CODE 3 REVIEW MONITORING TIMES 11-94 JOHN CATALANO This review is reprinted in it's entirety with full permission from Monitoring Times Magazine. "LADIES AND GENTLEMAN PLACE YOUR BETS" THE HOKA BROTHERS CODE 3 AND CODE 30 VS THE UBIQUITOUS PK232 Last month we took our first look at the long awaited HOKA Code 30 . See last month's column for hardware requirements and installation details. This month we'll add to our knowledge of the Code 30 and compare it to its little brother the Code 3, version 5. We'll continue to use a PK-232MBX (with the latest ROM upgrade) as the base for decoding comparisons. First, I better tell you the price of the Code 30, which I just discovered from its US distributer. Hold on to your hats. This baby comes in at around $2795. Where do you put the decimal point? That's what I asked when I was told the price. No people, Hoka 30 takes the dubious distinction of being the highest priced product to be reviewed in this column. Even its little brother, Code 3, weights in at a hefty $795 in the form we will be looking at. So if you were thinking of saving your lunch money for these decoders you're in for a few years of mid day hunger pains. Let the race begin. "Decoders to your gates!" At the gate the PK-232 is in the fast lane since it has its own self contained microprocessor and only requires the PC for display and command entry and with a price around $350. The Hoka boys use the PC's micro for the majority of the control and processing. Therefore, the PK can be used inside programs such as Scancat, Scorpio and Ham Windows; while the Hokas cannot since they tie up the PC themselves. The Code 3 is contained in a neat little plastic box, Figure 1. All that has to be connected is: 110 vac, audio via an RCA jack and serial connection to the computer via connection of the 9 pin DIN. This is different from the Code 30 which had no external "box", but required the installation of an expansion card inside the computer. The software installation and running procedure is very very similar to the 3; even with the same poorly conceived (from the user's viewpoint) copy protection scheme. Once again the time consuming PC calibration is required (see last month). According to Hoka the major difference between 3 and 30 is that 30 uses digital signal processing hardware, while 3 uses conventional analog circuitry. Can we "see" a difference? How do they compare to the PK-232MBX in decoding available shortwave signals? Let's see. For this review we used frequencies supplied by Hoka and their USA distributor plus our own database. The total amount of decoding time which went into this review exceeded 110 hours spread over tw o and one-half months and on different days and times. With the exception of the physical location, this should represent typical conditions. "At the first turn - ease of use, it's Hoka 3 leading by a key." Code 3 is manipulated via menu screens and "F" keys. The basic operation is very simple and requires almost no user intervention. Simply press F1 which brings up the Measurement Shift-Baudrate screen shown in Figure 2. Tune your receiver so that the peaks are on each side of the zero (middle) of the horizontal line. In many case if you are just close the program will compensate for the mis -tuning. When Baud rate in upper right corner stabilizes, press F3 and the classification of the signal will begin, as shown in Figure 3. If the program can figure out the type of signal you are tuned to it will indicate it at the bottom right of the screen along wit hits confidence level and tell you to hit enter. The decoding screen is then displayed as shown in Figure 4. On medium to strong stations it's as good as any other decoder. But it's also very quick and foolproof. "As they head for the next turn ...". On weak signals the Code 30 was significantly better than the 3 and even better than the PK-232MBX. However I found it depended on the type of interference that was in the noise. For overall weak signal handling the 30 is in the lead with the PK right on its tail. The 3 is a few lengths behind the pack. For sheer horse power (sorry about that), the Hoka's are showing their muscle with the PK fading. There is no question that the potential for decoding different types of signals that both Hokas have is nothing short of phenomenal. Figure 5 shows two-thirds of the signal types that 3 can decode. With the Hoka's I felt I had more of an analysis instrument than a decoder. For displaying signals and analyzing their audio structure Hoka leaves the rest in the dust. BUT a number of serious questions must be considered. How many signals are encrypted and still cannot be read after decoding ? How many of these different decoding modes will be used, or usable , more than 10% of the time? Winning a battle is not the same as winning the war, or the horse race. "As the decoders enter the final turn the Code 30's muscles are rippling, the Code 3's strides are effortless, but the PK-232 is coming on fast." After over 100 hours of testing and countless "Yes, I'll be down for dinner in just another minute", findings are surprising even to me. First let's get some definitions down so we are speaking the same language. To decode a signal type means to be able to understand how the information is put on the radio signal; nothing more. At this Hoka 30 and to a lesser degree, Code 3, have no peers. However, many times, and with violent increasing occurrence, the information that is put on the signal is encrypted before it goes on. That is to say that the signal's owner uses a different, new and unique language and alphabet to communicate. So in this case decoding the signal type still results in non-readable text. OK? Are we together? The surprise was after tuning in on over 200 different signals with mainly the Code 30 and the PK-232, there was NO difference to the number of "understandable" signals which resulted! Some signals, about ten, were easily identified by the Code 30. The PK either had trouble deciding on the mode, or required re-tuning using the Code 30 screens. But even on the Code 30 these still did not result in understandable text. The concept of amateur code breaking is a nonsense except in very unusual and rare situations. You have a better, and more profitable, chance at hitting the lottery. Therefore, although the mode was identified and being decoded it still resulted in no message information; calling into question the use of the extra modes. "So as we head for the wire the field is all bunched up! "And At The Wire It's ..." As with most things in life there are no panaceas; perfect and having all the answers. What happens at this finish line depends more on you and your needs/wants than the decoders. They are all excellent and have their different strengths and weakness. "The Code 30 has so much muscle it has decided to run past the wire and go for another lap." There is no question that the Code 30 can do things that other decoders cannot. One that comes to mind is to put you into personal bankruptcy at $2795! Code 30 is not a decoder in my opinion. It is a signal analysis tool more fit to the environment of a government SIGINT agency. For me, and I think for most, the price usefulness ratio is much too high. Of course, if you want to indulge in the popular and ridiculous pasttime of "just owning the latest or the most expensive to impress your friends" then knock yourself out and buy one. The Code 3 has lots of the most used features of the Code 30 and is almost a quarter of the price. But at $800 I believe it is still over priced. Perhaps not relative to other currently available decoders; most of which are hardware based. But Code 3's hardware content is modest at best, since it uses the already purchased power of your PC. Both Hoka's strengths are in their software, especially the Code 3. For me $800 is still much too high for what is really software. If the Code 3 was $400 dollars it would sweep the decoder market, and still make a handsome profit for its software authors. We found that the Code 3's manual and screen instructions do not quite match reality. For example in the installation of CODE-3 the screen tells the user to run CODE 3. When you do this you get an error message and the program does not load. We found the only way to start the program was to run CODEUS. Now clearly this is just a fact of the product being in transition and evolving, as all good programs will. This is further indicated by the difference of version numbers on the disk (v5) and on the manual (v4). But for this kind of money I'm afraid the buyer has a right to expect total professionalism and smooth operation; that includes a correct manual. We found other instances of this problem in the manual which ranged from making working copies with the insane copy protection scheme which Hoka insists on putting on the 3 as well a s the 30, to trying to access an option which was supposedly included. Although a separate sheet of paper was included by Hoka, temptingly describing the Synop decoding module which was included as option 8, it could not be accessed by the program. Although my Dutch is not very good I recognized the resulting message as the Synop file not being found. As for the PK-232MBX it keeps chugging along. Yes it has a limited number of decode modes. However, I'll guess it will decode close t o 90% of the "understandable" signals on shortwave. It has very good weak signal capability. Can be used inside monitoring software standards like ScanCat, making for close to a total monitoring environment. Is useful to SWL/HAMs providing transmitting mode capability. And, finally costs around $350. Post Race Show If you are a real utility signal chaser and get a kick out of just identifying modes and not necessarily communications, have money left over after you take care of your family, community obligation s and doing your part for the welfare of all humanity, then the Code 30 is for you. Alternatively, if you are a small country with limited surveillance budget you should buy a few Code 30s. The Code 3 is also a very fine product. As with the Code 30 it is still going through growing pains so don't expect letter perfect instructions, documentation or operation from either. At $795 the 3 is $2000 cheaper than the 30 and puts it into the range of Universal, AEA DSP and other European decoders. And I believe the best value in its price range. Technically the people at Hoka are to be commended for taking so much of what was hardware and reducing it to software. This software approach allows for ease of updating and improvements while minimizing parts and hardware inventories. This superior technical approach also results in a major cost benefit. Unfortunately, Hoka has seen fit only to pass on a small portion of this economic benefit to the monitors buyers as reflected in the price. Price aside, the Hoka's performed very well. I couldn't see using them for everyday monitoring. They cannot be used with my favorite software. So it was always get out of the receiver control and database program. Start the Code 30. Decode. Stop the Code 30. Start the receiver control program again. Not very convenient! But as an analysis tool they are great. It's like working on a circuit and having that big old Tektronix oscilloscope on the bench for those times that the multimeter cannot do alone. The US distributor for Hoka products is Computer Aided Technologies, P.O. Box 18292, Shreveport, LA 71138, Tel 318-636-1234. Check their ad in MT for latest versions, options and prices.