28 November 2021

A View From The Bench - 28 November 2021

Well, Thanksgiving is past. It was a good celebration - my son-in-law and I managed to deep fry two birds without setting fire to anything. About a week before the big day he got smart, and said "Hey, why try to cook one ginormous bird? Instead let's just do two smaller ones." Genius level idea. One bird. Forty minutes. Carve it up for the dinner table. Second bird. Forty minutes. Carve it up for everyone to take some home. Enough turkey legs to go around. And it was gooood...

Not much at all to report on the ham radio front, other than I took advantage of a Black Friday sale. I know some of you are saying, "Brian, you're so damned predictable".

I figure that if this radio turns out to be a turkey (for my intended use) I can sell it later in the year for little loss. I'm under no illusions - Xiegu's products have a somewhat spotty reputation when it comes to quality. But if things work out, this radio could scratch that 20 watt rig itch that's been bothering me for a while.

Been putting a bit more time in with the Elecraft KX2, learning more about digital modes. While I got it running on Winlink, the setup for that app is not at all well documented and, as many have observed, the little rig gets hot when running it hard. Plus, with the soundcard cables, the rig control cable and the power supply cable, you end up with a spaghetti mess almost as bad as what you have with the Yaesu FT-891. But the KX2 is still a compelling little package. Maybe better suited to CW and voice than digital, but still compelling.

Finally, the XYL and I are going camping soon, and I'm in that oh-so complex radio selection mode that takes place every time we head out. Of course I'll bring along the the IC-705. Should I also bring the Yaesu FT-891? If I'm going to do POTA activations I'll need a little more 'oomph' on SSB. If yes, what power supply? How about antennas? Vertical? Long wire? I promised someone I'd beacon APRS while there, and that means I'll need my FT-3D, and that means I've got to re-learn the APS settings on that complicated beast. In the end there's no right or wrong, answer. The equation never balances out. Just run what you brung, and have fun with it.

W8BYH out

26 November 2021

All I Want For Christmas...

Turkey Day is over. Let the Christmas shopping stupidity begin.

All I want under the tree this year is a new HF rig. Low current draw. 20 - 50 watts output. Portable. Digital ready. USB connectivity. Built-in tuner and battery. IPX5 or better rating. I don't give a toot about DSTAR/C4FM or any of that non-proprietary proprietary junk. And I don't give a toot about VHF or UHF.

  • Icom? No
  • Yaesu? No
  • Kenwood. Kenwood? Kenwood, are you still alive?
  • Elecraft? No
  • Xiegu? No
  • Lab599? No
  • CommRadio? No
There are some candidates from the above manufacturer list that get part way there. 

  • Icom IC-705
  • Yaesu FT-891
  • Elecraft KX2
  • Xeigu G90
  • Lab599 TX500
  • CommRadio CTX10
But as you can tell from this chart, only one radio gets a weighted score better than 70% (5 out of 7), and most are at or below the 50% mark.

I gave a weighted score (+1 point) to the 20 - 50 watt output and the IPX5 rating categories, because adding these capabilities are either the most expensive upgrade (an external amp for more power) or impossible to achieve in the after-market (turning a non-IPX rated radio into an IPX rated one).

In this analysis, the surprising winner is the Xeigu G90. There's a lot of second place finishers, but I'd have to say the Yaesu FT-891 is the top number two, if only because it can easily go up to 100 watts of output if needed.

However, there's just too many open holes in the table. Some of them are perplexingly silly. Why NOT incorporate a built-in digital sound card interface in a modern radio? Or CAT control? Others are understandable from a technology or marketing perspective (internal battery power, internal tuner). Oddly, the two companies best able to bring added capability to new products - Icom and Yaesu - can often be the least willing to do it, for market reasons. For example, if you ask Yaesu, "Hey, why not add a sound card interface and a tuner to the FT-891?" they'd say "We already did - it's called the FT-991A". Manufacturers don't like having products with overlapping capabilities in their lineups, and I get that, but what I'm looking for is different enough that there's plenty of daylight in both manufacturer's current lineups.

So in this Season of Giving, how about it Icom & Yaesu - give me what I want. Do this for me and I promise I won't bug you again. Until next Christmas.

W8BYH out

21 November 2021

The View From The Bench - 21 November 2021

Been a quiet few weeks on the ham radio front.

  • I guess the biggest news is that Icom released US pricing information on the long awaited ID-52 DSTAR handheld. This is Icom's newest flagship HT. It was supposed to hit the market at the same time Icom announced the demise of the venerable ID-51A, over a year ago. But then COVID. And chip shortages. And supply chain issues. And more COVID. We got a hint at what the US pricing would look like when Icom released pricing information for the UK market a few months ago. If you did the math, and subtracted the embedded British VAT, the radio was coming in at over $600 US. A lot of folks didn't believe me when I discussed it. SURELY Icom wouldn't put something that expensive on the US market, with no other real DSTAR handheld options. But yup, they did. The ID-52 will have an introductory price of $650. I'm sorry, but that's just too much for a handheld, even if it does have a cool new color screen. Suddenly Yaesu's new FT5DR flagship HT doesn't look too shabby, at $480. It looks like I'll be holding on to my ID-51A for a while longer.

Purdy. And purdy expensive

  • I got word that Gems Products, the makers of the excellent KXSide snap on covers for the Elecraft KX2 and KX3, have released a snap-on cover for the Icom IC-705. The cover mates with the Peovi protective 'cage' by snapping into the carry handles. This provides some good protection to the rig's front side during transport. Sadly, the Peovi 'cage' doesn't provide any protection for the rear of the radio - it's really just a mounting frame. It's a very, very good mounting frame and thousands of owners are perfectly happy with it, so this snap on cover will be a welcome addition. Photo from the Gems Products website:

OK Peovi, now what about the back of the radio?

  • On late Friday Devin Butterfield, the developer of the Ion2G ALE software, put out a new release. One of the fixes in this release is a clean-up of the IC-7200 rig control interface. The last version introduced a bug that caused the radio to drop out of digital mode when scanning was stopped. I've been playing pretty heavily with Ion2G for the past few weeks, and I'm coming to better understand both the software and ALE concepts. My thoughts are that ALE as a system (regardless of the software used) does have application in Amateur Radio emergency communications. I just need to scare up a few local players to give it a try.
  • Getting ready for winter camping season. Of course radios will be brought (along with fishing gear!). So, I'm back to playing with the radio I love to hate - the Yaesu FT-891. Why? It's a topic I'll cover in detail later, but it comes down to assured communications. I'll be bringing my IC-705, and that will be the main radio 'toy', but my camping trip planning always includes a 100 watt rig capable of working on Winlink and JS8CALL. If we ever camp in an area that has no or limited cell service I want to be able to send and receive email, and I don't want to have to depend on a 10 watt radio to get it done. I also don't want a radio with a large footprint, or one that sucks up battery power. Looking at what I have available, that means the FT-891. In fact, looking at the ham radio market right now, the FT-891 is the only HF radio that fits this description. Of course the IC-705 can probably handle the Winlink and JS8CALL tasks just fine with 10 watts, but there's always the possibility that band conditions or other factors mean I need more 'oomph'. I think of the FT-891, tucked away in the camper, as insurance.

It's a shame that the 891 is currently the only option in this category

W8BYH out

18 November 2021

Speedy Gonzales

I have all the toys. What I don't have is the field operating time. So, last Sunday I was reminded that the monthly Georgia AUXCOMM net was scheduled for 1400 hours and I figured it was the perfect time to get out in the field and 'play radio'.

I wanted to see if I really could stuff everything I needed into my DSLR backpack, go to the field, set up and operate effectively on voice and digital modes. Is this a truly viable concept?

Amazon Basics DSLR backpack

Some things have changed since I took this picture a few months ago. I've ditched the tablet keyboard in favor of a small, inexpensive folding Bluetooth keyboard, I've replaced the Comet Antenna HFJ-350M 'toybox' antenna set (which is a well made piece of junk) for the Elecraft AX1 vertical, and for Sunday's test I substituted the MAT-705Plus tuner for the Icom AH-705, just to save space. I also included my PowerFilm LightSaver Max battery pack in lieu of the Bioenno 4.5 amp hour LiFePo battery.

I gave myself an artificial time limit - 30 minutes to be set up and operating at a minimal level of voice and digital capability, and if necessary improve the setup as time goes on. But fate makes fools of all plans, and when I got to my first choice for an operating location - a school parking lot at a high spot in the county - I was surprised to find it full of cars. There was some sort of a children's basketball camp going on. Really? On a Sunday afternoon? So, immediately switching to Plan B (which I had not yet formulated), I headed to what's become a default location for a lot of my club's operating activities - The Ridge Nature Area. By the time I got there I was down to less than 20 minutes before the start of the net. Time to improvise. My plan had been to set up an end-fed long wire antenna, but there wasn't time for that. I knew the Elecraft AX1 wouldn't give me the reach I needed. So I was forced to look outside of my DSLR backpack for a solution. It came down to my trusty old Chameleon vertical. By chance I had the components in the bed of my pickup, so it was available, and it's fast to set up. 

By hustling a bit I was able to get set up and operating on HF voice just as the net opened.

In all, it was effective. I was having trouble being heard by net control, who was located down near Savannah (I'm just south of Atlanta), but I think that's because I was operating on only 5 watts. I had another station (ironically located north of Atlanta and also operating QRP) relay me in. If I had bumped up my power to 10 watts I'd have done better, and I'm convinced that if I had set up the end fed long wire I'd have done a LOT better. 

So this gets me back to a question I've posed in the past - is 10 watts enough for emergency communications? No, 10 watts is not enough for assured communications. I wouldn't bet my safety, or my family's safety, on just 10 watts, not unless I had no other choice. And I do have other choices - 100 watt rigs. But these 100 watt rigs are overkill in terms of size and weight, and draw so much power that they require large batteries or power supplies. What the civilian EMCOMM community needs is a good, weather resistant, battery powered 50 watt (or even 20 watt) HF radio that incorporates all the modern bells and whistles: USB for rig and digital sound card control, built-in tuner, battery pack, Bluetooth and wi-fi. The answer actually sits before us in these pictures - a 50 watt version of the IC-705. C'mon Icom, get 'er done! 

OK, back to Sunday. While listening to the net check-ins and waiting for my turn, I was able to get my tablet set up and synched with the radio via wi-fi. It's fast and easy using Icom's RS-BA1 software. Then it's a simple matter of firing up Winlink and finding an open frequency. 

A few observations:

  • Overall, the concept works. It is possible to put an effective EMCOMM voice and digital station in a backpack. OK, using the Chameleon vertical was a bit of a cheat in this scenario, but I've tested the Elecraft AX1 (17, 20 & 40 meters) enough to know it actually works, particularly on digital modes, and the ParEndFedz end fed long wire antenna (about the size of a small bundle of twine) is a proven performer on 10 - 40 meters, and can be coaxed to work on 75 meters if I use the Icom AH-705 tuner
  • Can I carry the Chameleon vertical antenna on this backpack? Yes. I'd need to carry the antenna sections, the Chameleon ground spike and at least one ground radial, but it should all fit if I lash the antenna sections to the outside of the pack
  • The MAT-705Plus tuner works quite well. It's not as versatile as the AH-705, but if you don't need to tune a random wire antenna this tuner works fine, plus it's a fraction of the size of the AH-705
  • After recently testing almost a half-dozen small format Windows laptops and tablets I've come full circle, and I'm back to the Trimble T10. It simply can't be beat, and I think it sets the bar for a Windows tablet or laptop for EMCOMM use. More on this device in a later post. The folding keyboard is an inexpensive little gizmo I picked up from Amazon, and while it's a bit awkward, it's no worse than the official T10 detachable keyboard, plus it's a lot smaller and lighter
  • I thought the DSLR backpack I got from Amazon would just be a stopgap until I found a better solution. I've had a chance to handle a few DSLR bags from other manufacturers and, to be honest, the Amazon Basics bag is actually pretty darned good by comparison. It's not rugged enough for daily use, but for occasional trips to the field it's perfectly fine. Plus, it's about 1/3 the cost of an equivalently effective 'pro' model
  • A small throw weight and line for getting antenna support lines up over tree limbs is essential. Right now I'm just tossing any available object (sticks, rocks, small dogs) over tree limbs, with only limited success. Time for a better solution that fits with this backpack station concept
Fifteen minutes to establish basic voice and digital comms on HF. Not bad. But as we used to say in the Army, 'keep improving your fighting position'. I can be up and operating at a minimal level in 15 minutes, but if I was planning to be in the same location for more than an hour or two I'd make improvements. I'd deploy the EFLW antenna, bump up the transceiver power, reposition the solar panel, maybe move the entire station to a better location. 

But for this speedy under-15 minute set up, I'm happy. 

W8BYH out

07 November 2021

The View From The Bench - 07 November 2021

It's been an odd week. Part was spent up in Ohio for a family gathering (and just a little bit of radio fun), some of it back in Georgia for a MARS exercise, getting ready for the Stone Mountain Hamfest and just some local ragchews on HF.

First, Ohio. I'm an Ohio 'native' - although I was born in New York and spent much of my childhood in New Jersey, my family moved to northwest Ohio while I was in the 10th grade. So, Maumee, Ohio, is what I consider my home territory. That's where I graduated from high school, that's where I went to college (at nearby Bowling Green State University), that's where I met my lovely wife, that's where I entered the Army from. I really like the region, the small town atmosphere, the people, and I love the Great Lakes. I really love 'big water'. I even have a ham radio tie back to the region. My callsign, W8BYH, is a vanity call that was originally assigned to my late father-in-law. George Sass was an active ham radio operator in Point Place, Ohio, (just outside of Toledo) who tragically passed away in the 1960's. When I got my General ticket I asked the FCC if I could have his callsign and they gave it to me based on the family connection. 

I still have a lot of family that lives up in Ohio, in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas, so we decided to head up there for a small family gathering. It was a great time. Plus, I got to play radio for an hour or two. I took the KX2 along and set it up in both my hotel room and at my brother's house. Made a few contacts on the CQ SSB contest going on over the weekend, but mostly it was about just trying out my setup and working out some issues on the Surface Go 2 tablet I was using for rig control.

KX2 & Surface Go 2. One performs. One doesn't (see below)

"Hello? Anyone out there?"

The vertical antenna is the Elecraft AX1 with the 40 meter extension. Under the right circumstances it works quite well, but sitting on the AC unit in a hotel room with a south-facing window isn't what you can call 'right circumstances' - I heard very little and, of course, had no contacts. Later at my brother's house I set up my ParEndFedz end-fed long wire and had better luck, but I didn't think to get any pictures with that setup. Duhhhh.

Speaking of the Surface Go 2, I think I'm done evaluating it, and my overall reaction is, "don't bother".


I'm testing a loaner, and it's a model with the painfully anemic Intel 6615Y processor (good Lord, what was Microsoft thinking?). The tablet is so slow it can't get out of its own way, let alone handle something like Ham Radio Deluxe. I suspect the high end Surface Go 2 models with the i3 CPU work just fine, but at that price point (pushing $800 with the type cover) you can just go get a nice small form factor laptop with an i5 processor, more memory and more USB ports, and be happier.

Speaking of computing platforms, Julian, OH8STN, posted an interesting YouTube video a few days ago where he finally - FINALLY - admitted that his generations of kludged together Raspberry Pi setups he put together to run Winlink, WSJTX and JS8CALL in an off grid scenario are not as good as a simple Windows laptop (he actually uses a Surface Go 2, but I suspect it's a more powerful model). You can read all about it on one of my recent blog posts.

On Monday the FedEx guy dropped one of these off (and a full week late - FedEx needs to get its head out of its ass):

Many of you know I'm a huge fan of LiFePo batteries, but you still need to be able to re-charge them in the field if you are out for an extended operating session, or involved in an emergency. I wanted something that could run my IC-705, my KX2 or even my FT-818 (but not all at the same time!) and could re-charge itself. The battery (a Lithium Ion, not a LiFePo) is contained in the tube and the flexible solar panel is permanently attached to the tube. The tube also holds a charge controller, and input and output ports. It should provide enough watts to power one of these QRP rigs for most of the day. More to come.

Stone Mountain! This weekend (6 - 7 November) was the Stone Mountain Hamfest. I went Saturday, trying to off-load a few items I no longer need. Only marginally successful, and it was COLD!! Then disappointment of disappointments, the folks from MaxGain Systems didn't have the pole sections I needed. Grrrrr. But any hamfest is better than no hamfest, and I did have a good time. Compared to olden times (i.e., pre-COVID) it was sparsely attended, there were relatively few vendors and nobody seemed to be buying anything in the boneyard. Mostly just tire-kickers. 

A few wayward items did catch my attention. Panasonic ToughPads, anyone? This vendor had a pretty good pile of used ones. Some were very used, but $400 for a good condition i5 ToughPad really isn't bad.

Be still my heart! A glorious PRC-47 'manpack' HF rig. A whopping 20 watts of radiation goodness all wrapped up in a box the size of a case of MREs. And none of this sissy 12 volt stuff - this baby takes a manly 24 volts. I wanted this sooooo bad, and the price was actually pretty decent, but the seller couldn't guarantee that it works on transmit. I had to very, very reluctantly walk away...

Well gee, it looks like I've been doing this vertical antenna mounting thing all wrong. Put the mount inside the bed, not outside. I'd look so cool hauling down the road with one of these tied down to my front bumper.

Last but not least, I had a lovely visit with the folks from Shack-in-a-Box.com. They are also the Lea family of HamRadio.world fame, and I've followed their YouTube channel for years. It was great to finally meet them, hear about their experiences, and take a look at some of their products.

James and Michelle Lea have raised four wonderful, successful children, all of whom are Extra-class operators (that's Grace, KE3G in the photo). Well done! Check out their website and follow their YouTube channel.

That's it for this week!

W8BYH out

04 November 2021

The Six Stages of Computing Platform Grief


An interesting YouTube video recently posted by Julian, OH8STN, discusses selecting a computer operating system and hardware platform for off-grid communications. Julian has hosted a lot of videos on this topic over the past few years, and he's gone through what I describe as the 'six stages of computing platform grief' before reaching his current conclusions:

  • investigation
  • adoption
  • struggle
  • denial
  • disappointment
  • acceptance

Julian's gone through any number of kludged together Raspberry Pi / Android hardware and software solutions down through the years to get things like Winlink and JS8CALL to work off-grid. He's been successful only because he has a deep understanding of the Raspberry Pi platform and the operating system (Raspbian), and he's been willing to put in the time and effort to get all the fiddly little bits (computer, power supply, memory cards, interfaces, cabling, etc.) working together. These are the investigation, adoption and struggle phases of computing platform grief.

Then, as his setups became more and more fragile as he added more and more hardware bits or software interfaces he denied that his solutions were getting overly complex and somewhat kludgy. Eventually he reached a point where he became disappointed with the overall performance and usability of his Raspberry Pi-based solutions and finally accepted the fact that he needed to find a better solution.

His 'better solution' is what I've been preaching all along for emergency communications - Microsoft Windows running on a laptop or tablet. 

Welcome to the fold, Julian. Glad to see you finally got it figured out.

W8BYH out