26 May 2018

Ham Radio Deluxe

For the past 4 months I've been 'struggling' to figure out Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD). I put 'struggling' into quotes because the struggle always came in 15 or 30 minute blocks when I had time to play with it. But inevitably I'd get frustrated because I always thought that HRD was getting in the way of my operating. I'd rather be on the radio than fiddling with the radio.

But in the past week I found myself with a lot of extra time off from work as I was playing nursemaid to my lovely XYL who had knee replacement surgery (she's doing fine, thank you). I became determined to figure out this program and make a decision to either keep using it or turn to something else.

Ham Radio Deluxe logging window

My motivation for learning HRD ended up being digital modes. I've been an SSB guy since I first got my General ticket over 15 years ago, but I really wanted to give digital modes a try. This was spurred by my interest in emergency communications. As much as I like voice communications I realize that passing messages by voice is a highly error prone process. Some level of expertise in digital communications is necessary if you expect to communicate effectively in times of emergency.

So, I thought I'd start with PSK31 and work up from there. PSK31 is extremely popular, allows keyboard-to-keyboard chats and there's usually someone hanging around the pre-determined frequencies on 80, 40 and 20 meters looking for a contact.

There's a lot of good digital mode software out there, the most famous being Fldigi (for 'fast, light digital'). Fldigi is free software that is maintained by a very talented development group and is something of the standard in digital communications. It is excellent software and is my #1 recommendation for someone looking for a digital mode package. But because Fldigi's focus is just on digital it leaves out a lot of features to support other modes of operation like SSB. I was looking for something more broad-based, something that could support all the modes I was interested in using - SSB, AM, digital and, perhaps some day, CW. I was also looking for an integrated logging program.

By process of elimination I settled on HRD and ponied up the money for an annual subscription. I manage application development for a living so I'm not afraid to pay for good software. I understand the costs involved in the development and maintenance of good software. But on the flip side I also expect a certain level of development and maintenance activity that you don't often find with 'freeware'. The management team at HRD seem to understand this, and they maintain steady progress on bug fixes, feature requests and bringing on new capabilities.

(Time for an aside here, because I know someone is going to bring this up. Several years ago HRD got a bad rap for how it was treating its paying customers. Things came to a head when, out of spite, one of its support staff turned off  several customers access to the software in retaliation for bad reviews. Soon after HRD management was reorganized and the new management team has been working hard at both improving the HRD software and doing damage control. The new HRD is not the old HRD, both from a software and management perspective. Yet reviewers on forums like eHam and QRZ.com continue to bitch about this incident as though it happened yesterday, using it as a tool to bludgeon HRD. To those I say, give it up. It's unwarranted and grossly unfair to the current management team, who are bending over backwards to provide a quality product and support.)

HRD is a program so chock full of variables that it can take days to get it all figured out. But the #1 variable, the one that seems to bedevil most users, is making the proper connection to the radio. This is where HRD excels compared to other programs. The guys who built the rig interface module knew what they were doing. After a few frustrating tries at manually configuring the connection parameters I threw up my hands and tried the 'auto-connect' feature. BINGO - instant connection. The module polls the radio, grabs the necessary connection settings and does the software configuration for you. But this is just to get the radio to talk to the software to control things like frequency and mode settings. Further configurations for digital modes can be a whole other level of frustration, even if your radio (like my IC-7300) has an integrated sound card. This is because proper configuration is a balancing act between your radio, the software and your computer hardware settings. If you use an external soundcard interface like the excellent Signalink things can be even more painfully complex. Only Rube Goldberg could have dreamed up something more twisted.

Why design something simple when it's far more fun to make it overly complex?

But things are not all peachy-keen on the HRD side. The HRD suite reflects its development origins where new modules were 'bolted-on' to a core product. This type of development is very common and is used across the software industry, but if the modules are not integrated from both a function and look and feel perspective the performance and user experience can be a bit rough. We see this in HRD with things like inconsistent menu structures, differences in icon & type styles, etc. as you move from module to module. We also see this as different modules try to compete for the same computer resources like serial ports. It can take developers several software versions to get new functionality fully integrated and matured and the hiccups smoothed out. Here's a hint - it took Microsoft well over a decade to get all the bits and pieces of what we know as Microsoft Office to work together seamlessly and share the same look and feel. The Microsoft Office development team members can be counted in the hundreds. HRD likely has less than a dozen. Given the overall complexity of HRD, the clean-up effort required to bring legacy code up to snuff and the work needed to develop, test and integrate new features I'm willing to give the HRD team time to smooth things out.

OK, back to PSK31. After several hours of tweaking I was finally rewarded with settings on both the radio side and the HRD side that allowed me to transmit a clean PSK31 signal. I happened to get it running just before a busy digital mode contest weekend, so I had lots of opportunities to hone my settings and set up my macros. Once I got things figured out it was like shooting fish in a barrel - see a PSK31 CQ call signal stream in the waterfall, click on it, throw your callsign back and the odds were better than 50/50 that the other station would acknowledge you. Easy peasy. The log filled up fast. But I'm sure for most of you reading this, PSK31 is old news.

A bit of  keyboard chat with KG4ZQY in Brunswick, GA.
I find that the PSK31 baud rate closely matches my touch typing speed, so keyboard-to-keyboard
is actually a lot of fun

But it was while playing with PSK31 that I found perhaps the biggest benefits of HRD:
  • The data mode module talks to the radio configuration module which talks to the rig control module which talks to the logbook module which talks to the callsign lookup module which talks to the DX cluster module which... well, you get it. Everything talks to everything else, fairly seamlessly and quickly. The developers have done a good job integrating the various modules that make up HRD.
  • HRD is stable. It has not frozen or hiccuped even once on the three Windows 10 laptops I've tested it on. Now that's an accomplishment. In the software world stability trumps features every time. I'm glad HRD has focused on stability, even if it's at the expense of bringing on new features.
I now have HRD running on a Panasonic Toughbook with an i5 dual core processor, 16 GB of system memory and plain-jane Intel graphics - good but not great specs for a laptop today. The software just loafs along, gobbling up less than 2% of system resources and plays well with other software packages like Winlink 2000 that demand access to serial ports and other resources.

I can't say if HRD is the best thing going for an integrated ham radio software package. I can say that it works and works well for me. I'll continue to train up on Fldigi simply because that's the standard within the ARES groups I support, but for general use, HRD - and the IC-7300 - makes for a crackerjack setup.

W8BYH out

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