24 September 2021

Damn The Torpedoes. Full Speed Ahead

 From Thomas Witherspoon's excellent QRP blog - qrper.com:



I often hear hams bemoan the fact that they don't have a 'proper' QRP or field rig, and fear they'll be ridiculed on the airwaves. Last year I talked at length with a ham about his recent purchase of a used Yaesu FT-817. He had just passed his General test, and wanted a radio that could do all modes and was easy to carry to the field. He wanted an Icom IC-705, but could only afford the 817. He was having some buyer's remorse and was afraid he'd wasted his money. We talked for almost an hour, and I went over item-by-item with him why the FT-817 is still a great QRP rig. In fact, after talking with him, and ticking off the 817's features, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the little radio.

We used to say in the Army, "better is the enemy of good enough". Amateur radio operators are always saying, "If my rig just had (name a feature, any feature) I'd have been able to snag that last rare DX station that only activates once a year".  Yet it's funny how life goes on without that last rare DX station.

So don't worry about not having the latest and greatest. What you have is good enough. Go to the field and 'run what you brung' (as they used to say in NASCAR), and have fun! 

W8BYH out

01 September 2021

Weather All Around

Like many Amateur Radio geeks, I'm also a weather geek. I keep my eye on the 'weather glass' (an old nautical way of saying I watch the barometer), I'm checking on the National Weather Service website almost hourly if there's heavy weather inbound, I hang out on NWSChat, and work with our local ARES team that supports the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Peachtree City, GA.

And like a lot of geeky hams, I run a home weather station. I have it set up to monitor the conditions on my property, so it's not in what a weather professional would call an 'ideal location'; I just want to know what's happening off of my deck, my 'micro-weather' so to speak. If I need a county or state-level snapshot of what's happening there are other resources I can tap.

For years I ran one of the inexpensive AcuRite 5-in-1 stations, mounted to a pole on my deck. It worked well, but about a month ago the indoor display went kaflooie. I figured it was time for an upgrade. Like many serious weather folks, I decided to get a Davis Instruments wireless weather station. I've heard only good things about the Davis line of products, and settled on the wireless Vantage Pro 2 setup with the WeatherLink option. While the Vantage Pro line isn't really professional grade it certainly is 'serious hobbiest' grade and gets high marks for accuracy and durability. My brother has been running one of these at his house near Dayton, Ohio, for 20 years, and it's been as reliable as a brick. I figured that alone was reason enough to go with the Vantage Pro.

Davis describes their wind vane/animometer combo profile
as 'classic'. Can't disagree

When I went to buy it, I bypassed Amazon and went to WeatherShack.com. They offered slightly lower prices than Amazon, their product descriptions were better, and their customer service was great. Plus I figured WeatherShack.com needed my business more than Amazon did.

The Vantage Pro has been up for a week now, and that includes a light brush with Hurricane Ida - some moderate rain and light winds. So it's time for a few initial observations.

  • The entire weather station sensor package is big and heavy as compared to the smaller AcuRite unit. The old piece of 1" pipe that easily supported the AcuRite wasn't going to get it done, not by a long shot. I ended up using an interlocking fiberglass pole set I got from Max-Gain Systems here in Atlanta. MGS makes great products, they are a huge supporter of ham radio, and are regular feature at every local hamfest. I wasn't using this pole set for anything else of importance, and it was beefy enough to support the weather station, so that's what I used. I simply clamped the pole set to one of  my 4" x 4" deck posts. Works like a charm

The main sensor unit is large, and heavy

  • The written documentation provided by Davis Instruments is very good. This includes assembly instructions for the weather sensors, and configuration of things like the data console and the WeatherLink server. The instructions were good enough that I didn't have to turn to any on-line resources for more clarity
  • Davis includes all the mounting hardware you'll need, and it's high quality, heavy duty stainless hardware. No trips to Lowe's or Home Depot required
  • One of the outstanding features of the Davis Instruments ecosystem is the WeatherLink service. The WeatherLink server that came as part of my Vantage Pro package ports near-real-time data from my station to Davis' weather service cloud. It's this WeatherLink cloud service where all the weather data magic happens. It's not just a visualization platform, but it's where you can manage how and where your data is shared. If you want your data archived you'll need to pay a little extra per month (less than $4.00), but given the visualization and analysis features you get, I think it's well worth the extra cost

The WeatherLink dashboard. The individual windows
are configurable and can be moved around to customize what 
data appears where

WeatherLink also has the pre-built connectors to port your weather data out to the Citizen Weather Observer Program (CWOP) and APRS environments. Just a few clicks of a mouse, and your weather data is on APRS.fi!

Get your live weather data in APRS without radios and TNCs


CWOP will also aggregate your data and make it available through
the APRS.fi website. Just click the 'Your Weather Charts' link
in the weather data pop-up in APRS.fi

Are there any negatives? Several that I can think of, and all are related to the indoor weather console. The console connects wirelessly to the weather sensors mounted outside, and provides people in the house with an always up-to-date weather picture. The console uses an older back-lit LCD screen technology that is poorly laid out, and the layout can't be changed. It's hard to tell at a glance the weather information you are interested in. For our house, it's outside temperature, wind speed and direction, and rainfall. I have to admit, the AcuRite console was more visually pleasing, and allowed me to set the temperature, wind speed/direction and rainfall readings as the most prominent readings - big and bold. A quick glance from across the room told you all you needed to know. With the Davis console, you actually have to stare at it up close for a second or two to understand the readings you are interested in.  

Then, Davis goes against convention in indicating wind direction. For over a hundred years now, we've visually indicated wind direction with arrows, with the tip of the arrow pointed in the direction the wind is headed (for example, if the arrow is pointed straight up, the wind is blowing from south to north). Davis reverses that well established paradigm, and the arrows on its wind direction rose point in the direction the wind is coming from

And last, to make sure you can see the LCD display you need to keep the backlight on at all times. But I've noticed what others have found with this console - it contains a digital thermometer to display indoor temperature, and the sensor must be set close to one of the LCD lights, because the indoor temperature is always indicates two or more degrees hotter than it really is. Turn off the backlight, and the temperature goes down. 

The console is the weak link in the whole Davis setup. It's not a fatal weak link, but considering the cost of the unit, Davis needs to do better.

Looks good in the advertising, but it's got some serious design issues

The console issues aside, I think the Vantage Pro 2 setup and cloud-based ecosystem are pretty slick. I'm looking forward to providing gigabytes of useless data to weather and APRS geeks for years to come. So check in on APRS.fi to see what's happening on my little patch of dirt!

W8BYH out

15 August 2021

Schlepping It All Around

 Well it's Sunday, and it's turned into '705 Sunday' at the QTH. And why not... can't do much else, it's so damned hot and humid here in the Peach State, as we sit and await the potentially possible arrival of Hurricane Fred.

For a few weeks now I've been contemplating better ways to carry the IC-705 to the field. So far I've been using Pelican cases (real Pelican cases, not the cheapo Harbor Freight knock-offs). They work great and provide unparalleled protection. But if I just want to grab a radio and accessories for a quick trip to a park the Pelican case(s) are bulky and gobble up too much space. Plus, it's hard to walk down a trail lugging a Pelican case. So I thought I'd give a backpack a try.

I took a pass on the Icom LC-192 backpack. It's over-priced, not sized well for (ahem...) 'larger' Americans, and I don't plan on talking on the 705 while I walk, so I don't need all the antenna brackets and pass-thru ports. I just need a backpack that provides good protection and enough space for the radio and accessories I want to take to the field.


Too expensive & too small

So, having some experience in the photography world, I figured a good camera backpack might do the trick. These backpacks are designed with two goals in mind. First, to protect the somewhat fragile and very expensive camera gear inside. Second, to provide ease of access. Perfect requirements for my IC-705 deployment project. 

There's plenty of camera backpack options out there (just Google 'DSLR backpack'), with some low-end examples selling for around $30 and some pro models selling for over $300. Three hundred bucks may sound like a lot, but when you are carrying around $10,000 of professional camera gear, paying $300 for best-in-class protection makes sense.

I'm trying to proof a concept - can I put an entire HF/VHF/UHF station into a backpack? Radio, antennas, tuner, laptop, battery, cabling, everything I'd need for several hours of off-grid operation. But I didn't want to spend a hundred bucks or more on a 'concept' backpack, so I went searching. I found what I was looking for on Amazon - one of their 'Basics' line of products that got very good reviews. Even better, the cost was just a smidge under fifty bucks.

The backpack arrived a few days ago, and I have to say I'm pretty impressed. While it's not Mystery Ranch quality (if you know Mystery Ranch you know what I'm talking about), but for $50 it's surprisingly well designed and put together. Stiff and heavily padded compartments using dense foam, lots of accessory pockets and an overall good layout. The backpack isn't wateproof, but to my surprise Amazon includes a rain cover as part of the purchase, a nice touch. Just in case though, I plan on bringing along a few standard issue M1-A1 Hefty trash bags.


What's in the backpack?

This afternoon I decided to do a test load-out, to see if it would hold all the items I need for a few hours in the park. I was delighted to find that not only would it hold what I need, there's actually space left over for some non-essentials (like a cold Diet Coke).




So what fits? Let's look at the list:
  • IC-705 with the Windcamp 'cage'
  • AH-705 tuner with cables
  • 4.5 amp hour LiFePo battery (Bioenno)
  • Speaker-mic
  • 25' of lightweight RG-316 coax
  • Par EndFedz Trail Friendly 10 - 40 meters wire antenna
  • Comet HFJ-350 multi-band HF vertical ('Toy Box')
  • 23' random wire antenna with counterpoise
  • UHF/VHF/50 mHz 'rubber duck
  • Small bag of connectors and jumper cables
  • Fully rugged Windows 10 tablet/laptop with detachable keyboard and mouse
  • Notebook & pen
  • IC-705 documentation

I'll be adding about 30' of lightweight braided nylon cord and a throw weight to get wires up over tree limbs, and a Diet Coke.

This setup should allow me to operate voice and digital for at least 4 hours completely off-grid, and provide ease of carry and good protection. 

If you are interested in the backpack you can view it here on Amazon:




Is this backpack the be-all and end-all for this project? No. If I find the concept works as I expect it will I plan on investing in a more expensive camera backpack with some better exterior lash point options for things like carbon fiber poles as antenna supports. But for now, this looks like a crackerjack setup.

Stay tuned and I'll keep you updated.

W8BYH out

08 August 2021

Going Wireless

Back in June I put up a post where I outlined the USB RFI issues I've had with my IC-705 and stated that I no longer recommend it.

Recently a fellow ham asked me if I still feel the same. Yes, but...

In the interim I've had the chance to test the Icom RS-BA1 version 2 rig control and interface software, and I can say unequivocally that the Remote Utility portion of the RS-BA1 suite is the savior of the IC-705. It is well written, robust, stable, well documented and is easy to install, configure and get working. When set up, I have been able to run Winlink, JS8CALL, Fldigi and WSJT-X over wi-fi. By switching to wi-fi, all the rig's RFI issues go away. This, more than anything else, proves that the issue really does lie with the USB cable and connection.

The only drawback with the RS-BA1 software, and it's a biggie, is price. You have to shell out an extra $150 for a copy of the software. My position is that IC-705 owners shouldn't have to shell out anything extra just to get their radios to work as advertised. Icom needs to provide the RS-BA1 software free of charge to all IC-705 owners. Really, all they need to provide is the Remote Utility package. It would take a smart programmer at Icom about a day to develop an IC-705-only version - just strip out the support for all the other Icom radios and make it a free download on the Icom website.

But Icom doesn't seem to think there's a problem. Actually, they've acknowledged the problem, and have admitted there's no fix, but they don't seem too bothered by it. They continue to state in their product literature that the radio can be run on digital modes via USB. So, the radio stays on my 'not recommended' list unless the potential buyer is interested in running it voice-only, or is willing to shell out an extra $150 to get the radio to run like it should. Or until Icom provides the RS-BA1 software for free.

But it's not all grim, and we'll be talking more about the IC-705 - the good points - in later posts.

And for those of you reading this and shouting "Hey, what about wfview?", we'll talk about that down the line, too.

W8BYH out

11 June 2021

Told Ya' So

A week ago I published a post titled The IC-705 Reassessed, where I pulled back my previous endorsement of the IC-705 due to the often crippling RFI issues. I linked my post to the most active IC-705 Facebook page and, as anyone with experience with Facebook can guess, the flamers and the tolls crept out of the shadows and accused me of everything from exhibiting signs of advanced dementia to criminal-level stupidity when it comes to my ability to investigate and mitigate RFI.

I knew it would happen, and I enjoyed the repartee. 

But I also thought I'd give Icom a chance to respond to the issue, so I sent them a tech support request through their website:

"Dear Icom, I have a problem with RFI over what I suspect is the USB connection that is nearly impossible to mitigate. The issue exists for both the battery charging over USB connection and USB rig control. I've tested with a variety of USB cables, all heavily 'choked' using ferrite cores, and tested with a small group of Windows 10 laptops and tablets. The RFI, particularly on digital modes, overwhelms the rig. The problem exists on 20, 40 & 80 meters, but seems worse on the lower bands. Has Icom worked out any mitigation strategies for this issue?"

Here's the response I got from Icom USA:


Well gee, even Icom admits there's an issue...

I have a lot of confidence that Icom will get this fixed. The IC-705 is a flagship product in Icom's Amateur Radio lineup, and the rig has the potential for a very long (and very profitable) production run, so Icom knows they have to get this right. I think my biggest fear is that the RFI issue isn't one that can be addressed in firmware, and IC-705 owners will have to send their rigs back to Icom for board-level work.

I intend to 'poke' Icom USA on this at regular intervals, so stay tuned.

W8BYH out

05 June 2021

The IC-705 Reassessed

Two months ago I wrote an initial review of the IC-705, giving it all-around high praise.

Today I have to pull back on that somewhat slobbering fanboy of a review, and remove the IC-705 from my 'recommended' list. The radio has a major, and crippling, RFI issue if you want to run it on digital modes over USB under field conditions.

Simply put, the induced or coupled RF noise picked up by the USB cable floods the rig with RFI. We are talking noise and hash from one end of the band to the other, and the noise gets worse if the software you are running, like Winlink, initiates a command dialog with the radio (in Winlink, that's referred to as 'starting a session'). And it's a complex issue. It's not simply USB line coupling, or laptop interference, or antenna location. It seems to be a sensitive interplay of all three. You can never really be sure what the real root of the problem is. The one key factor, however (based on my testing) seems to be antenna location. The further away your antenna, the less of a problem you will have.

I didn't notice this issue when I did my first post back in March because I hadn't run the IC-705 in a portable (field) environment. All my testing was done in my shack, where my antenna is 75 feet away on the other side of my house. Operating this way, the radio is a champ on digital modes, and that's how I wrote it up in my March review. But a week later I set the radio up at a local park using my Chameleon vertical antenna and the same laptop I use in my shack, and that's when I discovered to noise. I've since had the rig in the field twice more, testing with various antenna setups - a mag loop and an EFLW - and the problem is always present.

Here's a video I made while using the IC-705 and my Chameleon mag loop antenna a few weeks ago during a POTA activation:



Now, this RFI problem is not unique to me, or to my radio. I have three friends in my local Amateur Radio club who own IC-705's and they report the same issue. If you go to the IC-705 Facebook page or the IC-705 Groups.io email reflector you'll find plenty of discussions on this issue. Of course the fanboys will crawl out of the woodwork and tell you you're not keeping enough cable separation, or you are using the wrong type of USB cable, or you've got a 'noisy' laptop, or you are not using enough chokes, or the solar flux-to-ground coupling ratio is too low, or some such bullshit. I have tried every reasonable fix for this issue. I've tested against multiple laptops and Windows 10 tablets, I've tried a wide variety of heavily choked USB cables. I have enough common mode chokes attached to the feedlines to soak up a nuclear-level EMP. Nothing fixes the problem entirely - the 'hash' is always there at some level.

As I mentioned above, the one big delta - the variable that seems to provide the best mitigation - is antenna location. All things being equal - the same radio, laptop, USB cable, feedline chokes and antenna design (EFLW) - at home I get virtually no noise or hash when running digital modes, in the field the radio is overwhelmed by RFI.

The IC-705 was specifically designed for portable field use, and that's how Icom markets it. The owner has a right to expect that the radio will work in the field, on all modes, with a less-than-ideal antenna and cabling setup. The expectation shouldn't be that the owner has to schlepp around 75' of coax and enough iron ferrite (in the form of chokes) to sink sink a small boat, just to send a Winlink message. 

So let me recap where I'm at with the IC-705:

  • On voice modes, whether in your shack or portable, this is a superb little rig. It is every bit as good as its fanboys claim it is
  • On digital modes, in the right environments, the IC-705 is a digital mode beast. I have run my rig, in my shack, on JS8CALL for eight hours continuously and it never broke a sweat
  • Portable on digital modes, however, it's a mess, particularly with Winlink and JS8CALL. The RFI issue makes it all but unusable and it's virtually impossible to fully mitigate the interference

Because of this last bullet point, I no longer recommend the IC-705.

This RFI issue is Icom's to address and fix. Frankly, I'm surprised this issue wasn't caught by Icom in testing, and I'm disappointed that the ARRL test lab didn't catch is in its otherwise outstanding review of the radio.

There's more to come on this RFI problem. Right now I'm focusing on the radio's wi-fi connectivity feature as a solution, but I'm still testing and evaluating. So stay tuned for an update on the 705 saga!

W8BYH out

01 June 2021

It's June 1st - You Know What That Means!

 


I get almost as excited about the opening of hurricane season as I do about Christmas. For those of us who live 'on the corner' (on the corner of the southeast US) - Florida & Georgia - we are prone to get hammered by both Atlantic basin storms, and Gulf of Mexico storms. It's inevitable. Set your watch by it. Then toss in the southeastern 'tornado alley' that stretches across northern & central Georgia, and this state gets some complex and dangerous weather from March through September. 

So 'Jawjah', get your emergency radios and flashlights ready, go buy a couple dozen spare batteries, keep your phones charged, your gas tanks full, and keep your weather eye on the horizon.

Because it's coming. Maybe not this year, or next, but it's coming.




And on that cheerful note...

W8BYH out