Why is contesting so popular? (And it is. Logs submitted are way up as compared to only a few years ago.

For one thing there are awards and certificates to be won. In multiple-op categories, there’s the fun of working as a team. And we learn a lot about our radios, about propagation and about how to fix stuff on the fly.

It’s Sunday morning and the run and mult stations are on the air as we head down to our 7pm finish.

Tomorrow there will be stories to tell and lessons learned and that’s wha’s all about.

I’ve drunk the Cool-Aid

I’ve become one of those Flex people.

Sort of like the hams of the living dead theme lately to keep with a Hallowe’en theme as I’m shooting the 2010 Toronto Zombie Walk on the weekend. Images at Peter West Photo sometime Sunday. 

Anyway broke the HUGE pile-up on PJ7MF in Sint Maarten who was calling at 14.170 MHz and was listening at 14.173 yesterday afternoon.

On the FlexRadio 1500 I could easily see the stations calling on the panoramic display. It was a piece of cake to go to split VFOs and call him on 14.173.100. 5-9s exchanged on the second call at 5 watts.

Read WD4ELG’s post about how he used the display to work 3B9WR Rodriguez Island. Cool.

More SDR Glory

So I’m sitting in my home office drinking my coffee and writing my various blog postings (Peter West Photo; The Toastmaster; Social Media Made REALLY Easy) and fixing my online galleries (Peter West Photo; Peter West Photo on Flickr) when over to my right at the operating position I hear PJ4B on Bonaire calling CQ Africa only on 14.130 MHz.

Anyway the guy stops working just Africa and says listening for anybody at 14.160 MHz and above.

So I fire up the mighty five-watt FlexRadio 1500 and turn the three-element beam toward the south and go to split VFOs with the transmitter at 14.160.100 and guess who gets worked on the second call 🙂

I flip the VFOs so I can hear my transmitting frequency and it’s chaos but I got heard, worked and logged and that’s all that counts.

Truly an amazing rig for $600.

Oh and by the way, you’ll notice there are no big ugly (okay that’s what my wife calls them) boxes on the desktop. So where is the radio?

It’s down here. Sitting (to your right) from the computer. It’s the little box with the blue light.

This is now the VE3HG contest operating desk.

On the left side is my remote antenna switch, the rotor controller, an IC-208, a MFJ mini-tuner which is connected to the Diawa QRP watt/SWR meter on the desktop (the tuner only needs to be used on 160 and 80 and sometimes with the beam if I’m really high on the band); underneath the tuner are a couple of power supplies. The box on the floor that’s sitting under the computer is a wireless MAC router with a dedicated 1-terabyte backup harddrive. The red thing is a cloth that’s stuck into a 4″ plumbing tube that holds all of my antenna cables that are coming through the wall.

All that’s on the desk is the display (which has a buillt-in high-def TV tuner and amplified speakers which I’ve got plugged into the Flex for causal listening), CW paddles and the computer mouse.

Now if I added a qrp autotuner or maybe a 50-watt amplifier and a bigger autotuner….I’d have a Flex 3000…!!

SDR and Writelog

Remember I’m not a software defined engineer like some of the guys on the FlexRadio forums. These guys are so over my head but occasionally I gleam a few nuggets of information that make life with the FlexRadio 1500 easier.

Case in point: I spent five or six hours yesterday trying to get HDR software, N1MM contesting logger and Writelog (my favourite contest logger) to work with the 1500. And to make matters more complex, I’ve upgraded an old 2 gig PC to Windows 7.

So I go to the Forums and I read everything I can. Seems Windows 7 will put Writelog files into a folder that won’t work when it comes to the interface with a radio. Of course I can’t figure out how to stop Writelog’s auto-installer from putting the files where I don’t want them. Not amused.

I give up on Writelog and go to N1MM. N1MM installs where I want it but now I need to create virtual ports (which my MicroHam interface for my IC-756 does for me) using a third-party software program Com0Com. No go 😦 after a couple of hours.

I try HRD and the program actually has an SDR setting for radios and appears to fire up and works but it’s not a contest logger and doesn’t have the QRP contest files I need for this weekend’s ARPI contest. For now, I’ve turned it off and will look at it later.

So I go back to Writelog and guess what? The virtual port I have created works and Writelog is recording the operating frequency. Yahoo!!

Even better: I fired up the radio this morning and Writelog/Flexradio 1500 are still talking.

There was some instability in the connection yesterday which I need to explore and now if I can get Writelog to send and receive CW through a second port I will be over the moon.

(BTW if anybody has a really clear, bullet-proof method of doing this for idiots like me please don’t hesitate to send it to me at ve3hg@cogeco.ca) . You could save me hours 🙂

1500 Contesting

Spent the weekend in front of the rig and under the operating table setting the FlexRadio 1500 up for contesting season and rewiring the rat’s nest of cables.

So for contesting what would I add?

Number one is a VOX setup. You can’t contest in a serious way using push-to-talk on a mic cord. Now I see there is a PTT line out the back of the box and the headphones line push-to-talk button is on the headset end of a plug that connects the set to the rig so there’s hope there for an external tiny VOX box or at least a foot switch.

Two the rig needs a built-in SWR indicator. This would eliminate the need for a QRP meter on the desktop.

An autotuner is essential. As I’ve said before when I operate outside of the resonant point on the antennas the rig starts to cut back its power. And at 100 watts who cares but when you’ve only got 5 watts to start with this is essential. Now I read comments about the autotuner in the Flex 3000 and I’d like to get my hands on the rig before I make any decisions.

I am considering an external autotuner but honestly my MFJ $99 tuner and Diawa QRP-capable watt/SWR meter is perfect. Once I tune to the band and antenna I’m on with the exception of big moves on 160 and 80 meters it’s pretty much set and forget. Adding a $200 autotuner makes little economic sense…and I want one 🙂

Of course Flex has to fix the CW hardware interrupt issue that comes from using paddles or straight key and buying a bigger more expensive computer is just a workaround and not a fix. The built-in CW keyboard or CW memories are not affected and work perfectly.

So if we added all this up and added a 100-watt PA what would we have? A $1500 a FlexRadio 3000. Humm.

Now if I bought a 50-watt amplifier for the 1500 I’d never use it again as a QRP rig. I just know me too well. Besides on the weekend’s Scandinavian Activity Contest I worked about 20 stations on 20 and 15 meters effortlessly at 5 watts with reports of S-7 being common.

The FlexRadio is not an appliance box. Anyone who can’t or won’t read a manual and a ton of comments on web reflectors might want to consider a more plus and play box.  (The new Kenwood looks good for a rig under $2K.)

I’ve yet to setup the virtual cable interfaces to other software programs to the SDR program but some folks seem to do this first time and others struggle somewhat.

So the bottom line is this:

For monitoring the bands (160-6) it’s perfect. The panoramic display which has a bunch of different display modes is fabulous and built into the price. The headphone jack will drive a set of amplified cheap computer speakers for casual listening.

For chasing DX and special event stations, it’s a nice challenge without being so low powered as to be ineffective but you need a decent antenna (at least a full-size dipole at a quarterwave or better above ground; a properly installed vertical over a ground-radial system; or a beam at 10 meters or higher). Any of the compromised antennas like loaded dipoles or mobile whips will limit the rig’s ability to get out. Yes it will get out but not consistently so and will not work for contesting.

And for contesting…well it’s a blast. You won’t be able to run much or break a pileup but at 5-watts (an S-7 signal compared to a 100-watt S-9) you will be heard, worked and logged. When 10 and 15 come back (and 15 is showing signs of life), a QRP rig is much less of a disadvantage and you might even be able to hold a frequency and run. Also, contesting in some of less popular contests is less frustrating. CQ WW DX contests have a QRP category but I don’t know anybody who ever won one. (There is a contest saying about life is too short for QRP and in the CQ contests there’s some truth there.)

Notice I didn’t say the 1500 needed a knob. Knobs are for old guys. This isn’t your father’s radio.


FlexRadio Changes Ham Radio Forever

Well I’d show you a picture but there’s nothing to show!

See all those big ugly boxes (my wife’s description) in the masthead photo? Well they’re all either sold or in storage.  So for the first time in 45 years of radio (30 as a licensed Canadian amateur radio operator) there is no radio on my operating desk but I’m still running a contest station.

How can that be?

Well I relocated the FlexRadio 1500 to a shelf under the operating desk and once I get a QRP autotuner, there will be nothing left on the desk but a computer screen and a mouse.

This is very weird but the little radio really works. Talked to a station on Guernsey this morning on 20 when he asked is there anybody QRP and I jumped in. Worked him on the first call even though he was just above the noise level and who knows where I was to him.

The more I read about the Flex the more I  like it and it does have some issues (of which many are being fixed as I read the manual more thoroughly).

All in all, a great setup for a ham radio station that’s in our family home office which I share with VE3HEN. Once I get my digital software running (and Flex fixes the CW issue which is really annoying since Windows 7 helped but didn’t cure the delay from using paddles as the internal memory keyer and keyboard work fine) the station will be silent as far as Marion is concerned. Cool.

BTW I think I may be getting a Flex 3000 to borrow to see how it compares. It may have autotuner and fan noise issues so haven’t concluded that SDR is the way to go but so far it’s working way beyond expectations.

One more thing I got off the table were amplified speakers for the Flex. My Samsung monitor (that includes a Hi-Def TV tuner) has an amplified speaker system so now there are no little boxes cluttering up the desk. Tres cool 🙂

2m Moxon

Here’s a great weekend project that will save you lots of $$$.

It’s a two-meter Moxon antenna. VA3OMP built it and VA3STL posted the instructions on his blog.

This version is cut for the FM portion of the band and oriented vertically. At VHF and higher frequencies the vertical or horizontal orientation of the antenna is critical. At HF frequencies where the signal gets bounced around in the ionosphere before it hits the antenna, polarization isn’t as important. There’s nothing to say that lengthening the dimensions of the antenna and putting it up in in a horizontal orientation wouldn’t work for SSB and CW.

I’ve got two Moxon antennas stacked for 6 meters and they work as well as a three-element beam with the advantage of no expensive rotor. Those are my Moxon’s in the photo.

Bill 118 and RAC

So what is RAC doing about Ontario’s Bill 118?

I don’t know the answer but I hope it’s something positive and I hope whatever is being planned is well underway.

Ontario’s distracted driving legislation, Bill 118, which grants a time-limited temporary exemption for the use of hand-held microphones by licensed Canadian amateur radio operators driving in Ontario will expire in a few short months and amateurs across the province are asking what should be done.

Here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Let’s setup a committee to visit the minister and express our concerns.
  • Let’s put people on that committee who are used to dealing with senior government officials.
  • Let’s make sure they own a tie and are articulate enough not to trip up over their own words.
  • Then let’s create a document that outlines how amateur radio in other states and provinces has been exempted.
  • Let’s create a covering letter that outlines our concerns and nicely asks the minister to act on our behalf.*
  • Then let’s send the committee in to visit with the minister right away.
  • At the same time let’s organize a lobbying group where amateurs across the province are specifically appointed to visit their sitting MPP and any opposition MPPs and personally deliver the above documents along with a script that helps them explain to the MPP our concerns.
  • Let’s initiate the lobbying only if the minister turns us down.
  • Let’s not go to the media (I was a former editor) with our story because everyone who can’t use their cellphone now won’t care about us one wit.
  • Let’s send a selected couple of representatives to visit with the heads of the political parties in Ontario to delver the same message.

Now I don’t care who does this work. If RAC is up to it, then let’s let them get to work. If RAC isn’t up to this simple job, then let’s form an ad hoc provincial committee to do the work.

If you’re concerned then contact RAC President Geoff Bawden today ve4baw@rac.ca and tell him you want some action for your $50 membership. We’ve got to get moving on this work right now.


* Remember Bill 118 affects ALL use of hand-held devices including microphones by everyone with a radio and that includes taxis, delivery trucks and everybody else with the exception of emergency responders. Getting an exemption for just amateur radio won’t be easy but it is doable IMHO.

The Daily DX

So how do you keep up with all of the DX that’s out there?

Since March 17, 1997, Bernie McClenny, W3UR, has been posting his Daily DX newsletter. I can remember the old days when DX news came in magazines (3-4 months late) or via a letter (a week late) and now online (nothings late).

I’ve been subscribing to the Daily DX after winning a complimentary year’s subscription at the DX dinner at Dayton.

Here’s a great deal: Bernie offers a free two-week trial (and now’s the time just before the CW WW DX contests) so if you want the latest DX news here’s the link to The Daily DX.