Author Archive

Change of emphasis?

I have never owned a Ten-Tec transceiver (although I once built and used one of its transverter kits) but I always thought that the thing the company’s products were most renowned for was their good support for CW operation and excellent QSK. So I was surprised to visit the Ten-Tec website a few days ago and see beneath the logo the slogan “The SSB Company.” Obviously CW isn’t seen as so important these days.

In the last couple of years Ten-Tec has dropped its kit range, its QRP Argonaut transceivers and most recently has been in the news for announcing that it will be rebranding the Chinese-made HB-1A QRP CW transceiver as a Ten-Tec product. I suppose someone somewhere has decided that this makes commercial sense but it doesn’t seem to me like the way to hold on to a reputation as an innovative indigenous American manufacturer of quality radio products for the discerning amateur.

Can APRS count for contacts?

Colin, 2E0XSD, raised an interesting question this afternoon in the Wainwrights On The Air forum when he asked what the rules were regarding making contacts using APRS. I confess that I hadn’t thought about it and haven’t come to a conclusion at the moment.

For those who think that APRS is merely a way of using ham radio to transmit position reports that can be received and tracked I should explain that it is a lot more than that. One of its best features, if one that is not all that widely used, is the ability to send text messages to other APRS users. For example, if you see someone’s position on the map and would like to contact them on the radio you could send them a message to ask whether they are on the air and what frequency and mode they are using.

You could use APRS text messages to exchange exactly the same kind of information with another station that you might exchange in a normal digimode contact – signal report, name, QTH, locator and so on. This could arguably constitute a valid contact. But most of the time APRS users are not in direct radio contact with one another so the messages may be passed with the aid of digipeaters: stations that receive an APRS packet and rebroadcast it. Even more common these days is the use of internet gateways (IGates) that route messages between APRS stations via the internet. There are also an increasing number of APRS users who use mobile devices and the cellular network to send and receive APRS. So I have come to regard APRS as a kind of hybrid system that is not purely amateur radio and I do not regard conversations held using APRS messaging as radio contacts in the sense that I would log them, QSL them or use them to qualify for an operating award.

But that’s just me. If two people exchange APRS messages over RF with no digipeaters or IGates involved, is there any reason that this should not count as a contact?

I must confess to having mixed feelings about APRS. When I first found out about it I thought it was an extremely useful system and I still do. My wife Olga worries when I go walking in the hills on my own and likes being able to see where I am at any moment on a map on her computer. If I don’t return she will know my last position and could send someone to look for me. And it is a useful way to alert WOTA summit chasers to the fact that you are approaching a summit that you are going to activate. But I quickly became disappointed when I discovered that this functionality could not be achieved if you relied solely on amateur bands RF.

Then I discovered Lynn KJ4ERJ’s program APRSISCE which can run on a data enabled mobile phone and connect to the internet-based APRS infrastructure and I was able to get the kind of usage I envisaged from it. (In this part of the world even the cellular data coverage isn’t 100% but it is still a big improvement.) But although I now use the mobile client whenever I am on some radio related outdoor activity, I found that using an internet connected client destroyed the radio interest because I could now communicate using APRS with anyone, anywhere with the same kind of reliability as sending an SMS or an email.

APRS is too useful to hobble it by insisting on using only amateur bands RF as the transmission medium. Because of that I don’t feel it can be used to make contacts or QSOs in the sense that is generally accepted within the hobby and I’m not convinced that it would be right to make an exception for message exchanges that are “direct.” But I’d be interested in other people’s opinions on the matter.

Great Cockup

In British English, a “cockup” is rude slang for a mistake, usually implying carelessness. Great Cockup is the name of a rather undistinguished grassy Wainwright summit near the northern edge of the English Lake District. I don’t think there is any connection between the slang meaning and the name of the hill. But whilst my decision to go for a walk up Great Cockup on Bank Holiday Monday wasn’t a mistake, from a radio point of view it wasn’t a success either.

I parked the car near Overwater and set off on quiet lanes and then a grassy track on the western side of the fell with great views over Bassenthwaite Lake.

The summit was reached after about an hour of walking. Despite being the end of May a cold north westerly breeze was very much in evidence on the summit. By descending a few feet it was possible to get away from the breeze, but as soon as it dropped clouds of black insects appeared and covered everything. It was necessary to brave the full force of the wind in order to eat the lunch Olga had prepared without an accompaniment of fresh insects. Despite this one managed to find its way inside the Intek H-520 – it was still walking around the inside of the display window this morning!

Lunch over, I got the radios out. I had taken the Intek H-520 hoping to make some DX contacts on 10 metres, but despite making numerous calls on the 10m FM calling frequency, 29.600MHz, I had no takers. There was obviously some enhanced propagation as I heard a French station and also some activity on a repeater on 29.660MHz.

I heard a French station call CQ on 29.600 and when I replied to him he said “UK stations, please QSY to 29.205MHz.” I was unable to oblige because a) my radio only tunes exact 10kHz multiples and b) when I did try to transmit anywhere near there the radio cut out due to the SWR being too high on that frequency. I’m afraid the H-520’s intolerance to even moderate SWR renders it almost unfit for purpose and if I hadn’t modified it to work on the 10m band I would probably consider returning it under warranty. As it is, probably the only option is to reset the power control to limit the power to 2W on the “4.0W” setting. As noted previously, when received the radio delivered less than 3.0W even on the UK CB band and I now suspect this was done deliberately by the manufacturer to try to mitigate this problem, knowing that the majority of CB users would be none the wiser.

While listening for the French station I heard what sounded like an APRS packet on 29.210MHz. I don’t know if that is a recognized APRS frequency but it would be interesting to monitor that frequency with a decoder to see what is being transmitted.

I tried the Motorola GP300 on 2m with the 5/8 telescopic antenna but was unable to raise any contacts on that band either. I did hear some activity on the channel set up for GB3EV but which I suspect may be the GB3BT repeater on the north east coast which is on the same frequency.

Back home I heard and worked Colin 2E0XSD/P who was on Ling Fell (behind the ‘hump’ on the left of the middle photograph) using the H-520 inside the shack with the 4ft. whip antenna. On 2m I worked Derek 2E0MIX/P who was up on Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. So had I gone out a bit later I would probably have made not just a couple of contacts, but a couple of summit to summits. Never mind. It was a pleasant walk and now I have the excuse to go again another time.

Morse USB keyboard

This is a really cool little project.

It isn’t clear what it does from the picture, but it’s a device that makes a Morse key look to a computer like a standard USB keyboard. So you can type into your word processor, blog or whatever by sending Morse.

I want one of these. If I had to type all my blog posts using Morse I’m sure I would really get my speed up! Shame it isn’t available as a kit.

Baffled

I don’t know if it’s just my advancing years but increasingly I find new technology and the direction it is going in completely incomprehensible. Phones are becoming so complicated that they can now only be understood by teenagers. But the topic of today’s rant is computer sound cards.
One of the reasons I prefer a desktop or tower PC in the shack is that you can install additional soundcards in them. This allows you to interface with one or more radios for digital modes, EchoLink and so on and still have normal computer sound available. Yes, you could do this with a laptop and external USB soundcards. But it has always seemed to me to be better RF practise to have the digital electronics inside the nice tightly screened metal PC case with only screened cables going from the PC to the radio. USB looks like a radio amateur’s nightmare with these often unscreened cables carrying high speed data and the USB devices usually in completely unscreened plastic cases radiating digital hash everywhere. In fact I would not be surprised to find that the proliferation of USB devices is mainly responsible for the increasing HF noise environment that one day soon will result in my giving up HF altogether.

Once upon a time you could buy a 16-bit soundcard for £15 – £20 ($25 – $30) that was more than good enough for computer sound or amateur digimodes. But one of the advances in computer technology has been the disappearance of PCI slots. The new computer I bought a few months ago, to my surprise, turned out to only have something called PCI Express slots, for which the cheapest sound cards available cost around £70 ($100.)

The specifications of these “bottom end” PCI Express soundcards are way above what I need to either listen to computer sounds and video soundtracks on my PC speakers or decode PSK31 signals. Why do ordinary computer users need 24-bit 96kHz recording or a direct digital input? What on earth is “sound output 7.1” and why do I need three or four different speaker outputs (the presence of which make finding the socket for the PSK31 TX audio by trial and error while groping round the back of the PC in the dark about as likely as winning the lottery?)

I understand that some people might want these features but those who didn’t want them weren’t forced into buying them because more basic products were available. Who decided the simple, stereo 16-bit soundcard without 3D special effects such as computers had for years was no longer needed by anybody?

What frequency standard?

I think the frequency readout of my IC-910H is out by about 400Hz and unfortunately I can’t receive any accurately calibrated beacons like GB3VHF to set it with. I also like to check my K3’s calibration from time to time and would like to take advantage of the option to lock it to a 10MHz frequency standard should Elecraft ever provide it as originally promised. So I decided to have a look on eBay for frequency standards.

There seem to be a number of ex-equipment 10MHz rubidium frequency standards at prices starting from around £50 – which is about the right level for me – available from China. For a bit more you can have a GPS locked time and frequency standard, though where time is concerned the NTP software is good enough for me. There is also a smart looking Quartzlock off-air frequency standard, though that is a bit outside my price bracket for this and would take up a bit too much space for the G4ILO shack.

I don’t know anything about this equipment and aren’t sure if any of these things would be any use to me. The rubidium frequency standard pictured has a frequency adjustment setting which surely defeats the object. If you need to calibrate it against something else then that’s no use to me. I want something of known accuracy to calibrate my radios against. Perhaps the GPS type would be more useful?

Does anyone know about these things?

USB – the shortsighted interface

In his review of the Yaesu FTDX5000 in the June 2010 issue of RadCom, Peter Hart G3SJX criticizes Yaesu for not providing a USB interface as Icom does with its IC7600 transceiver. This same criticism is frequently made by new users or prospective users of the Elecraft K3. I think it is an extremely shortsighted view and I’m surprised to hear it from someone of G3SJX’s experience. This seems to be another example of the “it’s newer technology so it must be better” attitude that seems to be taking root in the hobby.

The RS-232 serial port has been around since long before the personal computer. It has not been used for “consumer” equipment since the days when printers and modems came with a serial interface, which is why RS-232 ports are no longer provided with new PCs. But it is nonsense to claim that RS-232 is obsolete because of this. Adding a couple of serial ports to a PC is simply a matter of opening the case and slotting in an RS-232 board. Granted, it isn’t as easy if you are using a laptop, which is why RS-232 to USB adapters exist. But expandable desktop or tower PCs have so many advantages that why anyone would choose to use a laptop for their shack computer beats me.

Icom uses USB not just for computer control but also for audio so the IC7600 doesn’t need the sound card and requires only a single cable to connect it with the PC. This is an innovation that has obvious marketing appeal – which is no doubt why Icom included it. But it’s a benefit that can only be enjoyed by users of specific versions of Windows. If you use Linux, Mac OS, Windows 2000 or earlier or Windows XP 64-bit you’re out of luck. RS-232 on the other hand is supported natively by just about any computer running any OS, by microcontrollers and even by non-computer devices like Ethernet serial port servers. It offers far more choices, even if most of those choices are only of interest to a minority of users.

Buy a device with USB and you are dependent for its continued usability on the willingness of its manufacturer to develop drivers for as yet unreleased operating systems. I’ve had to junk perfectly good printers and scanners in the past because the latest drivers were for Windows 98 or Windows 2000 and the manufacturer did not produce any for Windows XP. Most radios have a life of 20 or 30 years, considerably longer than most computer hardware, so designing into them an interface that itself may have been replaced by something faster and better in the PCs of 10 or 15 years time seems to me very shortsighted.

Icom chose to provide a Windows-only supported USB interface on the IC7600 for purely marketing reasons. Elecraft arguably made the best decision with the K3 by not just providing a true RS-232 interface (not a lame TTL version requiring an extra-cost level converting cable) but also making the DTR and RTS signals optionally usable for PTT control and CW keying. Although separate audio cables and use of a sound card are needed, Elecraft included isolating transformers so no separate interface (RigBlaster etc.) is needed. If Yaesu chose to emulate this aspect of the K3 design as well then it should be commended not criticized.


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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor