In the digitalradio Yahoo group a few people have been experimenting with APRS on HF using the robust ALE400 mode. I am interested in trying more robust modes for APRS and wish that someone would work out how to interface the new Winmor TNC to an APRS client. But as nobody has, I thought I would try to give this a go. Unfortunately this meant getting to grips with MultiPSK, a program that is something of a personal bête noire as whenever I have been tempted to try I have never been able to figure out how to use it. Today turned out to be no different.
I downloaded the latest version of the program, started it, and was presented with an unexpected screen for a digital modes program. After a few seconds of puzzlement I realized that this was the configuration screen. Normally with software you get the main screen and select configuration from a menu but MultiPSK is not as other software. Oh no. The author threw away the book when he wrote this program, the book in question being “Microsoft User Interface Guidelines.”
I managed among the bewildering array of buttons and options to find one to set the sound card, another to set the KISS TNC port that I would need and one that I presumed would set the serial port for PTT. As I couldn’t find an OK button I tried closing the window and MultiPSK itself closed. Completely. I tried again and realized that you have to click a large button marked RX/TX Window to get to the main operational screen. Bizarre!
The main screen contains another mind-boggling array of buttons and controls, but I did see a waterfall with noise scrolling down the screen, which looked encouraging. At least I’d managed to select the sound card correctly. After staring open-mouthed at the screen for fully two minutes I managed to spot a button marked ALE400, so I clicked it. I was now in ALE400 mode. At least, I think I was, though I don’t know how I was supposed to tell for sure.
One of the Yahoo group postings had mentioned that you needed to click a button marked “Aux. functions”. After some more searching I found this button it and clicked it and up popped another bewildering dialog box crammed with buttons. Hilariously, at the top is the caption “This panel opens with the Aux. functions button in the TX/RX screen.” Yes, I really laughed out loud when I saw that. If I didn’t know that how would I ever find it?
I spotted that some buttons on this new dialog were to do with APRS. I clicked one and a dialog popped up saying something about there being no map folder. So apart from being a digital modes program MultiPSK is trying to be an APRS client as well? The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” sprang briefly to mind before I dismissed it as being uncharitable.
I clicked another button marked “APRS Transmit” and a strange notepad-style window appeared with the caption Error which said “No possibility to transmit your call and so APRS frame because there is no call in your personal data (button ‘Personal’).” The English wasn’t great but I could understand what it was trying to tell me. I closed the error dialog but although I could see several places that looked as if they were meant to have a call entered in them I couldn’t see anywhere marked “Personal.”
I did discover a documentation file to do with setting up APRS using ALE400. Unfortunately it is a .doc file and I don’t have Microsoft Word. I did try opening it in Wordpad which is what I normally use but it displayed several errors about graphics filters and opened the file without the all-important images. Google’s HTML view of the document couldn’t display the images either. Hello, anyone heard of PDF files?
Now I do feel a little bit guilty criticizing the work of a fellow amateur programmer. I’m sure the author of MultiPSK, Patrick F6CTE, is far more talented than I ever was in being able to implement all of these sound card digital modes. But when it comes to user interface design I’m sorry but MultiPSK sucks.
This has to be the worst user interface of any program I have ever encountered, by a long way – and at one time in my life I used to review software for a living. Its worst sin is that it uses buttons instead of menus and apparently has no context-sensitivity (or more specifically mode-sensitivity) so that you are presented with all of the available options all at once, which is not only confusing but wastes a lot of screen space. It is testimony to the delight that so many practitioners of our hobby take in doing things the hard way that so many people are willing to use this program to operate digital modes when there are so many better-designed alternatives.
Once again MultiPSK has been deleted from my hard drive without transmitting so much as a digit. If APRS over ALE400 is only achievable by those able to master MultiPSK then I’m afraid it will go nowhere.