Posts Tagged ‘Shack’

Button, Button. Who’s Got the Button? George KJ6VU Does. And So Can You!

Managing your ham radio station has become increasingly complex, to say the least. We have more complex transceivers with so many features that Computer Aided Transceivers (CAT) are the norm in many circles. With this, both computer-based logging of QSOs with CAT control makes a PC de rigueur for many, many hams. 

But therein lies the details. Or the Devil, if you prefer. Multiple operating systems (OSes) make the choice of PC platform an additional challenge, especially if the PC in question has non-amateur radio uses too. Heck, I have two Dell Precision 1700 workstations in my ham shack. And another Dell Precision 7910 there in my office for “normal” work. The two in my shack run Windows 10 while the one on my desk where I’m writing this uses Linux. Throw in my iPad and iPhone with my wife’s Macbook Pro and you have the not unusual computer sausage that comprises a middle class household. (There is another Dell PC out in my workbench room off of the garage, running Windows 10 and several more doing other things, like monitoring a GPSDO.) Then, there are two laptops, one a Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon for personal writing and another Thinkpad T420s for portable ham radio use. Both are Windows 10 machines. I would like to use any of them—except my wife’s Macbook—to access either of the two shack PCs to check on things when I’m out of the shack. Remote access ramps up the relative complexity. But hopefully you get the emerging point. It gets complicated.

There have been several attempts to “automate” shack management. Some expensive. Some relatively cheap. But all involving relative increases in the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance…er, fooling with settings until they’re “just right” and so forth. This has been done in bespoke terms, even by KJ6VU. On his blog, George has built a cool set of buttons in a portable palm-sized case-of-buttons that automates multi-stroke menu choices on his new Icom IC-705 (see below). This stack of four PCBs is another ingenius invention by George as he’s done time and again on the Ham Radio Workbench podcast. But it is largely tied to a specific radio and menu system although it could be later modded to fit another rig. But what if we didn’t have to have a box of buttons like this tied to a specific radio or set of menu buttons? What if we could, like a dry-erase marker board, wipe it clean if we sell or replace the radio and insert another set of controls? And, if we wanted to automate several radios in our shack or in our portable stations? Or…well, you get the point. 

George KJ6VU’s “case-of-buttons” for the IC-705

But there’s a development that is largely the brainchild of George KJ6VU, co-host of the highly popular Ham Radio Workbench podcast, that could indeed streamline a lot of these operations. All at the push of a button! He already has a lot of them for his shack. But you can too. Here’s how.

Take a look below, first at the interface of the Elgato Stream Deck and the buttons themselves. Note that Stream Deck software is directly available on Windows and Mac via Elgato’s website and on Linux at this website. In addition, there is a smartphone app for iOS and Android. Plus Elgato has a key creator to make custom icons for the buttons. While there are other commercial products that do similar things like the Elgato product, Stream Deck may well be the most mature and accessible product in its class.

The Streak Deck has buttons that are individual modifiable screens! (Courtesy of Elgato)
Many popular software packages have builtin profiles for button control! (Courtesy of Elgato)

So the Streak Deck comes in different sizes and the one above is the large (“XL”) version. There are a few more from Elgato and a mobile app. What is potentially revolutionary is that it is customizable using modifications of stock “profiles” from an existing repository, Moreover, there is a published API which is amenable to several common programming languages or no programming per se at all.

The profile creator/editor has an interface that is usable to the non-programmer. As shown below from the Elgato website, the user interface emulates the Streak Deck device on your desk attached via USB to your PC. You can select, modify and design graphic with text icons that are then represented on each button. Some actions are drag-and-drop. Animations via GIF are also usable (e.g., beam rotor is turning). A button can do a specific action or open up a “deck” of other related buttons (e.g., here are my Kenwood TS-590SG controls). So for each physical button on your Stream Deck, you can define a specific action for that button and give it a meaningful graphic that will be displayed on the button itself. No labels to make. No removing them to change their function. None of that. At all. (You might feel the need to wipe it off if you love Cheetos…)

Stream Deck Software (Courtesy of Elgato)

To more fully illustrate the architecture of how the Stream Deck works, here’s a slide from Tim Pringle’s blog. The Stream Deck uses a Profile that can be selected on-the-fly if desired. But the management software uses “chunks” of programs called Plugins to do certain things, such as integrate external software on the PC or elsewhere into the button definitions in the Profile in use. It uses JSON file formats to communicate with Plugins. This could give hams who are knowledgeable of JSON and use it already in their operations could only need modifications to work with Stream Deck.

Stream Deck Architecture (Courtesy of TimsBlog.nl)

I’ll leave it to Elgato to give you further details in the video below but I’ll then weigh in on an amateur radio group project that’s beginning to emerge that could take ham radio to another level of automation. That’s where you come in. Or not. Either way, it’s a group sharing effort.

Elgato’s introduction to Stream Deck (Courtesy of Elgato)

George KJ6VU has already created a “profile” for his ham radio shack. He’s very keen on automating his antenna switching to rigs, bands, and so forth. That’s not unusual. But he can add new rigs’ CAT commands with a minimum of effort. Such as the FT-857D he’s recently acquired to go with his Flex 6400. He uses the 857D mostly on CW, for intance, so just touching a button to set up the 857D to CW mode, say 40M band, and switching the right antenna to it is just that: ONE touch of a customized button that he created using the Profile Software plus a software program on his PC.

What if there was a collective effort to share Stream Deck profiles of CAT and other command-sets for the popular transceivers and other devices used by ham operators? What if a few hams with Javascript or C++ talent wrote some plugins for the Stream Deck device and shared them? And, what if hams had open access to them and made the type of improvements and potential innovations with them such as creating hooks to other software platforms like Node-Red? There is already a Stream Deck plugin that provides the basic link to a Node-Red server in the unofficial general repository for Stream Deck Plugins. Check out Mike Walker’s presentation on Node-Red on Youtube, linked below.

Mike says he’s not a programmer. But here’s how you don’t have to be. And there’s already a tie-in to Stream Deck.

Several hams, George KJ6VU, Rod VA3ON, Michael VA3MW and I (K4FMH) are at the start of assembling a ham radio-oriented repository of such Stream Deck profiles, probably on GitHub. Stay tuned to the Ham Radio Workbench Podcast for details as well as the Cycle 25 Tribe’s Youtube Channel. I’ll announce details here on this blog as they materialize.

Mike VA3MW and George KJ6VU with Rod VA3ON at BayCon 2021

Mike VA3MW and George KJ6VU gave a recent talk on station automation that is shown below. It lays out a paradigm for station control that coincides with George’s early thoughts of the Stream Deck thinking expressed here. But the contribution of just a few third-party programmers who have built plugins that create bridges to both the Windows and others OS environments as well as independent machines like a Node-Red server (Raspberry Pi even), just sets the stage for the near future’s work. Here are some initial thought experiments for you.

How should your Stream Deck control box be organized?

If you’re a CW Op mostly, would a button that opens a stack of other related buttons (think deck of cards) that are all related to your station organization to operate CW mode be useful? How about one for CW, one for SSB and one for digital? How about one for “there’s lightning approaching” that shuts down stuff and sets other things to ground. How about, I’m leaving for a trip and here’s a button to organize things for remote access?

What is needed is a clear community discussion of how to meld the behavior of hams in their shack with their usual and customary control settings. And, to give some near range Blue Sky thoughts to how this concept can be grown for the least “cost” in terms of time and effort. That’s where community contributions are usually the most valuable.

Interested in getting involved? KJ6VU, VA3ON and I are good on QRZed. Drop us a line. This can really move the management of amateur radio shack’s forward over the next few months. It just takes the building of a community of interested hams who wish to help make it happen, each contributing just a little bit but in strategic ways. Stay tuned…

Don’t touch that dial…just touch a button!

The Day The Computer Died

I have been using small footprint computers in ham shack for a while. It started with the Dell Zino. Always a bit under powered, but enough to get the hamming done. The latest computer driving everything was one of those barebones models that was the size of a shoe box. The first sign of decline was when the fan kept getting louder and LOUDER. The the drive (500GBs of SATA) then decided to give up the ghost.

An immediate lesson learned… back up my log. I have been good at uploading my logs (almost daily, when on the air) to LOTW, QRZ.com, and eQSL. But I would only export that days contacts, consistently replacing the previous days exported log.

I choose not to abandon the small footprint computer and went back to the Shuttle. Newegg.org was my one stop shopping:

The case and motherboard: Shuttle XH81 Intel Core i7 / i5 / i3 / Pentium / Celeron 65W Intel H81 1 x HDMI Barebone system
– small form factor, fits neatly underneath monitor.
– 2x RS-232 connections on the back. Perfect for connecting to the Elecraft amp and tuner.
– Plenty of USB connections

Intel Core i7-4770S Haswell Quad-Core 3.1 GHz LGA 1150 65W BX80646I74770S Desktop Processor Intel HD Graphics
– not the fastest, but fast enough.
– comes with a super quiet fan.

Transcend JetRam 8GB 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Laptop Memory Model JM1600KSH-8G
– I got two DIMMs to keep things moving… 16GBs = snappy!

SAMSUNG 850 EVO 2.5″ 250GB SATA III 3-D Vertical Internal Solid State Drive (SSD) MZ-75E250B/AM
– Good bye disk, hello solid state. Faster. Silent.

The actual build was plug and play. The Shuttle line has come a long way since my last experience with their product. I think these specific computers are designed to operate older types of technology (hint…. 2x RS-232 connections?) which works great with most amateur radio needs.

The next step was loading the OS. LiLi USB Creator is my go to solution for installing linux when I don’t have an optical drive (which is more often the case). This allows you to load the OS through booting directly from the USB stick.

The linux flavor of the day: Mint with the MATE edition. I was an Ubuntu man until Unity. Then made the jump to Mint. The OS loaded without issue and I was off and running.

Amazingly enough, I was able to install TQSL-2.2. In the past, I have been able to install TQSL from the Software Manager. But this has been an older version of TQSL. The newer versions ALWAYS gave my problems with dependency issues during attempted installs. I stayed with it this time and finally got it working. Phew!

The install of fldigi went smoothe, but configuring it to work with my Elecraft K3 was giving me fits. In my past setup, I’ve always used hamlib for rig control and the trick was just finding which USB number was being used for my USB Microham III. But this time, the USB Microham III was identified by name as a choice. Great! But it didn’t initialize. I tried USB0 (…. nothing), combed over the results of lsusb…. not… working. After some intense Googling, I ran across a command I had never seen before:

sudo adduser [username] dialout

Dialout!? Who knew? But that did the trick.

Now, here is something funny. We all have our junk boxes. As hams, we are pack rats. We hang on to stuff that has no current use, but may someday. I had a box RS-232 cables. When Fall Cleaning swept through the ham shack, I looked at the RS-232 cables. I am really going to need 15 RS-232 cables ranging in length between two and 15 feet? The box headed to the dump.

Now, with my growing K-Line, I can use Elecraft software (linux versions available) to monitor data from the amp and tuner. But the connections are serial. SERIAL. I turned the ham shack upside down and not an RS-232 cable to be found. I really don’t want to have to actually go out and BUY a serial cable.

Ham Radio & PLT devices

Over the past few years and again recently I have heard a lot of chatter regarding PLT interference. Especially with Ham radio and shortwave bands. These devices plug into a power wall socket in your house and allow you to create a wired network via your mains wiring in the property. It’s a perfect solution for properties that cannot send a wireless signal from one end to another (Just like mine).  It does however have a draw back. In creating a wired network these PLT devices create a lot of mains born interference and this can effectively block out any amateur radio bands.

In recent stories I have heard audio samples and read stories of how these devices can create S9+20db of noise. Thus reducing the amateur bands unusable.

I wanted to see for myself the effect of using PLT devices in my property. So I visited PC World and purchased 2 devices from NetGear. The Powerline 500 promise 500Mbit/s and this would solve a huge problem I have in my home right now, but feared for what it would do to my beloved radio.

The results were interesting and nothing what I expected. You can see my full test in the video below – but for a spoiler alert keep reading....


The results were - It did nothing. It had zero effect on any of the bands I use at home. After the video I monitored the shortwave bands and tried other frequencies. Again, nothing.  I tried it while the network was busy - I streamed 4K films and copied a 25Gb file. Guess what. Nothing.

The moral ? – Don’t believe the hype.

Ham Radio & PLT devices

Over the past few years and again recently I have heard a lot of chatter regarding PLT interference. Especially with Ham radio and shortwave bands. These devices plug into a power wall socket in your house and allow you to create a wired network via your mains wiring in the property. It’s a perfect solution for properties that cannot send a wireless signal from one end to another (Just like mine).  It does however have a draw back. In creating a wired network these PLT devices create a lot of mains born interference and this can effectively block out any amateur radio bands.

In recent stories I have heard audio samples and read stories of how these devices can create S9+20db of noise. Thus reducing the amateur bands unusable.

I wanted to see for myself the effect of using PLT devices in my property. So I visited PC World and purchased 2 devices from NetGear. The Powerline 500 promise 500Mbit/s and this would solve a huge problem I have in my home right now, but feared for what it would do to my beloved radio.

The results were interesting and nothing what I expected. You can see my full test in the video below – but for a spoiler alert keep reading....


The results were - It did nothing. It had zero effect on any of the bands I use at home. After the video I monitored the shortwave bands and tried other frequencies. Again, nothing.  I tried it while the network was busy - I streamed 4K films and copied a 25Gb file. Guess what. Nothing.

The moral ? – Don’t believe the hype.

Shack photo

This was me on the 2m FM net in East Cambridgeshire last night. There were only 3 of us on last night. These days I tend to use WSPR quite a bit as my voice is still pretty poor. We meet on 144.575MHz FM at 8pm local time most Mondays. Note, this is in the all-mode section. Newcomers are always welcome to join us. QSOs are never more than 1 hour and frequently much less.

It’s time

As much as I hate to do it, I need to look for a new laptop for the shack. A few months ago, when the family computer gave up the ghost, I pressed my shack desktop into service in that role.  To fill the void in the shack, I resurrected my old Acer Inspire One netbook. It's a small machine with a very small screen, with hardly any processor power. It was performing duties way beyond its pay grade. This is the kind of computer that was designed for looking at e-mails and Facebook, and that's about it. Needing something better, I tried recruiting my even older HP laptop (the one with the broken top lid hinges - thanks, kids!) into service. Alas, it's better than the Acer, but only by the breadth of a hair.  It has a bigger screen, more RAM and a bigger hard drive, but it's still an old XP machine that has grown long in the tooth.

To explain what I mean ..... I went down to the shack last night to add some entries to my main logging program from the HamLog app I use when operating portable. I flipped the on switch at 9:30 PM and by the time it had booted up and the logging program had loaded it was about 9:47 PM.  17 minutes is not good. I wanted to start pulling out my hair by then. I think watching paint dry, or grass grow would have been less stressful and more entertaining.

That exercise in frustration drove me to start searching the Web. At work, IBM issued me a Lenovo T410.  I still use this model every day. Yes, they are slowly being refreshed out with the newer T440 model, but mine has served me decently well at the job over the last few years. I have found a couple places where I can pick up a refurbed T410 with 4G of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive and Windows 7 Professional in the $150 neighborhood.


This model has everything I would need. It can hook up to the Internet wirelessly, it has 3 USB ports (need one for the KX3, one for a mouse, and one for an external keyboard), provisions for adding a second VGA monitor and the standard audio ports, so I can do the digital modes, should I ever be inclined to go down that road. Not planning to go there, but you never know. I'll have to dip into savings to acquire one, but having a computer in the shack has almost become a necessity.

Of course, I could always go native and log strictly with paper and pencil, but I don't think the ARRL would accept mailed in Xerox copies of my log for LoTW.  Also, I like to keep my eye on QRPSPOTS as well as SOTAWatcher.  Can't do that without some kind of computer, although I guess I could always just use my cell phone for those. And having a Telnet DX Cluster at my disposal for confirming that I correctly copied the call of that DX station who was sending at a blistering 45 WPM is a nice thing to have, too. (Was that an "H", or a "5" ? - 37 years of Hamming and my ears still wig out on those two, at times.)

This is another occasion where I'll just have to bite the bullet and take the plunge.  Good thing I wasn't planning on going to Dayton.

Oh, and by the way, as long as I mentioned Dayton .... best wishes to all those heading to Ohio for FDIM and Hamvention. May the weather be good, the traffic light and travelling conditions safe - there and back!

72 de Larry W2LJ
QRP - When you care to send the very least!

It really does work.

When I got home from work last night, the temperature outside was 10F (-12C).  My basement shack was a relatively balmy 57F (14C). Just before it was time to go downstairs for the 80 Meter QRP Fox hunt, I changed from the "regular" sweatshirt that I was wearing to a "hoodie" type sweatshirt.

I plugged the earbuds into my ear holes, and pulled the hood up. I was able to remain comfortable, not quite toasty warm, but comfortable in the shack for my duration of the hunt.  I do have to admit that once I nabbed the second Fox of the night, Randy NC4RT at about 0244 UTC, I shut everything down and hightailed it upstairs. But as the tip was given freely to me last winter, I pass it on to those who may also need it.  If your shack is semi-unheated, as is mine, covering your head makes all the difference between shivering and operating comfortably.

It looks like the coldest weather of this round has left us. It actually warmed up overnight and was 20F (-7C) when I woke up this morning, but snowing. Until the next Vortex comes to visit (and I'm sure there will be more!) the basement should warm up to the low to mid 60F range (15-17C) and playing radio down there won't be so bad, at all.

72 de Larry W2LJ
QRP - When you care to send the very least!

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