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)

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