I’ve used both, to find that there are significant differences:
Integrated into the ARRL Webservers, LoTW qualifies for ARRL awards (DXCC/WAS). It does require downloading specific LoTW software, performing a multi-step verification to obtain expiring “Keys” for authentication, and payment to use LoTW QSLs for ARRL awards (nominal).
Software is available for both the Windows XP (last update in 2005 – so no mention of Vista Compatibility yet), and Apple Mac OS-X. There is also a version for an older distribution of a type of Linux (Fedora Core 3 – current release is Fedora Core 6).
In theory as a C++ portable code, the LoTW “Trusted QSL” software could be compiled to run on more systems, but this is a far from trivial task.
After the download the fun begins. A complex interchange of certificates and special codes mailed to you in the mail (Isn’t it odd that a QSL system designed to replace paper QSLs depends on a mailed QSL-code card to set up?!).
My first attempts were fraught with false starts and came completely dead-in-the-water when I updated computers between sending for certificates and receiving my LoTW secret code postcard in the mail. The ARRL has addressed some of these problems, but setting up LoTW is still a more involved process than buying a car over the internet.
I’ve been able to get my original call set up with LoTW, succeeded in renewing my certificates (they expire) and eventually managed to transfer computers, but when my call changed I simply didn’t feel it worth the pain of going through the process another time to get another set of expiring certificates.
It is worth mentioning that I tend to have a number of computers I am using, usually at least two each running Windows, OS-X and “something else” (right now a Ham SHack Hack Linux and a SCO Unix system), so portability of software and any keys is important to my use.
Theories abound why the ARRL ended up with this sort of Fort Knox-like locked down approach, but in the end they do maintain good control of LoTW, it is seldom down, and for those willing & able to get set up they get good results.
Personally I hope the ARRL revamps LoTW and that LoTW-II is much more user friendly. Security should be scaled back to a level commensurate with the value of what is being protected. I’d rather pay a fee for a USB security device I could use on whatever computer I chose to use, than fiddle with the present system.
The present LoTW must be a burden to support from the ARRL end, which when the potential for savings becomes clear will focuse the efforts to streamline and improve LoTW.
I’m unaware of any non-ARRL award groups having access to the ARRL LoTW data or issuing awards based on user reported LoTW QSLs.
Though some software can use your certificates to do periodic batch uploads to LoTW, my system doesn’t offer this option.
In its present form it is questionable if it is worth the effort to work with it.
The Electronic QSL Card Centre – eQSL
The other end of the scale is eQSL. The eQSL system offers electronic QSL matching at two levels, unverified and authenticity guarenteed (AG). The system is quite simple, set up taking a few moments for the basic level, and a few days for AG status to be confirmed.
eQSL is member supported, offering their own awards. eQSLs are accepted by a large number of other award groups, but not the ARRL.
Memberships in eQSL fall into a matrix – unverified and AG (only AG QSL’s count for awards), and then three tiers of monetary support – Bronze, Silver & Gold. The basic level has no cost associated with it, though they do welcome donations.
Uploading logs to eQSL is snap. My system uses software that automatically uploads eQSLs.
The only hitch seems to be the typical problems with having several operating QTHs (all the systems seem to have troubles with this) and that the largest award issuing body, the ARRL, is in business as a competitor, not accepting eQSLs for ARRL awards.
An ideal electronic QSL system would fall somewhere between LoTW and eQSL. It would pick up LoTWs access to ARRL awards while using more of the Electronic Commerce style security of eQSL.
Neither the Ft Knox multilayered security of LoTW or the Easy Rider electronic shopping cart style security of eQSL will eliminate all errors or prevent determined mischief.
Knowing that limitation one simply has to look at how much time & trouble doing online QSLs should take away from your operating time. LoTW seems to fall short using this measure, while eQSL is all but transparent if your software supports automatically uploading each QSO.