15 November 2023

Digital Multimeters For Ham Radio

A few days ago I stumbled on this video, put together by Tom Wilkinson, N8FDY, for the Northern Ohio Amateur Radio Society (NOARS). Tom has been doing a variety of meter evaluations over the past year, and I've come to respect both his approach to evaluating meters, and how he presents his results. Watching Tom evaluate a meter is like watching my grandpa do it, even though Tom and I are probably not too far apart in age 😄. His approach is slow and methodical.

What sets this video apart from many other evaluation videos put together by bloggers like Dave Jones (EEVBlog) and Joe Smith is that Tom starts the video by discussing terms like CAT ratings, digit counts, accuracy and test certifications - something few other reviewers do.

I'm familiar with several of the meters Tom highlights in this video, particularly the Brymen models. Brymen is not a brand we hear much about in the US, but they are very popular and well respected in the rest of the world. Here in the US, Brymen has a distribution agreement with the electronics tool supplier Greenlee, so if you want a Brymen meter just buy one of the Greenlee branded meters. Or, you can do what I did and order a Brymen meter from overseas suppliers who will ship to the US. That's how I got my Brymen 869s, which has become my most used bench meter.

As you watch the video you'll note one brand that's missing from the presentation. Big Yellow is nowhere to be seen. While Tom, in other videos, describes himself as a bit of a Fluke fanboy, he also admits that they are not good value-for-money for the kind of work hams use their meters for - mainly low voltage CAT 1 (DC) and CAT 2 (household 120v) applications. I have to agree with him on this.

If you are not interested in meter reviews, just watch the first half of the video where Tom discusses all the meter safety and accuracy topics - that alone is worth your time.

Tom is also building a library of individual meter reviews, and what he's reviewed so far is quite interesting. There may be a Uni-T 181A meter in my future, since I want something that will do logging.


W8BYH out

12 November 2023

NVIS Exercise Wrap-Up

On 07 October, Georgia ARES and AUXCOMM conducted a state-level NVIS exercise. It was designed to test voice and digital comms between ARES groups around the state and the two Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) operations centers. GEMA runs one state operations center (SOC) at its headquarters in Atlanta and a back-up ops center in Forsyth, Georgia. As far as we know, this is the first time an exercise like this had ever been held. 

A few days ago I did the final wrap-up on the exercise by holding the on-line AAR briefing. You can view the presentation slides at this link, and view the AAR session here:

Overall the exercise was a success, and it helped us better identify some issues that I believe ARES and EMCOMM here in Georgia need to focus on.

Before going further, I need to remind all readers that this is my blog, and these are my observations and recommendations, and they do not represent any official Georgia ARES positions or recommendations.

  • Participation. For decades, Georgia has been struggling with low ARES and Amateur Radio participation in the largely rural southern and eastern parts of the state. Georgia is a big state - the biggest east of the Mississippi in terms of contiguous land area. Most of the population is concentrated in the Atlanta metro area, but that only consists of 14 counties out of a total of 159 (9%). Amateur Radio activities, participation and infrastructure in the Atlanta metro region, and all the way down the I-75 corridor to Macon, is strong. However, participation in any ARES activity from the areas east and south of the Atlanta - Macon line is weak. In fact, the region below a curved line running from Augusta to Columbus is known as the 'silent crescent' (the shaded area in the map below). ARES and Amateur Radio have very poor representation in this region - it's just hard to find the people to participate in activities like this exercise. Yet, it's these counties that end up needing disaster recovery and communications support the most. They are square in the target area for spring and summer storms pushing into the state from the west, and any hurricane or tropical storm pushing up from the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic coast hits these counties hardest. It's accurate to say that tropical storms coming up from the Gulf vent their fury as dying hurricanes in these southern counties before wandering north towards Atlanta as little more than moderate rain and wind events. 
There is no easy fix for this lack of participation. It's due to a combination of factors - mostly rural areas with low population densities and lower income levels certainly has a lot to do with it. I don't have a solution to this problem, but it is something ARES needs to work on going forward. 
The 'silent crescent' encompasses all counties south of the Augusta - Columbus line

  • Digital vs. voice. Honestly, I didn't anticipate this being as big an issue as it turned out to be, but two separate issues quickly coalesced to bring the digital vs. voice issue to the forefront. As we planned this exercise we knew we wanted to have a digital portion to see if participating stations found a difference in their ability to connect to the SOCs on voice and digital. Although Georgia ARES runs regular digital nets on PSK-125 and MT-63, most folks show up for just the voice nets. The digital portion of this exercise was just supposed to be a confidence builder - a quick check-in with the SOCs to confirm that their digital setups work. But a lot of stations, including the SOC at GEMA HQ in Atlanta, struggled with properly running Fldigi. In general, many participants struggled with digital operations - less than 2/3 of the stations that made successful voice contacts on 80, 60 & 40 meters made successful contacts on digital. This doesn't mean digital doesn't work, it means we need to pick a better mode (we used PSK-31) and improve the digital operations experience base for all of Georgia ARES.

Early in the planning process we identified the need for a simple back-channel chat tool that would allow the SOCs and participating stations to coordinate activity without interrupting the exercise operations. This chat tool became more important than we anticipated, as poor operating conditions had us moving band-to-band to find a usable frequency. The tool we picked, like all the tools we looked at, was web based. This meant everyone using it had to be on the internet. However, one of the goals of the exercise was to simulate a cyber-denied scenario - no internet at all. In this scenario all of the chat tools we're familiar with - Slack, Telegram, FB chat, Discord, Groups.io, etc. would not be available. The need for a chat tool doesn't go away, just the ability to use it. It's precisely this scenario where several good point-to-point HF communications tools pop up, and are all digital - Fldigi running MT-63 (already an adopted Georgia ARES standard), JS8Call and VarAC (Vara Chat). All of these tools have the capability to fill the one-to-one or one-to-many operator chat and coordination tool role.

Digital operations offer huge advantages over voice. MT-63 running in Fldigi and JS8Call offer great weak signal performance, particularly JS8Call, which is based on a modification of the FT8 protocol. JS8Call can decode traffic when it can't even be seen on the spectrum waterfall. VarAC uses Vara as the soundcard transport mode, and Vara is world famous for it's ability to hold a connection through rough band conditions. If a connection is lost, VarAC can be configured to automatically try to re-establish the connection. It's tenacious. This all means that digital modes offer more reliable and overall faster traffic throughput than voice communications. These tools can also run in unattended mode, pass small messages, and in the case of JS8Call and VarAC, can handle automated band and frequency changes based on time of day. They can also stage and pass traffic through intermediate stations using a 'traffic parking' function. In short, these software packages can be configured to automate a lot of the functions that an ARES operator would normally do manually. Again, reduced error, improved throughput and reduced operator workload.

What about Winlink? Nothing I propose here impacts Winlink; it remains the primary tool for passing email, ICS traffic and small files. It's the heavy-weight tool that will handle most of the formal traffic. What's proposed here is an adjunct tool that sits side-by-side with Winlink and handles those real-time coordination tasks

Pulling this all together, I believe the future of  HF-based emergency communications support lies in digital, not voice. If we're serious about providing robust communications that actually fill a need, it'll have to be more than a bunch of guys and gals talking into microphones. The great news is that we've got excellent digital tools that were not available to us just five years ago. It's time to leverage them. Let's flip the paradigm and make digital comms the primary standard in Georgia ARES, voice the secondary. Then pick a tool, but just one tool! Build a state-level communications architecture around it; installation packages, documentation, configuration files, even a virtual help desk, and train hard against real world scenarios.   

Not to toot my own horn, but heck, why not. I wrote about this issue back in 2020 in a series titled The EMCOMM Layer Cake. If anything, our software options have improved since then. Winlink's gotten better, JS8Call's gotten better, VarAC has hit the streets. Even Fldigi has seen improvements. The emergence of Vara as an unofficial standard that rivals Pactor in speed and connection reliability has had a huge impact on Winlink operations. I expect to see other applications, similar to VarAC, build out dependencies on Vara to take advantage of its excellent connection properties. If you are involved in emergency communications at any level and haven't bought a Vara license yet, I would just go ahead and do it; it's almost inevitable that having one will be a requirement in the near future. 

  • NVIS. This was billed as an NVIS exercise, so did NVIS work? As I emphasized in the run up to the exercise, it's not about how far you can talk, but how close you can talk on 40, 60 & 80 meters. We all know we can talk from Dalton to Kings Bay (about 350 miles) with no problem on our 80 and 40 meter dipoles, but can we talk from the State Operations Center in southeast Atlanta to the EOC in Fayette County (about 20 miles) on 40 or 80 meters? That was the challenge the exercise posed. Although I don't have hard numbers, I can say based on our experience at the Atlanta SOC at GEMA HQ the answer is yes. The antenna we used was the Chameleon CHA-NVIS, a modification of the US Army's AS-2259/GR NVIS antenna. We got excellent signal reports from most counties in the immediate metro Atlanta area on 40 meters. Was it the antenna? Was it just good 40 meter propagation? We can't tell for sure, but based on my limited use of this antenna for other NVIS work I have to say that this particular antenna configuration offers excellent NVIS performance.

That wraps it up for this exercise overview. If you have any questions or comments you can add them below in the comments section, or contact me directly at w8byh@arrl.net. Thanks!

W8BYH out

01 October 2023

Toss It In The Bag

Lately I've been spending some time with my stable of shortwave receivers. I do this every now and then when I just want to listen and I don't want to be bothered with the drama of setting up a portable ham radio station on my porch. I'll pull out one or two of my portable receivers and play around a bit, seeing what I can catch on the airwaves.

Like so many my age, shortwave radio listening was my gateway drug into ham radio. I've written about this a bit in this blog. I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of the golden era of shortwave broadcasters. This was when major players like the Voice of America, the BBC, Radio Moscow, Deutsche Welle and others conducted a surrogate Cold War on the airwaves. This was the time when shortwave receiver dials were marked off not just in frequencies, but in the various theaters of Cold War operations - New York, London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Peking, Havana. It was a glorious time to be a shortwave listener. 

Now that the Cold War is over most of the major players have abandoned broadcast radio as an information outlet, or shut down entirely due to lack of audience, funding, or mission. The survivors have moved their operations to the internet or satellite radio, leaving a lot of dead air on the shortwaves. But if you are willing to spin the dial there are still some interesting things to catch. Small national broadcasters, a few commercial operations, ham radio operators, utility stations, military and government operators, aviation and maritime operators, and more. You just have to hunt around a bit.

So, to the point of this posting. Let's say a hurricane is coming to town (and if you live in the southeastern US, a hurricane is always coming to town between August & November). The authorities have ordered an evacuation. You've got an hour to pack and get on the road. You need to take along a receiver for situational awareness, but only have room for one. What do you pack?

Let's look at the implied requirements:

  • Compact & lightweight
  • Runs on common batteries. I call this the Dollar General test - if the batteries I need to run any piece of important gear can't be found at any Dollar General then it doesn't get packed, regardless of how good it is
  • Good overall performance on the AM & FM broadcast bands, shortwave bands and the Amateur Radio HF bands (implying USB/LSB capability) and the NOAA weather channels
  • Good performance on all bands using the stock whip antenna
  • Has an built-in speaker - no headphones or ear buds required. Sound clarity is the most important thing. We're interested in information, not entertainment, so the speaker can be small as long as it offers good clarity. 
  • Easy for a non-techie to figure out; can your non-ham spouse pick up the radio and tune it to the band and frequency of their choice without waking you up for help?

My collection is modern, consisting mostly of radios that are in current production. All are SDR-based rigs that offer outstanding performance compared to earlier designs, and in much smaller and more power efficient packages. Some of these radios will fit in a shirt pocket. Of course, bigger radios with bigger speakers = better sound, but many of the smallest radios will surprise you with their audio punch and range. And of course, with headphones or earbuds all of these radios sound great. 

My small collection consists of:

  • Sangean ATS-909X2
  • Tecsun PL-880
  • Tecsun PL-330
  • Tecsun PL-360
  • Eton Elite Executive
  • C.Crane Skywave SSB
All are very good performers, but a few have some shortcomings that take them out of consideration as a 'bug out' general purpose receiver. I won't be evaluating the Tecsun PL-330 or the PL-360 since they lack USB/LSB coverage. These are nice (and inexpensive) little radios offering good performance, but I consider USB/LSB coverage essential to this mission.

Let's start the evaluation with the Tecsun PL-880. This radio is the best performing portable shortwave receiver in my lineup. In fact, many in the shortwave listener community consider it the best portable shortwave receiver on the market. I can't argue. Shortwave and medium wave sensitivity and selectivity are great, the audio quality is outstanding (not the best, but very close to it), and AM & FM performance are first rate. The build quality is very good. Would I toss it in the bag? No, for three reasons. First, it uses much less common lithium-ion 18650 batteries, and can only charge via a mini-USB port, and the charging rate is s-l-o-w. Second, it lacks NOAA weather broadcast frequency coverage. Third, the user interface is overly complex and somewhat 'kludgy'. If I'm using the radio I can get it figured out in short order, but if my wife had to use this radio to tune in to a local AM station, she'd just get confused and frustrated. I consider this a niche radio - excellent performance but really focused at the shortwave geek. This same argument runs through the Tecsun PL-330 and the PL-360. Great performers but an overly complex user interface. Good for the geeks, but not for someone running from a devastating storm.

Next  up is the Sangean ATS-909X2, This is the most disappointing of the lot. This radio is the clear winner in ergonomics, user interface and build quality, and is the best sounding radio of the bunch, edging out the Tecsun PL-880 for audio quality on FM and AM. Sangean is a Taiwanese company that has been making quality portable radios for decades, and its earlier ATS-808 and 909 line of portable shortwave radios were highly regarded receivers. I used an ATS-808 extensively while stationed in Germany in the late 1990s, when there was still a lot of shortwave activity, and it was a great performer. The current ATS-909X2, however, is reputed to be 'deaf' on shortwave when using the whip antenna, and I've confirmed that myself. I mean, really deaf as compared to the Tecsun PL-880. Sangean struggled for several years to fix issues with the first generation 909X, which was supposed to be an upgrade to the venerable ATS-808, but the radio had a number of firmware bugs and just didn't perform all that well, Sangean pulled the 909X from the market, re-worked it and while they fixed the firmware issues, they never really got the shortwave reception issues figured out. Sadly, it won't make it into the bug-out bag.

Sangean ATS-909X2. Beautiful to look at, but so-so performance

A surprise performer in the group is the Eton Elite Executive. Eton released this radio over three years ago and nobody paid it much attention until a few shortwave bloggers like RadioJayAllen and the Oxford Shortwave Log took a look at the radio, almost in passing, and were surprised at how good of a performer it is. My informal testing backs this up. This is a remarkable receiver, and hits almost all the points needed to qualify as a bug-out radio. Shortwave performance is almost as good as the PL-880 - great sensitivity and selectivity, although the filter (bandwidth) selections are not as good as the Tecsun. The user interface is much better than the PL-880 for the casual user, and the speaker audio is surprisingly good; not as good at the PL-880 or the ATS-909X2, but better than you'd expect for a radio this size. I'd almost toss it in the bag but for one issue - no pre-set NOAA weather radio channels. But for general shortwave and AM & FM listening, this is a really good little radio. I've seen this radio go on sale regularly for some remarkably good prices. I got mine on a Woot special for $80. At that price, it's well worth it if you are a shortwave geek.

What are we left with? The tiny radio from C. Crane. About the size of two packs of cigarettes - just a bit bigger than the classic AM & FM pocket radios of the 1960s. Although small, the Skywave SSB* is a remarkably good performer across the board; top-notch performance on FM and AM, and surprisingly good performance on shortwave, including USB/LSB. I don't mean 'surprisingly good performance for a small radio'; on shortwave this radio rivals the Tecsun PL-880 and the Eton Executive Elite. It has very good sensitivity and selectivity, and very good bandwidth options. The user interface is simple and easy to figure out. And huzzah! It has really good NOAA weather channel coverage. Of course there are trade-offs due to the size - the sound out of the small speaker is nowhere near as good as the three radios already reviewed. The quality is good, and punchy, but it's impossible for a small speaker in a small cabinet to achieve the richness of the speaker in the Sangean or Tecsun reviewed above. There's other trade-offs, too. A few the firmware bells and whistles found on the larger radios are lacking on the Skywave SSB - no RDS functionality on FM, no synchronous AM detection, no ability to assign alpha tags to memory slots, and a few others. But given its size, the feature set is remarkably good - FM stereo output through earbuds (included with the radio), air band coverage, alarm clock function, adjustable tuning speeds, external power/charger capability, and more. Plus, it runs for hours on just two AA batteries. 

As it comes from C. Crane, the Skywave SSB includes a set of C. Crane's excellent earbuds and a clip-on reel antenna. The hard clamshell case you see in the photo is an extra option available from Amazon and I highly recommend it. It protects the radio and provides space for the earbuds, user manual, and a spare set of AA batteries.

I think you can already guess what my choice would be if I had to bug-out and could only take one receiver. The C. Crane isn't the choice because it's small. It's the choice because it offers all the features I need and it's performance is great. Its small size is just a bonus.  

*C.Crane now offers an upgraded version of this radio called the Skywave SSB2. Reports are that although there are slight improvements in performance with the SSB2, along with the addition of an external antenna jack, performance of the two radios is pretty much the same.

W8BYH out

16 September 2023

The Bench

A few weeks back I posted some pictures on Facebook showing how I replaced the clock memory battery in my IC-7300.


Some readers contacted me and asked about the tools I used to do this job, so I figured it was time for an abbreviated tour of the workbench. Timely, because the memory battery has crapped out on my second IC-7300, so I'm setting up to get that one fixed.

To begin, my 'bench' is really a table that sits in the middle of a room full of junk. Literally, in the middle of a room full of junk. Junk to the left, junk to the right. Junk straight ahead and behind. There's even junk piled at my feet. Electronics gear, fishing gear, radios, camping gear, you name it. 

The bench started out years ago as a table that I did all my fly tying work on. Yes, I used to tie a LOT of flies for fly fishing, so many that I'm still using flies I tied up over 5 years ago! As my interest in electronics grew I started plopping more and more test and builder gear on the table until one day I decided I needed a dedicated electronics work bench. I packed up all my fly tying gear and put it in storage. I fully intend to get back to fly tying one day (it is a very relaxing and artistic way to spend a few hours), but for now it's all about pushing electrons around. 

Like most electronics hobbyists the collection of stuff grew slowly as my needs evolved. Nothing on this bench is 'lab grade'; most of it is good quality hobbyist gear that came out of China or the far east. Regardless, it all fits the bill nicely. So let's have a look:

Let's start with lighting, since that is probably one of the biggest issue I face in this cave. I depend highly on the LED magnifier lamp on the swing arm you see in the picture. It's absolutely essential for focusing light on the work area and magnifying the project. It's the true unsung hero of the workbench. It wasn't cheap, but it was a solid investment. I use it every single day.

Next, the soldering station. It's a Hakko FX888 digital station, and it is the single tool on the bench that has allowed me to tackle so many projects. In the past I used various single wattage/single heat irons that were clumsy performers. This soldering station, with it's digitally controlled temperature settings and interchangeable tips has allowed me to tackle projects that I just couldn't in the past. Again not cheap (but not too expensive either), but well worth the money.

Multimeter. I've got a small collection of multimeters - a few Fluke's (to include an 87V), a few Brymens, some off-brands. The one that has become my standard bench meter is the Brymen 869s. I bought this meter on the recommendation of several reviewers, particularly David Jones, author of the EEVblog website and YouTube channel, and Joe Smith, who does destructive testing of multimeters. Both heaped high praise on this meter for its features and accuracy. While not as physically rugged as a Fluke, it carries a UL and German TuV certification, so it more than meets it's electrical overload protection ratings. Plus it offers far more features than the highly vaunted Fluke 87, at about half the price, and the display is far easier to read. Because Brymen does not sell its meters in the US (they have a marketing agreement with Greenlee) I had to order this one from a distributor in Poland, of all places. This is another tool that gets used almost every day.

Hiding away behind the Brymen multimeter is a Siglent bench power supply. While most of my power testing requires 12 - 14 volts, something easily supplied by one of my ham radio switching power supplies, I occasionally have to take things down to 9 or 5 volts. Hanging off to the side is a collection of test leads I can connect to the power supply, allowing me to hook up to just about anything. 

The Quick 8610 hot air rework station sitting on the shelf is a recent acquisition. I needed it to do some SMD component replacements on an amplifier project, and it works like a champ. I've used it on several other projects since, and I'll be using it on the upcoming IC-7300 battery replacement (Icom solders the OEM battery directly to the board, making it hard to get off with a conventional soldering iron). Honestly, it can be frightening how fast it works. While this is not a top-end unit, it gets very good reviews from folks who do board-level repairs on computers and other electronics. Louis Rossmann, who runs a business doing Apple board-level work and has a very active YouTube channel, actually prefers this rework station to the much more expensive Hakko systems he previously used.

The blue mats are a combination of an electrostatic grounding mat and a silicone soldering mat. When working on sensitive electronics I'll use a grounded wrist strap that snaps to the mat and connects to the house ground. Very cheap insurance.

In the middle of the blue mats sits one of those inexpensive hobbyist 'third hand' tools that I have to admit is all but indispensable. Yes, I've got much more expensive electronic component holders, including a rotating circuit board work holder that can support a full-sized computer board, but this cheap little tool gets used the most for simple tasks like soldering two pieces of wire together. You'll also see a small PanaVise head sitting off to the right. That gets used a good bit, too. 

Hand tools. I've got a large assortment of hand tools - screw drivers, cutters, wire strippers, pliers, scissors, tweezers, small rulers, X-acto knifes and more. Honestly, I don't know where a lot of this stuff came from. Some I used in my fly tying activities, some I just had laying around when I started this hobby. The two hand tools that get use most on the bench are sitting right up front - the red handled side cutter and the miniature pliers. I go through a set of these about once a year, particularly the side cutters. When they get dull don't even think about trying to sharpen them. Just toss 'em and get another set.

Magnifiers. I have to admit it, my eyes are not what they used to be. When I joined the Army in 1979 I had 15/15 vision. Today I can't even get out of bed without glasses. I'm almost 67 and have a bit of cataract forming in both eyes. I need both good light and magnification. I've got a number of small hand-held magnifiers that live on my bench, plus I've got an OptiVisor headband magnifier with an LED light attachment, something I find I'm using more and more. 

I do have an oscilloscope - a Siglent digital model, but I've had little use for it over the past year so it's sitting in storage on a shelf in the far back. 

Last, but certainly not least, are all the consumable supplies sitting on or near the bench - 
  • denatured alcohol for cleaning just about everything electronic
  • Q-tips
  • spools of solder, paste flux and liquid flux, along with solder wick and a surprisingly effective spring loaded 'solder sucker'
  • electrical tape
  • double sided tape
  • heat resistant tape (really needed when doing hot air re-work stuff)
  • small zip ties
  • a box of toothpicks
  • a tube of silicone glue
  • a bottle of superglue
  • paper towels
  • glass cleaner
  • a roll of twist-tie material
  • Sharpie markers
  • small parts containers - little plastic salsa 'bowls' that I steal from local Mexican restaurant chain whenever we go there for lunch or dinner
  • pens & pencils, and a notebook
  • Yeti coffee cup full of my favorite coffee 😄
And wire. Lots and lots of wire. When working on the bench most of my wire needs fall into the 18 - 22 gauge arena. Lately I've been going through a good bit of 22 gauge Teflon coated wire. I keep two spools of red and black on-hand. 

I think that's about it. If you have any questions about anything you see just drop a comment below.

W8BYH out

26 August 2023

The Most Important Amplifier In Ham Radio

The title is a pretentious joke, but there is a kernel of truth in there.

A few days ago I wrapped up my HobbyPCB HardRock50 amplifier build, and I'm in the process of testing it with a variety of QRP rigs. So far so good with the Yaesu FT-818 and the Icom IC-705, and testing with the Elecraft KX2 is coming up. Right now I'm updating the external interface for the IC-705 that is manufactured by HobbyPCB, an interface that allows the amplifier to follow band changes on the radio and trigger tuning cycles

Earlier today I created a video showing the start-up procedure when using the amp and the IC-705 interface with the IC-705. The video shows how the IC-705 interface controls band switching (via Bluetooth), tuning and amp triggering. The interface works quite well, but it is an extra cost item ($70 as I have it configured) from HobbyPCB. Note - you DO NOT need this interface to run the IC-705 with the amplifier - the interface just takes care of the band switching and tuning duties, something you can do without the interface. You just have to do those tasks manually, and it's not at all difficult. 

I'm quite happy with the output. Signal reports from fellow hams are good, and I'm easily getting 50 watts PEP on sideband when driving the amp with 3 watts of output from the radio.

Building this amp was, as it's popular to say today, 'a journey', and I've outlined much of it in earlier postings. This is the second of these amp kits that I've built, and I learned a LOT on the first build. The reason I built this new amp is because the previous amp kit was an early model (shipped in 2014 but never built) and it had some issues regarding the ability to interface with the IC-705. I figured I'd start with a clean slate (and somewhat improved soldering skills) with a current production kit from HobbyPCB that included the internal tuner board. While this is not a tough kit to put together, it took me several months to get it done as work, family commitments and other factors got in the way. 

One of the hiccups was a blown capacitor on the amp board, which the manufacturer put down to it being a tantalum cap with known tendencies to let out the smoke when voltage is first applied. Jim Veatch, the owner of HobbyPCB, said they are likely going to switch capacitor types on the next production run. He cheerfully sent me two replacement caps. The job to replace them gave me the convenient excuse to buy a hot air re-work station to get the remains of the old cap off the board, get things cleaned up and the new cap in place. 

Luckily the damage was limited to the blown capacitor

Getting set to replace the blown capacitor

Another issue was the maddening discovery that the mounting holes for the tuner board had been mis-drilled in the case - basically they were drilled 'backwards', but you don't immediately know that until you go to mount the tuner board in the case and button everything up for testing - it just doesn't fit, and too much forcing can result in some bent connector pins (don't ask me how I know...). Again, Jim at HobbyPCB got back with me and let me know that their recent production runs had the holes on some of the cases drilled improperly, and he's only finding them when people like me bring up the issue. He offered to replace the case but I had to ship the old one to him first, or he could send me a template that would allow me to drill my own holes in the proper location. I opted to go the template route.

So, I can't emphasize too much that this is a 'hobby' build - the instructions are very good, and on-line support is good (Jim answers emails promptly and very courteously), but you are still likely to run into glitches like I did. This is where the hobby aspect comes into play, and you're kind of expected to do your own troubleshooting. Adversity builds character, right? But HobbyPCB also states that the price of the kit includes a working amplifier, so if you get it all together and simply can't get it working you can ship it off to Jim and he'll diagnose and fix whatever's wrong, for free.

The IC-705 interface module - a box that connects between the amp and the 705 and allows
automatic band switching and tuner operation. It's basically an Arduino board with a Bluetooth
interface. I just got through soldering in the add-on board that drives the tuner in the HardRock50
(the lighter colored board in the upper right)

Another challenge for those of you not used to running bootloaders is updating the firmware. Your kit will likely ship with a slightly outdated firmware version. Updating the firmware isn't tough, but you have to install a bootloader on your computer and run the update from there. It's a well documented procedure, but might put off those with limited computer skills.

Last, although everything about this amp and the add-on components like the tuner and control interface are well documented, the HobbyPCB website is something of a dog's dinner in terms of organization, and HobbyPCB has some dead links and pointers to outdated files out there. They need the help of a good web developer.

So what's the use case for this amp? For me it's simply this - with the demise of portable all-band, all-mode 100 watt rigs like the IC-7100 or the FT-857, I am looking for more 'oomph' for both my IC-705 and my KX2. I love those rigs, but feel that they are limited by their 10 watt output, particularly when working voice. Let's focus on the IC-705 - an incredibly capable radio that brings together all the features anyone would need for portable operations. I consider 50 watts as something of a sweet spot for portable work. In most cases going from 50 - 100w output doesn't really get you much beyond greater power consumption. I also like the idea of the two components in separate packages. If I only want to run digital I can go out with just the radio and work at 10 watts. If I want to run voice, I can bring along the amp and push things up to 50 watts. With the internal tuner in the amp I can also leave the Icom tuner behind. It's all about options and capability.

OK, what about this silly 'most important amp in ham radio' claim? Well, here's the truth of it. To be an effective portable shack-in-a-box radio the IC-705 needs to put out more than 10 watts. This is particularly important if you want to use the rig for EMCOMM applications. Ten watts may be enough for digital modes, but for SSB it's not enough for reliable & repeatable comms. There are a number of solid state amps on the market that will work with the IC-705, but they generally fall into two categories - low cost, low output Chinese manufactured amps of poor quality, and high quality (and expensive) 100+ watt amps designed for in-shack use from companies like Elecraft, RM, ACOM and others. The HardRock50 is the only high quality, field portable, well supported and reasonably priced amp available for QRP rigs. This means the HardRock50 stands alone as an amplifier that can turn the IC-705 into a serious field radio for EMCOMM use. So while not the most important amp in all of ham radio, it is still the best option to turn your field QRP rig into an effective tool for reliable communications.

The next step is testing using a battery instead of a power supply - I'll test using a 12 amp hour LiFePo battery to see how long that holds up in field use. I'll also be testing with the KX2. So stay tuned!

W8BYH out

05 August 2023

Considering the IC-705?

Earlier today I watched a YouTube video by Ham Radio DX doing a 'should I buy' review of the IC-705. While the video is otherwise unremarkable, the author did mention a few things that clicked with me, and started me thinking.

I've owned my IC-705 for over two years, and really like it. Notice I say 'really like', not 'love'. There have always been a few things about the 705 - issues and shortcomings - that bother me. I've written about most of these issues on this blog, so I won't go back and beat the dead horse (just search on the blog for 'ic 705'). I'll just say that while the IC-705 stands alone in its class it still has some shortcomings.

Which leads us to this post, and the ideas spurred by the Ham Radio DX video. Here's my advice to folks considering buying an IC-705, or have bought an IC-705 and are struggling with some of its shortcomings:

The IC-705 should be considered as nothing more than the core of a larger radio system. It is minimally functional right out of the box, but requires a compliment of additional hardware and software to be considered a fully mature and capable system.

To be fair, this concept applies to virtually every other QRP rig I've owned or used, including the highly touted Elecraft KX series. However, Icom seems to specifically market the IC-705 as a complete, all-in-one rig that really doesn't need any add-ons. But out here in the real world, it does.

So, if you think about the IC-705 as being just the core of a larger 'system' you will be less likely to focus on its shortcomings and become disappointed. The other components of the system will effectively address the shortcomings and make it an incredibly capable best-in-class radio system, but at a cost.

What are these system components? Here's my minimum requirements list:

  • Environmental protection for the radio. Something like the Peovi or Windcamp cages or one of the dozens of 3D printed cages on offer on eBay. I particularly like the Peovi solution because of the available polycarbonate snap-on cover made by SideKX. ($285 current price for the Peovi)
  • Antenna tuner. Please, spare me the righteous talk about only using resonant antennas. This is the real world, and I like frequency agility. Compromised antennas are often a fact of life, particularly with lightweight portable radio setups. While just about any tuner will work with the 705, the one that works best in my experience is Icom's own AH-705. It's an incredible tuner, although somewhat big when compared to the radio itself. ($360 current street price)
  • Power. To get the full 10 watts out of the IC-705 you'll need an external power source. The good news is that it doesn't need much external power. Like a lot of 705 owners, I use a small 4.5 amp hour lithium-iron phosphate battery that will keep the 705 running at 10 watts for well over 8 hours. ($65 from Bioenno)
  • Software (and the computer to run it on). Software is only required if you run digital modes, but since most folks buy the 705 for its digital mode capabilities, some software is required. The only software package I consider absolutely essential is Icom's own RS-BA1 v.2 software. It is the remote server component of this package that allows you to control the radio via a wi-fi USB connection. Why not just use the USB port on the radio? Because Icom failed to properly shield the IC-705 and the radio is highly susceptible to RFI coming in over the USB connection. It is so bad that, when running digital modes like FT8, it overwhelms the radio on all bands. I wrote about this in an earlier post so I won't re-hash it here. Suffice to say, you'll need the RS-BA1 software. ($140 current street price)
These minimum system add-ons come to $850, in addition to the base cost of the IC-705. There are cheaper options on the market for things like the protective cage, tuner and battery, so consider this $850 a high-end estimate. It just reinforces that reality that most IC-705 owners will face at some time or another. You don't have to buy these at the same time you buy your radio, but to exploit the full capability of the 705, at some point you'll likely need to add them.

If you go into the IC-705 purchase knowing it takes these add-on items to reach what we called in the Army 'full mission capability' you are much less likely to be disappointed with your radio.

W8BYH out

14 July 2023

Biting The Apple

I live in a house divided. I'm a Windows guy. KQ4IZK is an Apple gal. I take care of all the overhead - I make sure all the shared software license fees are paid, I keep the network up and available, make sure the streaming devices are working, pay all the IT-related bills and generally keep the home computing environment running. I also keep all the Windows and Android devices running. KQ4IZK lives and breaths Apple. She'd got her MacBook(s), iPad(s), iPhone(s) and there's even an Apple Watch laying around somewhere. And she's pretty darned good with all the Apple stuff. I get almost zero tech support calls (ha, ha) from her on things MacOS or iOS. She loves her Apple ecosystem, and it works well for her. 

There was a time when I was enchanted by Apple products. I've used Apple II+'s and early Mac's, and thought they were great, and I lusted after the early iPhones. I think a large part of my attraction was related directly to Steve Jobs. Jobs was a force of nature who could sell ice to an Eskimo and spin a vision like nobody else. And let's be honest, the iPhone and iPad really were foundational concepts that changed how we communicate and consume content. In my work I've had to support several generations of iPhones and iPads. I appreciate the app-focused ease of use found on these devices; they are far more dummy proof than Windows or Android devices. But I've always found iOS-based devices to be 'too much for too little'; the cost of the devices was much too high for the level of usability they provided. They were (and still are) viewed as prestige devices; you pay a premium for the name and the logo. I have far less experience with MacOS, but found it odd that when Apple switched from Motorola to Intel CPUs, all the Mac fans rejoiced because now they could finally run Windows natively on their Mac hardware. Hmmm...

I've always been impressed by the build quality of Apple's hardware. Across the board their products seem better built, with more attention to detail on the fit and finish. But over time some cracks developed in my Apple windshield. At work, where we use a LOT of iPads going back at least four device generations, we started to notice a lot of premature device failures. Some of them were clearly hardware related (cracked screens, non-responsive buttons, etc.). Some 'just died'; they worked yesterday but not today. Some would go off to IT for an OS upgrade, and would never come back. The response from the service desk was often, "we tried to upgrade it and it bricked itself". Were these failing at a higher rate than the cheaper Android tablets we bought, like the Samsung Tabs? Probably not, but we were paying around $250 for perfectly adequate Tab 8's, and over $500 for the 2020 iPads. And some really annoying Apple product positioning issues started to crop up. We needed iPads with GPS in them for outdoor data collection, but the basic level iPads don't come with GPS. If you want GPS you have to shell out an additional $100 per unit for the data plan ready model (the ones that can take a phone plan SIM card). Yet the much cheaper Tab 8's all came with GPS. More Hmmm....

Over time I became less and less enamored with Apple's hardware. The outward fit and finish was (and still is) very good, but the physical build just seemed lacking. They may be fine for schlepping around the Stanford University campus, but for field data collection at the world's busiest airport they were just not holding up as expected - particularly considering the price. In fact, I started to compare the service life of some of the MacBooks we use at work against a generic issue Windows laptop like a Dell Inspiron. The Dell was a lot cheaper, lasted just as long, and served the average user just as well as the Mac. The build quality of an Inspiron isn't as good as a MacBook, but if I crack the screen of an Inspiron I'm not going to cry like I would if I cracked the screen of a MacBook. I began to doubt the Mac hardware was really as good as Apple and Apple fanboys claim it is, but I didn't have any hard evidence beyond my very unscientific gut feeling.

But earlier this week I stumbled on this guy's YouTube channel, and found his Mac repair videos and commentary both revealing, and a bit humorous. Louis consolidates all that he finds wrong with Apple products into one 24 minute video.

The video is five years old, but I doubt Apple has improved things. In fact, Louis has plenty of recent videos laying out similar issues with current production Apple products.

To be fair, you'll find similar design and execution issues in any other manufacturer's range of laptops, including the highly regarded Lenovo ThinkPads. The big difference with Apple is that they've become expert at deflecting the blame for lousy hardware design and early product death back at the customer. They actually make the customer feel remorse for bringing the issues up. How else can you explain why customers who've been screwed over by Apple keep coming back time and again just because it's Apple, and everyone knows Apple is that edgy, forward thinking visionary company that keeps pushing the envelope? When in fact all they deliver is nicely packaged run-of-the-mill hardware that has lots of engineered-in planned obsolescence.

If you think I'm just another Apple hater, I invite you to read some of my pervious posts about Windows hardware, particularly the Microsoft Surface line.

 W8BYH out