HF propagation software seems to be full of mysteries. But its all about modeling physics. There are several models around, the most prominent surely is VOACAP, followed by ASAPS. VOACAP comes in very many different tastes like e.g. PropMan 2000 or ACE. It often has been coined to be the “Gold Standard” among hams and professionals as well. VOACAP gives reliable results on a statistical base for a month, whereas ASAPS returns propagation based on the current conditions of a day. It also gives propagation for an aircraft en route during its flight and takes at least a bit care of multi-path propagation which may degrade digital modes. Both work offline as online, and they are fast.
[Einen ausführlichen deutschsprachigen Test mit vielen Screenshots und Beispielen habe ich in der Januar- Ausgabe 2017 der Fachzeitschrift FUNKAMATEUR veröffentlicht.]
PropLab is giving you a much smarter view on what is really happening on a specific day and time at a specific path or area. It relies on the International Reference Ionosphere (IRI 2007) and uses the ray tracing technique. In short, PropLab is automatically fetching all relevant space weather data (not just sunspots) from scientific sources of the internet to model the ionosphere with its different “layers”.
You then give in your path, antenna etc. in a well-supported way. After having started “ray tracing”, PropLab lets refract rays at exactly this ionosphere with its high granularity and some real-world effect like tilts of layers which will result in e.g. propagation off the great circle. It will also beautifully show effects like focusing and gray line propagation, including Pedersen’s long ranging ray with time resolution up to one second – rather than one hour as that of VOACAP.