SDR Wars

The flames are raging on the Apache Labs email reflector over the Anan SDR booth’s poor showing at Dayton.

One guy is saying that “anyone” lambasting the Apache Labs display is being “vicious”!img57

In my work as a group facilitator whenever we heard the words “anyone”, “always”, “never” and other such language we assumed the speaker had reverted to a childhood state where those were the words used when children feel hurt.

So we can conclude some of the fanboys are pretty upset and well they should be.

The Apache Labs booth was a disaster at best. Poorly located (maybe not their fault) and equally poorly signed (the banner didn’t do much) and staffed by one sad looking guy (seems one of the other guys called in sick and didn’t come) who I am assuming was an engineer (okay I’m going by look) who spent all the time I had in front of the booth talking in a foreign language (foreign to me) on a cellphone while ignoring the few of us standing at the booth.

That’s so dumb. Heck I could of sold more radios just by showing a little enthusiasm. Very poor showing by Apache Labs and did nothing to encourage me to consider their product as much next buy. Heck if they’re not excited about their product why should I be?

Guys arrive a couple of days earlier to allow you to overcome jet lag. Send or hire a couple of local sales guys and have something to handout to potential customers and smile, smile and smile as you talk, talk and talk. Don’t sit there on a cellphone.

Then we had FlexRadio.6300iso

Big big booth with all hands on deck talking SDR. Big crowds of eager buyers and lots of guys with tons of questions. All the radios were working and were connected to real antennas. You could actually work the radios.

Flex has introduced the FlexRadio 6300 at $2500 (+ an accessory ATU) which is a lot less than their other 6000-series super radios and a major price point for a lot of us.

The software is going to be sold on a subscription basis and a lot of the old sparkies can’t get it through their heads that this is the way of the future.bf8bb_ORIG-1760793_homer_upset_shocked_face_super_1_

I bought a subscription with Adobe for my Photoshop ($800) and my Lightroom 5 ($99) that costs $10 a month and gives me unlimited access to the newest versions. Anytime I want to bail out I can and I can keep running the software using my last purchased software.

The FlexRadio subscription will be similar and I’m all for it.

But, and this is a big but, I’m not sure yet whether the Flex 6300 is for me. My Flex 1500 and to a lesser degree, my Flex 3000 (which still has a noticeable lag when using the FlexKnob and while this might not be much of an issue for casual operators it’s a big problem for contesters who need better accuracy. I’ve changed cables, FireWire cables and messed with my port assignment to no effect on the issue) are great radios which IMHO run circles around big box radios especially the ones from Japan.

When Harry, VA3EC, who lives 360 meters north of me, fires up his big box radios his signal is all over the band. When he fires up his 3000 I can’t tell he’s there unless I’m close enough to see him on my panoramic display.

The FlexRadios are so good that in the last CW contest I worked a guy inside of Harry’s transmission envelop. And yes I had attenuation dialled in and I was running ring-free 25 Hz filtering but the contact was pretty easy to pull off.

It’s going to take a few more weeks for the brain trust to figure out which SDR is the better designed. Comparisons of the Flex 5000 and the Anan-100 are pretty interesting.

SDR isn’t for everyone. It’s new. Sort of like SSB was back in the AM days and you should have heard the comments back then on 80 meters. Vicious would have been putting it mildly but somehow we managed to make the change.

All Things Flex

Software defined radios like the FlexRadio series of radios is definitely not for everyone. It’s not a big box radio and it’s sure not plug and play but what you get is cutting-age technology at an extremely affordable price.DSCF1187

We’ve talked about this before but just check Sherwood Engineering’s receiver data page for a list of the best contest-quality rigs. (And remember a contest-quality rig isn’t primarily a DX or rag-chewing rig which do not need the aggressive filtering or excessively annoying audio found in contesting rigs.)

Flex has three rigs in Sherwood’s top 13 rigs (Ten Tec has 4! and Elecraft has both the K3 and KX3.) The contesters’ old standard the IC-756 Pro III comes in at 40th on the new list. That’s got to hurt.

I now own a FlexRadio 1500 (QRP, contest-quality receiver and $600! What’s not to love? That’s the setup in the photo.) and the FlexRadio 3000 (100-watts, even more aggressive contest-quality receiver and under $2K plus a built-in auto tuner). The 3000 runs from a shelf under the desktop and you wouldn’t know it’s there unless you looked.

BUT and there’s always a but getting both radios to work flawlessly has been a journey. First you need a decent, newish, Windows 7 quad-core computer. I bought mine for around $900 at TigerDirect and it runs around 2% CPU. Most experts say anything around 20% is okay so you can get away with a less aggressive computer.

Second you need some patience to understand how to setup the various parameters. Now for running your SDR on its own, it’s really pretty close to plug and play. Both my 1500 and my 3000 come up right away and they work just fine on all modes and all bands. Getting them to work with MMTTY for RTTY and Writelog for contest logging takes some time but it can be done. I now know more about how my audio card works than I ever wanted to know 🙂

I’m still wrestling with a persistent issue of lag when I introduce the FlexKnob to the 3000. With the 1500, it works fine. On the 3000 there’s a noticeable and annoying lag as the computer continues to send commands to the screen after the mouse or the Knob stops moving. The mouse seems to work fine unless the Knob is installed then it stalls as well. And if the spur reduction switch is engaged the lag is almost eliminated. Humm.

I’ve been getting a lot of help from Flex experts in the company and the huge and informed Flexers community at large. Initially I thought it was a FireWire issue since on the 3000 was affected and the 1500 wasn’t but the experts pointed me towards port assignments.

I’ve made some progress (The lag is still there but not as bad as before.) and I am thinking of a new FireWire card for $30 or so.

But here’s new hope!

KE9NS has a FlexRadio site that looks very comprehensive. This weekend I’ll go through all his suggestions around software configuration and we’ll see if we can’t whip the FlexKnob into shape 🙂

The site features setup for all the digital modes and this alone is worth a view.

More SDR and Knob Issues

Steve, K9ZW, is testing out his Flex-6700 and comparing it to an IC-7800.user1_pic3266_1337358910

He’s posting his experiences on his blog “With Varying Frequency – Amateur Radio Ponderings” and it makes for some interesting reading. The 6700 looks like it might be a game-changer when it comes to Amateur Radio.

But Flex isn’t the only SDR manufacturer offering radios with amazing specs at competitive prices. (And yes Sparky $7000 for a FlexRadio is competitive to a $8200 FTdx5000MP.)

The blade RF is a new one to me and looks interesting as does the Indian-designed Anan-100D. These radios are selling at a fraction of the price of the 6700.

This is a great time for experimentation in Amateur Radio. SDR holds promises of radio performance at rockbottom costs that may change Amateur Radio forever. The biggest argument against SDR is the ergonomics (“It doesn’t have a knob!”) and the need for a semi-robust computer.bladeRF_cropped-38-0-0-0-0

Both of those arguments were made in different ways in the 60s when SSB came to the Amateur Radio bands. Critics (and there were many) said SSB sounded too mechanical and drove up the price and complexity of their radio equipment. Both arguments were true enough and faded away as the superior communications ability of SSB made evangelists out of the early adaptors.

And so it is with SDR.

The contesters (which on big contest weekends are legion) who I dare suggest constitute a majority of the “active Hams” who are on HF these days have not embraced SDR for one reason and one reason only IMHO. And that’s the issue of the knob.T_ANAN-100D Front

Contesters need rigs that have rock solid front-end design. They don’t much care what the transmitter sounds like as evidenced by some of the really dirty output of some well-known contesters especially in the hands of guys who set up their audio by ear. And let’s face it, a 100 watts is a 100 watts regardless of what kind of rig emits it.

Bad audio or distortion or broad signals can happen regardless of the rig but based on personal experience I sure like the way a Flex sounds compared to many other radios. Using the panorama display on the Flex 1500 you can see the other guy’s signal so clearly and dirty transmitters show up right away.

But back to the front-end and that’s where SDR has swept away the competition. In Sherwood Engineering’s Receiver Test Data page of the top 11 radios six are true SDR radios and I’m not sure about the Ten Tec Argonaut and Eagle but they may qualify as well (any rig that gets “better” after a software upload is SDR IMHO).

BTW Ten Tec has four radios in the top 11 and Flex has three while Elecraft have both of their radios listed in the top 11. I made it the top 11 to include my Flex 1500 🙂

So what’s the knob issue?FlexControl_420x356

When you’re operating at 2 am the FlexRadio configuration has a nasty habit under the hands of a sleepy operator of suddenly changing frequency.

The reason is the Flex SDR window and the contest logging software are usually running on the same computer and configured with both windows open on the same monitor. The FlexKnob (which satisfies most of the lack-of-a-knob complaints) locks to the SDR window but the computer mouse does not. That means if the computer mouse activates the SDR window and you begin to type a call sign thinking you’re in the contesting logging window the SDR software thinks you’re asking for a frequency (or worst a band) change and off you go in mid contact.

Now an experienced SDR contester (like yours truly) never…almost never…rarely… okay occasionally has this happen and a small programming change isn’t going to fix this issue because the mouse is needed on occasion to change parameters on screen (because the FlexKnob can’t do everything)  in the SDR software and then moved back into the logging program to start typing. This takes a certain amount of brain functioning which may not be available at 2 am.

There are ways around this but nothing beats a big box rig with a big heavy tuning knob and no active software on the computer screen with the exception of the logging program when it comes to stable, predictable operating after midnight.220px-Collins_KWM-1

But take a second look at Sherwood’s list of rigs (He focuses on how a rig behaves when confronted with a big signal 2 kHz away from a lesser desired signal which is a big deal when contesting.) and notice how many really big, expensive and relatively new rigs that didn’t make the top 11 or even the top 20. There are some seriously P.O. big box contest operators out there who own one of these dinosaurs.

Any rig, even a QRP rig with virtually no front end or a second hand mobile rig can be used in a contest if (a) you can attenuate signals coming into the rigs non-existant front end (a bad antenna will do but an attenuator switch is better) and you only operate out on the band edges away from the cut and thrust of the main action.

But if you want to be competitive then you’ve got to have a rig capable of dancing withe the elephants and that means having a rig with superior front-end characteristics. That’s where SDR is at home.

The future of radio is SDR and the knob issue (and competing software windows) will get fixed. You’ll notice I don’t include the need for a computer when it comes to SDR as an issue for contesters. Why?

 

First every contesting station has a computer for logging. A laptop with enough firepower to run SDR can be had for the same price as a computer used for photo editing ($500 or so). Bigger remains better for now.300px-RaspberryPi

I say that because pretty soon you’re going to be able to run your SDR on a $35 Raspberry Pi computer (if you can’t already) and for the most part, once you setup your software parameters at the beginning of a contest there’s no need to change anything but frequency, bandwidth and maybe volume which you can do with a FlexKnob on a Flex radio or by using a small box interface between you, the operator, and your SDR rig.

BTW you can operate your SDR on 80-meter AM Sparky 🙂

When You Care To Use The Very Least

If all goes well I’ll be replacing the FlexRadio 1500 today with another 1500. Some might ask why would I want to replace one QRP 5-watter with another QRP 5-watt rig? Why not buy the Kenwood TS-590s or Elecraft KX3?

That’s an easy question to answer. Five watts (especially for CW or digital work) is all I need. Plus the Flex 1500 has one of the best contest-quality receivers of all time. And all this comes for the princely price of $600.

But five watts? Really?

Yes and here are the numbers from the April 2012 issues of CQ Magazine.

Power vs. S-Units

S-Meter Reading   vs   Power In Watts

s-9 = 100

S-8 = 25

S-7 = 6.50

S-6 = 1.56

S-5 = .39 (Note: That’s 390 milliwatts of power.)

BTW if the receiving station is hearing your 1 KW signal at S-9, he will hear your 4-watt signal at S-5.

Now in SSB contests where there’s a pileup you’re toast and breaking the pileup is going to rely on operator skills over power. But in non-contest situations an S-5 signal is more than necessary for communications.

In a CW contest where pileups are much less prevalent and even when present there is much much less interference, your 5-watt signal is at no great disadvantage. What’s more important than transmit power IMHO is the ability of your receiver to function in contest conditions.

Now would I like a 100-watt rig? Darn right I would. The Kenwood TS-590s comes to mind as does the Elecraft KX3 with the promised 100-watt amp.

Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, I might be on for the ARRL CW Sweepstakes this weekend running a staggering 5-watts of R.F. power because I care enough to use the very least. 🙂

 

The 1500 Is Dead – Long Live The 1500

Well I got the call from RadioWorld that nobody wants.

Both the FlexRadio 1500 and the Diawa power supply are too expensive to repair.

Of course this information was provided with a bill for the cost estimate but if I buy another rig from RadioWorld they’ll wave the estimate which is enough to get my attention and fair enough although the cost does sting a little.

So what to do?

RadioWorld sells the major brands plus the Flex so it comes down for me a Kenwood TS-590s or a FlexRadio 3000 or…and this came to me this morning at 3 a.m….I could just replace the FlexRadio 1500 …for now.

So why would I do that?

Well despite the well-meaning encouragement of some to get a “real” radio with a 100 watt  P.A. which trust me has its attraction especially during the SSB pileups during last weekend’s CQ WW DX there is something to be said about working Australia long path in the middle of the afternoon with 5 watts during a major contest.

Any appliance operator (not all QRO ops are appliance operators…just saying)  running a KW into a beam could have done it as the VK was loud enough and occasionally in the clear. But to do it at 5 watts was a thrill I won’t soon forget.

Same thing for working Senegal and Gambia later in the contest.

Anyway the TS-590s is an amazing radio but it’s $2000 including power supply to get it home. That’s a lot of cash right now and tantalizingly close to bringing home a KX3 with cash to spare for a 100-watt add-on amp.

But my station is all setup for QRP contesting with the Flex, the FlexKnob and the display.

And despite what some say the 22″ wide panoramic display on my monitor is something I’m not willing to give up.

The display is a huge advantage when contesting and those that don’t use one (a) don’t know what they’re missing and (b) will find their next radio has one.

So why not buy a FlexRadio 3000?

Cost again. The difference in price between a $600 Flex 1500 for which I’ve got a second power supply at home that is perfect for it and a 3000 at $1800 plus a new power supply at just under $200 means a cost of $2K plus taxes to get it home.

Now the 3000 has a 100-watt P.A. plus it has VOX which the 1500 doesn’t (and should have) and an auto tuner built in but I am growing weary of SSB contests regardless of power and moving toward CW and digital contests where the 1500 is at no real disadvantage. I’ve also got two external auto tuners (an LDG and the tiny Elecraft) so does a price difference of $1400 equal $1400 more advantage and fun. Don’t think so.

Besides what I want….what I really, really want is either a K3 plus amp or a Flex 6000 series.

And in two more years, who knows what ICOM or Kenwood or Yaseu may bring out!

Needless to say we’re in the early stages of a multi-year negotiation around the future of the VE3HG contest station on the home front. Started with an expensive dinner out last night with wine and sushi.

Finally a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who offered condolences and the loan of equipment to help get me over this setback. I won’t embarrass you by name but thanks Doug, VA3DF and Mike, VA3MW both members of Contest Club Ontario.

Lots of folks from the Flex community have also offered encouraging thoughts and sympathy and I can’t tell you how much it means to be a member of an international community of caring and concerned friends.

Not To Brag But…

As most readers know I got bit by the QRP bug real bad when I bought my FlexRadio 1500.

In fact, I liked the QRP results so much that I sold my ageing IC-756 and all the various interfaces and cables and stuff.

Over the last few years I’ve been tweaking the antennas and resoldering the coax fittings and adding things like QRP auto tuners and dedicated QRP watt meters.

At Dayton this year I bought a Rig Expert AA54 antenna meter and I’ve been busy tuning antennas ever since. (I even bought two more PAR end-fed antennas for field work and a full-size Carolina Windom for 80 which won’t properly fit on the property but sure came in handy this field day.

QRP contesting is challenging but not all that hard. That is if conditions support working around the world on 5 watts of power.

Those sort of conditions call for active bands or very quiet bands. What really screws up QRP contest is conditions which have a lot of fading. You can seriously upset contesters from around the world and frustrate yourself no end if there is QSB on the bands.

Now if there is no QSB and if you’re operating CW and if you pretend you’re QRO instead of QRP and you’re using a resonant antenna at height then you’ll be amazed at how well you can do.

In the July issue of CQ magazine there was a visual comparison of what a one-watt SSB signal on 20 meters would cover compared to a one-watt CW signal at the same time and all else being the same.

The SSB signal had virtually no reach while the CW signal easily covered all of North and most of South America.

The article showed that it would take a 100-watt SSB signal to cover the same area as the one-watt CW signal.

A 100-watt CW signal in comparison covered all of North and South America and most of Africa and Europe.

So when critics of QRP claim that it’s the quality of the operator at the receiving end that’s critical to the success of the QRP contester that’s not quite right. A one-watt CW contester has the same reach as a 100-watt contester all things being equal.

So if one-watt is so great, imagine what you can do with the QRP gallon of five watts!

And that’s what I did 🙂

While reading my just arrived August 2012 QST I was floored to see my call in the highlighted box for W/VE Regional Leaders by Category where, if I read this right, I led Ontario Section in the 2012 ARRL International DX Contest – CW with a QRP score of 229,917.

This score in comparison to other W/VE Region Leaders is a medium, middling score but it’s a huge improvement in comparison to my past efforts. When compared to DX QRP leaders I would have been included in the top submissions.

Now let me be absolutely clear about running QRP. If I had a 100-watt station or an external amp I’d be too tempted to use it and would have to change my category where I’d need one-milion points just to anti-in to play with the top operators in the country. 😦

So for me, QRP is a much less competitive but more winnable category and it’s more challenging to boot.

I find on CW when conditions are good to excellent I can work everyone I can hear (and the Flex 1500 has one of the best receivers at any price accordion to Sherwood Engineering) and the percentage of requests for repeats is no greater than at higher power levels.

It’s also possible to contest on SSB but conditions do have to be at least very good to excellent, It’s possible to break big pileups into the Caribbean but it takes some pretty aggressive calling and some audio tweaking to do this on a regular basis.

One the other hand the Russian station I worked last winter on 40 meters around dusk was amazed to hear I was QRP SSB after he’d given me an S9 report and he was the same, if not better, at this end.

Now the next hurtle is to improve my CW. You get big scores by calling CQ and letting the boys come to you. You can call CQ only when your CW is up to the job.

Regardless, for today, I’m basking in old glory and looking forward to the fall contesting season.

I got a new FlexRadio

FlexRadio is a sofware defined radio (SDR) and today I got a whole new software upgrade 🙂

Even better the upgrade went flawlessly (as always) and now I’ve got some more new features and an upgraded driver. How cool is that?

The FlexRadio 1500 at $600 is THE BEST radio I’ve ever used and that includes some of the newest contesting rigs. The Flex will run on just about any decent PC and the better the PC the better the overall performance. Once I upgraded to an I7 PC with 8 gigs of RAM  and bought it built by the guys at Tiger Direct (so there’s absolutely no bloatware on it) all of my PC problems disappeared.

Now if it wasn’t for the M-class flare over the weekend, my ARRL SSB
DX experience might have been better 🙂

 

QRP RTTY Fun

I wasn’t sure you could run RTTY at 5 watts but my successful completion of the NAQP RTTY contest yesterday has me convinced.

Running five-watts (I know it was 5 watts because now I’ve got an Oak Hills Research WM-2 QRP Wattmeter…full scale at 10 watts or 1 watt or 100 milliwatts. Neat!) out of the FlexRadio 1500 driving the MMTTY RTTY engine inside of Writelog using virtual audio software and virtual port software all working together for the first time since I bought the rig was really really exciting.

Using an 80/40-meter dipole, the custom 80-10 Butternut-based vertical (which worked fine at 5 watts) and the 40-10-meter Hygain Explorer at 16 meters I could work everyone I could hear and heard RTTY signals from across Canada and down to California, Texas and Florida.

RTTY is great fun. You never know who you’re going to decode next. If you’ve got a rig with 500Hz CW filters or better 300 Hz filtering you’re going to have a great time at any power level. During the international contests there’s no thrill like getting called by rare DX who just pops up out of the noise.
While any rig can generate RTTY, using the Flex means you’ve got a panoramic display as wide as your screen. Honestly I can’t think of a reason to go back to an old-fashion rig that only allows you to hear what’s on the band. With the FlexRadio you get to see what’s around you on the band.

Honest Flex. You guys should send me a new 3000 for all the guys who have bought rigs based on what they read here 🙂

QRP Contesting

After much trial and error (mostly op related) I’ve got the FlexRadio 1500 working at 100 per cent with virtual audio cable and virtual port software all running perfectly.

So with all working well I headed into the ARRL CW contest on the weekend with great expectations.

And fortunately, by the end of 48 hours, I ended up with 468 QSOs including a VK on 40 meters just before dawn and a 6W (Senegal) on 15 who was calling CQ.

I find at 5 watts that the number of requests for repeats is about the same at QRP as at 100 watts.

One of the things with running 100 watts is if you drop a watt or two or even 10 watts nobody is going to notice. When you’re dealing with five watts, every watt counts.

So the next thing I am going to do is inventory the number of connectors and boxes of various sorts between my Flex and the antenna. This is an easy thing to do and will help me decide whether to replace my buried cable that runs from the antenna switch at the tower to the house with really really expensive cable or less expensive (but still not cheap) direct-bury cable.

Most amazing contact of the weekend was one Russian who I could barely hear in the noise and he managed to work me first call. I was running 5 watts and he was running a kilowatt. My jaw dropped.

Here’s the breakdown by band. I’ve got to get something better up on 80.

DXCC Countries:

 

80 Meters

TI

40 Meters

4U1I  6Y    8P    9A    C6    CM    CT    CT3   CX    DL    E7    EA    EA8

F     FM    G     GM    HA    HB    HC    HK    I     J3    J8    KH6   KP2

LX    OE    OH    OK    OM    ON    P4    PJ2   PJ4   PY    PZ    S5    SP

TI    UR    V2    V3    VK    VP9   XE    YU    ZF

20 Meters

8P    9A    C6    CN    CT    CT3   DL    E7    EA    EA8   EI    ER    ES

F     FM    G     GM    GW    HA    HB    HP    I     KP2   LA    LX    LY

LZ    OE    OH    OH0   OK    OM    ON    P4    PA    PJ2   PJ4   S5    SM

SP    TF    UA    UR    V3    YL    YO    YU    ZF

15 Meters

6W    9A    C6    CM    CN    CT    CT3   CU    DL    E7    EA    EA6   EA8

EI    ES    F     FM    FY    G     GI    GM    HA    HB    HC    I     IS

KH6   KP2   LX    LY    LZ    OE    OH    OH0   OK    OM    ON    OZ    P4

PA    PJ2   PJ4   PY    PZ    S5    SM    SP    SV    TF    TI    UA    UR

V3    V5    VP5   XE    YL    YO    YU    ZD8   ZF

10 Meters

6Y    CE    CX    HK    HP    KH6   KP2   KP4   LU    OA    P4    PJ2   PJ4

PY    TI    V3    VP2M  VP5   ZF

Flex 1500 and RTTY

Looks like I’ve finally got everything working on the Flex 1500.

Thanks to RadioWorld in Canada I’ve got my Flex knob. It’s working just fine as it locks onto the SDR program window this is a big step forward as far as contesting is concerned.

And now, in preparation for the CQ RTTY WPX contest this weekend, it appears as if I’ve got MMTTY running inside of Writelog. I’m decoding just fine and have yet to work someone as I’m still using an evaluation copy of VAC and I need to buy my own copy.

Writelog and 1500 are also setup for the ARRL CW contest in two weeks where I may try for another certificate. 🙂

The 1500 also appears to be working on PSK-31 and with the ability to open the bandwidth up to encompass the entire PSK-31 frequencies on 20 meters I can simultaneous copy everyone on the band. Very cool.

As you can tell I’m thrill with my Flex 1500 so much so that I’ve now selling my RigBlaster Pro, the LDG-PRO 200 II tuner and a Drake MN2000 2KW tuner which is in mint condition.

Also having so much fun at 5 watts that I’m selling my Palomar 100-watt amp as well. (The thinking here being there’s a Flex 3000 in my near future.)