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Software review

WinCAP Wizard propagation analysis and prediction program (III)

Additional help file and tutorial

If the contextual help hasn't provided you all the require information that you have expected (e.g. it doesn't explain all fields or how to fill them), WinCAPw provides in option an external manual in RTF format (Wizard3.rtf) that helps much in understanding how works the program. It is well done but the RTF file was not a great idea as images cannot be displayed under Word for example, the most used wordprocessing ! Why not to create a true Word document, an HLP or a PDF file illustrated with screendumps like do its competitors ? It would have been 

In my humble opinion, it should have been simpler, and thus more logical one more time, to complete the online help instead of creating this addendum that says the same with more detail.

Maybe that the best idea is on the publisher website and not only in these help files. Indeed, you can download a Tutorial about propagation as a zip file (becoming HFProp.HLP once exploded). 

At left, the online tutorial written by NM7M that you can download from the publisher website but hard to read in this format. I adapted it with NM7M's permission in html format. At center and at right, the online helps of respectively WinCAP Wizard version 3 and version 4. The new version seriously improved the GUI for the satisfaction of all users.

It is in fact the famous document written in 1998 by Pr. Robert Brown, NM7M, a Ph.D physicist retired from U.C.Berkeley who probably didn't think that his document would be published as it. Indeed, the publisher hasn't had the least consideration for the readers or almost : the reader is no more at the university Jim ! : there are chapters and chapters without the least graph or table and the only "graphs" are made using typographic characters as shown at above left. Even using Word there are shapes and other drawing tools to create nice graphs. The index is no more verbose, displaying chapters without name except a code like PROP 101 #1, PROP 101 #2, etc. Hopefully the ">>" button allows you to browse easily all the tutorial.

For an initiation to propagation it really looks like an austere text book. This is probably not the best idea to convince a novice to learn this complex matter... It is like Jim provided this document in a hurry to say, "here is my contribution. Go with it." My best proof is that sections PROP 101 #6 and #7 are the same document. However this is a very good initiative from the publisher as most of its competitors provide no additional reading to their customers or are "thinking" only about writing a document on propagation.

This tutorial is worth a look for all people already (a bit) involved in this field. You will learn much things about the interaction between the Sun and the geomagnetosphere and about mechanisms that drive shortwaves through the ionosphere. Pr. Bob Brown distributed freely this document since 1998 to all people interested in propagation. With Bob's permission, HTML and Word versions of this tutorial are available on this site with additional illustrations. A must for all radioamateurs and SWLs.

NB. Since the release of this article, the new version WinCAP Wizard 4 has included a more complete and friendy help file (see dumpscreen above).

NTIA/ITS utilities

The ICEPAC interface showing the S/N reliability for a circuit from ON to JT.

We told in the introduction that WinCAPw came with additional tools, among them the VOACAP model, without which it should be well unable to generate the least forecast. Ten other programs are also installed among them ICEPAC, S_I VOACAP, REC533 and HFANT, as many models that are automatically managed by WinCAP3 as soon as you request an analysis or to display a forecast.

As you are almost a WinCAPw guru now, Hi!, if you have some time left and want to improve you knowledge of this product, it should be interesting that you run in stand-alone, thus out of WinCAPw, VOACAP and ICEPAC side by side to see how accurate they are, knowing that both include the IONCAP model but ICEPAC includes also the ICED model

Therefore, whatever the variable to display (submenu "View", "Parameters") , ICEPAC displays always more information than VOACAP; its graphs are a bit more accurate.

It is also interesting to run them at least once to see what interfaces and processes are hidden behind the WinCAPw engine : as you know, all data sets that it takes into account are in fact required by the VOACAP engine that the publisher simply made more attractive and more user-friendly.

After VOACAP, the most original module is HFANT installed in \itshfbc\bin_win\Hfantwin.exe. This is a graphic tool able to display the radiation pattern of antennas in both azimuthal and elevation planes.

All sample files can be modified to suit your need as display below, showing the settings and radiation pattern calculated for a custom 3-element Yagi placed 10m high and working on the 20m band. This module will be very useful to all amateurs wishing to buy EZNEC but who cannot pay for it. This one is maybe less accurate but it is free !

In addition to propagation forecasts, VOACAP and thus WinCAPw, provides free the HFANT program that permits to simulate radiation patterns of antennas. Its interface is of course in the pure lineage of VOACAP. Above left the settings for a 3-element Yagi placed 10m high and cut for the 20m band. A right the azimuthal radiation pattern of this antenna at the best elevation.

Lacks and suggestions

From a general point of view, WinCAP Wizard is the dignified heir of VOACAP as it respects to the letter the original concept of VOACAP created in 1983 even if the user interface has been redesigned. This heritage can be considered as a benefit but analyzed seriously, it is marked by the weigth of ages. Yes, WinCAP Wizard is aging due to its engine, now as old as an used car.

Advantage, the one who can use VOACAP can use WinCAP Wizard after some minutes of adaptation. That being said, it is maybe time to redesign the kernel, to add new functionalities and take into account additional parameters. Still more data to input ? Maybe not, because many of them might be downloaded in real-time for the Internet while others can be extracted from look up tables, a process that speed up all calculations in providing a similar accuracy than statistical functions.

For pure practical considerations, the online help and the additional RTF file should be merged together to provide online all the required information in a real user manual using the Microsoft HLP format, including screendumps of main screens, default values and examples.

WinCAP Wizard lacks of accuracy in predicting the signal quality of beacons (and other signals). This problem is both linked to the statistical functions used and the lack of parameters or data sensitive to short-terms variations. Of course sometimes this is also due to an human error, setting for example the SRN over 40 dB and using a too low reliability. But apart in this special case, its accuracy could be improved in using a better ionospheric model, incorporating more accurate conducting and electron property models, or more simply real-time data in calculations when required.

WinCAP Wizard uses also approximate F2-algorithms that give quite often a bad estimation of the MUF with all subsequent effects.

Forecasts can only be displayed in charts or as reports, what does not help in mastering the product either. These charts should be completed with maps at global scale or displaying  iso-contours, etc.

WinCAP Wizard does not permit to get an overview of the propagation at the earth scale. In this context an additional feature like a gray-line map (in Mercator or spherical projection) on which should be incrusted a propagation estimation in gray scale or iso-contour maps with dynamic figures (SNR, S/I, Rel, dB>mV, etc) should be welcome. Like in the VOACAP engine, cross-sections maps of the ionosphere associated to a variable scale (1-30 MHz up to as short as 1-2 MHz) should be also very appreciated. Global views, maps calculated per band or for a predefined time should be also easier to interpret than austere reports, charts or line graphs, as they speak by themselves, all the more if they can be dynamically linked to other forecasts at a depress of a key or a mouse-click.

WinCAP Wizard missed also its objective in providing no access to online data from within the program. Hopefully Jim has felt that problem and provides now "GeoAlert-Extreme Wizard" and "Beacon-Time Wizard" free, and published on a new version of his product, WinCAP Wizard 5, that takes into account some among the previous suggestions.

Three among many other suggestions that the publisher could consider in a next major release of WinCAP Wizard : include propagation maps (left), take into account the effects of the geomagnetic field and weather conditions (centre), and at last, add some down-sized models from IRI (right) to improve the accuracy of forecasts. Ten years after the first VOACAP model, is it an impossible bet, Jim ?

In my humble opinion the "user-friendly" interface can be improved or even completely redesigned. It is austere and don't take advantage of any graphical option. I think especially to an object-oriented interface on which the end-user should see a map describing per layer or mixed all objects included in the circuit (TX, RX, etc) and their properties. Thanks to a click he might select an object and edit its properties. The calculation might be displayed on the same map (the SNR at destination for example under the specified conditions) instead of have to press buttons, validate data, request a display, check its layout, etc. In addition, charts forms and coverage maps should be available.

The next major release should also take into account the effects of the geomagnetic field like do DX ToolBox from Black Cat Systems for example, effects that become important when working with vertical antennas at high latitudes for example or when the F2 layer is involved as it is sensitive to the horizontal component of the geomagnetic field.

It could also include the weather conditions like QRN from thunderstorms affecting the top band of 160m using an interface close to the one provided in EarthBrowser from Lunar Software, Inc. At last it should take into account the polar cap absorption, Appleton's magneto-ionic effects and the ionospheric models for the low bands developed in the framework of the HAARP project and applied in the frequency range 2.8-10 MHz (according to ARRL, HAARP was shut-down in may 2013) or incorporate some down-sized models from IRI-2001.

An alternate should be to get all these data updates from the Internet, what should request either add-ons or a redesign of the application. If the price has to be doubled to get these upgrades, it is worth well a development; the ham community is strong of more than 3 millions people without to forget all listeners and geophysicists who could appreciate these new features, knowing that some of them are already used in some programs (e.g. DXAtlas in tandem with IonoProbe and Ham CAP).

My final impression

WinCAP Wizard is without any doubt sufficiently complete, flexible and powerful to be placed among the best propagation programs available, but it is not the best yet. Using the "top VOACAP engine" as like to quote the publisher, it takes into account a great variety of parameters, and it is flexible through its various customisations and the use of the user batch manager. However it is by far a power that sacrified its ergonomy and accuracy. In other words this product is perfectible at several levels listed above.

At first run and without any knowledge of the subject, WinCAP Wizard is hard to master without calling the help file, even though, because you need to concentrate on each submenu and see what could be the result if you do such or such change in one or another data set. Of course as we told earlier, this is not the best way to get an accurate forecast if you even don't master your inputs, I agree... This is thus not a problem to solve by the publisher, but rather in the mind of the end-user who maybe thinks that all propagation programs are the same, without considering the performance of the VOACAP model. Therefore the publisher has provided two help files online to help novices and all amateurs lost in the program mysteries.

If you want to master WinCAP Wizard in a few keystrokes, you really need to call the online help or to dive in the manual, a bad day for novices, L. But VOACAP deserves well some efforts...

In another way, and it is a positive point, Jim Tabor is very fast to reply to users' enquiries, what is really very appreciated when you are experiencing troubles using a so complex application at first (and even second) sight.

Does WinCAP Wizard deserve a try ? Currently the program show still some lacks of accuracy at short-term, of ergonomy, and simplicity. Other programs, smaller and cheaper are much much easier to use due to their user-friendly GUI. Not all are however as poweful. If you install "GeoAlert-Extreme Wizard" I give it a second chance, but I am not very optimistic as long as new functions taking in consideration short-term variations are not incorporated in the prediction model. Why ? Because near-real-time (a real-time is no more a forecast, HI!) or short-term forecasts are at the end requests that are not so abnormal than this when working on air... As I just told, if a next release might incorporate my suggestions thanks to real-time ionosonde and weather data it should become much more accurate and more attracting.

Test WinCAP Wizard as it is now available as QSL-ware (i.e. free with limited options), and preferably in not too good working conditions (otherwise it is too easy, even though...) but see also its competitors. Judge by yourself whether the accuracy of the VOACAP engine justifies or not a so heavy interface or if other lighter programs doesn't provide a similar accuracy much quicker. But be very serious and careful in doing your comparisons because a graph or a map, even if it is self-explanatory, is also as difficult to interpret objectively as settings properly all parameters.

To be frank, I don't think that any other propagation program provides such a flexibility and power, because most of  its competitors or alike do not take advantage of the VOACAP model that shows, objectively, some very interesting forecasts often ignored by its challengers. Added to the WinCAP Wizard interface, the latter deserves your attention.

However, remember that the VOACAP engine is free and runs without have to buy WinCAP3. So to be more attracting than the 32-bit version of VOACAP, WinCAP Wizard had to include new features. It has some, like beacons and multi-circuit charts, chart settings, a better GUI, good helps, add-ons, but are they worth such a price knowing that its competitors are free or sold cheaper ?... Even a powerful tool like Beaconsee in its basic version is free...

Last but not least, as we told WinCAP Wizard and thus VOACAP as well, uses approximate F-layer algorithms for its MUF calculations that infer unattended effects, I mean errors in predictions. It doesn't use the International Reference Ionosphere either. If you always follow me, this is maybe because you want an impartial appreciation looking for the best HF propagation program. If this is of your concern, you will surely not make an error in buying WinCAP Wizard, but it will not entirely satisfy your needs either. Between you and me, DXAID by Peter Oldfield is made for you but it is no more supported. Remain the new versions of ACE-HF and DXAtlas, two very serious competitors.

For more information

WinCAP Wizard is published by Kangaroo Tabor Software.

The trial version works 60 days then fails to work for good. On their side, all models provided free with the program, VOACAP, ICEPAC, REC533, etc, are not time-limited.

A single user license of WinCAP Wizard 5 costs $50.00 plus delivery and comes thus with a free copy of GeoAlert-Extreme Wizard and Beacon-Time Wizard. Since version 4, the product can be purchased as license or QSL-ware with limited options.

About the VOACAP model, read my review as well as "Estimating the Performance of Telecommunication Systems Using the Ionospheric Transmission Channel", by L.R.Teters, J.L. Lloyd, G.W. Haydon and D.L. Lucas, Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, NTIA Report 83-127, July 1983.


WinCAP Wizard is now at version 5 and includes several new features :

- "Smart windows" displaying propagation of NCDXF beacons, with additional quick charts

- a Smart-Map-Geographic view

- a multi functional Coverage-Analysis view with animation

- a new built-in Help that was seriously enhanced, including screendumps and additional comments.

- a license or QSL-ware version.

I warmly thank Jim Tabor for his help and the additional information he provided me to complete this review.

End of support

With the passing of Jim Tabor in 2010, WinCAP Wizard and other Taborsoft products are no longer supported

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