The Agony And The Ecstasy

Another CQ WW CW contest is in the log and from the initial reports I’m reading online, conditions were all over the map but got exceptionally better especially on Sunday.

I had planned an all-QRP FlexRadio 1500 assault on the contest and by 9 p.m. Friday I was on the phone to Harry, VA3EC, (who lives 360 meters north of me and is running the identical antenna system) to see if he was experiencing the same awful band conditions. (Signals were weak and watery sounding plus nobody was hearing me in the din.) Harry concurred and after working one guy in the Caribbean at 5 watts I went to bed.Dumb.

Apparently the low bands got really, really good later in the night. Rats.

Same experience on Saturday with bad conditions so I got busy doing other things like fixing up the station and went to a neighbour’s holiday season open house, had two glasses of wine and came home and went to bed. Dumber.

So Sunday comes along and I’m running 100 watts using a solid-state, all-band amp into an LDG Pro 200 autotuner into the Explorer beam (with 40-meter extensions) and I can’t do anything wrong.

Heard and worked a guy in Egypt just over the noise level (which is exceptionally low in the FlexRadio) who was sending CQ with no one answering him. Finished the contest off by working C5A in Gambia by breaking a huge pileup on the second call. Cool.

If I’d only stayed on Friday night I could have been a contender. It felt like I was running K1AR’s or VE3EJ’s contest stations. I was king of the bands.

BTW the photo to the top right is the operating desk which is tucked away behind a bookcase in our home office. Thus I have a ham shack that is on the ground floor, away from the family room (which is in the basement) and has its own separate entrance for multi-op contests but, best of all, its own washroom. And now, with the exception of the March paddles, Heil headphones and computer mouse and display there’s no evidence of a fully functioning 100-watt, all-band, multi-mode contest station in the room.

That’s not to say I’m finished 🙂

I’ve got some CPU issues with the computer that chokes up the SDR CW so maybe Santa can bring me a more robust quad-core Windows 7 computer 🙂

Also, I want to run at least 800 watts and that means either I go for a Flex 3000 or I revert back to an IC-7600 plus a new amp.

Decisions. Decisions.  Here’s the line up of the equipment that’s been put under the desk:

Top row: 2/440 rig and remote antenna switch (the antennas are terminated at the tower which is 75 feet behind the house and control cable and coax are buried)with the FlexRadio 1500 and the rotor controller sitting on the shelf; next down are the 100-watt amp and the power supply for the Flex and autotuner; bottom shelf holds the LDG Pro 200 tuner and power supply for the VHF/UHF rig.

Once the auto tuner’s memories are loaded, everything below the desktop runs automatically. Now if we could just figure a way to keep the operator in the chair we’d have something 🙂

Old Time Radio

I’m listening to HL5FUA working North America on 40 meters on the Drake 2-B receiver 🙂 

Seems all that was wrong with the old girl was some poor connections in the tube sockets. For some of you youngsters a tube is vacuum device that glows in a dark room and edits electrons. The audio coming out of the speaker is much softer and fuller than the processed sharp sound of the Flex 1500 which I am also using to listen to the South Korean station.

The Drake needed a good spray with contact cleaner and up came the audio after sitting on a shelf for a decade and who knows how long it sat somewhere else. Made in the 60s the 2-B was Drake’s junior receiver. I had a Drake pair R4B and T4XB but no room and I almost never used the setup so I sold it. I do own a Drake R8 which is a sweet receiver but there’s always been something about tubes.

One of the best things about the Drake 2-B is once it’s warmed up (tubes remember) it’s as stable has heck. My dad’s old HQ-170 wasn’t this rock stable at the best of times.

This is ham radio at its best. Great fun.

Skimmers, Readers, DX Spyders and more

This weekend is the CQ WW CW contest and there are a whole lot of folks flying to remote locations to operate for the 48 hour classic. Not only that but a whole lot of folks submitted logs last year.

If recent conditions are any indication (I heard England on 160 last night on the sloper. This is good from my suburban lot in Oakville which is at lake level,) there could be lots of DX who really, really want to work you.

But in the thousands of signals how do you find 5C5T in Morocco or 5R8WW in Madagacar?

The easy way is enter the contest in the assisted category. That means when you file your log (and always file your log as it helps the scorekeepers who soon will be using database technology that will allow them to cross-check every contact made by anybody at anytime during the contest. Awesome.) make sure to indicate that you were assisted or you will be disqualified. Bummer.

When it comes to what software to use in the assisted category I highly recommend DX Summit by the Fins at Radio Arcala. This simple standalone DX spotter will help you find the DX in the pileup.

Most contesting software programs include DX Cluster software that allows packet spots to show up in your computer window. In Writelog the software populates a bandmap that is clickable and will place the call sign of the station in your entry window along with the first part of the required entry of 599. Then all you have to type is the stations CQ Zone which may also be auto entered. Cool and this is how some guys can do runs hitting several hundred Qs an hour.

Also VE7CC has a wonderful page that explains his amazing DX spotter software (which I am just working to understand but I think he’s tapped into the Reverse Beacon Network which allows you to compare signals being received in different parts of the world.

Finally there’s CW Skimmer which has turned the contesting world on its collective head. Developed by Alex, VE3NEA, CW Skimmer is a multi-channel CW decoder and analyzer. Depending on the size of the bandpass on your receiver the software can decode up to 700 CW signals in parallel on a 3-GHz P4 computer if a wideband (SDR) receiver is used. CW Skimmer isn’t free but it’s amazing.

All this wonderful technology comes with its challenges. The Reverse Beacon Network’s telnet connection seems to have failed under the stress of the ARRL’s Sweepstakes last weekend and I bet there’s some frantic work going on in the background to get it up for the CQ WW CW this weekend. CW Skimmer is such a radical departure from what came before that there are late rule changes still being issued by the CQ WW organizers.

And then there’s the guys who get on with their 2-B Receivers (I just got one in mint condition….well there’s no signals but there is audio 🙂 and I’m working on it. I’ve got an NC-105 that works if I could only figure out how to re-string the tuning dial) and a homemade 20-watt transmitter into a dipole on 20 or 40 meters and don’t tell me they won’t have as much fun as K1TTT (one of the US super stations. K1AR is another.)

But what if your CW is rusty or non-existant then what? Well there are CW readers (Writelog has one built-in) like CW Get. Since most guys are sending from their keyboards the CW is perfectly spaced and the CW reader programs can easily do a printout of one guy even in a pileup. BTW there are CW training software programs too to help you along as using a CW reader works when you’re searching and pouncing but it’s not as good when you’re running (calling CQ) and two or more stations respond.

So regardless of how sophisticated or how humble your station, get on the air and have fun. And listen for VE3HG as I’m running a full-out effort using the Flex 1500 at 5 watts and with Writelog controlling the CW keying and rig control.

 

 

ARRL SS

Participated in SweepStakes this weekend and had a ball. Phone contests are not my favourite unless I’m working on a multi-op setup but wanted to give the Flex 1500 and new amp and tuner a workout.

I ran 100 watts for about a third of the contest and less than 20 watts for a third and QRP for a third depending on conditions.

I discovered that my anti-virus program was eating up a lot of my computer power so I killed it for the contest and had no issues with the CPU.

For the most part the Flex worked fine. I remembered to turn the audio down after a comment 🙂 and had the scent of solder floating through the shack for the first couple of hours as the amp (which had never been used) warmed up.  In general I had no more issues working guys at 100 watts as I did at 25 watts or even five watts depending on the size of the pileup and the noise on the band. I heard a lot of requests for repeats in other QSOs and had no more than the regular amount regardless of the power I was running.

It goes to show that we are louder than we think at any power level. Now having said that SweepStakes phone is a contest when it sure helps to be running 800 or 1,000 watts into a decent antenna up high. But running less power and more modest antennas doesn’t limit the fun.

I noticed that the wheel on the mouse didn’t keep the same tuning rate from the Flex window to the Writelog window. Got to look into this and thinking of getting a better USB controller.

One last issue was that the big auto tuner kept searching for a tuned position. I never found the memory setting. This is operator error. The QRP auto tuner works so much more fluidly in the background and won’t be a problem next weekend as I will be running QRP CW.

Next step is to setup for CQ WW CW next weekend.

Kenwood TS-590s

Oh boy maybe Kenwood is back big time with the TS-590s.

I’ve always liked Kenwood. The TS-850 was always considered a pretty decent contesting rig in its http://www.cq-amateur-radio.com/ especially as it had really clean audio. Put in a 500 Hz filter and CW on this rig was a very pleasant experience.

Now Kenwood has a new TS-590s that’s using roofing filter technology and digital signal processing capable of competing with the big boys contest radios.

At least that’s the conclusion of Gordon West, WB6NOA, writing a “First Look” in the December issue of CQ Magazine. West (no relation to me) compared the TS-590s to an older TS-950 which many, many folks really liked and found the new rig much better.

Flex Audio ….again

At risk of losing everyone who owns an old fashion analogue radio here’s another Flex story.

Last night 20 and up were empty of signals as the likely result of predicted solar flares predicted. Forty was pretty good but 80 was really noisy so around 10 pm I went down to 160 meters.

(BTW the cartoon comes from Ham Radio Outlet’s site where there is a pretty good explanation of what is ham radio for anyone new.)

Now my suburban lot doesn’t allow for much of an antenna on 160 but my Alpha-Delta sloper (160-80-40-30) which comes off the top of the tower to the south does a pretty decent job (I’ve worked Europe with it and the Caribbean).

The band was relatively quiet for 160 and I chanced upon two guys talking about their radios. The guy with the Flex 5000 was raving about the quality of the audio coming from the radio. He told his disbelieving friend that it was so much better than his Ten-Tec Orion (in itself a formidable contest radio) that the analogue rig was sitting in a corner gathering dust.

Well this was too much for the other guy who launched into a sterling defence of his big Yaseu rig. Without ever operating or even hearing a Flex radio, this guy claimed his Yaseu audio was just as good. Too bad because it isn’t. I’ve had the exact same experience that the guy with the Flex 5000 has had.

The audio coming out of the Flex is just pleasing to the ear. Unlike my ageing IC-756 where the harsh audio is fatiguing (especially after a 48-hour contest), I could listen to the Flex all day (and often do).

It’s a treat to tune to 3.755 MHz with the noise reduction digital software on and listen to broadcast quality audio coming out of the computer speakers.

When will these octogenarians (I’m guessing) understand that sometimes new technology will obsolete existing technology and there’s no getting around that fact. It doesn’t mean the old analogue big four rigs (Kenwood, Yaseu, Icom and let’s include Ten Tec because of its contest-quality architecture) are bad. It just means they’re out of date.

The hysteria and knee jerk defensiveness reminds me of the internecine warfare that broke out on 80 meter phone when some guy fired up a double sideband rig back in the 50s.

(Eighty has never a hotbed of reasoned rational conversation at the best of time. Heard a U.S. station last night claiming he didn’t want to go use any of the new technology that was developed by some Jew in New York. I kid you not. This was on 80 last night and you wonder why I was listening to 160 rather than the ham radio equivalent of  27 MHz. Actually that’s an insult to CB (known as GRS in Canada. Seems the higher up the band you go the less rational the conversations.)

Old rigs will always hold a certain fascination but the Collins 75A-4 receiver weighed in at 35 pounds. Its 22 tubes kept the shack warm and the audio from these old rigs was wonderful. Of course then you had to buy or build (some of the old guys still know how to build a rig and not just buy something from Japan off the shelf) a transmitter!

My Dad had a Hammarlund HQ170 receiver and a Heathkit DX60 with vfo back in the early days. If you had a Johnson Ranger transmitter you were considered to be running a state of the art station

Ah the romance of radio and whine of 80 meters. Who could ask for more? Real radios used to glow in the dark.

Flex Power

I’ve setup the FlexRadio 1500 with an LDG Z-11 QRP autotuner so now I’ve got an all-band, multi-mode, 5-watt rig that autotunes from 160 meters to 6 meters. Anticipating some of the big phone contests where competing at 5 watts is the equivalent to shouting into a tornado I also added an LDG Pro-200 autotuner and a Palomar 160-10 meter 100-watt amplifier. So now I also have a 100-watt rig that autotunes on all my antennas from 160 to six meters.

This is so cool and so now as compared to some of the older rigs I’ve owned.*

BTW until you actually see a Flex 1500 in person you have no idea how small this wonderful rig really is. It’s really small.

My issues with interfacing Writelog appears to be both a Windows 7 issue (7 handles audio much differently than XP) and a decided lack of computer horsepower. MY HP dual-core 2.9 gig computer runs between 20 and 30 per cent usage with the SDR and from 30 to 50 per cent with Writelog running rig control and CW keying from memories and the keyboard. If I add packet and the bandmap the usage is stable but if everything starts calling home at the same moment my CPU goes to 80 per cent and everything starts to stall.

I had some wag suggest that my $600 radio is no bargain when you add the computer and that’s true but I needed to add the computer regardless and so what if it’s a little more expensive than the Best Buy special I was using? I think this guy was ticked that my rig’s panoramic display on my 22″ monitor was way better and way bigger than his $600 add-on display for his K3.

Anyway it’s pretty cool to have a rig the size of a small brick sitting on top of one of two autotuners feeding another brick-size amp all of which could sit on the floor under the operating desk. The only things on the desk could be the computer display, Heil headphones, the March paddles and my Idiom memory keyer.

One Scot commenting on an international review site thinks his ancient TS830 and FT1000D hear as well as the tiny Flex 1500. Obviously he hasn’t used the Flex. The TS-830 was okay in its day but the heater switch on the front panel must be for this guy’s heating pad which he’ll need for his aching  back after lugging this beast around. They don’t call these old boxes boat anchors for nothing.

Same thing applies to the FT1000D which has that normal weird Yaesu over-processed audio. This is another big box that was on the road to obsolescence the day after this guy bought it.

These are your father’s radios and the GM ham who owns them doesn’t know what he’s missing especially when you add up the cost of the $4000 Yaseu and the $1,000 Kenwood. Now if the OM was talking about a TS-850 at least he would have had a rig with fairly decent audio…for $2,000.

Wow I wonder if this guy would adopt me? I could bring my $600 FlexRadio and we could watch the huge display without our reading glasses 🙂

*Picked up a very clean Drake 2-B receiver which lights up and hisses and needs some work. It’s a tube rig so I can warm my hands on its chassis this winter. Anybody got a Q-Muliplier and Xtal calibrator for sale? This helps make up for the loss of my Drake R4B and T4XB which I sold a couple of years ago.

FLASH: CW WORKS ON 1500

One of the main advantages of a software defined radio like the FlexRadio 1500 is the ability to upgrade the rig as the result of a simple software download. I posted my frustrations with CW on the FlexRadio reflector and was directed to the Flex site to download a new SDR software package today.

I did. It loaded and I’VE GOT CW FROM THE PADDLES ON THE 1500!

This is a huge (and much promised) improvement by FlexRadio engineers and management (likely one and the same).

Now I just need to wrestle with the vulgarities of Windows 7 and my life will be complete but that’s a post for another day. Right now……

I CAN NOW WITHOUT EQUIVOCATION RECOMMEND THE FLEXRADIO 1500. PERIOD – FULL STOP – IT’S GREAT!

For $600 you now get a full-featured, multi-mode, all-band (160-6 meters) five-watt QRP rig with a massive panoramic display with what I believe to be one of the best receivers (and nicest sounding audio) I’ve ever heard and a transmitter that acts like QRO rather than QRP. Plus the rig is tiny. I’ve bought blocks of cheese that were bigger.

The FlexRadio 1500 is the future of Amateur Radio. It changes everything we thought we knew about receivers and transmitters. And, it changes everything we thought we know when it comes to upgrading equipment.

The revolution has begun.

Windows 7 Is Evil

It’s day three of stable software and radios running here at VE3HG. This keeps up think I’ll take a run at the OM-OK CW contest this weekend. 

The IC-756 is happy running with the MicroHam (read rave review below) into the Toshiba XP laptop driving a big screen (which is also shared with the HP that’s running the FlexRadio 1500 SDR). Now this isn’t the final setup but it works – consistently. For a would-be contest station consistence beats all including great antennas, huge power and talented operators.

The Flexradio 1500 (which is a very small box) is very happy running SDE 2.07 on the dual-core HP with Windows 7. It won’t run SDR 2.08 (but the laptop will and thus the fable of weirdness when it comes to SDR radios continues unabated).

Both programs are Beta and Flex makes a lot noise about Beta is Beta and will have challenges but this is just too weird for words – and may not have anything to do with FlexRadio and everything to do with Windows 7 but I’m not smart enough to know.)

Now, I have a choice: I can figure out how to get Writelog working on Windows 7 which is now possible (RAVE REVIEW) thanks to Joe, W4TV of MicroHam America who replied to my queries about why my Microham Digi Keyer was not working with Windows 7.

Upon careful examination (swapping in the XP laptop which worked) it occurred to me that Windows 7 wasn’t allowing a soundcard to work. Sure enough that’s what Joe suggested in a lengthy email which both describes my issue and proposes a solution. THANKS JOE AND THANKS MICROHAM FOR THE HELP.

This would get the IC-756 running on the HP which is a very good thing. And the next step after that would be to get Writelog running RTTY using the MMTTY engine.

But I’ve still got the Flex 1500 running happy as a clam on Windows 7 but with no supportive software working…yet.

This is almost for certain either operator error (most likely) or Windows 7 issues. The good news is both are fixable 🙂

In continuing head-to-head, real-world comparisons I…oh I can’t believe I’m going to say this…prefer the FlexRadio 1500. Worked Senegal on 15 meter SSB yesterday effortlessly with 5 watts breaking a medium-size pileup of Americans. The overall receiver in the Flex is quieter, more sensitive and better filtering than the IC-756. (Understandable as there is an age difference. I don’t hear as well as I used to either.)

The great SDR challenge is its ability to work with your computer. It’s a crap shoot and not one that’s easily fixed by the manufacturer. On the other hand, this is the cutting edge of technology and it’s amazing. I mean it: $600 and it runs circles around the ageing $3000 Icom. Plus it’s got the world’s best panoramic display that isn’t a $600 add-on (K3). Tuning is simple and you can get a knob if you’re so addicted. My mouse wheel is my main tuning device. I can jump from one end of the band changing the VFO window numbers or use the mouse to tune a Hz at a time.

BUT and it’s a BIG but I’ve got to be able to get either Writelog or N1MM to work with the 1500. HRD‘s software is pretty but I’m not sure it’s contest ready. I’ve used Writelog for years and find it perfect for contesting.

I used N1MM in the VE3RZ multi-op, single xmiter effort last  month and found it very impressive and stable.

Ham Radio is a journey into technology and not a destination 🙂 Repeat. Reboot. Repeat…

(BTW if anyone wants a mint-condition RigBlasterPro I’ve got one for sale at about 1/2 the price of a new one. It’s perfect for computers with two serial ports. It’s bulletproof and stable and for sale 🙂

FlexRadio 1500 and IC-756 Shootout

I have been pulling my hair out trying to get my dual-core HP running Windows 7 to work with Writelog and the Flex 1500. It could create and assign ports but then it would fail and I was struggling to get a virtual audio cable connected so I could run Writelog’s CW reader (Don’t tell anyone in Contest Club Ontario or I’ll be drummed out of the province-wide club.)

(That’s me with the IC-756 with the laptop on top of it to the right. The big screen is the pano display from the FlexRadio which is the tiny box to the far left of the image. Very cool for seeing if there’s an open frequency nearby or if some big lout is starting to crowd onto your frequency.)

I figured the next best thing was to setup my IC-756 and Writelog in the Windows 7 machine using my MicroHam interface and see how that went. It went just great with the sole exception I couldn’t get an audio path to work. Had rig control and CW keying and memories but no CW reader. Humm.

Went to the regular Saturday 6:30 a.m. breakfast of the Oakville ARC and Greg, VA3GGF, opened my eyes when he said why don’t I just plug a line out from the 756 right into the computer. The CW reader didn’t need the MicroHam Keyer II interface to read CW it just needed audio. Duh!

So during the CW SweepStakes contest I tried again with no luck. Huh? This makes no sense until I realized that Windows 7 wasn’t passing the audio. I fired up an old ancient decrepit Toshiba laptop and loaded Writelog and the Microham. Everything worked. The Microham and Writelog assigned ports worked so there was rig control and CW keying. I plugged in a couple of audio cables into the Microham and back to the laptop and now I had my CW reader.

Cool. So now I had my old IC-756 running with Writelog. (This means no matter what I’m ready for CQ WW CW at the end of the month.)

Just for fun I fired my FlexRadio 1500 on the Windows 7 machine and it ran (as always) perfectly but I still can’t get a full interface with any software yet. Writelog, like I said,  is just plain unstable for some reason and N1MM I haven’t figured out and the same goes for HRD. That will come. This is all operator issues.

Now here’s the shootout part.

During SS there isn’t much room on the band as a lots of guys are crammed into small windows of spectrum space. I listened to the same signals on the 1500 as I did on the 756 using almost identical dipoles at roughly the same height and position. Signals on 40 meters where loud, loud, loud and each guy was pretty much on top of the next guy.

After a couple of hours of listening I think I can offer this:

My conclusions are that both radios heard pretty much the same signals even those right now into the mud. Occasionally the 1500 would hear a signal in the mud that the 756 couldn’t hear and a few minutes later the situation would be reversed. This is likely an issue with the antennas which are almost the same but not quite. The signals I was using for testing were at the noise floor.

In all cases the 1500 could go to narrower filters (much narrower filters) than the 756 and the 1500’s sound was much more musical and relaxing than the 756. It gave the feeling that the Flex could hear better than the 756 but the differences in practical terms were minimal.

When VA3EC fired up with 100 watts just 360 meters north of me both radios were equally affected when working close into Harry’s signal (within 10 kHz) but neither radio found it hard to work in so close. The Flex with its superior filtering was less affected by close in signals.

The 756 was more fatiguing to listen to. It had a harder note and off frequency splatter sounded choppier. The Flex can show an audio scope pattern to the received signals and these just off-frequency signals looked like spikes and maybe the guy’s transmitter wasn’t so clean.

So which one is the contester’s choice?

For reliable contesting I’d buy an IC-7600 (I haven’t got my hands on a K3 yet.) but that’s dependent on getting Writelog or any other software program like N1MM to work on Windows 7 of course.

But for the 22″ panoramic display plus the way better and narrower filters and lovely almost relaxing quailty of the audio note itself, the Flex 1500 at $600 is amazing. (Not perfect but who of us is?) If I can get it to fully integrate with one of the contesting software packages I’ll be a very happy camper and might consider using it as the main contesting rig with a 50 watt amp and autotuner.