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:


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