How I got my knob back and a whole new way of doing things

Yes it’s true. I lost my knob when my FlexRadio 1500 arrived back last July. In fact, being knobless humiliating. One of my ham radio contesting mentors Tony, VE3RZ, showed up to see the new radio and after using the PC mouse to control the VFO snorted something about the 1500 not being a real radio and left the station. I was crushed.

I knew from one on one comparisons that the FlexRadio was a huge improvement on my beloved IC-756 with dual 500 Hz CW filters (which BTW was sold last weekend). On CW I could work everybody on first call just like with the 100-watt rig. On SSB I was only 2 S-units below the 100-watt guys and so long as I didn’t get into a frequency fight I could hold my own – well sort of.

You see the one place where SDR fall short is they are…well…knobless.

You use the computer interface to control the radio (In fact one guy has posted a video of himself controlling his FlexRadio over the Internet using Skype and his I-Pad). This meant that to control the VFOs you had to use your mouse or mouse wheel. This worked and it worked really well but it wasn’t a….a knob!

Well yesterday, after waiting 10 months for delivery 😦 my PowerMate knob arrived and I am thrilled to report I am no longer knobless.

I have my knob back and I’m delighted. It works like a charm and now I can spin my way up and down the band.

As an added bonus, when I opened up my email this afternoon, there was an unexpected notice from FlexRadio that an entire new software program was available for download so now I have essentially a brand-new radio as well.

This is so exciting. A brand new radio and I’ve got my knob back.

QRP: Use the force Luke

Running QRP (five watts or less) in an SSB contest like CQ WPX SSB where it seems everyone is running a kilowatt or better would seem to be an exercise in insanity…but it’s not...if you use the force.

What’s the QRP force?

It’s called “you’re louder than you think you are” and it’s measured in decibels. If fact, you’re a lot louder than you think you are.  I am reminded of the Star Wars movies where Yoda implores Luke to “use the force.”

(Here’s the secret: A five watt signal is only about 2 S-units less than someone running 100 watts. Yes it’s true that your five watt signal will get swamped by the 100 watts signal but that’s a really good reason to search and pounce and work guys who nobody else is working in that moment.)

Once you truly believe (This is starting to sound like Peter Pan talk!) you’re louder, you’re going to make more contacts. It’s just that simple. How do I know this is true? Well this past weekend, working with somewhere between four and five watts out into a Hi-Gain Explorer beam on 15 meters (always a good band to experiment with QRP as there’s a ton of useable frequency and a small amount of power can work wonders. You can run QRP on any band, including 160, and be successful, it’s just that 15 and 10 meters can propagate your QRP signal easily around the world) I worked over 250 stations and a ton of DX in CQ WPX (where everybody works everybody else).

And how good was the DX?

How about VK4KW who I worked late Sunday afternoon? I also worked a bunch of JAs pretty much effortlessly. Conditions were great with 15 open from 10 am to dusk both days and there’s no doubt that made QRP operation easier. But here’s a secret to QRP. Signal strength is secondary to band conditions. If conditions are very noisy, nobody is going to hear your signal. If the band is very crowded it will have the same effect. But if you’re in the clear, you are going to be amazed at how easily you can work DX.

And, if you’re in southern Ontario, you’re one hop out from the Caribbean and it’s easy to break major pileups on the first call using QRP.

BTW I sold the Icom 756 with dual 500 Hz CW filters on Sunday. The passing of an era has taken place.

It’s contest weekend!

Of course there’s an argument that there’s a contest every weekend (and that’s true) but this weekend is the CQ WW WPX SSB Contest. Starting at 0000 GMT Saturday (Friday night for those of us in North America) and running 48 hours to 2359 GMT Sunday this is one of the big contests of the year.

And good news: There’s a good chance that conditions, especially on the higher bands, could be very good. (The certificate is from G8DYT who took First Place for High Power SSB Single Operator – 80 Meters in 2008. Cool!) Keep an eye on the propagation numbers.

So what does this mean to the new contester? It means your modest 100-watt signal into a dipole (a beam is preferable but we use what we have) on 15 and maybe even 10 meters can provide DXCC in a single weekend. This is especially true if the band opens to Europe in the morning and the Caribbean in the later afternoon where there are tons of separate countries.

In the CQ WPX contest everyone works everyone so you’ll be welcomed with open arms even if you aren’t too familiar with how to work a contest. In WPX the change is readability and strength which is always given as 5 – 9 (or 599 on CW) regardless of the actual signal strength plus a sequential number. You won’t be popular giving out 4 X 8 signal reports. A standard report helps contest stations like the one at K3LR or W3LPL run QSO numbers into the thousands. BTW if you hear these guys on listen to how they handle contests. These stations are the best in the world and are staffed by crews of some of the best operators on the air today. Once you get a sense of how they handle calls, throw your own in there and enjoy the thrill of helping contribute to their success. (These two stations often battle back and forth for top place in their categories in contests all year long.)

Best time for newbees to jump in is Sunday afternoon when you’ll be considered fresh meat 🙂 You might even want to try “running” by finding a clear (okay clearish) frequency on 15 and calling CQ Contest. Listen to how others are doing this and follow their example. If you’ve got headphones use them as it will make hearing weak stations calling you easier to hear.

There will be plenty of other contesters operating this weekend. Last year just under 5,000 logs were filled by the end of the weekend.

One of the other really neat things about the CQ WPX contest is there are a ton of separate categories including single-band entrees where you can work just 10 or 15 meters for example and in that way get your regular eight hours of sleep once conditions cause signals to fade into the noise or multi-multi or multi-single where you can get your friends to help operate. If you’re a night owl you might want to work only 160 meters.

You can run high power (usually the best idea in an SSB contest) or low power (100 watts) or even QRP (a good antenna like a beam is really helpful when you’re running 5 watts or less). Plus you can run assisted (using a DX cluster) or unassisted.

Building a contest station takes time because the number one requirement is consistency. You don’t want to be fiddling with the computer, the tuner, the amp, the antenna or anything else during the actual contest. In fact, the professors at Contest U (coming to Dayton Hamvention May 20-22 again this year) recommend that you don’t change a thing at your station 48 hours before a contest.  But anyone can jump into a contest and just have fun.

Besides it’s a great way to work some really rare DX. Hope to see you in the log.

 

The kids are all right

Have you heard about the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement that’s sweeping through the geek ranks of young people? 

One place to checkout this new phenomena is Make Magazine. Here you’ll find folks like Diana Eng, KC2UHB, who posted a piece on building your own homemade yagi antenna and describes how to use it to listen to orbiting satellites (AO-51, 30 and 27).  Here’s a link to Diana at the QRP convention in Boston.

Here’s another young builder.

StacyD is a “young female computer engineer with a passion for DIY”.

Here’s a link to her blog site where she shows how to take a set of cheap headphones and for less than $50 of parts turn them into headphones that rival the mainstream manufacturer’s top-of-the-line $500 offerings.

BTW read the comments under her article. They go on and on and on 🙂

If either of these two young people were my daughters I’d be pretty darn proud of them.

Speaking as an old guy…seems to me the kids are all right 🙂

Where do we go from here?

Unless I am mistaken, there hasn’t been much activity on behalf of amateur radio in Canada initiated by our national organization since I left. So far in the last six months there’s been what: one meeting which resulted in nothing; and, one newsletter from the president.

The blog site which was the forum for a national debate which I moderated and so did Bob, VA3QV, who stepped back a few months ago, has been effectively abandoned.

So what lies ahead?

The annual meeting of RAC comes at the end of July. On August 1 what do you think RAC will look like?

My best guess is the president, who has had an enormously difficult task in working with volunteers, will not run for a second term. Right now there is no effective representation for Quebec and Ontario South which make up at least 50 per cent of the amateur radio population in Canada.

Representation from other parts of Canada is spotty at best and I bet will evaporate over the summer. So by August 1, 2011 the amateur radio operators of Canada will have no national representation whatsoever. Right now, I wouldn’t call it effective but at least it exists on paper. As of August 1 even that will be gone.

So where do we go from here?

NOTE:

An hour after I published this post, RAC has announced they have two nominations for the position of Ontario South Director. Hope these guys know what they’re in for 😦 and now to Quebec??

California here I come

Well the California QSO Party results are in for the 2010 contest held in October and I placed 8th in the non-CA QRP category. I came in second in Canada and if I’d have worked 20 guys on CW it looks like I could have taken first place. It goes to show that one should never outguess themselves in the middle of a contest. It also suggests to me that I need to develop a better strategy when it comes to maximizing my scores. (BTW that’s the old station setup in the photo. The new station setup is an empty desk with monitor and paddles.)

Honestly I find there’s very little effective difference between five watts on CW as compared to 100. At five watts CW guys come back to me on the first call and get my information correctly. At 100 watts I have just about as  many repeats and breaking pileups is no better or worse regardless of the power.

The FlexRadio 1500 is a vastly superior receiver compared to anything else I’ve ever used. If I can’t hear it on the Flex, it isn’t there!

It does require at least a  modest computer but so do most logging programs so there’s no disadvantage there. And the one big advantage is the sound coming out of the headphones sounds a lot like what I hear coming out of my lovely Drake 2B tube receiver (soft) and not at all like what I get out of modern day solid-state rigs (harsh). And, I’m not big on reading manuals so getting the 1500 to work with some of the software I have here has been a challenge.

Stuff for sale

As I move closer and closer to SDR for my contesting station I’ve got a few things to sell off inexpensively.

These deals are cash only and I will ship at your expense (once cash is in hand).

Sorry to be so cash-oriented but had a problem once that cash-only fixes 🙂

FOR SALE:

IC-756 (hand mic included) with dual Icom 500 Hz CW filters (bought for $200 each) and SM-20 mic (still sells for $400) all together for $700. Why so cheap? 756 has some lines on LCD as has been noted by other owners. Doesn’t affect performance but that’s why if you buy the CW filters and mic I throw in the rig for an extra $100. Will sell the mic separately for $150.

RigBlaster Pro with Icom plugs (sells for $300) for $150

Microham Digi Keyer for $150 (again around $300 new).

Email ve3hg  at  rac.ca for photos or info.