19 September 2020

Takes A Licking And Keeps On...

 ...pushing out those CPU cycles.

It's no secret I love rugged stuff. Radios, trucks, knives, guns, attack helicopters, construction equipment, indirect fire weapons, nuclear submarines, I love it all. Oh, and computers. I love rugged computers. But I love rugged computers for reasons beyond what draws me to all the other stuff. You see, I manage computers for a living - desktops, laptops and tablets. I'm always appalled at how 'unsurvivable' 95% of computer hardware is. I've seen plenty of laptop computers that have enough CPU and graphics power to run Assassin's Creed like a scalded dog, but if you sneeze on them you'll short out the motherboard. Likewise, those absurdly priced MacBooks or Surface laptops that can't survive a short drop from a couch to a shag carpeted floor (don't ask me how I know). I'm also thoroughly disgusted at the lack of upgradability built into modern high-end devices. I have a crackerjack Surface Pro that I got for use at work. It has some serious hardware chops and is a delight to use. Except that, after two years, the battery is going. Microsoft says I can't put a new battery in. So here I sit with an outstanding piece of hardware that is slowly dying because Microsoft refuses to provide a battery replacement methodology. 

Not mine, but looks like mine after it fell a short distance to a carpeted floor,
while wearing a 'milspec' protector and in a padded sleeve

But there IS good ruggedized hardware out there. For the past three years or so I've had a number of rugged laptops and tablets cross my desk. Things like Panasonic Toughbooks (various models and generations), a Dell 'business rugged' laptop and tough tablets like the Trimble T10. All of them are not just good computers, but can also take some pretty tough abuse and laugh it off.

And they can all be easily opened up for upgrades and component replacement. Batteries for example. Need to replace the battery in a Panasonic Toughbook? Just snap open the battery compartment, grab the handy battery tab and slide it out.

So, what draws me to ruggedized computers is that they are the opposite of what a metrosexual soy-boy gamer would choose to carry around in his woven hemp murse. No, a ruggedized computer is something the US Army would choose to strap to a 155mm howitzer to calculate explosive projectile trajectories. Yup, a manly computer for manly tasks.

What does this have to do with Amateur Radio? Think emergency communications (EMCOMM). If you are an Amateur Radio operator deploying for a real-world communications support mission you are likely going into a semi-austere environment. You may be dealing with environmental issues such as high humidity, rain, excessive heat, dust, smoke and rough handling. All conditions that will quickly bring a consumer grade laptop to its knees. Yet for EMCOMM a laptop is an essential item of equipment. Without a computer there's no Winlink, no Fldigi, no JS8CALL, no digital modes at all. And it's not just a computer, but a computer that can run for days or weeks under harsh conditions. A computer that can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Panasonic CF-19 running Winlink via an FT-991A.
A potent combo

Panasonic defined the rugged laptop industry in 1996 with the introduction of the Toughbook CF-25, and as you can imagine it didn't take long for the competition to come up with their own variations on the theme. Today companies such as Dell and GETAC make ruggeized laptops (and tablets) that match Panasonic Toughbooks at their own game. Plus, there's even more manufacturers making rugged tablets. There's a huge market for rugged tablets for use in surveying, field data collection and outdoor machine control applications, and some of the Windows 10 models I've evaluated make pretty darned good general use computers.

A Trimble T10 tablet I evaluated a while back.
It runs Windows 10 and is, essentially, an Intel i7 laptop
in tablet format. Impressive hardware!

However, all this ruggedness comes at a cost. Ruggedized laptops are heavier and bulkier than consumer grade laptops. Virtually all of them, regardless of manufacturer, are encased in magnesium alloy bodies. The magnesium bodies are what make them rugged. But the magnesium body serves another purpose; since many of these laptops don't have cooling fans, the magnesium body serves as a giant heat sink. Remember, a cooling fan needs holes to draw air in, and to push air out, and those holes are entry points for all the things we're trying to avoid - dust, moisture, dirt, smoke, etc. So ruggedized laptops are, literally, hermetically sealed - no air in, no air out. But the heat generated by the CPU and other components has to go somewhere, and where it goes to is the magnesium case, for passive dissipation. 

Since there's no active cooling in these laptops we come to another 'cost' - performance. Since the design goal is good enough performance under all environmental conditions, most rugged laptops have fairly mundane hardware specs. The idea is to provide good performance for office tasks (email, spreadsheets, word processing or custom apps such as police or fire response logging software) while keeping heat under control. To achieve this Panasonic, for example, uses the mobile versions of a lot of popular Intel processors (such as the i5). These processors trade performance for low battery drain and heat generation. Remember, the design goal isn't to be able to play Grand Theft Auto without frame rate issues. The goal is to be able to respond to emails with the laptop perched on the fender of a pumper truck in the middle of a California wildfire.

And there's another cost. Bucks. Lots of 'em. If you go shopping for a new rugged laptop you'll immediately get hit with sticker shock. A brand new full retail Panasonic CF-31 (one of their most popular models) will set you back over $3,500! Yes, that's thirty-five hundred bucks for a laptop that shares the same performance specs with laptops selling at Wal-Mart for less than $1,000. You pay a lot for the 'Toughbook' name (or Dell 'Tough Rugged' or 'GETAC'). But you don't have to! In fact, I don't know a single person who's paid full retail for a new rugged laptop. Most of these laptops are purchased in bulk by government agencies (at significant discounts), put in to service for a few years, then replaced. Since these computers don't physically wear out like consumer grade laptops, there's a huge supply of used Panasonic, Dell and GETAC toughbooks on the market. They may look like hell on the outside, but they are perfectly fine on the inside, and run great. You can find them for sale all over eBay or you can turn to commercial refurbishers like Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff, Inc or ToughRuggedLaptops.com. At outlets like these you can buy slightly older spec laptops in near-new condition for about 1/4 the price of a new one. These used laptops will run virtually all Amateur Radio software without a hitch.

Another great thing about the Panasonic line in particular is the modularity. You can replace just about anyting on or in a Toughbook with just a screwdriver. Break the screen on your CF-31? No problem, just buy a good used one off of eBay (there's hundreds of them for sale), unscrew the broken one and screw on the replacement. Want to add a back-lit keyboard to your CF-19? No problem. Just buy a used one off of eBay (again there's hundreds of them out there), loosen a few screws, pop off the old, pop on the new and you're back in business. Try that with your $400 Wal-Mart laptop. Or your $2,300 MacBook Pro.

In fact, Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff runs a YouTube channel with videos on how to do the most common upgrades and repairs to a wide variety of ruggedized laptops and tablets. Need to replace your CF-31 keyboard? Here's how: 

One of the things I'm following is the current effort to port Winlink to Linux. If it's successful that means the two key EMCOMM software packages - Winlink and Fldigi (along with JS8CALL) will run just fine on lower spec hardware under the Linux OS. In the used rugged laptop world there's a huge pool of early 64-bit processor units that really can't run Windows 10 all that well, but should do just fine with Linux. These older laptops are starting to sell for pennies on the dollar, which means Amateur Radio operators will be able to get all the advantages of a fully ruggeized laptop that can run all the critical software, at rock bottom prices. 

I'll be keeping an eye on this, so stay tuned!

W8BYH out

21 August 2020

What If The 'S' Really Does 'HTF'?

21 Aug 2020 NOAA prediction - looks like things will be getting rough on the Gulf coast

Preppers get laughed at all the time for being 'nutty'. Right up to the minute prepping time ends and surviving time begins. The list of realistic potential disaster scenarios is enough to make any mature adult sit up and take notice. Maybe these prepper guys aren't so nutty after all:

  • Hurricanes & Tropical Storms (all of the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and most of the East Coast all the way up to Maine)
  • Tornados (all of the midwest from Texas to the upper plains, and across the southeast)
  • Earthquakes (all of the west coast, from San Diego to Seattle, and all of Alaska)
  • Tsunamis (every Pacific Rim earthquake presents a serious Tsunami threat)
  • Wildfires (all of the West, and large portions of Florida and Georgia)
  • Flooding (all of the Mississippi basin and tributaries, from the upper Midwest to New Orleans)
  • Atlantic winter storms (East Coast, from the Carolinas to Maine)
  • Major snow events (upper Midwest, Great Lakes region, upper East Coast)
  • Polar Vortex (most of the US west of the Rockies and north of the Carolinas)

California burns. Again.

And just when you think you've got all the 2020 potentials covered, Mother Nature says "hold my beer" and delivers:
  • COVID-19
  • A multi-state Derecho (widespread high winds)

The August 2020 Derecho caused widespread damage across at least five states

Then we can layer on some manmade tomfoolery such as:
  • Rolling power outages in California
  • Widespread rioting in many major cities
  • Lagging disaster recovery efforts in places like Puerto Rico

Coming soon to a city (uncomfortably) near you?

Then there's the far less likely but still possible scenarios such as:
  • A New Madras fault shift
  • A Yellowstone cauldron-triggered earthquake or eruption
  • A Mount St. Helens-level volcanic eruption anywhere on the 'ring of fire' (California, Oregon, Washington State, Alaska)

Mount Redoubt, Alaska. This eruption took place in 2009 which, in geologic time,
was about two seconds ago

I'm not an alarmist, just a realist. All of these likely scenarios will have impacts at the state, regional, and national scale. For example, a major earthquake in California will have immediate regional and national impacts, and those impacts will linger for months, or years. But the ones most impacted will be the ones 'right here, right now'; the people living and working in the immediate disaster area. Look at the first list above and ask yourself, "do I live in any of those regions?" My guess is, you do.

Most of these scenarios can, and frequently do, trigger widespread civilian communications outages; no cell coverage, no landline, no internet, nothing. Even a localized tornado can cripple all civilian communications for days, depending on the intensity and extent of the tornado. In fact, there are confirmed reports of New Jersey residents being without power, landline and cell service for several days after Tropical Storm Isaias battered the state in early August 2020. If there's a state that can be described as having 'dense infrastructure', then New Jersey is it. Yet for many residents everything went dark. For days.

In Amateur Radio, among the ARES crowd, we often discuss emergency communications in the context of 'sheltering in-place'. To be honest, that's the most likely scenario. But every year there are tens of thousands of disaster victims who find themselves evacuating - whether it's to a local shelter or to a refugee center in another state. 

So, what if you need to evacuate on short notice and the agency ordering the evacuation can't guarantee you'll have access to communications services where you are going? Amateur Radio operators are in a unique position to solve their own problem. With the right equipment set you can go anywhere and establish world-wide communications, even with non-amateur radio operators (think Winlink here). But being able to do this requires planning, and the time to start planning is not when the police are banging on your door and telling you you've got one hour to evacuate.

In this situation, effective communications means:
  1. Holding the right Amateur Radio license level (hint - Technician ain't going to get it)
  2. Being proficient at the communications mode you intend to use (voice or digital)
  3. Having the right equipment set (another hint - this isn't the time for QRP)
  4. Having that equipment staged for quick and easy load-out
  5. Having a pre-established communications plan that is understood and can be supported by those 'in the net'
Let's be honest - during a forced evacuation you've got more important things to worry about than "did I bring enough coax?" The not-so-secret trick here is to plan, plan, plan. Make Amateur Radio a standard part of your evacutaion plan.

What should an evacuation communications package contain? I'm not going to get into the particulars; this isn't a radio fanboy post. I'll just cover the major components:
  • 100 watt HF rig (forget QRP rigs - in this situation you need every available watt of output power)
  • Power supply (give serious consideration to a battery/solar combo)
  • A frequency agile antenna that is easy to put up and easy to repair
  • Coax & connectors. Lots of coax (one of the big lessons learned from the Hurricane Maria response in Puerto Rico was that you can never have enough coax)
  • If running digital modes, a computer and all necessary interface cables
  • Transport cases that provide some measure of environmental protection

So you've selected your equipment package. Great, but when did you last set it all up and test? Have you actually put everything together and tested it on the air? Can you pass traffic using the setup? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then how do you know it works? Don't assume! 

Once you evacuate and set up your communicatoins equipment, now what? In a large scale disaster you can expect one or more health and welfare nets to be operating. These nets will pass a short 'safe and well' message to a relative or friend, and that may be all you need. However, if you want to have longer and more frequent conversations with folks inside or outside the impacted area you really have only two choices: a pre-coordinated voice or digital communications schedule set with other Amateur Radio operators, or the use of a radio-based email system like Winlink. Note the use of the term 'pre-coordinated'. You need to coordinate a communications schedule - frequencies, modes and times - with fellow radio Amateurs before the hurricane rolls ashore, or before the volcano erupts, or before the levees burst. A well thought out communications plan is every bit as important as all the gear you plan to bring along

Let's talk about digital modes for a minute. Digital mode software has gotten very good over the past decade or two. Programs like Fldig can be set up to log traffic incoming traffic, and newer applications like JS8CALL can be configured to act as automatic relay nodes and run unattended. Weak signal software like JS8CALL is very good at digging message traffic out of the band noise. This allows your unattended station to receive, store and forward message traffic that often doesn't even appear in the waterfall display. Just remember, other stations in your 'net' need to be running the same software, configured the same way, and operating on the same band/frequency at the same time. It may be time to think about adopting ALE for use in disaster evacuation situations.

There's signal in all that noise!

As you develop your communications plan, consider the very real possibility that you will transition from being just an evacuee to being a message handling center, or a relay station, handling health and welfare messages for others. Remember, not everyone can, or wants to, evacuate. With a reliable HF setup you could be ideally positioned to act as a a key node in any disaster communications framework. Hey, it'll give you something to do while you wait around for your Red Cross blankets and bottled water.

We'll expand on all of this later but for now, enjoy your hurricane season!

W8BYH out

22 July 2020

Vaporware In Solid Form

For over a year I've been saying that the Lab599 TX-500 radio was little more than vaporware. It looked like a compelling design, but there was precious little word about the radio for well over 12 months.

But now, just as the ham radio world is in a whirl over the impending release of the Icom IC-705, this shows up on HRO's website:

They even beat Icom to the punch by making sure the radio received its FCC certification before announcing its availability.

Almost immediately after the HRO announcement, Chameleon Antenna (a great company, and one that I trust and respect) revealed on their Facebook page that they had been involved in the testing of the TX-500.

Well dang, maybe this radio isn't so 'vaporous' after all!

But to top it all off, Josh at Ham Radio Crash Course managed to get his hands on an evaluation unit and posted a video of it up on YouTube.

The design is compelling - the radio is relatively small and very, very thin. What it reminds me of is a plug-in expansion board for the old IBM PC - it's about the same size and thickness. But the radio achieves its small size by omitting a speaker, an internal battery and a tuner. What you get is essentially a no bells or whistles SDR transciever in a hardened enclosure. Is that bad? No, not at all. Based on what I've seen so far the radio seems well made and has all the expected features wrapped up in a compelling design. I actually LIKE the fact that there's no open ports or rubber pluggy things. If this radio takes off I can see the after-market comeing up with all sorts of accessories, like snap-on battery packs and maybe a compatible tuner.

However, I am extremely concerned about the country of origin - Russia. I'm glad that the big dog of Amateur Radio retail, HRO, has agreed to be the distributor for this radio. That means resoponsive warranty support and an assured supply of components.

Is there a TX-500 in my future? Way too early to say. I like the minimalist approach this radio takes, and if the performance reports are good, well, who knows!

W8BYH out

04 July 2020

FT-70G Initial Report

Yesterday I dropped my Yaesu FT-70 off at Clairmont-Skyland in Gainesville, GA for an alignment and check-over. It's off frequency on TX and RX, and it's beyond my ability to troubleshoot and service.

No, not this FT-70:

This FT-70:

The FT-70G, to be exact. This is a rare bird. I've only seen one in the flesh, and it's the one I own. These were manufactured by Yaesu in the mid-late 80's for the commercial market, and a good number of them were bought by various militaries around the world. In one of the more famous cases, they saw heavy use in Central America by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. The US Congress would not authorize the sale or loan of US military communications equipment to the Contras (but were OK with giving a lot of moral support to the Nicaraguan Sandinista Communists and the Ortega brothers). The Contras ended up buying a lot of commercial gear, including these little Yaesus. One rumor has it that Ollie North saw the Contras using these radios on one of his visits to the region and reported favorably on them.

Since I happened to be on the Honduran/Nicaraguan border with Task Force Tiger out of Fort Bragg the night the first free elections were held in Nicaragua - 26 February, 1990, and we fully expected the Sandanistas to stir up trouble on the border to interfere with the voting, you could say this little radio is something of a touchstone to my military career.

I bought the radio from a seller on QRZ.com a month or so ago. I knew it was a crap-shoot, but it was a complete set: radio, tuner, speaker/mic, two battery packs, power supply/amplifier/charger and the original Yaesu backpack. The price was right, so I took the plunge. I wasn't disappointed.

When I received the radio I opened it up to see what the insides looked like. Being a 30 year old radio I expected corrosion, maybe a few spider nests, etc. To my delight, the inside was a clean as the day it came off the assembly line in Japan. It's also an homage to the way radios used to be designed and built - hundreds of discreet components neatly stuffed on to boards and expertly soldered, with just a couple of early ICs thrown in to let you know what the future will look like. I was also relieved to see that the radio came with the LSB filter. Being a commercial/military design, most were USB-only. Yaesu included the socket for the LSB filter, but LSB was an extra-cost option. The USB & LSB filters are the two large rectangular cans in the center of the picture below:

The radio came with the external tuner, every bit as large as the radio itself. It's a great companion piece, but I think I'll end up just using my Elecraft T1:

Although the FT-70G came with a Yaesu-designed canvas backpack and has an SO-239 connector on the face of the radio (similar to the PRC-77), sadly it's not really designed for manpack use. It's more of a 'carry to the field location and set up in a semi-mobile configuration' rig. I don't know how robust the PA section is, so I'm not sure how SWR tolerant it is. Remember, this is an HF radio, not a VHF rig. Maybe I could find a 'closely resonant' 10 meter whip antenna to try, along with a conuterpoise. We'll see.

Once I get the radio back and spend some time with it on the air I'll do a more in-depth review of the entire FT-70G 'system', so stay tuned!

W8BYH out.

29 June 2020

A Ham Shack On Wheels

A few weeks ago my wife and I did something we've been talking about for years - we went out and bought a camper.

This is a first for both of us. I spent 23 years 'camping' with the US Army and did more than my fair share of time sleeping in mud, dust, freezing rain and 100 degree heat, eating out of cans and plastic pouches, drinking gritty coffee, showering once a week, shaving out of a helmet (yes Virginia, we really did shave out of our helmets - the old 2-piece 'steel pots', not the newer Kevlar noggin' protectors) and generally getting my fill of 'roughing it'. I told The Missus that the next time I go camping, it'll be with air conditioning, a shower and a flush toilet. She didn't argue.

And of course, being the devious SOB that I am, I viewed the camper as something of a rolling ham shack. In fact, I just spent Field Day 2020 operating out of it while it was parked in my driveway.

In buying the camper we learned the four universal truths about RVs:
  1. Buying the camper is just the beginning, as far as spending $$$
  2. You can't run the air conditioner on a 15 or 20 amp household circuit
  3. Towing, setting up and tearing down a camper is real work - and not something you can out-source to the neighbor's kid for a few bucks
  4. Backing an RV into a tight spot is best done when the little children are out of earshot - ideally somewhere in an adjoining county. Both my wife and I were yelling, swearing and arguing like drunken sailors on shore leave
Also, the 'black water tank dump' ritual seems specifically designed to remind you why we need to appreciate modern plumbing and sewage treatment. Nothing like having to flush your own poop out of a holding tank to remind you why we're a first world country and those without working sewage systems are third world countries. Yummy.

Other than gaining a mobile ham shack, there are other benefits. For example, that air conditioner circuit thing. Once we figured out that running the AC on a household circuit was a no-go we realized a generator was in order. Gee, imagine that - a ham radio guy being forced to buy a generator. Go ahead, twist my arm.

But I was also forced into the realization that ham radio in a small RV takes up too much space, if you are thinking conventionally. The picture above shows my Icom IC-7100 set up along with my laptop. That left my wife barely enough table space to put down a cup of coffe. Suddenly something like the old Yaesu FT-857D is looking pretty good for this type of activity. What this world needs is a small form factor all-mode/all-band radio with a built-in sound card interface and tuner. But where to shave weight and size? Simple - make it a 20 watt rig. Yaesu? Icom? Bueller?

So stay tuned for more adventures from the mobile ham shack. I'm not sure where this will all lead, but I'm sure it'll be an interesting trip!

W8BYH out

19 June 2020

Waiting, and Waiting

Sigh. Vent time...

The Icom IC-705 is still weeks (months? years?) away from release in the US. Out of frustration I bough a Yaesu FT-818 after swearing I'd never again invest in 'new' old technology. But dammit, the radio just works. Yaesu recently killed off their generally excellent (but also dated) FT-857, and apparently has nothing in the pipeline to replace it. C'mon Yaesu, get your head out of your ass the System Fusion hole and get to work. Rugged mobile HF radios were once your forte. Today, you're merely an also-ran in a market full of also-rans. The new(ish) Yaesu FT-891 was supposed to knock one out of the park, but instead has all the shortcomings of a radio specifically designed to NOT compete with other Yaesu radios. Plus, it generates so much phase noise that it set off the radiation alarms in the ARRL test lab (just kidding - but only a bit).

The CommRadio CTX-10 is still having teething problems. Elecraft's KX line is looking older every day. The Xiegu X5105 looks interesting, but I need something with a little more 'oomph' than just 5 watts (plus it may, or may not, be out of production, depending which website you read). The 20 watt Xiegu G90, the hot new 'it-girl' in QRP, was just rated by the ARRL as one of the most 'splattering' radios on the market today, beating out the reigning splatter champ, the Yaesu FT-891. The 599 Labs Discovery radio is a year overdue and is looking more and more like vaporware.

It seems in the near term I'm stuck with schlepping one of my full-sized radios to the field - radios like the Yaesu FT-991A or the Icom IC-7200. Both are very good radios, but physically they are larger than what I want for portable use. Plus, I'm really interested in a radio with an output between 10 - 20 watts for EMCOMM work. 

There's a guy over on the Icom IC-705 Facebook page (yes, a not-yet released radio has its own Facebook page, and it has a LOT of followers) that keeps getting beat down for asking questions about the 705's ability to withstand weather, dust and rough handling. Yet the guy asks very valid questions. Icom is marketing this as an 'outdoors' radio, and the consumer has every right to expect some level of envionmental protection. Alas, Icom remains silent on the issue, which raises everyone's suspicions.

All this has me wondering, just what the hell is going on in the ham radio market today?! We've traded tough, rugged, simple but effective radios like the Yaesu FT-897 or the Icom IC-7200 - radios built to take a bit of outdoor abuse - for a bunch of effite "Please don't take me out in the high humidity" shack queens that have more bells, whistles and menu options than the International Space Station. And the structural integrity of a soup strainer.

All I ask for is a simple all-mode HF-only rig that puts out 20 watts, has a built-in tuner and sound card interface and is built to MIL-STD-810 environmental standards.

Oh wait, there's already one on the market. Now where'd I put that spare $20k?


W8BYH out

01 May 2020

So A Guy Walks Into A Store To Buy An HT...

and walks out with an HF rig.

To put it another way, I fell into another Yaesu FT-817. Another 817?  Well, yeah. I bought my first one back in early 2017 and used it hard for a while, then sold it to help cover my purchase of the new CommRadio CTX-10. At the time I wasn't actually sorry to see the 817 go. I sold it for a good price and got the CTX-10, and wasn't really looking specifically for another 817. This one just fell into my lap.

Oops, wait. It's not an 817. It's an 818. But really, the 818 is just a warmed over 817. You see, not long after I sold my 817 Yaesu released a 'new and improved' version of the little radio, called the FT-818ND. All this 'new' radio offered over the old 817 is "more power!" - a whopping 6 watts instead of the original 5 watts - a built-in TXCO module, and a slightly larger capacity battery pack. But Yaesu opted to keep everything else the same, including the old power management circuitry that slowly sucks the battery dry even if the radio is turned off. Way to go Yaesu!

My new FT-818. Or is it my old FT-817? Hell, even I can't tell the difference

Yup, Yeasu dropped the ball on this one. I guess the fact that the FT-817 was still a strong seller, and since they didn't really break anything with the 'upgrade', we'll just call the FT-818ND the Radio of Missed Opportunities.

When folks got wind of an upgrade to the FT-817 about 2 years ago the ham radio world went into a high hover. But the fact that Yaesu didn't make any prior announcements about the new radio - it took a sleuth digging around in the FCC database to stumble on the type acceptance submission - should have been an indicator. Unfortunately, for the past half decade Yaesu's had its head shoved so deep into the System Fusion hole that they can't see daylight. So, when parts availability became an issue with the 817 (a 17 year old design at the time), they took the cheap and easy path and just stuck in some new components, provided a marginally better battery pack, a TXCO module, and patted themselves on the back. Then they proceded to lecture us about how the FT-818 represented a 'new era in QRP capabilities'.

"Oh, and pay no attention to what those Chinese guys at Xiegu are up to, or what Icom is rumored to be working on."

For the most part the ham radio world didn't buy into Yaesu's marketing bullshit about 'more transmit power', or the 'improved' battery pack, or the 'free' TXCO. The joke in the radio community quickly became that the ND in the radio's name - FT-818ND - stands for 'no difference', as in there's really no difference between the FT-817 and the 818. The list of things that Yaesu didn't address with the FT-818 includes things the user community has been griping about for years:
  • an absurdly archaic power management system
  • no effective RX audio filtering, unless you want to shell out an additioal $170 for a 2.3 khz SSB filter, or an equal amount for a 300 hz CW filter
  • no digital signal processing (not even fairly simple AF stage processing like Yaesu's had on some of its rigs since before the original FT-817 was released)

But like I said at the outset, at least Yaesu didn't do any damage to an already solid radio with this 'update'. No real improvements, but at least no damage.

Some would say, "why mess with success?" There is an argument there - the FT-817 has been a phenomenal world-wide success for Yaesu, and they've sold them by the truckload. There's even evidence of the FT-817 having been adopted by some pretty odd non-governmental organizations, like the Columbian FARC. Hell, if third world narco-terrorists depend on your product, why change things up?

By this point you're probably saying to yourself, "If you dislike the radio so much why did you buy another one?"  Valid question. I actually have a specific use case for the radio - as a portable 6 meter rig to help test military VHF radios. I've been looking for one of Yaesu's discontinued HTs that offered 6 meters - a VX-5, 7 or 8. But good used examples don't hang around long on the on-line sales sites like eHam or QRZ.com. This like-new 818 popped up and I figured, aw heck, why not. (Hence the title of this post.)

Since Yaesu released the original FT-817 the little radio has seen a lot of strong competitors enter the market. Elecraft released their KX line, the Chinese manufacturer Xiegu has come on strong with a whole slew of low cost but capable QRP rigs and CommRadio has released its CTX-10. But the real threat is just over the horizon. Icom is about to release their IC-705 QRP rig. Regardless, FT-818 sales seem to be strong, and there are still compelling reasons to pick the little radio over all the current competition:
  • The 818 is still the only QRP currently for sale that offers HF plus VHF/UHF and all modes on all bands - SSB, AM, FM
  • The 818 has a very robust accessory market. There are cottage industries out there selling replacement battery packs, digital interfaces, protective cases, filters, speech compressors, antenna tuners, etc; you can pimp this radio out to your heart's content
  • The radio has very strong third party rig control and digital mode software support
  • Yaesu did a great job with the overall format of the radio. From the front/rear antenna port arrangement to the placement of the controls, Yaesu did a good job laying out this little rig
  • At it's current street price of $550 US (as of April 2020), it's actually fairly reasonably priced for what you get

But at the end of the day, here in the year 2020, the FT-817 818 is an achingly outdated design that is crying out for a major makeover. Yaesu knows how to do it. They just need to get it done

... or Icom will eat their lunch.

W8BYH out

05 April 2020

Ham Radio Minimus

The Coronavirus has kept me and the XYL at home for the past few weeks. We're both still working (she's an elementary school teacher) so we stay busy most of the day. The weather here in north-central Georgia has been remarkably gorgeous for most of the past two weeks, with cool temps and clear skies. I know Mother Nature will have her way with us later in the season, but for now it's nice.

However, one does get bored when the job requirements for the day taper off. While I've got a full-up ham shack I can hunker down in to 'play radio', lately I find myself wanting to just sit on the back deck and enjoy the weather, eat lunch, chat with the XYL, wave at the neighbors also practicing social distancing and... play radio.

Normally if I want to play radio on the deck I'm dragging all sorts of crap up from my shack - batteries, radios, tuners, cables, computers, etc. But this week I've been keeping it simple. I've got my Chameleon Antennas vertical set up in the back yard and I keep my CommRadio CTX-10 on the porch. It 'lives' in a small Pelican waterproof case and is easy to pull out and set up in just a few minutes - literally, it takes all of two minutes to get on the air, and that's if I'm moving slow. 

What makes the CTX-10 perfect for this situation is it's built-in battery and tuner. If all you want to do is talk on sideband there's no cable mess other than the coax going to the antenna. With a small set of C.Crane's excellent communications earbuds this makes a fun setup. It's so small it doesn't bother the XYL when she's sitting with me out on the deck.

The operating is casual - I'm not working DX. I keep the radio set up throughout the day and when I get a break I'll sit down, turn it on and have a listen on 80 and 40 meters. If something sounds interesting I'll toss out my callsign. For variety I'll tune over to the shortwave bands and try to catch Radio Havana or Brother Stair (where hell does that guy get the money to both pay his lawyers and stay on the air?). The CTX-10 is actually a pretty good all-band receiver.

Next week the weather is supposed to start getting more 'springtime in Georgia'. That means rain, high humidity and higher temps. But for now, it's wonderful on my deck.

W8BYH out

04 April 2020

Coronavirus, Part 3

... or, 'radio in the time of the pandemic'

"The doctor will see you now"

Ask folks if they personally know someone who's come down with Coronavirus and most will say no. But that's irrelevant. Mathematical models are showing that if Georgia doesn't get a handle on the rate of infection, every in-patient hospital bed in the state will be occupied by May. So yesterday Georgia's guv ordered the state shut down. Most folks are remarkably accepting of the order, much to my surprise. Even many of the uber libertarian (slash) 'sovereign citizen' types are admitting it might be a good thing to try. 

Now there's discussion about the number of hospital beds in the state - do we have enough? Apparently the consensus is, 'no'. Why not? Well, folks I know who track this sort of thing for a living put the blame squarely on Big Medicine. Medical systems like Piedmont Healthcare, Emory, Grady, etc. have been very effective in convincing the Georgia legislature to put laws in-place that squash competition via a very expensive and complex needs assessment process specifically designed to slow or stop hospital construction. Can't have competition now, can we?

Spare me the caterwauling we're hearing from the Left that all of this would have never happened if we just had a single payer/socialized/Canadian-style/whatever-the-hell Venezuela has health system. The problem isn't America's 'unequal' medical system. Compared to most of the rest of the world it's pretty damned equal, and overall the quality of care is far better than many 'westernized' nations. The real problem is a lack of market competition brought on by an unholy trinity of Big Medicine, greedy politicians and crushing regulation. Here's hoping for a post-apocalyptic comeuppance, with reforms that sweep aside the dumb-assed rules intended mostly to keep the other guy out of your market segment.

But we're here for radios. At least I am. Perhaps the greatest radio tragedy to come out of this pandemic is the delay of the release of the new Icom IC-705. Oh, cruel world!

Vaporware, for at least another few months...

As expected, the 2020 Hamvention in Xenia, Ohio was canceled. Damn. I was actually planning on attending. It would have been my first. Since I've got family in the immediate area it would have made for a great couple of days of family visits and hamfest drooling. Next year, I guess. So I have to wonder what's happening with all of the new product releases. Hamvention traditionally was when the manufacturers did a lot of their annual product reveals. For Icom, the IC-705 was to be one of the stars of the show. But what about Yaesu, Kenwood, Elecraft, MFJ, Xiegu and all the others?

well poop...

The pandemic is having a real impact on the ham radio dealers here in the US. Since most of the hardware comes out of the Pacific Rim - Japan and China mainly - retailers like HRO and Gigaparts are starting to see real shortages in inventory. I was up at HRO Atlanta just as the virus scare started to ramp up. If you've ever been to an HRO store one of the things that strikes you is the amount of stock they have on hand. Boxes of radios, HTs, amplifiers, power supplies, antenna, etc. stacked everywhere. So many boxes, in fact, that it's often hard to move around the store. This inventory is on-hand mainly to fill internet and phone orders. But two weeks ago there was so little stock in the Atlanta store that you could have held a ballroom dance competition there. Based on what I see on their website things are still not back to normal.

Hmmm... this ain't good

It looks like Yaesu has finally killed off the FT-857. I think it was a mercy killing. This extraordinarily popular mobile 'shack-in-a-box' was introduced back around the Time Of The Mastodons and remained a strong seller. Why kill it off? My suspicion is that parts availability became an issue. But the radio simply was no longer competitive from a technology standpoint. To the end, Yaesu was asking top dollar for the rig AND telling us we needed to pay extra for a TXCO and better filtering. In addition, the front end DSP left a lot to be desired compared to what's available on more current (and cheaper) rigs. The FT-857 form factor was great, it's just that the technology inside the box was badly outdated.

The demise of the FT-857 leaves a market gap that Yaesu has traditionally been very strong in - a truly mobile, rugged, all band radio. The FT-991A, an otherwise great radio, really isn't a 'mobile' rig. Icom doesn't have one either. Their IC-7100 (also a great rig) doesn't really fit the definition of mobile. Portable, yes. Mobile, as in mounted in a car, not really. Here's hoping Yaesu has something waiting in the wings.

Farewell old friend. You had a good run.


But at the end of the day, this forced isolation is actually having a positive impact on Amateur Radio. More people are talking! We hear it on our local repeaters, and I'm hearing it on the HF bands. Maybe it's boredom. Maybe it's a realization that ham radio has a role to play in a world-wide pandemic. Who knows. But more people are on the air, and that's a good thing. So get out there and help warm up the ionosphere!

And stay healthy...

W8BYH out

21 March 2020

Coronavirus, Part 2

"EVERYBODY is a carrier!" - The XYL

One full work week into self-isolation with the XYL while home schooling our granddaughter...

Everybody survived.

The XYL is an elementary school teacher in a school system that a few years back tossed their local (and poorly performing) IT infrastructure overboard and adopted Google for Education. So for her, the transition to a 'distance education' paradigm was relatively easy. At least the school system had the tools in place, and a good experience base among both the teachers and many of the parents. Not all. But many.

Since our granddaughter's school was closed and both parents work in law enforcement (and HAD to show up for work), we volunteered to home school her. Her 'classroom' was set up right next to the XYL's, on the same table. Kind of a cute setup, actually. But the granddaughter went through something of an adjustment process - it took her a while to realize the lady she was sitting next to wasn't her normally squishy grandmother, but was in fact her hard nosed teacher. There were a few bumps along that road.

As for me, my employer (a very busy commercial airport) sent most people home to 'telework'. Most departments were utterly unprepared for 'telework', and the technology base - laptops and web-based services like Office 365 - were not in-place to enable this new work-from-home concept. My particular group was one of the exceptions. Years ago we transitioned almost everything to cloud-based services, even going so far as to adopt Amazon Workspaces to host our desktop production software. Moving everyone to a home-based work paradigm was relatively easy.

I also took the time to play radio. I'm interested in tracking how this particular pandemic situation - enforced isolation, yet with full and uninterrupted services - impacts how groups like ARES provides communications support. If you think about it, what we are facing with the Coronavirus is almost the exact opposite of what ARES normally trains for. Most of our disaster scenarios involve a disruption of essential services (electricity, internet, phone), and an aggregation of individuals in shelters or other meeting places. So far the comms support requirements seem to be little more than the old Army concept of 'stand-by to stand-by'; open your nets, exercise them, and wait for further instructions. After listening to a few nets through the week, here's some observations:

  • The bubbas need to stay off the air
  • DSTAR is getting a good workout

Why do the bubbas need to stay off the air? Well, if you listened to the first Georgia ARES HF net that took place the day ARES started daily net ops, you'd understand. Net discipline was awful. The concepts of critical information only, brevity, and proper net protocols went right out the window. Bubbas from one end of the state to the other reported on everything from the health of their pet cats to the tread depth of their pickup truck tires. It was embarrassing. Things seem to be under control now, with better net discipline in-place. I just pray to God that nobody from GEMA was listening to that first net.

Next, DSTAR seems to be clicking right along. More accurately, Georgia ARES use of DSTAR seems to be clicking right along, and DSTAR's use as an EMCOMM backbone in Georgia may have actually found its place. There are several well run DSTAR status update nets every day, and folks with limited DSTAR proficiency are getting good training. The Coronavirus experience may cause me to change my normal sour opinion of DSTAR in this role.

I've taken the time to evaluate my personal equipment and training status. It's rare when I say "I've got enough toys", but I really do. I found I lack a few odd connectors for this-and-that, and my mix of coax lengths may be a little off (too many 200' runs, not enough 50' runs), but other than that, I'm set. In preparation for next week's Fayette ARES NVIS Day event I still need to set up my antenna(s) and test them, but I'm waiting for a break in the weather to do that.

So that's it for this week. Stay healthy.

W8BYH out

15 March 2020

Coronavirus, Part 1

For the love of God, will ya'll get a grip on yourselves?

When all this is over (and it will be soon) there's going to be plenty of people sitting in their living rooms, staring at their mountains of toilet paper, paper towels, bottles of Clorox, gallon jugs of liquid soap, cases of canned soup and pallets of ramen noodles, and and suffering from buyers remorse. Someone posted earlier today that once things calm down we'll see all this stuff flow back to the stores as the Wal-Mart crowd realizes they spent all of their rent money on useless panic supplies. I believe it.

As you may imagine, the Coronavirus is spurring a lot of Amateur Radio activity, as ARES winds up to provide whatever EMCOMM support may be needed. My disaster scenario planning had always focused on short term, high impact events like hurricanes, earthquakes or tornado swarms. With COVID-19 we're facing a scenario that I never gave much thought to:

  • a world-wide pandemic brought on by an easily transmitted virus with a relatively low mortality rate
  • proactive self-isolation measures that keep healthy, productive individuals temporarily out of the workforce
  • health care measures put in place to spread out the infection rate over time, to keep hospitalization rates at a manageable level. The disease is relatively easy to treat, we just can't treat everyone at the same time
  • A generally calm but watchful outlook, and no impact on basic services and utilities. Other than the aforementioned panic buying, everybody's behaving themselves and the lights are staying on

This has put ARES and other EMCOMM services into a watch, wait and evaluate mode. There's increased emphasis, and interest, in state-wide and regional nets, folks are boning up on their digital communications skills, and evaluating their equipment.

This morning I decided to play 'carport portable' to test and practice a few things. I set my current EMCOMM station up on my work table and stuck a 40 meter hamstick dipole up in the air. The goal was to test JS8CALL and WinLink.

I'm a big supporter of hamstick dipoles for EMCOMM work, as a fast deployment antenna system that gets you on the air as quickly as possible. Yes, I know they are very narrow banded (particularly in the lower bands), are not at all efficient and don't 'hear' very well, but if  you need to get up and operating ASAP these things can't be beat. While my Chameleon vertical antenna that mounts on a similar tripod is more broad-banded, it takes at least 50% more time to set up. It's worth the effort, but if you are in a real-world emergency and only need to operate on one band, take a look at the hamstick dipole setup.

As far as other equipment goes, it looks like I'm very well set up. My biggest concern right now is battery capacity. The limiting factor for digital operations now seems to be my laptop battery. Maybe it's time to head over to Amazon or eBay...

More later.

W8BYH out (and Coronavirus free)

08 March 2020

Yaesu FT-991A vs. Icom IC-7100

Right now I'm following an odd on-line discussion on QRZ.com regarding the Yaesu FT-991A. There's no small amount of FT-991A bashing going on. But what makes this discussion odd is that it's taking place on the 'Online Swapmeet' portion of the website, and it's the guy selling the radio who started the bashing!

Heck of a way to make a sale. It's almost like he really doesn't want to get rid of it.

A number of people in the discussion are comparing the FT-991A to the IC-7100. After some thought I figured that was a fair comparison. These radios offer very equivalent feature sets, and are based on the same technology. So why is one almost 50% more expensive than the other? Honestly, I can't really say for sure, but I can speculate...

But first, let's do a quick comparison (because of the limitations of Google's Blogger platform I can't format for a side-by-side setup, so we'll just stack the comparisons):

Yaesu FT-991A
  • 32-bit DSP
  • Triple conversion super heterodyne on SSB/CW/AM
  • Double conversion super heterodyne on FM
  • 100 watts HF/50 watts VHF/35 watts UHF
  • C4FM digital mode on VHF & UHF
  • 3kHz roofing filter
  • TXCO
  • Built-in sound card interface (for HF digital modes)
  • Built-in antenna tuner
  • Real time band scope
  • Color touch screen display
  • Hybrid touch screen & conventional button interfaces
  • USB interface

Icom IC-7100 (major differences with the FT-991A highlighted)
  • 32 bit DSP (in fact, it looks like Icom & Yaesu use the same Texas Instruments chip in this application)
  • Triple conversion super heterodyne receiver on SSB/CW/AM
  • Double conversion super heterodyne on FM
  • 100 watts HF/50 watts VHF/35 watts UHF
  • DSTAR digital modes for VHF/UHF/HF
  • 3kHz roofing filter
  • TXCO
  • Built-in sound card interface (for HF digital modes)
  • NO antenna tuner
  • NO real-time band scope
  • B&W touch screen display
  • Hybrid touch screen & conventional button interfaces
  • USB interface
This is a comparison of the basic feature set, and based on what we see here I can spot some of the reasons for the price difference - the IC-7100 lacks an antenna tuner, a real-time band scope and only offers a black & white touch screen. Of course this accounts for much (but not all) of the price difference. Another chunk of the price difference is likely product age. The IC-7100 has been on the market for a few years longer than the FT-991A, and Amateur Radio manufacturers tend to slowly drop the price of their radios as their competitors introduce equivalent products and demand starts to sag. Plus, I honestly believe that IC-7100 sales were (and are) unfairly hurt by the non-conventional form factor.

But there's more to the comparison of these two radios than just the basic feature set. The big questions is, how do they work in the real world? Is one better than the other for my specific needs? From this perspective the answer is, both are good, neither is perfect, but one comes out the winner.

Before we move on I have to say that as basic ham radio both are very, very good. If all you need is a box that lets you speak and hear, either of these will do admirably.

Now lets fashion a scenario that fits the theme of this blog. I spend about 60% of my radio time on digital modes - usually one of three modes; Winlink, JS8CALL and MARS using the MS-DMT modem package. The other 40% of the time I spend on formal voice nets. I may play in a contest or two throughout the year, but my real focus these days is emergency communications. For the EMCOMM role I already have an excellent station radio - a MARS modified Icom IC-7300. What I need is a radio that can serve as a main rig back-up AND is fully functional in a deployed, or portable, mode. Having VHF and UHF on-board is desirable, but not absolutely essential.

When operating portable my main scenario, the one that I focus on, is emergency communications. Yes, yes, yes, that's a thinly veiled excuse to go to a park and 'play radio', but I'm serious about getting the mix of radio, antenna, power source, computer, and software right to support a real-world emergency communications scenario. Given that, there are enough small differences between the FT-991A and the IC-7100 that actually allow a winner to emerge. It all comes down to ease of use and some seemingly minor feature differences between radios.

First, the winner:

I've discussed the IC-7100 in the not-too-distant past, so I'll just say that in overall feature set and implementation the IC-7100 is the clear winner. While the FT-991A is no slouch, the IC-7100 races ahead with some characteristics that stand out when talking about emergency communications support in Georgia.

  • DSTAR. While I'm no big fan of FM digital modes, Georgia ARES has 'adopted' DSTAR as an FM digital standard and has actually seeded DSTAR repeaters across the state. Sure, I could handle this requirement with an HT, but having DSTAR built into the base radio makes life a little bit simpler
  • SD card compatibility. The IC-7100 has an SD card slot, and SD cards can be used to store configuration files, audio recordings, logs and other key data. But the real benefit of the SD card feature is the ability to distribute radio configuration files via radio (HF WinLink) to update other IC-7100's at remote locations, and without the use of the internet. The FT-991A does not have an SD card slot
  • Feature implementation. While both radios share a mostly equivalent feature set, the IC-7100 just does a better job. The combination of touch screen commands and physical buttons is better thought out (and laid out) than on the Yaesu. The command set makes more sense. It's just an easier radio to live with.
  • HF digital modes. This is where the IC-7100 shines. Icom just does a better job with its sound card configuration command set. As of this writing I have more experience running the FT-991A on digital modes (it's running  Winlink as I type this) so I understand the Yaesu digital mode command set as well as the next person. I have to maintain a 5-column 'cheat sheet' of digital mode settings for the FT-991A, so I know what menu settings to adjust for various digital modes. The IC-7100 doesn't require a 'cheat sheet'; there's really only one or two settings I have to remember. In addition, the Icom command set is better supported by many of the digital mode packages I run. In particular, the MARS MS-DMT software modem. MS-DMT is relatively simple to configure for use with the IC-7100, but does not work at all (in my experience) with the FT-991A. This is really a limitation of the software, but it is a real-world restriction that needs to be taken into consideration
However, it's not a perfect world. The IC-7100's display can best be described as 'adequate'. It's not the lack of snazzy color options that's the problem. It's the relatively low resolution of the dot matrix display. What could have been a crisp, clear character set with just a slight bump up in pixel count is instead rendered like the poorly formed characters on an old Atari game console. Space Invaders anyone? If Icom could do one thing to improve this radio it would be to incorporate a higher resolution display.

How about the lack of a real-time band scope? I have to admit, the band scope feature on the FT-991A is slick, and useful. I do miss it on the IC-7100. The Icom does have a band 'sweep' function that gives you a snapshot of what's happening on the band, but it's not real time and it's relatively crude by comparison. Useful? Yes. As good as the FT-991A? No, it's not even close. 

Is the lack of an internal tuner a real problem? While having a built-in tuner is a nice feature, my experience is that most tuners can only match 'almost resonant' antennas, say 3:1 or 4:1. In EMCOMM applications I might have to tune up some odd antenna installations and configurations, so I carry an external tuner anyway. I really don't miss an internal tuner.

Now, the second place finisher. Lost by a nose...

So what good things to I have to say about the FT-991A? Plenty. 

The build quality is excellent. It's a tough, rugged and compact beast. Yaesu knows how to pack a lot of technology into small packages and it shows with this radio. Although the menu options are complex, once you learn the 'system' it's easy to navigate around. Once you conquer the labyrinthine digital mode settings the Yaesu works fine on digital modes. Just have your cheat sheet handy. 

There's a lot of controversy on the web about how Yaesu 'hybridized' the touch screen display. I think the criticism is overblown. The digital display, while not super high resolution, is more than adequate enough to convey all the critical info in one glance, and the integration between the touchscreen and the manual buttons and knobs is well thought out.

And last, I've gotten more unsolicited "your audio's great" reports with the FT-991A than I have with any other radio. Yaesu knows SSB audio, and it shows.

Both radios will stay in my stable for the foreseeable future. But if a CAT 5 hurricane swept across south Georgia tomorrow and I was asked to deploy, it would be the IC-7100 that gets tossed in the truck.

W8BYH out

06 March 2020

A Radio

A few weeks ago we lost my father, James P. Haren. While at 91 his death was not unexpected, it did come suddenly, and his close family and friends are still mourning his loss.

As my sister and I were going through his few remaining belongings I spied a dusty old portable radio sitting on his closet shelf, and I told her, "I want that".

The radio is just an old GE SuperRadio, but to me it represents something special about Dad. Born in 1929, he grew up during the heyday of broadcast radio. Dad had no interest in Amateur Radio that I am aware of. He was a chemical engineer by trade and generally good with mechanical things, but I don't think he had much interest in electronics beyond being fascinated by consumer gadgets. Dad was a great one for gadgets.

But to the end, Dad loved listening to radio. I think it's because radio was closely associated with the milestone markers of his young life. It makes sense - he would have grown up listening to the classic radio shows of the era that were designed to capture the imaginations of millions of young boys. Shows like Dick Tracy, Death Valley Days, and Jack Armstrong, All American. He also came of age in the era when radio delivered the immediate news of all important national and world events - FDR's Fireside Chats and the nation's efforts to claw its way out of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, the Japanese brutality in Manchuria, the Nazi invasions of Poland and France, the events of December 7th, 1941, and the long, hard struggle for victory in WWII. And that news would have been delivered by some of the great voices in early radio news reporting, like Richard Harkness, H. V. Kaltenborn, Lowell Thomas, Edward R. Murrow, and William L. Shirer. I can only imagine what it must have been like as a young boy, sitting on the floor of his parent's living room on cold, snowy winter nights in Buffalo N.Y., listening to world events unfold via the soft warm glow of a tube radio. Dad was not much for nostalgia, so his occasional stories of listening to the radio while growing up led me to believe that he marked the experiences as something special and important in his childhood.

Later in life the family home was never without a radio. While both my parents loved TV - Walter Cronkite informed us, and Ed Sullivan entertained us - a radio was always close by. At some point Dad became fascinated with shortwave. This was triggered, I believe, by the gift of an old 1950's-era Grundig table-top receiver, presented to him by a close friend who was a German ex-pat. This great old radio (which I now own) has the dial marked out not just with frequencies, but also with locations. It hearkens back to the days when shortwave broadcasts were identified by the cities they originated from - 'Moscow', 'Berlin', 'London', 'New York', 'San Francisco', 'Tokyo'. In my mind's eye I can still see Dad laying on the floor of our family room in Ohio, fiddling with the tuning dial, trying to bring in the latest broadcast from the BBC World Service. He would have been around 50 years old at the time, but he was still just a little boy in his parent's living room, captivated by world events delivered through that magic glowing box.

But time and technology marches on and, ultimately, the transistor prevailed. There was always at least one portable AM/FM radio sitting on the kitchen counter. We lived in northwestern Ohio, just south of Toledo, and the radios seemed permanently parked on the frequency for WJR out of Detroit ('The Great Voice Of The Great Lakes'). That's how the familiar voice of WJR's longtime host J.P. McCarthy became one of my listening milestones. It seemed no matter where I was during my long Army career, coming home to Ohio meant tuning in to AM 760 and the familiar sound of J.P. McCarthy (and later, Paul W. Smith).

Dad was pretty agnostic in his choice of radios. Like I said, he was a gadget guy and he loved fiddling with technology. I remember seeing a Panasonic or two occupying that kitchen counter space, along with a Toshiba, and even a series of wind-up emergency radios (again, that 'gadget' thing). But eventually he settled on the GE SuperRadio series. He went through a couple of them, and the one I grabbed out of his closet is probably at least 15 years old. But it still works great, and it's still parked on AM 760. Looking at it triggers my own flood of radio memories. And so the cycle continues.

Thanks Dad.

W8BYH out

02 February 2020

Computers and Operating Systems - A Reality Check (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this two part series I briefly covered how the current versions of Windows (Windows 10) and a current version of Linux - Raspbian - got to where they are today. Both are good operating systems, and each has something to offer the Amateur Radio community.

But when we look at operating systems from the perspective of what's best for ARES-based EMCOMM work, is there a winner? Are there reasons to pick one over the other?


Just what are the ARES-based EMCOMM computer requirements? Keep in mind, this is my list and I take full ownership of it. The focus is not on hardware or software, but on capabilities. What does the computer & operating system need to deliver to make it a useful tool when supporting an emergency management agency like your local EOC?

First, let's set the scenario. For planning purposes we have to assume the worst. Think a Hurricane Maria-type situation. Austere, no Internet, intermittent power. The computer needs to be used not just for ARES EMCOMM tasks but also general purpose tasks like managing email, preparing documents, presentations and analyzing spreadsheet data, etc. The computer will be used by multiple ARES operators over the course of the event, so the interface needs to be easily understood by the average appliance operator (see Part 1).

We can also assume that at some point the computer will be added to a local area network, so the OS and its networking functionality needs to be well understood - and trusted - by the IT support staff. Since the computer will be used by multiple ARES operators the OS needs to be able to support multiple user accounts, and those accounts may need to be managed by an external Active Directory server or similar authentication service. In short, the computer you bring to the disaster needs to 'play well with others'. In addition the computer must:

  • natively run Winlink, Fldigi and JS8CALL and any other critical Amateur Radio software (no emulators)
  • run a locally installed office automation suite like Microsoft Office, Open Office or Libra Office (remember, no Internet = no Google Docs or Office Online)
  • be compatible with the supported agency's computer and network security software
  • be supportable by the supported agency's IT staff

ARES EMCOMM support staff needs to fall-in on standardized equipment that has a flat learning curve and minimal support requirements, so they can focus on providing effective support, and not on futzing with a new and different computer equipment and interfaces. Remember, very few ARES members who show up to support a disaster will be computer superstars. Most fit the appliance operator mold - their experience is limited to the desktops or laptops they use at home, and those computers overwhelmingly run... Windows. While it's OK to pray for a never ending supply of superstars, we have to plan for the appliance operators, and the appliance operators run Windows.

What do all these requirements point to? Clearly, Microsoft Windows.

Next, let's talk about hardware. In Part 1 I reviewed the Raspberry Pi - a truly groundbreaking bit of hardware that attracts a huge variety development and integration effort within the Amateur Radio community. There's a lot of effort going on today to try to turn Raspberry Pi's into general use ARES EMCOMM computers. But in this specific use case, as an EMCOMM common computing platform, it falls short. 

While the basic Pi is quite a good little computer, it lacks important features such as a real-time clock, a battery-based power supply, a case, a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor. Yes, all of these can be easily added - and most users certainly plug in a keyboard, mouse and HDMI monitor to get up and running. But when you start adding in all the necessary components to make a Pi a truly useful general purpose ARES EMCOMM computer, well, you are schlepping around more than you can carry in one hand. Which begs the question - how is this better than a regular laptop? C'mon folks, every laptop built in the last 20 years comes with a real time clock, a battery capable of powering the system for several hours, a full keyboard, a touchpad for cursor control, and a screen. All in one handy, easy to carry package. Again, appliance operator vs. superstar.  Imagine an appliance operator-level ARES member sitting down at a Raspberry Pi for the first time and trying to find the on/off switch (hint - Rapberry Pi's don't have on/off switches).

Score one for the standard laptop configuration. It simply makes more sense. Flattens the learning curve. Gives the operator a form factor they are already familiar with.

So, Windows + Laptop = the ideal ARES EMCOMM common use computing platform. This is what we should be focusing on as we put together equipment support packages for our local EMAs. Forget the exotic gear or the cool maker stuff. Plan against the common denominator, and in this scenario that's the appliance operator. 

Your thoughts?

W8BYH out

01 February 2020

Computers and Operating Systems - A Reality Check (Part 1)

I just emerged from one of my regular attacks of what I call 'laptop fever'; the unshakable feeling that somehow, in some way, I'm missing out on something important when it comes to laptop performance, and darn it, I probably need a new machine.

This latest bout of fever was triggered by my recent tests of the JS8CALL application and a desire to find the best computing platform for what I'll call a standardized EMCOMM package. The minimum hardware requirements for this platform are fairly easy to understand:

  • Intel i5 processor or equivalent
  • 4 gb of system memory
  • 128 gb hard drive
  • The ability to run WinLink, JS8CALL and Fldigi
  • The ability to run an open source office suite like Star Office or Libra Office
  • Using USB serial port emulators, the ability to interface with external sound card modems and radio CAT interfaces
  • Battery life of at least 4 hours
Nice-to-have features include:
  • 8 gb of system memory
  • 256 gb solid state hard drive (SSD)
  • Rugged water resistant construction
  • Easily swappable batteries
  • Internal GPS
  • LTE broadband
  • Backlit keypad

The minimum requirements are fairly easy to meet at around a $350 price point. Heck, just a few minutes of searching on Amazon turned up this first rate candidate:

When we start layering on the nice-to-have features the price quickly shoots up. At this point we are talking about a Panasonic Toughbook-grade computer, and even used from a reputable dealer like ToughRuggedLaptops.com we are looking at a $1,200.00 Panasonic CF-31 class machine. Are even used Toughbooks (or their Dell or GETAC equivalents) worth it? Yes. Are they necessary? No. For 99.5% of the ham radio population the inexpensive Dell Latitude is plenty.

Panasonic Toughbook. Truly tough, rugged and capable. And maybe a little too much...

Should we be discussing other hardware options? There's plenty of alternatives to the classic laptop format out on the market and we'll get to some of them in just a bit. First, we need to take a look at operating systems, with a focus on the two prominent operating systems in Amateur Radio today: Microsoft Windows and Linux.

Amateur Radio has always had what is described as a 'maker' focus (learning through doing). Heck, in the early days of ham radio being a maker was the only way to get on the air - you had to make your own radios, make your own antennas, make your own power supplies, etc. There were no factory made transmitters or receivers. Instead, you had to gather all the parts, put them together, test, adjust, and get on the air, all without electrocuting yourself (a very real hazard in those early days). This maker mentality was still in place when desktop computers hit the scene in the latter half of the 20th century. Amateur Radio operators rushed to find ways to integrate computers and ham radio, and Amateur Radio applications like contact logging, CW practice and packet radio were some of the first non-gaming applications to be developed for early home computers. As Forest Gump would say, Amateur Radio and personal computers "go together like peas and carrots". So, when the Linux operating system was introduced in the early 1990's, the Amateur Radio community showed a lot of interest. Many hams made their living in the Unix computing world, so an open source version of Unix that ran on the x86 processor was a big hit. Linux was and still is the maker's operating system.

Current MS Windows versions go to great lengths to hide the legacy command line window,
but Linux still puts it front-and-center, loud and proud.
Command line expertise is one of the essential skills for Linux partisans!

Mature Linux distributions and Windows 95 hit the market at about the same time (1995). (I bought my first Linux distro, Red Hat, at the University of Texas at Austin bookstore in 1995). Windows 95 was a crash-prone kludge, but it showed where Microsoft was headed with its preemptive multi-tasking operating systems. Amateur Radio operators pretty much ignored Windows 95, got a little more interested in the slightly improved Windows 98, but really sat up and took notice with the release of the 32-bit (and stable) Windows NT and, later, Windows 2000. While not a 'maker' OS, Microsoft Windows swiftly dominated the personal computing market, wiping away whole generations of earlier PC operating systems like CP/M, AmigaOS, OS/2, TOS, OS-9, and even Microsoft's own MS-DOS and PC-DOS. In the end the only viable operating systems left standing besides Windows were Linux and Apple's MacOS (but we're leaving the Mac out of this discussion, sorry).

Microsoft Windows won out in the Amateur Radio world through the sheer force of numbers. More and more application developers recognized that the huge installed base and the standardized user interface of Windows offered its own advantages, and development focus for Amateur Radio shifted heavily to the Windows platform. While many Amateur Radio operators fancy themselves 'makers', in truth, when it comes to computers, most are simply appliance operators. As Windows came to dominate in the market, most hams became comfortable with the Windows concept of 'plug-and-play' and appreciated the standardized user interface that spanned the increasing number of computers they came in contact with with on a daily basis. 

So what's it to be, the maker's OS that hews closely to the spirit of Amateur Radio, or the appliance operator's OS that focuses on ease of use? To answer that we need to think about the focus of this original requirement - EMCOMM - and what's happening in the OS space.

First, the appliance operators. Microsoft Windows is currently at Windows 10. Windows 10 has shown to be fast, stable, feature rich and runs well on a variety of hardware, from low end Intel i3 mobile CPUs to the high end eight core i9 workstation CPUs. In addition, Windows 10 is capable, ubiquitous, well understood by the user community and supports the largest available base of Amateur Radio software. Virtually everybody who develops an Amateur Radio application develops it for the Windows platform first - that's where the customer base is.

Raspberry Pi 4 - small, cheap, capable

Next, the makers. More specifically, the makers and their current love affair with the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi is a phenomenon unto itself. The Pi was originally designed as an ultra-low cost single board computer targeted at both students and experimenters. How low cost? The baseline Raspberry Pi 4 (the most current version) sells for a whopping $35.00 US! It runs a custom flavor of Linux called Raspbian, and this OS brings some incredible capabilities to such a low-end platform, to include a Windows-like desktop experience and a huge library of Amateur Radio-related apps. In fact, two key EMCOMM apps - Fldigi and JS8CALL - run natively, and well, on Raspbian. The adoption of the Pi brought a certain standardization to the Linux experience for the Amateur Radio community. Before the Pi there was a lot of Linux in use within the community, but it was various Linux distributions loaded on a wide variety of hardware, so the user experience varied from computer-to-computer. The Pi has brought a little bit of order out of chaos.

So back to the question - Linux (on the Pi) or Windows? What's the best solution for EMCOMM? 

We'll tackle that in Part 2, so stand by!

W8BYH out (for now)