12 January 2023

Battery Angst

 Aaaarrrgggghhh! The battery on my Surface Pro 7 is giving up the ghost. Yesterday during a conference the screen started to flicker slightly and I noticed the battery level was dropping at a rate faster than I'd seen before. I knew it was inevitable, and I've been seeing indications of declining battery capacity for a few months now.


This is a work tablet, so I didn't pay for it. It's served as my office laptop for several years and I've come to really appreciate the Surface tablet form factor. I retire in less than a year, so I'm likely stuck with finding a replacement on my own (nothing provided by employer largesse). I've got several personal laptops that can fill the gap, but what I really like about the Surface line is the ability to outboard video to a dual monitor setup using the Surface docking station. My question now is, do I invest in a closed hardware solution? Surface Pros can not be opened up for a battery replacement. Microsoft wants you to toss it and buy a new one. Planned obsolescence. I'm thinking that any new laptops or tablets I buy for field use in Amateur Radio will have replaceable batteries.

I've got a very good Dell 5414 rugged laptop that I bought used about 4 years ago. It's my ham radio field laptop. It's got an i5 processor, 16 gb of RAM and a 128 gb SSD. It's a workhorse, and even four years on is still a very viable computer. It's only real drawback is that it'll eat a battery in about a year. But that's OK, because the design of this laptop means I can open the battery bay door and slide in a new battery. No dying battery angst. 


My experience is that the ability to easily replace batteries extends the service life of a laptop or tablet for at least a year. After three years most mobile device batteries start to show a serious decline in capacity; it's just the nature of the technology. Users find themselves plugging in their laptop or tablet more frequently to 'top it off', and very quickly the device turns into a small format desktop computer, permanently tethered to a power supply. A replaceable battery restores the functionality of the device - it gives your laptop or tablet a new lease on life. The vast majority of laptops and tablets, particularly laptops, are still very viable computing devices when they get tossed into the electronics recycling bin. The only reason they are there is because the batteries died.

Replaceable batteries also makes the concept of the fully off-grid computer possible. My expectation for a field computer is that I get at least 6 hours of laptop use with a 10% reserve. If that means I've got to swap out batteries in that 6 hour period, so be it. The design of laptops like the Dell 5412 (and its successors) means this 6 hour requirement is easy to achieve, and even exceed.

Of course all computers and tablets have limited lifespans. At some point my Dell will be orphaned by Microsoft (I already know I can't install Windows 11 on it), replacement batteries will become impossible to find, or I'll have a hardware failure. But considering that this is a 4 year old laptop that still has more than adequate processing power for today's routine tasks, and that I've been able to do two battery replacements on it for a small fraction of the cost of a new laptop, I'd say my plan to buy future devices only if they take replaceable batteries is a sound one.

W8BYH out

04 January 2023

Giggle

I giggle when I read things like this: 

For those who have trouble reading the screen capture, it goes like this:

"I forwarded a few questions from HF Pack list members to a Special Forces commander whose unit has been using KX2s in the field for three years. He passed along the following additional comments:

"We prefer to use Off Center Fed Dipoles (OCF). They work for us because they present a consistent, predictable mismatch on the frequencies we use. I made a few small baluns out of binocular cores that are 4:1, which handle the output of the KX2 on Voice, CW and digital all day long. Typically the dipoles area strung up arms-reach-high in the field, which gives us easy 300 - 400 mile range in our KX2 nets. If we're fortunate enough to have a tree, that OCFD with a center height of 10 to 15 feet or so works perfect for NVIS, at least for us.

"You'd be proud to know my KX2 has survived remote jungles, 14-er peaks in Colorado, -30 degree F temps, a helicopter crash, and gunfights / IED blasts... I think the radio has held up better than I have."

Wayne, N6KR, is one of the co-founders of Elecraft and is the main designer of the KX2. He posted this on the HFPack Groups.io site back in 2020 in response to some folks who were looking for more information on the US Army Special Forces use of the KX2 as a back-up radio. The topic recently re-surfaced on the Elecraft KX Groups.io site.

I find it funny (the giggle part) that today, folks who use the Icom IC-705, the Lab599 TX500, the Yaesu FT-818 and other QRP rigs struggle to put together a deployable package that includes the radio, tuner, battery, cables, connectors, etc. and end up with a pile of stuff the size of a desktop printer, while all of that fits inside of the KX2, a radio you can hold in the palm of one hand.

This is one of the reasons why in today's era of IC-705 SDR do-everything QRP market dominance, the KX2 - a 7 year old design - is perpetually on back-order.


Also note the use of an OCF dipole. No sooper-dooper sneaky-pete million dollar Special Forces antenna solution. Just a plain-jane dipole. The US Army is actually very pragmatic about antenna designs for their radios - you just can't cheat physics. If an antenna's gotta' be a quarter wavelength, it'll be a quarter wavelength.

W8BYH out

29 December 2022

FT-818 QRT

Word dropped yesterday that the venerable FT-818 was taken out of production by Yaesu. As of this morning Gigaparts does not list the radio at all on their website, and HRO shows it either out-of-stock or low stock at all of its stores.

 
I've written extensively about this little radio on this blog and on various Facebook sites. I consider it the last of the 'good' generation of Yaesu radios, along with its sister rigs - the FT-897 and the FT-857. The FT-818 had a 20+ year production run, perhaps the longest of any Amateur Radio (although I think the Icom IC-718 may be giving it a run for its money). In the end it was killed off by the one thing no electronics system can escape - parts availability. According to Yaesu they couldn't source many of the components needed to build this radio. Of course they could have re-designed the rig to take advantage of components that are available in the market. A lot radio manufacturers have had to do this - including Icom and Elecraft. My guess is that Yaesu gave it some thought but realized that, given the age and design of the radio, it was just time to let the old girl go and work on bringing something new to market. At least I hope that's what Yaesu was thinking. Yaesu is being very cagey about what might be coming. I'll say this though - throughout the pandemic and chip shortages, Yaesu has been the one Amateur Radio manufacturer that hasn't been shy about bringing new products to market. Some have been minor refreshes like the FT-5DR handheld, some have been new development products like the FT-710. But while all the other manufacturers have been sitting on their hands waiting for things to shake out, Yaesu has pushed ahead. To me this indicates that Yaesu is likely to already have a replacement for the FT-818 waiting in the wings.

In an earlier post I mentioned that in 50 years there'll be more FT-817/818 rigs still on the air than  Icom IC-705s, and I truly believe that. Given the sheer number of 817/818 radios out there, and the fact that the 20 year old design is easier to maintain than an SDR, I'll wager that in 2101, the 100th anniversary of the FT-817s introduction, there'll be special event stations dedicated to firing up these great old rigs and getting them on the air. By that time the IC-705's will all be recycled electronic waste. 

So raise a glass to the old gal, the radio that defined the QRP shack-in-the-box concept and helped  launch the SOTA movement. And if you have one, make sure she gets on the air every now and then.

W8BYH out 

26 December 2022

No One Radio Can Do It All

Last month I attended a Georgia AUXCOMM class, and one of the key take-aways (for me) was always knowing what your communications capabilities are. I own too many a lot of radios, and it's been a few years since I did a feature comparison. My question was, which radio I currently own offers the broadest range of capabilities; a true shack-in-a-box. 

While nothing fit the bill 100%, I was only slightly surprised when the winner emerged - the Icom IC-7100. Sadly, this incredibly capable radio was taken out of production by Icom a few months ago. I can only hope there's a replacement already waiting in the wings, and Icom's only holding back on shipping them because the northern sea lanes between Japan and the port of Los Angeles are still choked with dangerous icebergs.

It should be no surprise that the Icom IC-705 is the runner-up. That little radio is just begging to be up-sized. I'm hoping it's the up-sized version that's being held up by the icebergs


Other radios on the list have their own unique capabilities, which is why I hang onto them. The Icom IC-7200 is a no-frills, built like a bulldozer HF rig. All it does is HF, but it'll do it all day, every day, for months on end. The KX2 may not look like it does much, but what it does it does better than any other radio on the market. It's an amazing piece of technology to behold - and you can behold it in the palm of just one hand, with room left over.

Given my current stable of radios, what would I grab going out the door for a SHTF situation? Well, it wouldn't be just one radio. I'd need at least three. Based on the combination of requirements I anticipate - both HF voice and digital, using a variety of modes, the ability to do wide band TX (the 'MARS mod'), the ability to do ALE scanning and HF chat using either Vara Chat or JS8CALL, the choices came down to:
  • IC-7200
  • IC-705
  • ID-52
Some of you are surely yelling, "you're letting your inner Icom fanboy leak out!". No, and yes. In the past I've been a Yaesu fanboy, a Ten-Tec fanboy, a Hammarlund fanboy, even a cheap Chinese radio fanboy. I'm still an Elecraft fanboy. For a long time I didn't particularly like Icom products. I thought they were over-polished and over-priced; slick toys that didn't offer anything better than the competition, but at a higher price. In my mind I was paying extra for the Icom badge. It took a few years of struggling with Yaesu's configuration settings on several of their HF radios to appreciate Icom's well developed and mature interface and settings libraries that spans much of their product line. Icom radios are easy to set up for digital or voice operations, share operating principles across all of their modern rigs - HF and UHF/VHF, and share Icom-developed apps like the RS-BA1 wi-fi rig control package, the RS-MS1A Bluetooth rig control package, and the ST-4001A picture utility program. While none of these packages will win any awards for world-class features or functionality, they are solid apps that allow different Icom rigs to be operated through a shared interface, and to share data across platforms, mostly via DSTAR. 

The IC-705 and the ID-52 (and the ID-51) go even further and share battery packs. This means I only have to worry about one type of battery pack and charger for two different radio models. 

You may ask, "why not the IC-7100, if it's so capable?". Truthfully, it was initially in the mix as I was writing this post, but then I figured I'd need to scan ALE channels using either Ion2G or MARS ALE, and the 7100 can't do that. Only the IC-7200 (with the quiet scan mod) or the IC-7300 can do that. The IC-7300 would seem the next logical choice, but I wanted a 100 watt HF rig that could run continuous duty cycles on digital modes like Vara Chat, and the IC-7200 with its better cooling arrangement just seems a better candidate.

By grabbing these three specific radios I'll have all the coverage I need for voice and digital comms, with redundancy. One hundred watts of HF voice and digital, a 10 watt backup, and a 5 watt hand held. The IC-7200 is a high duty cycle radio that can do voice, digital and ALE scanning, The IC-705 provides an advanced SDR capability on HF, Gen3 DSTAR capability and wideband receive. The ID-52 provides handheld UHF/VHF dual watch voice and Gen3 DSTAR capability. Bases covered.


So remember, in today's market there's not one single radio that can do it all, from any vendor. If you need to relocate for any reason - your own house is damaged or destroyed, or you are deploying to provide comms support for a disaster - you'll need a mix of radios to cover all the requirements. 

Yes, there's a point to all this. It's called Winter Field Day 2023. 

W8BYH out

21 December 2022

Swoon

I recently spied this beauty for sale on QRZ.com. Radios like this make my heart race and I get lightheaded.


One of the great tragedies of American ham radio was the demise of Ten-Tec. In their hayday they made truly great products, all in their Sevierville, Tennessee facility, and they bent over backwards to accommodate the ham radio community. Ten-Tec's public face was always as a rock-solid, well respected, US-based ham radio manufacturer, but I think their bread and butter - the thing that kept Ten-Tec profitable - were their government contracts for radios like the RX-340.

When I got my General ticket back around 2004 I bought a Ten-Tec Jupiter, and it became my gateway drug to HF operations and Ten-Tec products. It was a groundbreaking radio - a true SDR with a dedicated rig control interface. I think it became Ten-Tec's most popular HF radio. I ended up owning a series of Ten-Tec rigs - an Omni A (typically and correctly referred to as a 'solid-state boat anchor'), a Triton I, a Triton II, and one of their 2 meter mobile rigs. 

Ten-Tec's service was always first rate. You could ship them any Ten-Tec radio, in any shape, and they'd return it to operating condition for a relative pittance. I bought the Omni A off of a seller on eBay who advertised it as being in 'perfect working condition'. When I got it, it was a mess. Certainly not 'perfect'. Not even operational. I opened a complaint against the seller through eBay, and he eventually admitted he knew nothing about the radio and was selling it for the widow of a local SK. He refunded half the selling price and all the shipping costs. I sent the radio off to Ten-Tec, and for a whopping $114 they re-built and re-aligned it and got it back into perfect operating condition. The cost of the parts alone had to exceed the final bill, not counting the labor cost involved.  

Ten-Tec hosted an annual hamfest at their Tennessee factory, and I made the trip up one year. It was held on the factory grounds, and included a factory tour. The corporate staff bent over backwards to make everyone comfortable, and were very open about new developments that were in the pipeline. I was somewhat taken aback by the age of the facility; Ten-Tec had been making electronics products in that building since before WWII, and it showed. They did everything in the building - design advanced SDR radios, form sheet metal for radio cases, mold plastic and metal components, assemble and test new products, service used radios, and run retail sales. It was a well used and somewhat tired and inefficient building.

I took a four year hiatus from ham radio between 2015 and 2019, and during that time Ten-Tec was sold twice over and effectively left the ham radio market. I'm told the original Ten-Tec owner was facing mounting facility modernization costs and just wanted to retire, so he sold the company and facilities as-is to the highest bidder. The succession of new owners were after the government contract side of the business. Of course each owner promised to keep the ham radio side of things running, but never did beyond a token effort. The company eventually landed in the hands of Dishtronix, and Distronix has effectively ceased production in the face of COVID, worldwide chip shortages, and a factory move from Tennessee to Ohio. Will Ten-Tec ever be competitive again in the ham radio market? I doubt it.

In its prime Ten-Tec made some of the world's finest receivers, like the RX-340 above. These ended up in the hands of a lot of three-letter federal agencies, and it was said you could hear a flea fart in Havana using an RX-340 in Washington. Gives you an idea who was running them. Ten-Tec's high end receivers don't often come up for sale on the used market, and when they do they don't sit around long waiting for a buyer. I think this radio sold within a day of being posted, and the owner got full asking price.

But darn it, beyond the performance, the RX-340 just looks like a real radio; all the buttons and knobs and digital displays you need to run a radio without having to insert a computer into the mix. Radio the way Marconi, David Sarnoff, Edwin Armstrong, Arthur Collins, and Wayne Burdick and Eric Swartz (the founders of Elecraft) intended - radios with real knobs and readable displays that show you everything you need to know, and not a single digit more.

W8BYH out 

20 November 2022

What The World Needs...

About 100  years ago, Vice President Thomas Marshall (who served under Woodrow Wilson) once quipped during a Senate debate, "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar"

Now it's my turn. After two months trying to get various incarnations of a new Facebook page up and running, I say that what the world needs is a strong competitor to Facebook. 

Facebook is doing every damned thing they can to monetize everything I post or click on in their environment - that's how they make a profit and are able to provide Facebook as a mostly free service. I'm not one of those who thinks everything on the web should be free. I understand the actual costs of site development, integration, sustainment, etc. It's all far more expensive than most people realize. For that reason, companies like Facebook try to squeeze every penny out of their users as possible, not by charging them for the service but by selling their personal data and preferences to other companies. Facebook isn't so much a social media platform as it is a data scraping service. Every mouse click you make in Facebook is being sold to someone, somewhere, as a data point. And if you think Facebook is the lone evil troll in the on-line universe, you're wrong. Everyone is doing it - Instagram, TikTok, Spotify, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft, Firefox, and dozens more. Basically I'm OK with Facebook scraping my data and selling it to the highest bidder. But it's my responsibility to give them them only the absolute bare minimum necessary to get access to their platform. My personal data, my rules. Everyone should take that attitude.

The problem is that Facebook, over the past several years, has turned the service into this mind numbingly complex environment that makes setting up and managing even simple personal pages a real pain-in-the-ass, and the attempts to get at your personal data are both subtle and evil. In the early days of Facebook, setting up a personal or organization page was easy, and fun. Give your page a name, post a few pictures, add some minor personal data and invite some friends and off you go. Easy-peasy. Now the set-up options are frustratingly complex and the nagging from the Facebook system is endless. Here's a hint - Facebook doesn't really want your birthdate so they can send you a birthday greeting every year. They want it because your age is a critical marketing data point. Also, Facebook loves it when you post videos of your singing cat not because they can share your interest with other cat lovers and everybody feels warm and fuzzy. No, they track your cat video postings so they can tell a marketing firm that you are a certain age (which is an indicator of income level) and that you likely buy a lot of cat food and pet care products. That's why, when you post a new cat video, you get Facebook ad offers from Chewy. Mark Zuckerberg doesn't give a damn how warm and fuzzy cat videos make you feel. He's after your personal data points so he can sell them for profit. And your data is very, very profitable.

I've seen indicators that Facebook's participation rate is dropping. There's a perception that Facebook is for old people, and there does seem to be a gradual graying out of the Facebook community. But Facebook offers something none of the other attention deficit options like TikTok offer - a website-like functionality that allows a wide range of information delivery options, and encourages in-depth discussions on topics. For this reason Facebook stands alone when looking for free platforms that do what ham radio clubs, organizations or folks like me need.

In the quest for more and more data, Facebook has entered shoot yourself in the foot territory. Even the simple personal pages are too complex to set up, and way too intrusive. I've been setting up and administering Facebook pages for the better part of a decade, so I have the perspective. Hey Facebook, the reason you user base is shrinking isn't just because of shifting demographics. It's also because you've made the environment so complex and confusing that people go looking for a simpler option. 

If I were a social media platform developer, I'd be looking at the Facebook example and figuring out ways to bring many of the same features to a simpler interface. The other thing I'd do is start charging for the service. Follow the path taken by many iOS and Android developers - the app is free but you'll get advertising 'nag-ware', or pay a small fee and the ads go away. I'd gladly pay $100 or more per year for a quality Facebook-like hosting experience that doesn't try to monetize every one of my mouse clicks, and doesn't nag me to tag cat videos with little heart emojis. 

Yup, what America (and the world) needs is a better Facebook. Only Facebook is unlikely to deliver. So all you smart platform developers out there - get to work. 

W8BYH out

18 November 2022

A Golden Opportunity

Several Amateur Radio friends and I have been discussing the current state of radio availability from the Big Three (Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood). The topic gives us something to talk about as we scoot around the south metro Atlanta region, yakking thru the local repeaters.

The discussion is driven by the steadily shrinking pool of radios available from the Big Three. Most recently, Icom took its IC-7100 out of production. For the first time in decades, Icom has no all-band/all-mode 100 watt mobile radio in their lineup. Yaesu hasn't had one since they killed off the FT-857 almost five years ago. Kenwood? Nothing, but this is a space they never seriously played in. This means the market is ripe for new products in this niche; the first manufacturer to release something will literally own the market for as long as it takes the others to catch up.

However, I'm of a different mind. I've always been a fan of the all-in-one mid-power range HF rig concept, something similar to the old SGC-2020. This radio was developed as a low/mid-range wattage field radio - specifically designed to be taken to the field and run off of batteries. It was a POTA/SOTA rig long before there was POTA or SOTA. 


What set the SGC apart from the QRP radios it overlapped with in the market, like the Icom IC-703 or the Yaesu FT-817, was its rated power output of 20 watts. The output of most HF rigs designed for field use over the past 25 years top out at 5 or 10 watts. The SGC set itself apart by offering higher output and portability. While the SGC-2020 was plagued with performance and QC issues throughout its production life, it was still a strong seller because it sat alone in the field radio market space due to that 20 watt output. Many will argue that there's little real world difference between 10 watts and 20 watts - only about 3 db. But that 3 db can make a difference under marginal conditions. 

We're almost a quarter century on from the introduction of the SGC-2020, and nothing has been released that I can find that fits this 'in-between' field radio power space - something more than 10 watts but less than 100 and offers design features that make it an ideal field radio. Things like low current draw, an integrated tuner, integrated battery, and a rugged design that offers basic protection from the elements. 

I say that now is an ideal time for one of the Big Three to design and release a 20 - 25 watt rig specifically designed for off-grid portable field use. We're seeing convergences in technologies that offer incredible possibilities:

  • SDR technology that allows more features and performance to be stuffed into smaller physical packages
  • Vastly improved power management systems and battery technologies that should enable a field rig to operate for hours on 25 watts output at a 30% duty cycle
  • Improved circuit design, components and manufacturing technologies that can dramatically shrink the physical size of boards and other internal components. If the power output is kept intentionally low - 25 watts or less - then there is more potential for small, compact designs. 
  • An improved understanding at the manufacturing level about how to make a radio that meets the international IP rating standards for protection against moisture and dust
The icing on the cake is that we're in a solar cycle upswing. Over the next five years it'll get easier and easier to make long distance contacts with less and less output power. 25 watts will be the new 100 watts in terms contact reliability. 

So here's my wish list. Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood, take notes. Elecraft too if you're looking for new product possibilities:
  • 25 watt output on SSB
  • Integrated battery pack offering up to 3 hours of operation at 25 watts, 10 hours of operation at 10 watts (30% duty cycle)
  • Integrated tuner
  • An IP52 or better rating for protection against moisture and dust
  • Integrated sound card for digital mode operations
  • Integrated wi-fi and Bluetooth
  • Integrated GPS
If you say I'm asking too much, I'll say there are a few radios on the market that already come very close. None of them approach the 25 watt power level or IP rating, but in almost all other ways meet what I've laid out on this list. The IC-705 and the Elecraft KX2 are the two best examples. When you get a chance, hold an IC-705 in your hands and ask yourself what it would take for Icom to bump up the power output, add an internal tuner and a larger battery pack, and do a little more work to have it earn an IP-52 rating. The answer is, not much. And if you think it's impossible to squeeze that much capability into a small package, find someone who has a KX2 and hold it in your hand (you'll only need one, it's so small). Consider that six years ago Elecraft managed to squeeze a high performance SDR transceiver, a world class internal tuner and an internal battery that provides hours of operation on 10 watts into that small box. You'll then understand that what I'm asking for isn't really pushing the envelope on radio design, it's merely integrating existing technologies into a new form factor.

So, Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood (and Elecraft), let's not blow this golden opportunity. Get to work. I expect something from at least one of you by Christmas.

W8BYH out