useful of the tabs, it will tell you if the band HAS been open in the past 24 hours. This is also one of my “issues” with FAROS. I would really like it to show me yesterday as well and it does not, I can look in the stored files to see yesterday, but I would love it on the same display. I suspect the author was trying to conserve screen space, but an option to show two days would be nice. I can always shrink my screen if I want. At a glance, (using the sort of random color scheme one has to learn), FAROS will give you the days past openings, on all frequencies you selected, and how good the opening was. This is VERY handy for planning DX. During the 7O6T DXpedition, I used it to plot best times. I had to revert to the saved history’s, which is why I would like it to have two days on it. Having the past day(s) available is a Godsend for planning an operation.
Sort of fun, but it is map that shows what beacon is where. After you learn the prefixes, you will know where, and this tab is not interesting at all to me…
FAROS has a mini display mode, showing just the current HF conditions, which is very handy if you are running other software. You select it, then put it wherever you want on the screen. Just a little box showing the current conditions.
All in all FAROS is a very good deal at $25.00 (USD). I might even pay a bit more for it! If you want to know what the current and past state of propagation is, FAROS is by far the best of the Beacon monitoring programs I have seen in many years. All of the software I have seen from Afreet seems to be written well, works well, and a lot of Afreet’s software will talk to the other modules Afreet provides. I highly recommend this software to anyone interested in watching propagation changes over time.