Contest Software Reviewed
There can be few regular contest operators these days that have not encountered at least one of the contest software packages. Any level of familiarity with two or more seems rather rare. This makes the choice of the right package very difficult for most people as in most cases, there is no real opportunity to try before you buy. This article looks at the five market leaders in contest software. Of course, many normal logging packages support some contest operation but these five packages were designed just with contests in mind. The history of using computers for contests is quite long. CT, probably the first contest package, appeared in the early 1980s. Since then, there have been many refinements and enhancements plus a number of new entrants in the market. It is worth saying that these packages are all works in progress. Bug fixes and enhancements come out regularly for all of them and the serious users will want to have Internet access to keep up-to-date with what is happening. Another benefit of having internet access is the ability it gives to keep the country files up to date. Theses files store a host of information about each country and in this rather turbulent world, it is necessary to keep them regularly updated as new countries come and go.
With the market penetration of the Windows operating system, it may come as a surprise to many to find that four out of five packages run under DOS. There are good reasons for this. It is easier to program time-critical functions under DOS and also DOS will run on even the most basic PC. A cheap 386 processor will be adequate for most of the DOS packages.
So, what will a contest package do for you? At its most basic it will keep a secure copy of your log and alert you to duplicate contacts. Keeping the log safe is of great importance. I recall having the only copy of the entire log our contest groups entry for the 2m Open contest stolen from my car in the late 70s. To make matters worse it was probably a winning entry. Using a software logging package it is easy to have two or more copies of the log available throughout the contest. Computers tend to crash of course, and a high RF environment can exacerbate this. These packages will keep your data safe, saving each QSO to disk as soon as it is complete.
In the old days, duplicate checking relied on paper-based systems. A team effort was often required with one operating and another checking duplicates. After the contest the logs had to be checked several times (and often re-written). For any major contest, this would take ages. Once the logs were sent in to the adjudicating organisation, the process began again. Software packages have all but eliminated these problems. Instant alerting of dupes is normal as is the ability to check callsign fragments against the contest log or an external database compiled with information about stations that have appeared in previous contests. For example, it can be useful to know that G3ZAY often appears in contests whereas G4ZAY has never done one. It is now easy to send in your entry directly after the contest finishes. By using e-mail, the whole process can be very quick. Curiously, the adjudication still seems to take a long while, a variety of log formats plus some paper logs is certainly a contributing factor.
CW lends itself to contest automation in many ways but these packages also support SSB and often RTTY too. Voice-keyers are getting quite common even if only for calling CQ. Many packages support a variety of special voice keyers or PC soundcard keyers.
Feedback on how you are doing during the contest is useful. It can boost morale and help you to try harder. At its most basic, packages tell you how many QSOs you are making per hour. Usually they can tell you far more than this. Valuable information or information overload you decide!
Add to this host of features, control of the radio, packet cluster support, rotator control and the ability to network logging computers and you have a rough idea of what this sort of software can do for you.
Contest Logging Software (Key at end of article)
The Software in Action
I have tried out each program in at least one contest so have had a chance to explore how easy it was to configure, use and finally to compile the logs for submission. I tried a combination of operating techniques including running making QSOs on a single frequency by calling CQ and search and pounce tuning around to find new QSOs. Where possible, I have tried to integrate the radio and software to make use of as many facilities as possible.
HF NFD was my chance to use CT. The
installation consisted of a transceiver and receiver and three computers. CT was easy to
get used to and I was soon making QSOs efficiently. CT is the most mature of the packages
I tested and is a fairly stable product. Occasional bug-fixed come out and small changes
to the way it operates but nothing major. The screen layout is uncluttered. A mouse can be
used to drag Windows into convenient positions. There are many features available for use
during a contest and it is relatively easy to check which multipliers, zones or whatever,
you still need provided you can remember all the keystrokes. Control of external
devices requires appropriate TSRs to be loaded beforehand which is certainly a throwback
to its early 80s heritage. During the contest our power failed several times but CT
recovered each time faultlessly, only loosing the QSO that was in progress (and hence was
incomplete). Support for European contests and RSGB contests is very limited and in many
cases, the contest will need to be re-scored manually afterwards. This is frustrating as
it means that there is no way of seeing how the contest is going in real-time. Each of the supported contests is described in
some detail in the manual, so it is easy to pick the nearest one to the one you want.
There is no attempt to show the user how to configure CT fully for an unsupported contest.
After the contest CT will produce the logs and produce QSL labels too if required . The
log production software is quite basic but entirely adequate. A number of additional
reports are available including QSO rate sheets so you can see which operators to sack. The CT manual is well written and well laid out
making it easy to use.
HF NFD was my chance to use CT. The installation consisted of a transceiver and receiver and three computers. CT was easy to get used to and I was soon making QSOs efficiently. CT is the most mature of the packages I tested and is a fairly stable product. Occasional bug-fixed come out and small changes to the way it operates but nothing major. The screen layout is uncluttered. A mouse can be used to drag Windows into convenient positions. There are many features available for use during a contest and it is relatively easy to check which multipliers, zones or whatever, you still need provided you can remember all the keystrokes. Control of external devices requires appropriate TSRs to be loaded beforehand which is certainly a throwback to its early 80s heritage. During the contest our power failed several times but CT recovered each time faultlessly, only loosing the QSO that was in progress (and hence was incomplete). Support for European contests and RSGB contests is very limited and in many cases, the contest will need to be re-scored manually afterwards. This is frustrating as it means that there is no way of seeing how the contest is going in real-time. Each of the supported contests is described in some detail in the manual, so it is easy to pick the nearest one to the one you want. There is no attempt to show the user how to configure CT fully for an unsupported contest. After the contest CT will produce the logs and produce QSL labels too if required . The log production software is quite basic but entirely adequate. A number of additional reports are available including QSO rate sheets so you can see which operators to sack. The CT manual is well written and well laid out making it easy to use.
The Marconi Contest was my opportunity to try out TRLog. Although the contest was not directly supported, it was possible to set it up to score this contest. The first thing I noticed about TRLog was just how flexible it was. Unlike the other packages, it was possible for me to configure most aspects of TRLog to suit my own needs exactly. But this is also a weakness as there are so many options for every facet of its operation that it can take quite a while to get familiar with the facilities that you want to adjust. In use I enjoyed the intelligent features of TRLog. In the main, you only need to know where the enter key is as TRLog configures the messages to be sent automatically so that at each phase of a QSO the correct message is sent. The band-map worked well as was definitely an advantage in search and pounce operation. With an interfaced rig, TRLog even detects when you start tuning the band and changes from its run message set to the search and pounce messages again all using the enter key. The logging screen can hold a common multiplier list which is easily configurable so its is always easy to see at a glance that, for example, you still need HB9. Some of the configuration options seem a little over ambitious for example one option starts sending the callsign you are entering automatically after a few letters. I soon abandoned this option! I found the duplicate check line rather difficult to read and it is certainly less prominent that in other packages. It is possible to change the display coulors and this may help. Unusually for an American package, the support of RSGB contests is quite good although in the main they are not supported directly (with the curious exception of ROPOCO) the scoring methods are available to configure TRLog to correctly score most RSGB contests. The RSGB Multiplier file which is similar to the standard DXCC one but with the addition of call areas for some prefixes can be readily generated or downloaded from the SD web-site. Unfortunately TRLog has gained a reputation amongst contesters for crashing occasionally. The author, who is investigating the reasons, acknowledges this. In my tests, it performed faultlessly and I have no reason to suspect that the log data would be compromised.
NA has many similarities with CT in terms of functionality. The logging screen is uncluttered and if you are familiar with CT, the operation is very similar. Setting up a new contest was reasonably easy although you need to start from an existing contest that is similar to use it as a Template. Without the requirements for each contest being listed, it was therefore hard to choose the correct starting point. In common with TRLog, NA includes a contest simulator which is a good way of getting used to the software without feeling under pressure. In operation during IOTA, I found NA quite easy to use. The features worked smoothly and NA is clearly a highly competent all-round package. The screen layout is somewhat less configurable than CT which has draggable windows, but NA is ahead on features (see table). The duplicate check and message banners are very clear in NA and would be difficult to miss! It was not possible to select a 50 line display mode (unlike CT and TRLog) and so using the band-map was not quite as convenient as the others as it tends to disappear behind other windows. The band-map is well implemented and adds to the overall usefulness of the software however. A utility program can be used to generate the entry logs and can also perform a number of other checks. One option lists all similar calls in a log that can be useful for post-contest error correcting.
I have subscribed to SD for nearly a year and so am very familiar with this software. I used it for my entries into AFS and the 7MHx DX Contest as well as for several other trial runs. Unlike the other packages SD does not set out to do everything, what it does aim to do is to be an excellent package for single operator unassisted contests. In operation, it is simple to use. Setting up all the contests you might want to enter from the UK is easy as they are virtually all supported directly. SD has a rig control interface although other external hardware such as a TNC are not supported in line with the single operator aims of the software. The package does not support voice keyers although SSB contests can easily be done just using the logging facilities. The keystrokes to enter QSOs are efficient as is the dupe and partial check facility. A common theme amongst new users of SD is just how easy it is to start contesting with it, in many ways the lack of too much configurability certainly helps. SD users also get excellent support for the softwares author. It is common for those with e-mail access to get a short message from Paul OKane alerting you to a contest coming up with some tips on how to set up SD. There are various versions of SD contest software available including one that supports VHF/UHF contests and a special version for IOTA that is available free-of-charge. A minor problem with SD is that while sending CW messages, the keyboard is locked out (except for the escape key). This means that while a message is being sent it is not possible to edit the callsign or other data.
Unusually, SD re-scores your log when you edit the log data during the contest so its running score is always accurate. This eases production of the final log as no further checks are necessary . I used the SDCheck utility, supplied as part of the package, to generate all the necessary files and forms with no difficulty whatsoever.
Writelog is the only Windows package I examined for this review and so I was keen to see how well the author had used the Windows interface. My first problem was learning about the software. There is no printed manual, but there is a Windows helpfile. I found this much harder to use than a paper manual. This rather spoilt my first impressions of the software. I wanted to try Writelog out in the IOTA contest but was disappointed to find that it was not directly supported. In the end I made do with just logging the serial numbers and discarding all the IOTA numbers. It did not seem easy to setup a suitable format to take the island data.
In use, the software seemed quite capable and the screen was highly configurable all the windows can be moved anywhere you wish. Having a mouse on the desk seemed rather strange and it did tend to get in the way of the paddle that I was using. Also, I found that sometimes I had left the focus on the wrong window so I needed to move the cursor to the correct field with the mouse. The higher resolution of my Windows display allowed a huge amount of information to be displayed simultaneously rather than needing to call up special windows temporarily as is generally necessary in the DOS packages. Of course being Windows based, it is easy to have other useful applications such as GeoClock running at the same time.
CW support was adequate but perhaps not as fully featured as some of the other packages. Writelog gives good support for RTTY and PSK and leads the market in this respect both are supported using a standard PC soundboard via Rttyrite software, which is available for an additional $50. Writelog also supports the use of a Windows soundboard to send voice messages for phone contests so there is no need to buy anything else for voice keyer operation quite a plus for phone contesters.
After the contest it was easy to produce the required logs in a suitable format. Writelog also produces a range of post-contest reports but instead of giving the colour graphs that one might expect from a Windows application, it simply produces plain text files. Configurable colour graphs showing perfaormance are available during the contest however.
In a way I found the display screen to be slightly disappointing. In many respects the Writelog screen is rather similar to the DOS packages and it has yet to fully capitalise on the advantages that could be available with the graphical interface. While Writelog shows the way in many respects, it still has some way to go.