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Software review

WinCAP Wizard fully extended in the author's XP environment showing the few charts and maps available. It is a VOACAP-based application using a much more user-friendly GUI.

WinCAP Wizard propagation analysis and prediction program (I)

Foreword - With the passing of Jim Tabor in 2010, WinCAP Wizard and other Taborsoft products are no longer supported. So unfortunately the below information is provided for archiving purpose.


WinCAP Wizard is a propagation analysis and prediction program to not confuse with many other homonym tools dedicated to computing. Based on the famous VOACAP engine, a down-sized ionospheric model developed in the '80s, it is as powerful and flexible as its model, in both meanings of the word, but in my humble opinion, it presents always some inconvenients herited from its mentor, until the publisher or even his creator had redesigned the product and improved its performance.

WinCAP Wizard, that I will shorten in WinCAPw for this review, differs from VOACAP by its improved graphic user interface and the fact that it is not free of right but a commercial product with all extensions that it implies.

This article reviews the version WinCAP Wizard 3. It was recently updated to version 4.1 then 5 but as the interface hasn't changed, it only includes new features, this review remains essentially compatible with the new version. Changes are described in the second and third page.


WinCAPw can be downloaded for a 60-day free trial from the publisher website at Kangaroo Tabor Software.

For the publisher, Jim Tabor, in releasing this Windows version, his philosophy has been to provide the end user with a better and more flexible user interface but using of course always the same VOACAP engine, without which WinCAPw should be well unable to predict the least forecast. It installs thus also all additional models free of right like ICEPAC, REC533, S_I_VOACAP, VOAAREA or HFANT from NTIA/ITS. These "add-ons" are stand-alone but they share their data with all models. We will come back on them later.

Other heritage from the past, WinCAPw requires to be installed in a NON long file name (LFN) directory (thus in a short name folder without space, and not under "\Program files"). The funny side of this situation is that the first official Windows version of VOACAP was released in 1996 and the NT version in 1997, at a time of the LFN was already supported in Windows 95... Soon ten years after its introduction, using still DOS functions and text files, this tool seems almost obsolete... Hopefully the GUI has been improved and WinCAPw looks up the head thanks to VOACAP, one of the most powerful down-sized ionospheric model ever developed that comes to light in all parts of this program.

What is VOACAP?

The VOACAP interface, the kernel of WinCAP Wizard 3.

VOACAP stands for the Voice of America Coverage Analysis Program. It is an ionospheric model predicting the expected performance of HF transmissions. It takes into account tens of variables to support you in the planning and operation of long distance HF amateur or broadcast transmissions.

VOACAP was developed by the Voice of America (VOA) from the Ionospheric Communications Analysis and Prediction program (IONCAP) developed by Teters and al. in 1983, itself based on a Fortran77 version created in 1978. 

In 1985 VOA adopted IONCAP as the approved engineering model to be used for broadcast relay station design and antenna specification.

Then VOA funded the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to make specific changes to the IONCAP methodology, and renamed it to VOACAP so as to avoid confusion. That version of VOACAP was completed in April 1993 and distributed to participants at IES 93 (Ionospheric Effects Symposium May 1993, Alexandria, VA., USA). Simultaneous to funding NRL to enhance the model, VOA also funded the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Institute for Telecommunication Sciences (NTIA/ITS) to enhance the user interface.

In parallel geophysicists have worked on a more complete ionospheric model called the International Reference Ionosphere (IRI) from which have been extracted several specialized models like the F2-peak model, also used in many amateur propagation programs.

For more information about VOACAP consult in L.R.Teters, J.L. Lloyd, G.W. Haydon and D.L. Lucas, "Estimating the Performance of Telecommunication Systems Using the Ionospheric Transmission Channel", Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, NTIA Report 83-127, July 1983.

The VOACAP engine represents about 14 MB of data, the whole application requesting 23 MB of disk space. Here also we feel the heritage of a product developed by a governmental agency and that was not optimized. Resource hungrier, the first 32-bit beta release didn't work on computer lower that a 80486 running at 33MHz equipped with math co-processor and VGA display. Today, hold on well, the "suggested" system configuration is a Pentium IV running at 2.8 GHz, 1 GB RAM and a 20" XGA display... In fact NTIA/ITS suggests to run the VOACAP engine on the plateform on which it has been developed ! As if all users had always at their disposal the latest computer model... Hopefully, even embellished with the WinCAPw interface, the program runs fine of small computers like a portable Pentium II running at 300 MHz with 128 MB RAM and a 14" SVGA display. However to be at ease a 500 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM, and a 17" display in SVGA or even XGA resolution will be appreciated.

With some habit you will discover that some of installed files are samples or are seldom if not never used and that they can be deleted if you need of disk space. As infered previously, the VOACAP model can be used independently in running the command "\itshfbc\bin_win\Pointwin.exe voacap" or clicking on the deskop folder "ITSHF" and selecting the icon "VOACAP". The "pointwin.exe" is the reference to the "point-to-point" VOACAP interface, not an option designed by the publisher. But leave temporary these tools on one side, we will come back on them further.

First run : press help !

WinCAPw requires 15 seconds to load its graphic user interface on a 500 MHz P3 with 256 MB RAM and some GB of free disk space. This is the slowest interface I have ever used ! Even the original VOACAP 32-bit engine load faster. Hopefully WinCAPw runs as fast as any other application once loaded.

This program provides three kinds of forecasts : a point-to-point prediction (between two stations), a beacon type prediction, and a user batch prediction. It is mainly dedicated to work off-line to schedule past or propagation conditions to come, from hours or weeks to years in the past or in advance at the condition to use accurate inputs and know its limitations.

In fact like many down-sized ionospheric models, WinCAPw uses statistical functions and smoothed data showing either a high reliability or median values. Both extremes do not alway match the needs of an amateur radio. In this context, WinCAPw must be considered more like a modeling program able to simulate various working conditions with high accuracy than a simple tool that would come to support you while you are working on the air looking for an open path to DX stations. It can do it, and it do it too sometimes very well, but in a way that can be more user-friendly, with additional dynamic maps, and taking into account real-time data and additional parameters.

If you use for the first time a propagation program taking advantage of a VOACAP engine, the product is disappointed because after 15 seconds of waitings, without the least activity on screen, it opens in an unconventional small window without much information. It does not respect totally the Windows GUI for example and this is disturbing, even if this is a minor problem. Hopefully, if you read the introduction screen when loading the program (do read it !) Jim Tabor will learn you that he provided an online help. In addition there is an external help file in RTF format as well (see below).

In the upper left corner is displayed the WinCAP Wizard 3 main menu window. Below it, the first "Circuits" dialog has been selected and the "System" group shows some settings that will be used by the VOACAP engine. At right the very useful contextual online help (at right) that pops up pressing F1. Very useful in the beginning as it is quite verbose... As explained next page, the help has been improved in version 4.

But when you see the manual, very long (thick), full of comments, field descriptions and figures, you prefer to bypass it temporary  and trying, with some luck, to get a chart... But is it only possible knowing the complexity of VOACAP ? 

Without background, no, it isn't if you want quickly a chart, but yes, it is if you take your time. Like many novices in this matter, you will probably make trials and... errors with the hope that the contextual help (pressing F1) will solve your problems ! Of course this is not the best way to get an accurate forecast if you even don't master your inputs, and we will still underline this fact.

This "trial-and-error" procedure can last quite a few times, depending on your ability to master something new and maybe much different from the programs you are used to handle. But hopefully all VOACAP engine use the same inputs, and once you mastered one setting you will understand quicker how to set another program using the same data and algorithms.

Here is how to proceed to get a chart with WinCAPw. Move first the small Main menu window outside the middle of the screen, to a corner. Then browse this menu for left to right to setup various parameters that will be used to calculate propagation conditions. 

Without the least knowledge of the VOACAP model, you will probably get in trouble in trying to enter your first inputs in WinCAPw, even with the contextual help. Not that screens or fields to fill or to select are badly labelled but without background you don't immediately understand their utility or what value to enter. So before to begin and if you didn't read it yet or if you are already in trouble, read my review of ionospheric modeling and then come back. You will find in this document many useful information that you might immediately apply in WinCAPw.

Now many amateurs become not aware of the importance of all VOACAP settings and keep the default values, even if it means to come back later to (find back and) correct some fields. At least you will have understood their utility and maybe learnt the only one useful lesson of this trial : read the manual first !

VOACAP settings

WinCAPw obeys to the VOACAP "philosophy" what means that you need to setup various data groups (e.g. user locations, date, time of the day, transmitter, receiver, antenna gain, ground properties, frequencies, smoothed sunspot number, system reliability, multipath tolerance, etc), select a target location before to make a forecast. But this is not all, because WinCAPw is more powerful and flexible that this, and is able to take into account several configurations simultaneously (several circuits each defined by one or more transmitters, receivers, etc).

Thus, to confirm my first remark, it is impossible to display immediately a propagation chart without to get a warning or an error message if you have not set you input data first.

Circuit Configuration Manager

WinCAPw allows you to simulate simultaneously up to18 circuits. By "circuit" the program means a complete communication system including users on both ends of the communication channel, both antenna systems, the transmitter, the receiver, the working frequencies, and more. 

So the first menu button labelled "Circuits" is one of the most important as it gathers all communication settings except the target location.

If you work with only one circuit or configuration, once you entered and validated all data you can select a target location and display a forecast. We will come back on this option. But if you use two or more circuits you have to enter all parameters of each group. If you simply want to see the performance of a second antenna in the same working conditions, you must fill the required section (e.g. pressing the button "Xmtr Antennas" in the "Circuit Configuration Manager" window and add or create a second antenna similar to the one you are using). If your object (the antenna but also a location, etc) is not listed, adding a new item is an easy thing as you can edit online all text files provided free with the program in the \sample directory or any other custom folder.

At left the “Circuit Configuration Manager” in which solar conditions have to be entered manually as well as in other submenus except if you install "GeoAlert" in addition. At right another window of the “Circuit Configuration Manager” in which, if necessary, several antenna systems can be setup if you want to simulate several working conditions simultaneously.

To help you to manage your data, each circuit is gathered in numbered groups, the all data set being managed in background by a powerful database constituted of groups of tables that are automatically sorted by the system and converted, if necessary, in decoimal integer when it's a matter of coordinates.

With some habit you will understand that the program takes into account many parameters in a very large range of values from the antenna gain or the output power to the QRM level to the receive station or the minimum takeoff angle. Distributed in several windows, this section is very complete and flexible, and thus a bit complex at first sight. It will require surely a big effort and will be time-consuming if you have many circuits to setup... But I bet that once you will be used to play with WinCAPw you will be familiarized with all these settings that will no more look so barbarian, HI!

Once you are entered in the "Circuits" dialog or module, first big minus point, you discover that, as it, in the "SSN" submenu, WinCAPw provides no link to the Internet to get online updated solar data (from SEC/NOAA for example). All values listed are in fact extracted from a statistical database in which are saved offline all SSN for the sun cycle 23 (each SSN value for each month between 1996 and 2007). Hopefully, as for all records of the database, you can add new data to simulate conditions over that range.

Get online data with GeoAlert Wizard

GeoAlert Wizard display solar and geomagnetic data in a summary sheet of in various charts

Today, WinCAPw provides an interface to get online data. “GeoAlert-Extreme Wizard”, a $20 program currently provided free with the program, must be installed into the same folder as WinCAPw for the updates to be available to the program. A screendump is shown at right. Then, in WinCAPw, open the "Circuits" dialog and go to the "SSN" button. There is a button labelled "Update" that is enabled when new data is available. Just click that button when it actives and the SSN data will be updated. Unfortunately this selection has to be manually executed at each run and is not accessible in other dialog, window or chart.

No other data can be either downloaded from the web. No way to get the current geomagnetic data (planetary indices), to read online warning and space weather reports, and no way to get the latest images to correlate the current conditions or warnings with conditions that you might experiment on HF bands...

Some bulletins (WWV, a summary space wx report, solar wind plasma and magnetic) are however available through GeoAlert Wizard (right click anywhere on screen, then selecting "More"). 

Do you always follow me ? Because we are approaching the last step of our settings. Still a minute of patience and you will get your chart...

Location Manager

After have completed all groups of the "Circuits" dialog and validated each of them (pressing the button "Done" on the upper right corner or the icon "a" often displayed below right), you must now select a target location in selecting the second dialog "Analyze" and click on the first option "Point-to-point...". 

The "Location Manager" superimposed on the BUF chart that pops up either in double clicking directly on a target location, or selecting a location then "Analyze" in the menu, or using the "Chart" dialog, then clicking on Chart, BUF.

A "Location Manager" window pops up as displayed at right in which you can select, add, delete or edit individual records. I evaluated the database to more than 6700 cities with their full coordinates. But your small city or village gathering less 100,000 inhabitants in probably not listed. It doesn't matter, you can add it if you want ! 

In addition you can filter and search (setting first the key) or sort the database to access quicker to a specific location. As all fields, locations are very complete : WinCAPw takes into account not only the coordinates of the city (lat. and long. in decimal) but also the QTH locator, CQ and ITU zone, and provides a distance calculator for both forward and backward azimuths expressed in several units (s.miles, n.miles and km). 

By default the program displays few columns but you can check additional fields in the menu "Customize" to display more columns  and even move columns in the window. This is a true object-oriented interface, at least one !

Note as usual, that all these tables and data are also shared with the other models like VOACAP or ICEPAC.

We will not extend longer on the other features of the program that are mainly related to the customization, settings, groups and circuits review and management. You know enough of the program to create now a forecast. To be complete, some additional information will be provided further.

Next chapter

Forecasts, charts and reports

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