Dayton Update

It was rainy. It was cold. It was great fun.DSCF1408

Dayton Hamvention is something you must experience to understand.

It’s more than just the world’s biggest Ham Radio flea market. It’s more than the world’s top experts reporting on the newest developments during the forums. It’s more than secondary conferences like Four Days In May for the QRP guys and the D-Star Friday morning conference. It’s more than new releases by some of our top manufacturer’s of equipment (think Flex 6300).

It’s more than bad food and great beer and good fellowship.DSCF1429

It’s all that and more. Every year is different (Did I mention the rain and cold?) and every year is terrific.

I’ll be posting more on my experiences over the next few days.

There’s lots to report 🙂

SDR OR BBR?

SDR = Software Defined Radio

BBR = Big Box Radio

The debate is raging on the SDR email reflectors. Which type of radio is better?

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on what kind of radio you want and how capable you are of understanding what you’ve bought.3990sys

Big box radios like the new Kenwood TS-990S at $8,000 are state of the art but not to everyone’s tastes.

While it is possible to update firmware this radio still relies on hardware to work and you can’t change hardware. They come with a lot of knobs and buttons. This is an attraction for some.

SDR rigs like the new FlexRadio 6700 at $7,500 are state of the art but not to everyone’s Homepage_FLEX6000 Banner6-24-13tastes. The biggest feature of SDR rigs is the ability to completely change the operating parameters based on uploading new software. (I’ve had two or three complete changes of software for my Flex 1500 as well as several minor upgrades.)

SDR equipment comes with no knobs. The rig doesn’t even need to be visible on the operating table. Some of us have bought external knobs to tune and control some of the features visible on screen and it all works out.FlexControl

Both big rigs will knock your socks off but for different reasons.

The TS-990 or the ICOM IC-7600 at $3500 (or the 7700 at $7,000) or the Yaseu FTDX9000D at $10,000 will provide a state of the art experience for most Amateur Radio activities including rag chewing, contesting, SSB, CW or digital operating.

These radios are similar to other radios that have been around for a couple of decades. Most Hams with little or no experience will find it fairly easy to get a big box radio up and running. (In some cases it’s as simple as plugging in 110 volts and an antenna and no need to read the manual.)

Software Defined Radios aren’t quite that simple but 99% of the issues faced by new owners will be operator error and get solved in time and with help.F1500_new_RAV

SDR requires more direct interface with the station computer and the computer needs to be a relatively new computer with some horsepower under the hood.

(Lots of guys run SDR with laptops costing around $500. I bought a I7 basic box from Tiger Direct for $900. An older HP computer ran the SDR Flex 1500 at 20 per cent CPU or more while the I7 runs around 2 per cent and I have no computer issues with latency.)

Speaking of latency, this is the delay that some SDR systems introduce in the path from the antenna to the headphones. My Flex 1500 will sometimes switch from transmit to receive and I’ll hear the other station in mid reply having missed a character or so. This is mainly an issue during high-speed CW contesting and would be unnoticeable in most other more casual contacts.

Big box radios won’t have that latency issue but come with issues of their own. Most of the big box radios have audio out to the headphones which varies from noisy to unlistenable. I always wondered why contesting gave me such a headache after 48 hours (okay 48 hours on and off and a good night’s sleep) of operating.

And, then I switched to the Flex 1500 (with its huge on screen panoramic display). The audio is so lovely to listen to I immediately sold my ageing big box radio and aside from missing he 100-watt PA on occasion I have no regrets.TS-590S

One big box radio I like a lot is the Kenwood TS-590s which sells for around $1700 has pretty nice audio and is dead drop easy to use. It’s getting lots of good reviews.

The Elecraft KX3 at roughly $1200 is a very interesting and capable 10-watt radio. Another $1200 gets you a state of the art 100-watt amp.kx3

Their K3 starts at $1800 for the 10-watt version and $2400 for the 100-watt rig. There’s a 500-watt amp too for $2000 and a 500-watt auto tuner for $700. A lot of contesters run K3s.

So which radio is for you?K3 and P3 full spect 1024

 

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 🙂

R2D2 or D-Star Dongles

While D-Star is growing daily finding a D-Star repeater in your neighbourhood might be a challenge.

Here in Oakville the Oakville ARC is looking at putting a D-Star repeater on the air but it hasn’t happened yet so the closest accessible repeater is in neighbouring Mississauga.

For most home or mobile use the Mississauga repeater is a blessing but for those of us trying to access it with a hand-talkie it’s an exercise in frustration. For example, from my Oakville west location I can hear the repeater and I can even get into it but I can’t hold it with any sense of reliability.

Yesterday for example I hear Al, KK6AL calling CQ on the VE3PMO machine and I went back to him. He got my call sign but that was about all as my signal dissolved into what sounds like R2D2, the robot from Star Wars. This is not a good thing.

So what are the available solutions?images

Of course we can go the brute force way and add more power and put that extra power through a larger more efficient antenna.

As my new 50-watt IC-880 D-Star mobile rig arrived yesterday I should be able to hold VE3PMO from here easily even though I’m using a short mobile whip fastened to an L-bracket off my small tower at around 20 feet. The programming software from RT Systems should be arriving any day now.2200-T

But I want to put the IC-880 in the car so now what?

Since my ID-31a handie-talkie is UHF only I can’t use a DV Access Point Donglewhich when plugged into any computers USB port creates a mini 2-meter access point into the D-Star system called a hot spot. At $250 it’s not a bad solution if you’ve got a dual band handie-talkie.

shapeimage_2Step two is I could buy a  $200 DV Dongle and turn one of my computers into a full time D-Star access point which doesn’t need a radio and works on both PCs and Macs. Very cool but I want to use my new ID-31a 😦shapeimage_2

Well I could buy a 440 S-Star amp but that’s kind heading down an expensive and complex back alley.

I could search for a neighbouring hotspot 🙂 John VE3BL has a hotspot running in Burlington which is to the west of me but so far I haven’t been able to confirm that it’s hearing me and that if it is hearing me that it’s hearing me strongly enough to be usable.

So this brings me to my final solution. I can create my own hot spot using any analogue 440 FM rig with a 9600 baud data port. My old IC-208 dual band FM rig has a 9600 baud data port. Ah ha! AdafruitPiBox

So what I need is a DMSK D-Star modem and a computer with an Internet connection.

I’ve got several computers which would work but how about using a Raspberry Pi? The ultra small (credit card size) and super cheap ($35) can be programmed to access the D-Star system and thus eliminates the need to have a full-size computer dedicated to one job.

Rod, VE3RHF, is experimenting with a Raspberry Pi right now and if he’s successful you’re going to see a bunch of D-Star hotspots show up in Oakville.cma-gp-1_ml

Here at VE3HG if I do go ahead with a hotspot I’ll have to figure out whether my coverage should be confined to the house, the neighbourhood or, considering the IC-208 runs 50 watts and I could put up a dedicated high-gain dual band vertical on the roof, a west-end Oakville hotspot that would likely be easily accessible in Hamilton and perhaps even Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.

Contest Club Ontario Winter Luncheon

Bob, VE3KZ, DX Hall of Fame Recipient

The Contest Club Ontario’s annual winter luncheon took place on Saturday (Feb. 2) at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Oakville, Ontario with around 30 of Canada’s best contesters in attendance.

There were two presentations. Igor, VE3ZF, did a great show all about one-man contesting in Zone 2 (in challenging circumstances and weather) and yours truly (Peter – VE3HG) did a presentation on SDR Contesting with a little QRP thrown in for good measure.

The highlight of the annual luncheon was the induction of Bob, VE3KZ (he’s the very happy guy holding the plaque in the photo (above) with his wife and son present) into the Radio Amateurs of Canada’s DX Hall of Fame.

Bob has been an active ham for 60 years and has been at the forefront of DXing and contesting for all of that time. Bob has been a mentor to many and an inspiration to all and all of his many friends at Contest Club Ontario were delighted to be present for the presentation.

As always we had a great time meeting new and old friends, swapping stories and making plans for future contests. (There’s a big contest every weekend from now on in Feb.)

I had the honour to present a short workshop on software-defined radio and how these new rigs play in the contesting world plus I added a little about QRP contesting with SDR.

Here’s a link to the PowerPoint I gave at the CCO luncheon.  CCO

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.)

FlexRadio comes to Radioworld

FlexRadio has come to Canada with the announcement today that Radioworld has beenappointed as the Canadian distributor for the software-defined radio.

In a media release Greg Jurrens, VP of sales and marketing for FlexRadio Systems, said Radioworld was chosen as the well-known Canadian company has the ability to provide FlexRadio customers with a first class service and distribution network.

Okay, so much for the media release. Let’s talk FlexRadio 🙂

As many of the regular readers of VE3HG know I LOVE MY FLEXRADIO 1500!

(In Photo: Here’s the guys at Radioworld trying out the FlexRadio system. Standing left:  Steve Parsons VE3SMP, Radioworld staff; Sitting left  – Tim Pacan, VA3FU, Sales Manager, Radioworld; Standing right: Greg Jurrens, K5GJ,  VP of sales and marketing for FlexRadio Systems; Sitting right: Ed Popp, K5BOT, Chief Technician of Flex Radio Systems)

I bought it at Dayton a year and half ago and the radio I bought is not the same radio I have. Why? Because upgraded software that I downloaded easily from the FlexRadio site over the months has made this radio a much better radio than the original one I brought home with me.

This folks is the way of the future.

This radio is an amazing value. First of all it scores in the top 11 rigs of all time on Sherwood Engineering’s Receiver Test Data page. This is a test of the rig to work despite the presence of strong adjacent signals which is exactly what happens in critical contest operation.

As the 1500 comes in at 11th place, the Flex-5000A comes in fourth and the Flex-3000 comes in eighth on the list. Surely this says that software defined radios have arrived big time on the Ham Radio scene.

Just in case there be any doubt let me say that the Flex-1500 is the best radio I’ve ever owned or operated! And get this folks, it’s sold in the US at under $700.

So what’s the downside to a FlexRadio?

A well-known contester in Canada visited my shack, sat down at the operating table, looked at the panoramic display (which you have to see to believe. After awhile you realize that rigs that only hear signals are missing half the information that you need to work DX and contests.) played for a few minutes and said “Where’s the knob?” then got up andleft.

Now to be fair to FlexRadio they’ve come out with a knob for the rig and it’s exactly what the doctor ordered but a software defined radio isn’t a big box radio.

IMHO there’s a place for big box radios and trust me I wouldn’t kick an IC-7600 out of the shack especially if it was feeding an Alpha amp.

There’s something to be said about a station that has a rig with a big on/off switch and big band switch and nice big display and great filters and runs a KW. Plug it and the amp in and you can warm the shack during those long Canadian winter nights and trust me you will be heard by anybody you can hear.

But software defined radios like the FlexRadio series are breaking new ground and are the way of the future. When you can sell a radio for $700 or so that takes on rigs that sell for $5K you’re doing something amazing.

How amazing?

Last weekend on the CQ WW DX SSB contest I ran 10-meter QRP (5 watts) with the Flex-1500 and I made over 300 QSOs including lots of Japanese, Hawaii, Australia, East Malaysia and South Cook Islands. Remember this was on SSB.

On CW I don’t sense a difference in the number of contacts or requests for repeats of information from 5 watt operation to running 100 watts.

This is insanely wonderful.

BTW Radioworld is going to be demoing the Flex-5000 at the York Region Amateur Radio Club Hamfest this weekend (Nov. 5).