Thoughts on Digital

I have opined in the past (although perhaps not on the blog directly) that CW is the reason I am still an active ham after almost 19 years…actually, I think a week from today marks the 19-year anniversary of passing elements 2 and 3A in the basement of the Stark County Sheriff’s office.  CW permitted me to make interesting, intriguing, compelling QSOs that I simply could not complete on SSB with my meager station as a beginner.

Over the years, I have used this as the argument for retaining the Morse code testing requirement:  Morse code proficiency gave newcomers the opportunity to make exciting DX contacts under all solar conditions (except disturbed, of course) and hook them on the hobby.

PSK31 was the first mode that challenged CW in that arena.  I made a couple of PSK contacts almost 10 years ago now and decided it was harder than CW.  So, I did not pursue it.  Aside from making a half-hearted effort to get ARRL’s Triple Play Worked All States using only unassisted (no cluster, no RBN, no skeds) contest contacts, I haven’t really operated digital modes much and didn’t really understand why anyone would want to because CW is so much easier.  I’ve seen dozens of JT65 posts by fellow bloggers.  And, about a year ago, I met Paul, N8HM, who lives in an apartment in DC.  He’s very active on HF digital modes with a shoestring setup…and he’s very passionate about it.  That’s when it clicked.

Digital modes are the new CW:  the DX mode for the average ham.  I must be slow!

I still think CW is way easier than digital QSOs, especially in contests and pileups:  there is a certain amount of critical humanity (varying timing, sending speed, spacing, or calling frequency) that you can’t apply to cracking a digital pileup…or maybe I just haven’t figured it out yet.  I guess I have years of Morse practice and shouldn’t expect digital to be easy just because the computer is doing the sending and decoding.  But, I think I understand digital operators a little better after this revelation.

You guys are alright.

Ethan Miller, K8GU, is a regular contributor to and writes from Maryland, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

3 Responses to “Thoughts on Digital”

  • Mike VE3WDM:

    Good afternoon Ethan, I too have tried the Digi modes and for some time I was very active with RTTY contesting. As for PSK and the rest I find just the sound card setups and so on can get in the way of making contacts. I have had many a frustrating evening trying to get the Digi modes to work and have gotten nowhere other than frustrated. The only mode other than CW I dabble with is WSPR.

  • GB KC5GB:

    I agree with you, Ethan, that digital should be the new DX mode, and for about a year(2009-2010) I tried to operate mostly on PSK. What I found was disappointing. Very few rare ones, or even ‘semi’ rare ever showed up.

    I also think that PSK is a great ragchew mode(word rate equal to 25 or so WPM), yet you read about about folks who can’t type! Maybe if fewer ops didn’t spell out everything like they were talking on phone, and quitting the lock step usage of HRD’s macros might help.
    But even for everyday QSOs the growth doesn’t seem to be evident. Same calls show up again and again.
    Upshot is I very rarely check out the frequencies now. Am I missing something?

  • k8gu:

    I’m not active on digital other than RTTY, which is the most popular. Perhaps my comments were not completely developed. PSK and the JT modes don’t have DX popularity of CW, SSB, and to a lesser extent, RTTY. But, these modes *do* permit you to make contacts that would be difficult to complete with low power and stealth antennas on SSB. I think they are a gateway to other aspects of the hobby for a lot of people…that’s what I was getting at. Completing DXCC with PSK31 or JT65 alone might be frustrating, but I think it’s an accessible way to work your first few DX QSOs.

    The software setup for digital modes has always been pretty straightforward for me. In retrospect, it’s the fact that I have certain expectations as an experienced CW operator for the nuances of operating that don’t translate well to digital. I do feel a little “removed” from operating when operating RTTY…it’s a different experience!

    Anyhow, thanks for your thoughts…and hopefully mine make a little more sense with explanations.

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