11 June 2021

Told Ya' So

A week ago I published a post titled The IC-705 Reassessed, where I pulled back my previous endorsement of the IC-705 due to the often crippling RFI issues. I linked my post to the most active IC-705 Facebook page and, as anyone with experience with Facebook can guess, the flamers and the tolls crept out of the shadows and accused me of everything from exhibiting signs of advanced dementia to criminal-level stupidity when it comes to my ability to investigate and mitigate RFI.

I knew it would happen, and I enjoyed the repartee. 

But I also thought I'd give Icom a chance to respond to the issue, so I sent them a tech support request through their website:

"Dear Icom, I have a problem with RFI over what I suspect is the USB connection that is nearly impossible to mitigate. The issue exists for both the battery charging over USB connection and USB rig control. I've tested with a variety of USB cables, all heavily 'choked' using ferrite cores, and tested with a small group of Windows 10 laptops and tablets. The RFI, particularly on digital modes, overwhelms the rig. The problem exists on 20, 40 & 80 meters, but seems worse on the lower bands. Has Icom worked out any mitigation strategies for this issue?"

Here's the response I got from Icom USA:


Well gee, even Icom admits there's an issue...

I have a lot of confidence that Icom will get this fixed. The IC-705 is a flagship product in Icom's Amateur Radio lineup, and the rig has the potential for a very long (and very profitable) production run, so Icom knows they have to get this right. I think my biggest fear is that the RFI issue isn't one that can be addressed in firmware, and IC-705 owners will have to send their rigs back to Icom for board-level work.

I intend to 'poke' Icom USA on this at regular intervals, so stay tuned.

W8BYH out

05 June 2021

The IC-705 Reassessed

Two months ago I wrote an initial review of the IC-705, giving it all-around high praise.

Today I have to pull back on that somewhat slobbering fanboy of a review, and remove the IC-705 from my 'recommended' list. The radio has a major, and crippling, RFI issue if you want to run it on digital modes over USB under field conditions.

Simply put, the induced or coupled RF noise picked up by the USB cable floods the rig with RFI. We are talking noise and hash from one end of the band to the other, and the noise gets worse if the software you are running, like Winlink, initiates a command dialog with the radio (in Winlink, that's referred to as 'starting a session'). And it's a complex issue. It's not simply USB line coupling, or laptop interference, or antenna location. It seems to be a sensitive interplay of all three. You can never really be sure what the real root of the problem is. The one key factor, however (based on my testing) seems to be antenna location. The further away your antenna, the less of a problem you will have.

I didn't notice this issue when I did my first post back in March because I hadn't run the IC-705 in a portable (field) environment. All my testing was done in my shack, where my antenna is 75 feet away on the other side of my house. Operating this way, the radio is a champ on digital modes, and that's how I wrote it up in my March review. But a week later I set the radio up at a local park using my Chameleon vertical antenna and the same laptop I use in my shack, and that's when I discovered to noise. I've since had the rig in the field twice more, testing with various antenna setups - a mag loop and an EFLW - and the problem is always present.

Here's a video I made while using the IC-705 and my Chameleon mag loop antenna a few weeks ago during a POTA activation:



Now, this RFI problem is not unique to me, or to my radio. I have three friends in my local Amateur Radio club who own IC-705's and they report the same issue. If you go to the IC-705 Facebook page or the IC-705 Groups.io email reflector you'll find plenty of discussions on this issue. Of course the fanboys will crawl out of the woodwork and tell you you're not keeping enough cable separation, or you are using the wrong type of USB cable, or you've got a 'noisy' laptop, or you are not using enough chokes, or the solar flux-to-ground coupling ratio is too low, or some such bullshit. I have tried every reasonable fix for this issue. I've tested against multiple laptops and Windows 10 tablets, I've tried a wide variety of heavily choked USB cables. I have enough common mode chokes attached to the feedlines to soak up a nuclear-level EMP. Nothing fixes the problem entirely - the 'hash' is always there at some level.

As I mentioned above, the one big delta - the variable that seems to provide the best mitigation - is antenna location. All things being equal - the same radio, laptop, USB cable, feedline chokes and antenna design (EFLW) - at home I get virtually no noise or hash when running digital modes, in the field the radio is overwhelmed by RFI.

The IC-705 was specifically designed for portable field use, and that's how Icom markets it. The owner has a right to expect that the radio will work in the field, on all modes, with a less-than-ideal antenna and cabling setup. The expectation shouldn't be that the owner has to schlepp around 75' of coax and enough iron ferrite (in the form of chokes) to sink sink a small boat, just to send a Winlink message. 

So let me recap where I'm at with the IC-705:

  • On voice modes, whether in your shack or portable, this is a superb little rig. It is every bit as good as its fanboys claim it is
  • On digital modes, in the right environments, the IC-705 is a digital mode beast. I have run my rig, in my shack, on JS8CALL for eight hours continuously and it never broke a sweat
  • Portable on digital modes, however, it's a mess, particularly with Winlink and JS8CALL. The RFI issue makes it all but unusable and it's virtually impossible to fully mitigate the interference

Because of this last bullet point, I no longer recommend the IC-705.

This RFI issue is Icom's to address and fix. Frankly, I'm surprised this issue wasn't caught by Icom in testing, and I'm disappointed that the ARRL test lab didn't catch is in its otherwise outstanding review of the radio.

There's more to come on this RFI problem. Right now I'm focusing on the radio's wi-fi connectivity feature as a solution, but I'm still testing and evaluating. So stay tuned for an update on the 705 saga!

W8BYH out

01 June 2021

It's June 1st - You Know What That Means!

 


I get almost as excited about the opening of hurricane season as I do about Christmas. For those of us who live 'on the corner' (on the corner of the southeast US) - Florida & Georgia - we are prone to get hammered by both Atlantic basin storms, and Gulf of Mexico storms. It's inevitable. Set your watch by it. Then toss in the southeastern 'tornado alley' that stretches across northern & central Georgia, and this state gets some complex and dangerous weather from March through September. 

So 'Jawjah', get your emergency radios and flashlights ready, go buy a couple dozen spare batteries, keep your phones charged, your gas tanks full, and keep your weather eye on the horizon.

Because it's coming. Maybe not this year, or next, but it's coming.




And on that cheerful note...

W8BYH out

12 May 2021

Position, Navigation, Timing

The on-line magazine GPS World posted an article today that brought out the geek in me. The article titled GAO Report: 'Use resiliant tech vs. GPS as DOD primary PNT' discusses vulnerabilities in our GPS system and encourages development of autonomous solutions that are less vulnerable to jamming or unintentional interference.


Here's the bottom line: our GPS signals, in fact all satellite navigation (GNSS) signals - the US GPS (Navstar), the EU's Galileo, the Russian GLONASS, the Chinese Beidou, and others like India's regional NavIC network - are relatively easy to jam. In fact, hostile actors like North Korea and Russia do it all the time. Yet dependency on GPS-based positioning, navigation and timing continues to grow within the DoD (and more exponentially, in the civilian world). And as dependency grows, vulnerabilities grow.

What does this mean for Amateur Radio? More and more radios are being designed with built-in GPS receivers. They've been in HTs for well over a decade (every DSTAR and C4FM HT, and most mobiles, now have integrated GPS). The GPS signals are used mainly to determine location - figuring out where you are so the radio can find nearby digital repeaters. But more and more HF radios are being built with integrated GPS receivers. There's a few reasons for this. For example, Icom's new IC-705 has a built-in GPS receiver that is there mainly to locate the radio for DSTAR functionality. But the GPS receiver signal can be out-boarded to a computer to support location based apps and synchronize the computer's clock with GPS time.

This functionality will become increasingly important as the ham radio community moves more and more to 'time sliced' digital modes like FT8 and Automatic Link Establishment (ALE). There is even talk about expanded use of frequency hopping, which is legal in the Amateur Radio Service as long as a public frequency hopping key is used. Frequency hopping is absolutely dependent on precise timing, and all radios in the frequency hopping network must use the same time base. The best source for that common time base is GPS.

[Geek segway here. So, how come GPS time is so accurate? Each US GPS satellite carries two atomic clocks, and those clocks are constantly monitored and adjusted by the GPS ground control stations. An extremely accurate time signal is continuously broadcast by every satellite, as part of the navigation signal. A GPS receiver can strip out that time signal and make it available for use by other applications. This is why there's a GPS receiver on every cell phone tower in the US. The tower doesn't care about the location signal - it knows were it is. What the receiver does is provide the very precise time signal needed to coordinate cell zone hand-over.]

What impact could GPS jamming have on Amateur Radio? Honestly, not much in the near term. We're still not dependent on extremely accurate time signals. The dependency is coming, but it's not here yet and likely won't be for years. Additionally, the risk of a hostile actor like the Chinese or North Koreans jamming GPS signals over the continental US is unlikely; such an act would be interpreted as an act of war, and as goofy as some of our enemies are I doubt any of them would be dumb enough (or are capable enough) to try something like this.

But large-scale Amateur Radio dependency on precise time coordination is coming, so we'll keep an eye on this. After all, it's not like I've got anything better to do with my time.

W8BYH out

08 May 2021

The Worst Book You Need To Read

This is very much an 'anti-woke' post, so if you are offended by concepts like personal responsibility, the death penalty, useless degrees and ugly truths, then do us both a favor and move on...

________________________________________________________________________________


Still here? OK, let's get going.

A friend of mine, fellow ham, and something of a medical expert (a real one, not a self-appointed one) has been recommending the book One Second After for over a year now. So recently I had some holes in my Kindle reading list and decided it was time to give this a read.

I'm of two minds on this novel. On one hand, it covers a lot of critical topics related to a total collapse of society due to something like an electromagnetic pulse (EPM). On the other hand, it's poorly written and can be a tough slog (more on this at the end). 


The author, William Forstchen, clearly has a strong grasp of the issues related to an EMP event. Forstchen uses the (somewhat likely) nuclear weapon scenario - North Koreans and mad mullahs cooperating to pop air-burst nukes across the US. The same thing can happen if the Sun belches out a Carrington Event-level coronal mass ejection (CME) (less likely in the short term, but inevitable in the long term). One of the things I like is that Forstchen almost completely avoids the silly survivalist fanboy stuff - which rifle or caliber is best, which knife blade shape or handle material is best, which lean-to shelter design is best, etc. Instead, he focuses on the immediate and long term impacts on society. When national, state and even county-level government is incapacitated or wiped out, how do small isolated cities and municipalities manage issues like establishing a functioning government, selecting leaders, prioritizing resources, providing services, enforcing laws and establishing a common defense. 

The decisions quickly become pretty basic, and brutal. How do you manage a shrinking supply of food and medicine? How do you ration medical care? What do you do with hardened criminals when they can neither be jailed, banished, or effectively rehabilitated? Do you establish and carry out a death penalty for crimes that used to just get people locked up, but now are a direct threat to the survival of a small society (stealing food or medical supplies, sabotaging key infrastructure like water purification systems, etc.). In this situation, morality gets re-defined, and communities will be grasping for ideas and rules around which they can build a functioning moral and legal center. When the nukes go off, all fluff and pretense is stripped away. No 'wokeness', no ambulance chasing lawyers threatening to sue, no freeloading. You step up and contribute in real ways, or you die.

The book is a novel, and Forstchen sets the story in a semi-rural town in North Carolina. The town is small and isolated enough that everybody knows everybody, but not so isolated that outside influences don't come into play. This sets up a very plausible scenario of a small town forced to fend for itself with only the resources it has on hand, and ultimately having to make hard choices about how to deal with external threats, from relatively innocent refugees just looking for food and water, to roving bands of criminals intent on raping and pillaging as they move from town-to-town.

Let me put this out there for the Amateur Radio audience - there's virtually no discussion in this book of ham radio beyond a passing reference about checking to see if some unnamed ham radio operators still have working equipment. Like I said, this book focuses mainly on the larger societal impacts of an EMP event, not the nuts and bolts of survival. Does Amateur Radio have a role in this scenario? Yes, but only if modern, sensitive radio gear survives. This implies foreknowledge of the attack or event, and the ability to shield equipment from the EMP pulse. We'll likely have a day or two of warning if it's a CME. An attack by hostile actors will come with no advanced notice. Your spiffy new SDR radio is just as EMP-proof as your iPhone, which means it'll be toast.

As I mentioned above, the author clearly has a firm grasp on the overall impacts of an EMP event (he's even testified before Congress on the subject). A post-EMP world will be a grim place. There will be no electric power - the power grid will be fried. Literally fried. Everything electronic will be gone - either destroyed in the initial high energy pulse, or incapacitated by the lack of electricity. That's not just your laptop and smartphone. Your cars won't start. You won't be able to get to your bank accounts. All of your electronic appliances will be destroyed, and this includes any medical devices you depend on. The electronic controls that manage things like the water purification systems in your municipal water supply won't work. There'll be no 911 dispatch. No police response. No fire response. No EMS response. Fresh, refrigerated and frozen food will spoil within days. There'll be no lights. When the sun goes down, darkness will overtake everything, and predators - human and animal - will rule the night.

From a human behavior perspective, it'll be a world turned upside down. The best and worst in people will quickly emerge. This is when the true leaders will rise to the surface - people who know how to motivate others, manage resources, set goals, organize effort, set the example, and make the right decisions regardless of how tough they are. These will be mostly ex-military (mainly officers and non-commissioned officers), law enforcement and emergency services personnel. It's also when we'll see the value of the people who keep our infrastructure up and operating - electricians, carpenters, mechanics, plumbers. Medical personnel, particularly doctors, nurses and PAs with strong backgrounds in emergency medicine, general medicine and public health will be worth their weight in gold. Sadly, they'll be working with quickly dwindling stocks of medicines and other supplies, and they'll soon be battling to control basic health issues like water and insect-borne diseases (dysentery, malaria, etc.), infections, malnutrition, and a whole host of 'third world' health problems.

Who else would be considered of value? If you learned a trade or got a degree in something useful like electrical or civil engineering, or served in the military and developed basic leadership and organizational skills, or know how to farm and raise livestock, you have something to contribute and should be OK. But let me be blunt here - if you never developed a work ethic, spent your days playing on-line games, or never thought beyond the next welfare check, you better be willing to learn fast and develop some needed skills, or you will be quickly turned out. And no, cooking meth is not a 'skill', and that women's studies degree you're hoping Bernie Sanders will help you pay off will be as useless as tits on a boar.

I also need to touch on something that Forstchen mostly ignores - the importance of faith, church communities and the clergy. Many people will immediately turn to their local pastors and their church community for guidance and support. In my opinion, clergy (I'm talking mainly about trained and ordained Christian and Jewish clergy here) will be absolutely essential. They will provide the moral guidance and the left and right boundaries needed as leaders struggle with the task of rebuilding a functioning society. In addition, many Protestant denominations like the Mormons, the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptists view disaster relief as an important ministry. They have the organization, training and supplies needed to provide at least short term relief in many communities.  

If you think this is all just academic and nobody really knows what will happen, I've got news for you. This happens in small and limited scale almost every year. Think Hurricanes Katrina and Maria. Immediately after Katrina, people in the rural areas of lower Louisiana and Mississippi who did not evacuate, but had basic skills and emergency supplies, did OK. Not great, but OK. New Orleans, on the other hand, quickly descended into a lawless and chaotic cesspool. I'll leave it up to you to figure out why. The same thing played out in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. We all heard the tales of woe coming from the major cities on the island, as the elected politicians (another useless skillset) pointed fingers at everyone but themselves. But in the rural areas of the island, in the small towns and villages that were used to frequent power outages and poor communications, the residents essentially did OK. The had the necessary supplies - generators, battery powered radios, flashlights, food, water, etc. They had also developed the mental toughness needed to see them through something like Maria. 

Getting back to the book, while the author has a firm grasp on the aftereffects of an EMP or CME, he's no novelist. The book is readable, but Forstchen has no real experience in writing dialog, his characters are poorly formed, and he suffers from a bout of what I call 'Tom Clancyism'; all the good guys are heroic, all the bad guys are the lowest of the low. All former military are steely-eyed combat veterans who never make bad decisions. All law enforcement are highly competent, all politicians are crudballs (well, at least he got that right). 

But the book is important because it makes you think. I urge you to read it and then spend some time considering your own situation. Do you have the skills, the basic supplies, the mental attitude and toughness it will take to survive the rebuilding of a society that has been set back 150 years?

W8BYH out

28 March 2021

The Computer Museum of America

I'm a computer guy. I've been fascinated by them since I was a little kid back in the 60's (that's the 1960's, for you Millenials who are math challenged). It only makes sense. I grew up in the glorious era of American achievements in science and engineering. We were racing to the Moon. The astronauts and the engineers building the systems that sent the astronauts into space were our heroes. And computers were everywhere. We kids were made to understand that American prowess in raw computing power, along with American drive and excellence in aerospace engineering, were what was pushing us forward in the race to beat the damned Russkies - at anything. 

But in the 1960s a computer would quite literally fill a room. Or two. Computers were fascinating in concept, but unachievable in reality unless you attended a well-heeled school that provided access to a computer (usually via a time sharing system), or were one of the lucky few who's parents or relatives worked in a job that provided access to a computer. My first direct access to a computer didn't come until the mid-1970s when, in college, I had to run some insect-borne disease infection models on the university's IBM mainframe system. You'd go to the computer room window and tell the geeks what simulation you needed to run. They assigned you to a terminal while they pulled the card deck, ran it through the card reader, gave the computer time to compile the program and then sent you a notice through the terminal that the program was ready to run. These terminals were nothing more than a teletype-like keyboard and printer - no CRT interfaces for us low-life undergrads. You knew the program had successfully compiled and was ready to run when the teletype gave you two dings and chugged out a 'READY' line of text on the fanfold paper. But it was glorious! The entire resources of that behemoth behind the window were at your disposal. You could change variables on the fly, run looped simulations to test exponential increases or decreases in vector transmissions, and watched as your test populations of disease victims either survived or died based on various insect control measures. The experience sticks with me today, not because I couldn't kill enough mosquitos and repeatedly wiped out over half the population of some notional West African country, but because those sessions gave me direct access to a computer program that allowed me to control the multiple related variables and provide real-time feedback. I was hooked! 

Unknown to me at the time, there were forces at work in places like Silicon Valley that would upend the computing paradigm and create the concept of the 'personal' computer. When I became aware of this sometime in the late 1970s I became fascinated with the concept but could only participate on the margins - most of these 'personal' computers like the early Apples or CP/M systems cost almost as much as a new car. My first computer was the $99 dollar (that's 1981 dollars) Timex/Sinclair 1000. Oh, and the additional 16k memory module was an additional $99. That's almost $600 in today's inflation adjusted money. But hey, it was real computer! A somewhat crippled computer, yes, but at least it had a real CPU, a video driver, could load and save data and programs on a tape drive, and had built-in BASIC.

Although I was not a computer science major, my professional career with the US Army Corps of Engineers kept me in close contact with computer developments. We transitioned through a wide variety of computers and operating systems as our software applications matured. The list of systems I worked with reads like a pantheon of personal computer and workstation development - Commodore 64 & Amiga, Apple IIe & MacIntosh, DEC VAX (various models), SGI Indigo, HP/UX (various hardware platforms), Wang, Sun Microsystems, GRID and of course the various iterations of IBM PCs and clones - Kay, Compaq, Gateway, Dell, Heath/Zenith, HP, you name it. I have lived the arc of personal computer development, and it's been a fascinating journey.

A year or two ago I became aware of a museum here in the Atlanta area titled the 'Computer Museum of America'. It appears the museum is an extension of the collection of Lonnie Mimms, a commercial real estate developer and avid life-long computer collector. I suspect much of what's in the museum came straight out of Lonnie's garage. So yesterday the XYL and I took a few hours to drive up to Roswell, GA to visit the museum. Suffice to say, I had a great time and was delighted to visit with some 'old friends'.

Long considered the world's first true 'personal' computer, the Altair 8800 was just a box with
blinking lights, but those blinking lights were connected to a real computer
(based on the Intel 8080 CPU chip) and the computer was a huge hit.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a BASIC programming language for the Altair, the project
which launched Microsoft


The board of myth and legend, and the start of an empire.
An original Apple I board, laid out and likely hand assembled by
Steve Wozniak ('The Great and Powerful Woz', according to Sheldon Cooper). 
These boards were never assembled into complete computers by Apple. The idea
was that the buyer would supply their own case, keyboard and monitor.
Woz was perfectly happy selling the boards this way, but Steve Jobs saw the
commercial potential and pushed the development of what would become
the Apple II. The rest is history. 
There is a direct but tortured line that leads from this board to your iPhone


The Timex Sinclair 1000 - my first computer


A Radio Shack TRS-80 Portable Computer. The first successful portable computer, and one
that was so successful that good used examples are highly sought after today. Built for
Radio Shack by Kyocera. It's still one of my 'Holy Grail' computers


Ah Osborne 1 'portable' computer. This was the first full featured computer specifically
designed to be transported from place-to-place. At 12 lbs it wasn't so much portable as 'luggable'.
It had a tiny 5" screen and two (two!) full-height single sided floppy drives, but came with so much
quality software like Wordstar and SuperCalc that the joke was the buyer was paying for the
software and Osborne threw in the computer for free.
Many say that the Osborne is your laptop's great-grandfather, although I would disagree. My opinion
is that the Radio Shack TRS-80 Portable Computer (seen above) really proofed out the concept of
the 'always ready' battery powered lightweight portable computer


Who remembers Byte magazine?
It was THE premier micro-computer periodical and was extremely influential in the industry.
If Byte gave your hardware or software a good review, you were a success in the industry.
I particularly loved Jerry Pournelle's monthly 'Chaos Manor' columns. Jerry was a noted sci-fi
author who also loved to write about computers.


For every one griping about how hard it is to download and install applications, let me introduce how 
cavemen used to do it. There is not a single computer in this lineup - these are all just
input and output devices that connect to an IBM mainframe computer. It's a line of card punch units,
card readers, card sorters, paper tape readers and line printers.
You could expect to see every one of these behemoths in every computer center before the arrival of tape drives


One of the neat displays is a timeline of information technology development in relation to
other world events and technology developments. One of the interesting things my XYL
noted is the comparison of computing technology with the development of children's toys.
Once the toy manufacturers figured out that computer chips don't HAVE to
be used in computers, and can be re-proposed into electronic toys, the race was on!


And speaking of XYLs, here she is pointing out one of
my heroes in computing history, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper


Anyone need a Cray? The museum has lots of them. In fact, the
museum director told me that they think they have the world's largest collection.
This shot of a Cray1 shows the hand wiring that was used in early units.
Cray hired experienced loom operators from the textile industry to
do this work


Lots and lots of Sun, Cray and Silicon Graphics floor models (ha, ha). I call this 'geek alley'


The museum offers a small, but well done, exhibit on the WWII Enigma
code machine used by the Germans, and ultimately 'cracked' by British and 
American code breakers. By the end of the war the Allies were often reading
Enigma coded traffic before the intended recipients got it


Let me wrap this up by saying that while the museum was a fun experience, there's a lot of room for improvement. Too many of the displays are not well lit. Most of the large floor mounted systems like the Crays and Silicon Graphics units are presented as just dark, shadowy lumps of computer. The designers of these systems were proud of their work and put a lot into the industrial design (particularly the Crays). Hey Computer Museum of America, light 'em up! Next, there's a clear dearth of later, but significant, desktop units like the Sun SPARC workstations and the SGI Indigo series, and some of the HP/UX desktop systems. A display and discussion about the various operating systems would also help a lot with context. The museum also seems to want to go in a few directions with special exhibits, like computers in movies (think 'War Games'), but all we see are a few posters, and some covered displays.

And last, there's a lot of floor space devoted to the US space program up to Apollo. Unfortunately what's on display just doesn't seem to fit the overall theme of the museum. It's as though someone offered them up some space program stuff and the museum said, "Sure, we'll take that!" without any thought about how or where it fits into the overall theme. I'd recommend they just scrap the whole exhibit.

On our way out we had a nice discussion with the museum's director of operations (who was also manning the cash register). She hinted that COVID has really taken some wind out of their sails in terms of visitors and revenue. I don't doubt that. We were two of just four visitors on a Saturday afternoon. Here's hoping that post COVID the museum is able to get back on path and expand and enrich their exhibits.

So, do I recommend you visit the museum? If you live in or are visiting the Atlanta area, sure! Especially if you are a computer geek. There's more than enough on display to help scratch that geek itch.

W8BYH out

23 March 2021

A Digital Dilemma - TNCs But No Radios?

Sometimes stuff just happens. For a few weeks I have been lazily working on a post about the Kenwood TH-D72A, singing its praises and encouraging you to go get one of these classics before Kenwood pulls the plug. Looks like they were a step or two ahead of me, because I saw this posted to the Gigaparts site late yesterday:

Crap.

Some wags on Facebook chided me, telling me Kenwood announced the death of the D72 at the same time they announced the pending demise of their flagship TH-D74 DSTAR/APRS handheld. Honestly, I don't remember seeing anything about the demise of the D72. Maybe I was just focused on the announcement of the D74 and didn't pay attention. Or maybe it's because I'm getting old. Or both.

Anyway, this post will now take a turn to a topic I've been thinking about for a while - the death of the TNC-capable VHF radio, and what to do about it. 

Many say, "packet is dead, nobody needs TNCs anymore", and the manufacturers seem to be leading that chant. Kenwood is (was?) the last manufacturer to support general purpose TNC integration, either by building rigs with built-in full featured AX.25 TNCs, like the TH-D72a and the enormously popular (and still in production, I think) TM-D710a. Kenwood was also the last mainline manufacturer to make a mobile VHF radio with a data port that allows the user to hook up an external TNC. The TM-V71A is still listed as available on Kenwood's website, but is out of stock with all retailers. It too may just be waiting for the undertaker. 

Icom and Yaesu have not offered VHF mobile radios with built-in TNCs for a long while, but until fairly recently they each kept a few radios in their lineup with 6-pin DIN data connection ports for external TNC connections. I don't know when Yaesu last offered a VHF mobile rig with this capability, and Icom's last model, as far as I can tell, was the the ID-880H DSTAR rig that went out of production at least two years ago.

Yaesu has kinda' sorta' redeemed itself by keeping mobile and handheld rigs in its lineup that have built in 'KISS' (keep it simple stupid) TNCs. A KISS TNC offers a partial implementation of the full AX.25 packet protocol, leaving out things like digipeat, mailbox and flow control capability. This means a manufacturer can provide key TNC functionality with much lower hardware overhead. For APRS and Winlink use, it's a great compromise. However, Yaesu seems to have so tightly bound the KISS TNC functionality to APRS in their rigs that it's tough to get the radios to work with Winlink. In fact, I don't know that anyone's been able to do it.

Today if you want to get into packet APRS or Winlink your best bet may be to go buy an HF rig! Yup, both Icom and Yaesu still make all-mode multi-band (HF/VHF/UHF) 'shack-in-a-box' radios that have data ports on the back. The Icom IC-7100, the Yaesu FT-991A and the classic Yaesu FT-818 are still for sale, even during this time of 'the Covid'. The IC-7100 and the FT-991A will both give you up to 50 watts of output on VHF. The FT-818 will only provide a few watts, depending on your power source, but still, it's amazing what that little rig can do.

Rear panel of the Yaesu FT-991A. The data port is highlighted in red


Rear panel of the Icom IC-7100. The data port is highlighted in red


Rear panel of the Yaesu FT-818 QRP rig. The data port is highlighted in red

In fact, this is exactly how I do it. My Winlink 'station' is a Yaesu FT-991A. It handles both HF and VHF Winlink. For the VHF side I'm using a Coastal Chipworks TNC-X connected to the radio's data port. Works like a champ.


So maybe if you want to do VHF packet, Winlink or APRS you need to first go HF!

W8BYH out

07 March 2021

When They Get It Right...

UPDATE: after reading this review, please read the follow up post The IC-705 Reassessed

...they get it right, and Icom got it real right with the IC-705. 

A few weeks ago my piggy bank got full enough that I could afford to go out and buy an IC-705. I think what pushed me over the edge was the ARRL review of the little radio in the February issue of QST Magazine. I had been waiting for a reputable test lab to run the numbers on this rig, almost hoping a major flaw would be revealed that would cause me to hold on to my money and keep my venerable FT-818 in service a little longer.

But nooooo.... Icom had to go and knock this one out of the park. I trust the ARRL test lab; they don't do fawning endorsements. But their review of the IC-705 is as close to an "oh hell yeah!" cheer as we're likely to see from them.

My IC-705 sitting on the Nifty Accessories stand (discussed below)

I've spent almost three weeks with the IC-705 now, learning its features and testing it in a controlled environment. To say I'm impressed by the radio, particularly on digital modes, would be an understatement. The radio is less a transceiver than it is a communications instrument - a high grade tool that provides most of the features needed to effectively communicate by any mode, under any conditions, at any location.

This is just an opening post on what I'm sure will be a series of write-ups on the IC-705. I won't waste your time by covering things all the other slobbering fanboys are writing or video blogging about. Suffice to say, there are plenty of "This is the bestest radio everrr made! I wub it sooo, sooo much!" reviews out there.

If you want to follow someone who's really putting the IC-705 through it's paces, I recommend you subscribe to OH8STN's YouTube channel. Julian knows how to make radios perform under real world conditions, and he calls things like they are. (His takedown of Yaesu over the release of the FT-818 is a classic.) If there's a flaw in Julian's reviews of the IC-705, it's that he uses the word 'magnificent' too much.



So let me address a few things that have come to light about the radio since I started testing it:
  • First things first - you MUST download and install the IC-705 specific USB drivers from the Icom website. Don't make the mistake I did in thinking that because I had run a number of Icom rigs on the laptop I've got hooked up to the 705 that I was just fine in the driver department. This cost me three days of frustration and almost resulted in me shipping the rig back to HRO. Once you have the drivers installed things start to get much better. Not perfect though, because...
  • Many ham radio software developers have not yet incorporated IC-705 specific settings in their rig control interfaces. As of this writing, Winlink and JS8CALL (which uses Hamlib for it's rig control interface) and Fldigi are the three I'm aware of. Ham Radio Deluxe added IC-705 support in their newest release, and it works like a charm. If your favorite software doesn't yet have IC-705 support don't despair. Just use the IC-7300 settings, making sure to set the IC-705 CI-V address to 94h (the IC-7300's default address). From there things will work just fine. 
  • As it sits on a desk all by itself the viewing angle is... awkward. Icom really should have included a small foot, bail or stand with the radio to prop it at a usable viewing angle. A lot of IC-705 owners resort to using a table-top tripod to support their radio, and that's a great option. I've gone with a heavy duty table-top tripod made by a British company called iFootage. It incorporates an excellent fluid ball head and can easily support the IC-705's weight. This tripod isn't cheap (about $70) or lightweight, but remember you are trusting the safety of a $1,300 communications instrument to it. It doesn't pay to go cheap with a flimsy $20 Amazon special.
  • Speaking of viewing angles and desktop stands (where we?), Icom will sell you a ridiculously priced ($45) plastic cradle to set your IC-705 into. Again, this is something Icom should have included as part of the basic radio package. But capitalism to the rescue! (for all you socialists out there reading this). The good folks at Nifty Accessories have come up with their own stand that provides a great viewing angle, uses a thumb screw to securely attach the stand to the radio AND it's cheaper than the Icom offering.
  • Rig control - I've been using Ham Radio Deluxe with this little radio, and it makes controlling all the features much easier. Now, doing the radio screen 'finger poke' a-la the IC-7300 isn't really a big problem, but being able to control everything from a larger laptop screen just makes life a bit more fun. Since the IC-705 incorporates wi-fi, I may buy the Icom RS-BA1 control software, but I'm really waiting to see if a competitor comes out with an equivalent product at a cheaper price.
  • What about the Icom backpack? Dunno, didn't buy one. But my good friend Joe, KI4ASK, did buy one and he speaks very highly of it.
The iFootage tripod in action. Very sturdy, very well made


What? No tuner?! Yeah, but get over it. As of this writing there are three tuner options on the market, a fourth just around the corner, and possibly a fifth in the development stage. There's more bitching about the lack of a built-in tuner than anything else, so let's review the options:
  1. The Elecraft T1 tuner. This little battery powered tuner is as minimalist as you can get - a plastic box about the size of a pack of cigarettes (remember those?) with a few BNC connections and some LEDs. The tuner has been on the market for a while now and is legendary for its ability to find a match for just about any antenna on any frequency. I've got one and have used it a bit with my FT-818 and have tested it with the IC-705. It works pretty good, but you have to put the rig into a continuous carrier mode (AM, FM) to tune - there's no automatic triggering.
  2. The mAT 705. This compact tuner is made in China but is sold (and supported) by Vibroplex here in the US. It was designed specifically for the IC-705, and was getting some enthusiastic reviews when it first hit the market after the IC-705's release. Then users started to notice issues, particularly with the battery and power management system. As a result, Vibroplex pulled the tuner from their website and had the manufacturer do a re-design. The new tuner, the mAT 705 Plus, is reported to have put all the original model's issues to bed and the tuner is once again available on the Vibroplex website.
  3. LDG Z-100Plus. This battery powered tuner has been on the market for some time now, and HRO is selling a bundle specifically for the IC-705. It's just the basic Z100Plus tuner, but with a control cable to connect the radio to the tuner, and a short BNC-to-PL-259 coax section. Since I already owned a Z-100Plus, I contacted LDG and asked what the special control cable was. They answered back in less than an hour(!) to tell me it was just a plain-Jane 3.5mm audio cable. I had one of those in my spare cable junk box, so I was up and running in a few minutes. The setup works great, and the tuner will auto-trigger a tune cycle if the radio detects high SWR. But like the Icom AH-705 (below), I think this tuner is a bit too large for portable use.
  4. Icom's own AH-705 tuner. This is the 'just around the corner' tuner. I believe Icom has released it for the domestic Japanese market, with the US market to follow soon. There are a few good Japanese language videos about it on YouTube. What strikes me is the size - it's every bit as big as the IC-705 itself! But it's Icom, and the tuner control logic is built into the 705's firmware, so I'm sure it'll be a capable and well integrated unit. One interesting note is that the AH-705 will tune both balanced antennas and random wire antennas (like the Icom AH-4). So for versatility this tuner may just take the cake.
  5. Something secret under development? Hmmm... When I contacted LDG about the control cable for the Z100Plus tuner, I also asked if they intended to come out with an IC-705-specific tuner. The tech rep stated no, they had nothing like that planned, but then went on to hint that LDG just might be working on a tuner/amplifier combo for the IC-705. So as they say, boys and girls, watch this space!
So you see, there are plenty of options available. The lack of a built-in tuner shouldn't really be an issue. 

But how does the radio perform on the air? Here's my initial observations:
  • On SSB voice, the radio is the equal of the IC-7300 in both sensitivity and selectivity. I've done some informal side-by-side testing of the two radios using headphones and the same antennas, and I simply can't detect any difference. That's a good thing - the IC-7300 has become renowned for its sideband performance
  • On digital modes, this radio operates flawlessly. It's a digital mode beast. So far I've tested it with Winlink, JS8CALL and Fldigi (PSK-31). Once I got the USB serial port driver and the IC-7300 emulation issues figured out, it's been smooth sailing. The rig stays cool, even when operating at 10 watts on long digital exchanges. I had a 23 minute Winlink session last night, downloading some email traffic from a node up in Indiana (I'm near Altanta). Propagation was poor, and VARA was struggling to get the traffic passed. The IC-705 was pushing out a lot of  full duty cycle ACKs (acknowledgments) as VARA was adjusting the baud rate to match the fluctuating band conditions. The temperature indicator on the little rig never got above 1/4 scale and did not feel the least bit warm to the touch. 
  • VHF, UHF & DSTAR. I have to admit, I have not used this radio yet on VHF or UHF! I'm so focused on figuring out sideband and digital modes that the opportunity to test the VHF and UHF side hasn't come up. But my friend Joe, KI4ASK, uses his IC-705 regularly on VHF and reports that it's as good as anything Icom has put out. I have had an opportunity to test DSTAR on HF simplex, again with Joe, and the radio worked as expected. In fact, the voice quality on this one simplex exchange was better than what I experience using my IC-5100 on the local VHF DSTAR repeater - no R2D2.
Let's close with a few random observations:
  • Build quality. the build quality on this radio is first rate. It's a marvel of small form factor engineering. The radio feels like a brick, and since it's essentially a magnesium box with a front plate, it is. Watch this guy take one apart:

  • Icom's commitment. It's clear Icom is putting a lot of development resources behind this radio. They have a winner and they know it, and they are (as we used to say in the Army) 'reinforcing success'. In the short time since I bought my radio, Icom has released two firmware updates. These updates didn't fix anything broken, they added new features or enhancements. I'm confident that Icom will continue to improve this radio and its Icom accessories (like the AH-705 tuner) for years to come. This won't become a piece of orphanware any time soon.
  • Competition. Many are saying that the IC-705 is a Yaesu FT-818 killer. Sorry, I don't see that. The significant price difference between the radios (the FT-818 sells for about half of what the IC-705 goes for) is enough that the FT-818 should continue to see strong sales. No, I see the IC-705's main competition as the Elecraft KX-3. The KX-3 was a groundbreaking radio, and remains one of the best receivers ever tested by Sherwood Engineering. When it came out it was considered an engineering marvel - a paradigm shift in form factor, and performance. Feature-for-feature, both radios come in around the same price point (if you add in the anticipated additional cost of the Icom tuner), but the Icom clearly offers more - an excellent panadapter display, UHF & VHF capability, built-in sound card modem for digital modes, GPS, Bluetooth and wi-fi capability and a better power management system. While I don't think the Icom will dig too deeply into KX-3 sales, I think it does show Elecraft where the QRP market is headed.
OK, that's it for this post. Obviously, I'll have more to say after I get more mic time with the radio. But I can say this - if you are hesitant about buying the IC-705, don't be. This little radio really is as good as it gets for QRP rig performance, and it's worth every cent of its $1,300 asking price. So empty your piggy banks and go get one.

W8BYH out


14 February 2021

Portable vs. Mobile

 Time for some philosophizin'

Does anyone make a 100 watt HF rig today that is specifically designed for portable work?  I'm not talking about a radio designed for mobile use, such as being installed in a car for use while driving. There's several of those on the market (Icom 7100, Yaesu FT-891). I'm talking about portable use - designed specifically to be taken to the field for use at a campsite, on a picnic, at Field Day, on a POTA activation, or an ARES, SHARES, RACES or MARS emergency field deployment. 

In thinking about it I'd have to say that, among the Big Three (Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu), the answer is no. Nobody makes a radio these days that is specifically designed for portable use. But first, let's spend a minute talking about what a portable rig should be. 

To begin with, a good portable rig needs to be, well, portable. Easy to carry and set up. No 20 lb. beasts. No multiple boxes, remote heads, cables and other gee-gaws needed to make it run right and do what it should. All in one container, and that container should be as light and compact as possible given the feature and design requirements. When set up, you shouldn't be looking at a table covered with cables, wires and external devices. Interfacing with a computer for rig control and digital modes should involve one cable, and one cable only.

On the must-have list:

  • Weather resistant (IPX5 or better)
  • Low current drain while on receive (< 1 amp, but less than 500 milliamps would be better)
  • High contrast screen for use in a variety of lighting conditions
  • All modes - SSB/AM/CW/Digital/FM
  • 80 - 6 meters transmit coverage
  • Continuous wide-band receive from 160 - 6 meters
  • Built-in soundcard interface for digital modes
  • USB interface for rig control, programming & digital mode operations
  • GPS & a GPS disciplined internal clock
  • Internal batteries for limited low power operations
  • The radio plus all accessories, cabling and documentation fit into a Pelican 1520 transport case (18" x 13" x 6.5"), or other equivalent sized protective case, with enough space left over for a small laptop or tablet
On the important to have list - features & items that improve field functionality and versatility but are not absolutely necessary:
  • 2 meter & 70 cm all-mode TX & RX
  • NOAA weather channel coverage
  • Bluetooth
  • Internal antenna tuner
  • Integrated carrying handle or rack handles (for example, the excellent carry handle that came with the Yaesu FT-897 or the rack handles that were available for the Icom IC-7200)
  • Backlit display

If the manufacturers really wanted to knock my socks off:

  • A true IP56 rating for for protection against water/dust intrusion, or MIL-STD 810 compliance
  • If VHF/UHF capable, a built-in AX.25 packet modem (for Winlink packet and APRS) communications)
  • HDMI or DVI output, plus companion digital display software for use on Windows & iOS
  • Front firing speaker
  • WiFi
Hey, we can dream, can't we?
  • Provision for an internal Automatic Link Establishment board
Many would say that we're getting perilously close to the new Icom IC-705 with this feature set, and I guess we are. But the 705 falls short in several critical areas - power output and IP rating. If Icom released a 50 watt version of the 705 that has an IPX5 rating I'd say we're near enough that we could call it a done deal. I know 50 watts isn't 100 watts, but in the real world there's very little difference between those two power levels when using resonant antennas. I could live with 50 watts.

Amateur Radio operators spend a lot of time gussying up mobile rigs to serve in the portable role. For example, on websites, blog posts and in YouTube videos you'll see the Yaesu FT-891 being used on park benches, in tents, and on tailgates all around the world. It's become a very popular portable rig, but it's popular only because there's nothing on the market that effectively fills the portable role. Unfortunately, for portable use the FT-891 requires a sound card interface and an external tuner. When the radio is fully set up for portable operations, particularly on digital modes, it's a rats nest of boxes, cables and power connectors.

Think I'm being melodramatic about the 'rats nest' issue?
This is the back end of a Yaesu FT-857 set up for portable ops - radio, tuner, soundcard interface, power, CAT control. 
The back end of the FT-891 looks almost identical when set up the same way.
We deserve better.

The one radio that I point to when talking about portable is the Yaesu FT-897. The Yaesu was perhaps the last 100 watt all-mode, all-band radio specifically designed for portable outdoor use. The FT-897 was a brilliant example of focused design. In fact, Yaesu was so fixated on the portable role that they incorporated some design features that sacrificed performance for low current draw. The radio offered rugged construction, on-board batteries, a cleverly designed and integrated 'sidecar' tuner, all bands, all modes, and an amazingly low 700 milliamp current draw on receive. There's a reason good used examples still command high prices. The FT-897 lacks a lot of the desired features I outline above - USB interface, internal GPS, Bluetooth & WiFi - simply because those features were not available when the radio was designed back around the turn of the century.


The Big Three need to take a look back to show the way forward. If you are going to develop an all-band, all-mode 100 watt rig for portable operations, study the example set by the FT-897 and bring that design philosophy forward to the 2020s. The market is waiting, cash in-hand.

I'll wrap this up by letting VE3TWM make the case better than I can.


W8BYH out

18 January 2021

When Does Obsolete Become Collectible?

I just tossed another penny into my coffee can labeled 'IC-705 Fund' and noted the coin level is still well below the half-full mark. I suddenly realized that I'll need to keep my Yaesu FT-818 up and running for a few more months yet. It's a radio I love to hate. But that's OK. It's paid for, and it gives me something to gripe about.

At least the 818 has the factory TXCO and CAT control. I may install one of those cheap Chinese 2.7 kHz ceramic SSB filters just to see how it works (the factory Collins crystal filters are just too expensive to justify paying for). I've got a Windcamp LiPo battery setup on the way (I think there's a Chinese courier walking it here from Hong Kong, based on the shipping tracking). Hopefully this addresses my single biggest complaint about the radio - it's gawd awful power management system. 

As I turn the little radio over and over in my hands I'm struck by a few things. First, the overall design. Twenty years after its introduction, it is still very compelling. I believe it represents Yaesu's early 21st century product design capabilities at their best. This radio was designed at at time when Yaesu was pushing out a whole series of innovative products like the FT-897, with it's 'sidecar' tuner, internal batteries and rugged, weatherproof design, the FT-857, a 100 watt HF/VHF/UHF all-mode rig no bigger than the 2 meter-only mobile rigs on the market at the time, or Yaesu's line of miniature handhelds (the VX series) that offered an IP67 rating before IP ratings even existed. These radios were never quite as polished as the rigs manufactured by Kenwood or Icom - they always had a few rough edges - but dang, they worked, and worked well.

Nothing says 'Olde Pharte' like an FT-818 and a paper log

Yaesu has killed off the FT-897 and 857, and most of their VX line. Only the FT-818 remains as part of that early century spurt of all-band/all-mode, mobile/portable rig development, with its focus on outdoor activity. I think it's fascinating to think of how the 818 will be viewed come mid-century. Will it be ignored or dismissed as an archaic piece of technology with no appeal. Or, will it be a highly desired collectible, with hams paying ridiculous prices for good working examples?

My guess is that, when the 818 goes out of production, for a time it'll be a forgotten radio. After all, there'll be plenty of other products in the same market segment that perform better (the IC-705 is only the first of a line of all band/all mode QRP rigs that are poised to sweep the market). Hams are like crows - the are attracted to shiny objects, and rigs like the IC-705 are the new shiny objects. Then after a period of time, maybe 5 years, maybe less, Amateur Radio will re-discover the FT-817/818. By that time it's shortcomings will be seen as just quirks that give the little rig 'character'. In much the same way that nobody complains these days that Collins S-line gear can be a little drifty, nobody will much care that the 817/818 doesn't have any effective noise reduction, or digital filtering, or that it lacks a built-in soundcard interface or tuner, or that the power management system must have been designed by a first year EE student attending a third tier technical college. All of those rough edges will fade away in memory, and the FT-817 & 818 will suddenly become 'cool', and collectible.

There's additional reasons I'm thinking this way:

  • This radio has been in production for 20 years, and it's always been a strong seller. That means there's thousands and thousands of them out there in the hands of Amateur Radio operators around the world. It'll be easy for the average collector to find good working examples
  • My gripes about the design shortcomings aside, as a transceiver, the performance is actually very good
  • Amateur radio operators will become bored with the shoebox layout first pioneered by the Elecraft KX line, and brought to high art in the Icom with the IC-705. They'll start to get nostalgic for QRP rigs that look like traditional radios - ones with real buttons and knobs that do things
  • This is something I didn't think about until I was talking to the repair folks at Clairmont-Skyland recently. Rigs like the 817 and 818 are fairly easy to work on, and can be kept running almost indefinitely. The new SDR rigs, not so much.
So the FT-817 & 818 will be with us for a long, long time. I'd be willing to bet that, come 2050, there'll be more examples of the FT-817/818 on the air than the IC-705 or any SDR-based QRP rig that comes into production in the next five years.

And hams around the world will get all nostalgic and weepy-eyed when you say the words 'Yaesu FT-817'.

Check back here in 2050 to see if I'm right.

W8BYH out

15 January 2021

Nothing Was Certain

I'm a huge fan of history, particularly WWII history. America was never better, never lived her ideals more fully, than when she sent millions of her sons and daughters out to liberate the world. From the Japanese home islands to the Elbe River in Germany, America, along with her allies, stepped into the breach and stopped tyranny in its tracks. 

Over 400,000 Americans never came home, and we're still recovering their remains today.

Until late 1943, the ultimate outcome was not a sure thing. Until then, the war was the Allies' to lose. Our enemies were smart, well trained, experienced, well equipped and motivated. All we could do was hold in some areas, nibble away at the enemy in others, play for time, gather our resources, and wait for the right opportunities.  

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, America found it relatively easy to turn on the industrial production tap. War materiel began to flow from our factories and shipyards in staggering and ever increasing volumes. But the one thing we couldn't manufacture was men. America's entry into the war created an immediate manpower crisis. There simply were not enough bodies to fill the military drafts, the factories, the farms and the shipyards, to man the merchant fleets, to build the training camps, to operate the railroads, the ammunition plants, the steel mills. To take pressure off of the manpower demands, all services, the Army, Navy, Marines, and the Coast Guard, were forced to do something they had never done before - integrate women into key roles.

Of course we've all heard the stories of women in uniform serving as nurses, medical technicians, clerks and secretaries, as aircraft ferry pilots, as switchboard operators, vehicle drivers, statisticians.

And, of course, thousands of women in all services were trained as radio operators and were taught Morse code. They served in a huge variety of communication roles - as radio watch officers listening for any hint of enemy submarine activity, manning air traffic control networks across the country, coordinating coastal ship movements, sending critical command and control messages across the vast open spaces of the Atlantic and Pacific. Most of this radio traffic was routine and boring, but all too often these operators had a front-row seat to the realities of war: Atlantic convoys reporting their desperate attempts to shake off the attacking U-Boat wolfpacks, merchant ships calling for help while being torn apart by fierce North Atlantic storms, aircraft lost in heavy fog and searching for a safe place to set down, or tiny Pacific islands reporting the sudden appearance of Japanese landing forces, and sending what the operators on both ends of the conversation know will likely be the last transmission.

A few days ago I stumbled on this poster done by John Falter, a famous illustrator who, before the war, was known for his advertising work and magazine covers. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the US Navy Reserves and did a series of well known recruiting and motivational posters. While I've seen and admired a lot of Falter's work, I don't remember ever seeing this poster until just recently. Falter painted it in 1942, when America was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese and Germans were still moving from victory to victory. Our enemies seemed unstoppable and, for a time, they were. From the American perspective, everything was in doubt, nothing was certain, and we were suffering setbacks on every front.

In this poster, Falter beautifully and poignantly captures the seriousness and reality of the time. It isn't the all-too-familiar and jaunty 'Join The Navy And See The World!' recruiting poster. This poster says, "We need you. We need you for serious, demanding, and often heartbreaking work."

...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...  ...---...

The headphones are in place, her hand is on the key. She's listening intently. There's a look of concern, almost fear, in her eyes. Is it an Allied convoy under attack? An aircraft pilot desperately trying to land? A Navy ship that's not answering the call? 

We'll never know - we can't know. All we do know is, it's a tough fight, and we're all in it.




W8BYH out


09 January 2021

Meters

 Every Amateur Radio operator needs a multimeter. Or two. Or a bunch...

"Pile-O-Meters"

OK, it looks like I went overboard here, and maybe I have. But believe it or not, with one or two exceptions these meters all get used fairly regularly. It mostly depends on the type of work I'm doing. Whether it's on my bench, on electrical projects around the house, or in the field. 

A digital multimeter is a fundamental tool in Amateur Radio. Every ham needs one for basic test functions like checking continuity on a length of coax, testing DC voltage on a battery, checking resistance on radio components, checking AC voltage at a Field Day site, etc. Think of a digital multimeter as an electronic 'Swiss Army knife'. 

Some more esoteric tests that a multimeter can help with (assuming the meter has the feature) is AC frequency, capacitance, current draw in amps, component temperature, min & max reading values, non-contact sensing of live circuits, and more. So a modern multimeter is less a 'meter' and more a snapshot test instrument (as opposed to an oscilloscope, which is a time-based test instrument).

I blame my fascination with multimeters on this guy:


But more on him later.

I've had multimeters in-hand since the 1970's, starting with a Radio Shack analog model. Over the years I've bought, borrowed, broke, lost or gave away perhaps a dozen meters. Some were junk, most were adequate, and some, like my Fluke 75, were outstanding. I hope the SOB that stole it is still enjoying it. On one memorable occasion I loaned my Radio Shack auto-range digital multimeter to the Army mechanics in my company motor pool in Germany. Their Army issued meters were 1970's vintage mechanical units that just weren't getting the job done. One afternoon someone slipped a note under my office door. It was a ransom letter from the mechanics, demanding I pay to get my meter back. I bought them all coffee at the local snack stand (known as a 'Schnell-Imbiss' in Germany) and told them to keep the meter. I miss my Soldiers...

There's an interesting dichotomy in the multimeter market. You can find very expensive meters with a limited feature set, and cheap meters with every bell and whistle known to man. The key difference between the two is that the expensive meters actually meet an industry safety standard and have been tested and certified by UL or the German TuV (an equivalent to UL). My experience is that cheap meters either don't meet industry standards, or meet the standards at a very minimal level. This means that when you stick the probes on a high end meter into the 220 service socket in your laundry room and short things out, the meter won't blow up on you. Its multiple layers of protection (ceramic fast-blow fuses, internal blast shields, isolation cut-outs on the circuit boards, etc.) will do a good job of keeping you alive. The cheap meters will just explode and let you die.

Another difference between expensive and cheap meters is that while some expensive meters may have limited feature sets, the features actually perform to the specifications set by the manufacturer. So, for example, if Fluke tells you a particular meter in their lineup has a DC voltage accuracy of 0.05%, it'll be accurate to 0.05%. A cheap meter may have stated accuracy ranges for various modes, but you don't really know if the meter meets those standards or not.

This is why you see meters with the Fluke, Gossen, Hioki or Keysight (HP's test equipment division) badge in the toolboxes of licensed electricians, aviation maintenance personnel, medical device technicians, and other electronics professionals. 

Most Amateur Radio operators don't need a high end, NIST-certified meter. But most hams also own houses, cars, boats, and large appliances that may need to have a meter put to them to troubleshoot problems. For that reason, a rugged and safe meter is important. The good news is that one properly chosen meter can satisfy all your Amateur Radio and home maintenance chores. Look for a UL (or equivalent) rated meter that offers:
  • AC voltage (with true RMS for more accurate readings)
  • DC voltage
  • Continuity
  • Resistance
  • Amperage (current) in milliamps
  • Capacitance
  • 6000 count display
  • CAT IV 600 volt protection rating
The 'nice to have' list includes
  • Temperature
  • Peak value hold
  • Min/max value hold
  • Microamps current reading
  • Logging (data storage) and computer connectivity
  • Display backlight (for older folks like me, this is really a 'must have')

There are also physical features to consider, such as how well the meter fits in your hand (more important than you'd think) the size and contrast of the display, the quality of the backlight, the strength of the back stand and the overall ruggedness of the meter.

All meters come with a basic set of test leads - the pointy things you stick into wall sockets. But for serious electronics work you'll need test lead adapters that allow you to do things like accurately probe very tightly packed surface mounted components, clip on to power leads as you probe live circuits, etc. The good news is that virtually all multimeters accept the same test lead connectors, and the industry makes an almost endless variety of clips, hooks, probes, etc. (just do an Amazon search for 'multimeter test leads'). As with the meters, picking the proper test leads is important. Remember, it's the test leads that carry current to and from the meter, so the leads need to meet the same protection category as the meter itself. As always, I recommend buying quality name brand leads sold by Fluke, Keysight, etc.

So what about this guy I mentioned earlier?

"Hey kiddies, don't try this at home!"

This is Dave Jones, an Australian electronics design engineer who runs the incredibly popular EEVBlog and the companion EEVBlog YouTube channels. Dave's main YouTube channel got its start over a decade ago and really took off when he started doing multimeter reviews and comparisons. It only makes sense. The first thing folks interested in electronics go shopping for is a hand held multimeter, so there was a lot of pent-up demand for the kinds of reviews and comparisons Dave started doing. Fair warning - Dave is highly opinionated and often over-caffinated, but he knows what he's talking about. I learned more about multimeters and their use by watching a few hours of Dave's videos than my previous 30 years of meter use.

To support his channel Dave uses Patreon, YouTube ads and affiliate sales programs with Amazon and Aliexpress. But Dave has also launched a few EEVBlog branded items - things he has tested and believes bring value to the electronics nerd. Two of these are multimeters. One is a re-branded Brymen 235 and the other is a custom designed meter called the 121GW. Since I don't participate in Dave's Patreon system, I figured buying these meters would be a great way to help support his efforts. So let's start with a look at these two devices:

EEVBlog GW121 (left), Brymen BM235 (right)

Both of these meters are crackerjack pieces of gear. The 121GW is absolutely packed with features, to include Bluetooth, and Dave has developed companion Android and iOS apps that do live logging of readings. The meter has been criticized for being too slow to 'settle down' on readings, and I believe there's some validity in that complaint, but Dave chose the same CPU that HP uses in it's line of Keysight multimeters, and it was a trade-off of features vs. reading speed. Still, it's a very, very good feature laden meter.

But the Brymen BM235 (on the right) is a sweetheart of a meter, and I'll go out on a limb and say that this meter offers the best bang-for-buck of any of the meters I own. If you can afford just one meter to use for all of  your ham radio and household chores, this is it. Brymen is a Taiwanese test equipment company with a world-wide presence. World-wide, that is, except for North America. In North America the US-based company Greenlee has exclusive marketing rights for Brymen meters, and they sell their own re-badged Brymen's in outlets like Home Depot and Lowes. But because the EEVBlog BM235 is not being sold directly by Brymen - it's being sold by Dave - you can purchase it through Amazon.   

Up next, the MacDaddy of handheld meter manufacturers, Fluke:

Left to right: Fluke 107, Fluke 87V, Fluke 179

Remember what they used to say about IBM - "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"? Well the same can be said about Fluke. Fluke test equipment is THE default choice for huge swaths of industries that rely on handheld meters. In fact, the roughest looking meter I ever saw was a Fluke 87 that was used in an aircraft maintenance shop. It looked like it had been dragged behind a departing 747, but had just passed its annual calibration and was good to go for another year of avionics troubleshooting. It's that ruggedness, reliability, accuracy and safety that customers are after. Any Fluke meter is a major purchase (that's my way of saying they're pricey), but that's OK because they will out-live the average ham.

The Fluke 87V (in the middle) is my main bench meter and gets used for on all of my electronics projects. It is considered an industry standard for electronics use, and I understand it is the most popular model of meter Fluke has ever produced. It doesn't have as many bells and whistles as the EEVBlog 121GW discussed above, but it has all of the critical features and better overall performance and safety. Utility companies, manufacturers, and the electrical and mechanical service industries buy 87V meters by the truckload, so here's a hint - there's lots of them on the used equipment market. Just search eBay for 'Fluke 87'. 

But I'll let you in on a little secret. The one meter that gets used the most around the house and in the field is the little Fluke 107 on the left. It's just a basic meter that lacks a lot of the bells and whistles all the other meters have, but it's small, handy, rugged, accurate and safe. If I need to grab a meter to go check something real quick, it's the little 107 that gets grabbed.

The Fluke 179 on the right replaced an earlier Fluke 175 (the 175 had been purchased to replace my stolen Fluke 75). the 175 is a great meter, but it lacks one feature these old eyes need - a backlit display. The 179 gives me a backlit display and temperature capability. While the 175 is a really good meter, and I can strongly recommend it as a great all-around unit, mine doesn't get used much these days so it may soon find a new home. 

Now a few oddball items:

Aneng 8000 (left), AmazonCommercial 600 amp clamp meter (right)

The little Aneng meter on the left is another Dave Jones recommendation. Someone sent him one, he tested it and ended up impressed with its performance. So impressed, in fact, that he added it to his Aliexpress affiliate program listing. The little meter is cheap, about $20 including shipping, and I figured I'd get it just to play around with. It's not something I would stick into a 120 volt mains outlet, but for basic DC voltage and continuity checks it's just fine. Today it resides in my Amateur Radio field antenna box, as a ready tool for basic measurements. And when it breaks I'll just toss it out and move on.

The clamp meter on the right is one of the AmazonCommercial line of products. I was looking for a good clamp meter to test things like voltage and current output on my generator, and for non-contact live circuit detection. This thing is actually a very nice, feature laden general purpose meter that happens to have a clamp attachment built in. This meter got good reviews on a few electronics discussion forums. I haven't used it much yet, but expect to be putting it to use later this spring on some generator and camper electrical projects.

So let's go ahead and wrap this up. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of meters out there on the market. It's very much a buyer beware situation. Unlike a tire pressure gauge, or a kitchen timer, if you misuse a multimeter you run the real risk of injuring or killing yourself. You need a meter that has been tested and certified by either UL, TuV (the German UL equivalent) or Intertek (a commercial equivalent to UL). You also want a meter that's rated for the minimum protection category you'll likely need. I recommend at least a 600 volt CAT III rating. While most Amateur Radio uses involve low voltage DC measurements, if you are going to also use your meter to test your AC household mains, you NEED that minimum 600 volt CAT III rating! Otherwise we'll be reading about you in the obituary column.

This all brings us back to the EEVBlog/Brymen BM235. If you are in the market for a single meter that will do everything you need for both Amateur Radio applications and general home use, this meter will do it all, at a very reasonable price, and it will keep you safe.




 W8BYH out