20 July 2024

Look To The Sky

So, does anyone have a clear picture on what the root cause was with yesterday's cyber outage? Was it a bad update released by Microsoft, or was it a bad update developed by CrowdStrike to be applied specifically to their own Windows applications? The on-line 'experts' are real foggy on this. One thing's for sure - the lawyers are racking and stacking. 


Whatever the cause, this was certainly a lesson in vulnerability and fragility. Nothing nefarious or criminal, just a few lines of 'bad' code applied during an update that shuts down the airline and banking industries (to name just two) around the globe. No explosions, no gunfire, no evil hackers sitting in a star chamber somewhere in China. Just a few lines of code, code that had probably been tested and approved on development servers before being deployed to production servers world-wide. 

With increased complexity and scale comes geometrically increased risk and vulnerabilities. There's little you or I can do to anticipate these kinds of global-level impacts. They will happen, and happen right out of the blue with no warning. But have you thought about how you would mitigate these impacts at the personal, family and community level? What is your list of must-haves? Here's a short list to consider: 
  • Reliable AC power to run things like refrigerators, home medical devices, security systems, to charge phones, computers, and power networking systems, etc.
  • Reliable phone service (cell or landline) to keep in touch with vulnerable family & friends and to issue 'safe & well' updates
  • Access to banking services, either on-line or at a local physical bank. Can you get to your money when you need it? (Although inflation chews away at it, experts recommend keeping a cash reserve on-hand to pay for things like food & fuel)
  • Internet. The internet is what ties most of what we need together. It is the backbone that powers the global economy, and it's what links you to things like local emergency services, your loved ones (via email, text and voice comms), and necessary commercial services. Just because the internet is out at your location doesn't mean it's out everywhere. The key is being able to reach beyond your internet provider's local or regional infrastructure to get to where the internet is working
My solution for many of these must-haves can be summed up in one short phrase: look to the sky!
We live in an era where we can easily provide for ourselves. Small scale 'shelter at home' equipment, infrastructure and services are a burgeoning business. Generators, water purification and storage systems, off-grid communications systems and more are just an Amazon mouse click away. 

The thing that concerns me the most in a grid down situation is communications. I've got generators, I've got water storage and purification, I've got security systems, I've got solar power, I've got stored food and medicine. What concerns me most is keeping in touch with my loved ones. I'm not worried  about point-to-point radio communications with other hams, I know I can do that. I'm talking about checking in with my daughters, their families, close friends and others, and the ability to reach out to emergency services. It takes some planning, but it can be done, and the answer to most of this is right over our heads. Don't think in terms of bars of signal strength, think in terms of satellite constellation coverage and radio wave propagation. Consider these options: 
  • Garmin in-Reach. Perhaps the most basic 'overhead' emergency communications system. It's a text messaging and alert system that is satellite based. Depending on the device you select (all made by Garmin) you can send and receive texts, send emergency signals (SOS), allow loved ones and emergency responders to track your location, and more. The in-Reach system has been in use for several decades now and has proven very reliable
  • Satellite Phones. More expensive than in-Reach, but the overall costs have come down quite a bit over the past decade. There are a large number of sat phone manufacturers and a wide number of service providers, but they all seem to provide the same features and functions. 
  • Satellite based internet. The big dog in this market space today is Elon Musk's Starlink. Starlink provides amazing performance, particularly when you consider service costs. It's not cheap like home internet (you have to factor in the hardware costs), but when you consider that it's an almost completely off-grid system (you still need AC to power the router and antenna) with high reliability and performance, for me it's a must-have.
  • Winlink. Winlink is really the only viable ham radio-based system that can link you with non-ham radio individuals or agencies. It allows you to send emails to anyone, anywhere, via ham radio. No license needed on their end. And it's a two-way system; email your family members regarding your status, and they can respond back using their own email provider (GMail, Outlook, etc.). While not interactive like a phone call or text message, it is still a very viable, reliable and well tested system. But to use it you need your General-class license and the right equipment, and practice, practice, practice.
The next time something like this happens (and it will happen again - we can't beat the odds) don't just stand there shouting at your cell phone that's showing zero bars of coverage. Be ready for it and...

Look to the sky!

W8BYH out

12 July 2024

NUCing Around

It's time for a computer switch-out. I needed to take one computer out of service, and that had a cascading effect. I found myself in need of a new computer that is well endowed with USB-B & C ports. Normally I'd tackle this job with a laptop and a USB port extender, but this time I decided to try something new. The concept of what Intel calls the Next Unit of Computing, or NUC, has interested me for quite a while. A NUC is essentially a mini-desktop computer. How mini? Many are small enough to be mounted directly to the rear of a stand-alone monitor. Intel didn't invent the form factor. I believe Apple was there first with their Mini Mac line, but Intel established the form factor in the Windows world. The best way to describe a NUC is that it's a laptop computer, but without the screen, keyboard, trackpad or battery - a single board computer in a small rectangular box that offers lots of ports. You bring your own monitor, keyboard and mouse to the game. A NUC is roughly 5" x 5" x 1.5", small enough to disappear on a ham shack desk, which is precisely what I was looking for. 

Interior of a NUC - a board, some memory, a cooling fan, lots of ports, and that's it!

Intel introduced the NUC back in 2012 and, as invariably happens, as soon as it gained market traction the clone manufacturers piled on. Everyone from Dell to 'China, Inc' got in the game. The competition got so fierce that Intel recently announced that they are selling off their NUC line to ASUS. Newly manufactured Intel NUCs are still widely available, but their pricing reveals a large part of why Intel got chased out of the market. The Intel units, while wonderfully made with top-tier (Intel) components, are roughly twice the price of a 'China, Inc' clone that offers better specs. Corporate America and the (dot)Gov world were OK with forking over $600 for a real Intel NUC with middling specs, but the mom & pop home owners, gamers and embedded system geeks were drawn to the far more reasonably priced clones. The price wars commenced, and the competition simply overwhelmed Intel.  

I can be heartless when it comes to computers. Like I've said before in this blog, I view computers the same way I view toasters; if it stops working it gets tossed and I get something else. However, it's rare I'll buy something new. I view buying computers the same as buying cars - I'm happy to let someone else eat the depreciation. That's why my ham shack is full of computers I've bought used. This allows me to explore the far edges of computing form factors without spending a fortune. And so it was with my new NUC. I found an eBay vendor selling used units with the specs I wanted, but for a fraction of the price of a new one.

There's really nothing much to talk about regarding the specs of this little computer. It's a run-of-the-mill Intel i5 processor unit with 8 GB or RAM and 512 GB of SSD storage. When it arrived I simply plugged in a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, hooked it up to a monitor, re-loaded Windows 11 and loaded up some ham radio applications. No gaming, no video editing. Nothing fancy. It works just as well as the laptop computer it replaced, but frees up a LOT of desk space, allowing me to stack more ham radio junk there.

I really like this small form factor, and I'm thinking about getting a second unit for the other computer in my shack. This time I may violate my long standing rule about buying new. I'm watching some NUC clones for sale on Amazon (the brand is BeeLink), and I'm waiting to see if the price comes down at all during the upcoming Prime Day sale. That would free up an old Panasonic Toughbook for field use. Computers come and computers go here in the W8BYH shack. I think there was a song about that in a Disney movie once. Something about the circle of life...

W8BYH out

25 May 2024

Field Fixes

I love operating radios in the field. It's fun, and it gets my old arse out of the shack in into the sunlight (insert vampire jokes here). I love testing various radio/antenna/feedline/power source combinations out in the wild. It's challenging, builds confidence and expertise and, like I said, it's a ton of fun. 

If you spend any time in the field with radios and all the associated accessories at some point you'll need to fix or modify something. Cut and strip wire, tighten screws, crimp connectors, scrape corrosion, cut string & cord, and much more. You'll need a tool kit, but a kit that is appropriate to the situation.

Not this - 

More like this -

A bit of a confession. I love radios, but I really love knives and cutting tools. I've been fascinated by knives since I was a young Cub Scout (I'm 67, so do the math). I have a very extensive collection of both custom and production blades, and for years I wrote about knives and related issues on my A Fine Blade blog. So consider this post a mash-up of radios, blades and tools.

Most of the repairs and modifications we might need to do on a short POTA or SOTA deployment are pretty lightweight, and that's what I'll focus on here. You need a light and easy to carry tool kit that can handle the most likely issues that may pop up. Again, cutting and stripping wire, cutting string & cord, crimping connectors, etc. You may also need to make light repairs to your gear - tightening screws, fixing knobs, moving board jumpers, that sort of stuff. For a short field excursion all the tools you need should fit in your trouser pockets, or on your belt. 

We are blessed to live in the Golden Age of Pocket Tools, so putting together that small field tool kit is both easy and fun! The grandpappy of pocket tool kits - they've been doing it for over 100 years - is Victorinox, the Swiss Army Knife folks. They make pocket knives that sport an amazing array of useful tools, things like scissors, screwdrivers, saws, pliers, awls, cork screws, tweezers, and more. I've been buying, using, and losing Victorinox knives for over 45 years, and the level of quality they bring to a mass produced pocket toolkit is amazing. The fit and finish is beyond what few other manufacturers can bring to the market anywhere near the price point of a Victorinox knife. If a Victorinox pocket knife has a drawback it's that they are somewhat lightweight and not suited to heavier twisting or prying tasks. So don't buy one and expect to be able to disassemble your F-150 with it. But for the myriad of minor tasks you will be faced with on a short deployment, the Swiss Army Knife is ideal. But which one? Victorinox makes several dozen versions of their knives - there is no single 'Swiss army knife' - the name denotes a market niche, not a single design. Here's my list of minimum feature requirements:

  • Scissors
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Flat tip screwdriver
  • Corkscrew*
  • Magnifying glass
  • Awl
  • Package carrying hook (surprisingly useful for twisting lengths of wire together)
Of course, with just about every Swiss Army Knife you'll get at least one, and usually two, knife blades, and tweezers.

* What's going on with the corkscrew? I'm not opening bottles of wine on field deployments. Well OK, I'm not just opening wine bottles on field deployments 😁. Victorinox offers a set of small (eyeglass screw size) screwdrivers that fit into the corkscrew and are remarkably effective for small repairs. 

The one Victorinox model I recommend that has all of what I need out of a knife is the Explorer. It hits the sweet spot in terms of features. Everything I need, nothing I don't.

Victorinox Explorer

And yet, a Swiss Army Knife can't do it all. You will still need an effective set of pliers, wire cutters, a file and a more robust cutting blade. This is where the second part of your field tool kit comes in. You'll need a multi-tool, like one of those made by Leatherman, Gerber, SOG or even Victorinox. I've owned multi-tools made by each of these manufacturers, and all are very good, but the industry standard is the Leatherman, so that's what I'll focus on for this discussion.

Tim Leatherman started his multi-tool business after breaking a knife while trying to repair a car on a road trip back in 1975. He knew he needed something more heavy duty than a pocket knife, a tool that also in incorporated pliers. His first design, the PST, was an immediate hit. Today Leatherman makes over a dozen models and leads the industry. What does the multi-toolkit offer that a Swiss Army Knife doesn't? 
  • Heavy duty needle nose pliers
  • Wire cutter
  • File
  • Saw
  • Ruler
Although I own a number of Leatherman multi-tools, my personal recommendation is the Rebar model. It seems to hit the capabilities and price point sweet spot.

Leatherman Rebar

While there is some overlap in capabilities between the Victorinox Explorer and the Leatherman Rebar, they compliment each other very well. With both of these tools in your POTA bag you'll be well set to handle any repair issues that pop up.

The fun in all of this, though, is that there are literally dozens and dozens of possible brands and models you can choose from. Putting together your own portable tool kit means picking from a broad array of options from a long list of models and manufacturers. What better way to waste a Saturday night, eh?

So what is your field tool package? I'd love to hear what other hams take with them when heading out for a day of field operations. What do you toss into your POTA or SOTA bag to handle the unexpected but all too common repair tasks that pop up? Let us know!

W8BYH out

10 May 2024

Something Pithy This Way Comes*

The 2014 Dayton (Xenia) Hamvention is just a week away. I'm wondering what the over/under is on new HF releases from the big name radio manufacturers. Some, like Flex Radio, have been quite open about their coming new release. Icom has kinda' sorta' hinted something that may, or may not, be announced at Dayton. But Ray Novak has yet to release any of his 'look what I found in my trunk' pictures, so we may not see anything from the 'Big I'.

There are other possible releases or teases that may be coming next week. Let's take a look at what's been hinted/leaked/teased/announced since the last Hamvention:
  • Icom. They've teased out that something is coming in their advertising pages in the last two QSTs editions. Please God, not another UHF/VHF rig. Let's get serious about replacing the IC-7100. The market is there and it's ready to spend the money
  • Yaesu. Yaesu's been dead silent on anything new. But they can't clam up forever. When they killed of the FT-818 last year they abandoned a market segment they once owned. There's a big gap ready to be filled with an FT-857-like replacement (and that ain't the current FT-891)
  • Kenwood. Kenwood recently released their TH-D75 handheld, but there have been rumors of them coming back with an updated HF rig. There's no firm details, just whispers that 'Kenwood is coming back'. I think the best we can hope for at Dayton is an information sheet at their booth
  • Xeigu. Xeigu and Radioddity have been dribbling out information on their new X6200 for several months now. I think it's reasonable to expect a Xeigu vendor to have a working model on display
  • FlexRadio. I don't follow Flex too closely, so I'm not sure just what is coming. My real interest is in the HF digital work Flex is doing for the US Air Force. With this new product, we may see some of that development work trickling down to the Amateur market 
  • Alinco. Who's that? OK, they'll have a booth at Hamvention. I don't think they'll have anything new to announce. A quick scan of their website leads me to think they've pretty much given up on the HF market
  • Elecraft. Elecraft released their handheld KH1 last year, and those sales are going gangbusters. I don't expect them to be announcing anything new
  • Lab599. Russia-based Lab599 has been putting out info on their new TX-500MP manpack HF rig for several months now, but there's no confirmed release date. I would hope there's a pre-production sample on display at the HRO booth (Lab599's US distributor). This radio is much less vaporware than other teased radios listed above. Lab599 actually talks with several ham radio influencers (like Julian, OH8STN at Off-Grid Ham Radio) and responds to questions about the radio. That's a good omen
I won't be going to Hamvention this year, but if I did, there are a few vendors other than what's listed above that I'd be sure to stop and visit:
  • HF Communications Corp. This India-based company makes what looks like some really neat HF radio kits that are very reasonably priced. Most of what they offer are Raspberry Pi-driven SDRs, so they are, in the words of the company, 'hackable, tinkerable, scriptable'. Their top-of-the-line rig, the sBitx v3 is only $429, fully assembled and delivered in the US
  • Codan. Speaking of manpack radios - NVIS Communications, the US agent for Codan, will be at the show. Codan is an Australian-based manufacturer of commercial and military HF rigs, and their products are very highly regarded and in wide use in the Asian, Indian sub-continent and African markets. A lot of MARS and SHARES members have purchased Codan product through NVIS and they've developed a bit of a following. What's interesting regarding Codan's showing is partly about who's NOT at Hamvention - Codan's leading competitors in the market: Barrett Communications (recently purchased by Motorola) and Harris. I believe this reflects NVIS Communications' support of the MARS and SHARES markets and their interest in developing a foothold in the Amateur radio space. I'm particularly interested in their H 6110 manpack radio
  • HobbyPCB. I've built two of HobbyPCBs HardRock50 amps for my QRP rigs, and Jim Veatch at HobbyPCB recently released a 100 watt upgrade kit for the amp. I'd want to talk with Jim about the level of difficulty for the upgrade. I'm fine right now with 50 watts for my IC-705 and KX2, but 100 watts is 'more better' 
We should mention who's not going to be there. Everyone knows by now that MFJ is closing down operations and that leaves a big vendor hole, not just at Dayton but at smaller shows across the country. MFJ was a reliable staple at the Atlanta shows, showing up even when major manufacturers like Icom and Yaesu declined to make an appearance. I think their departure from the market will be felt in ways that most hams can't yet fathom. Martin, I wish you well in your retirement.

That's it! If you go to Dayton I'd love it if you keep your eye out for some of the things I've discussed here. Inquiring minds want to know!

W8BYH out

* A hat tip to Ray Bradbury's classic sci-fi fantasy novel 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'

05 May 2024

Old Radios and Misplaced Nostalgia?

There's a style of radio that has fascinated me for decades. I love the concept of the manpack VHF and HF rigs, a design we first saw in WWII as the SCR-300, reached a design peak in the 1960s with the PRC-77, and culminates today in radios like the Harris PRC-160 HF/VHF manpack

SCR-300 in use during WWII

AN/PRC-25/77 as used in Vietnam

Current production Harris PRC-160. 
Twenty thousand dollars of glorious battle-ready manpack radio technology. And you can't have one.

For years I've idealized this style of radio, and pursued US and foreign models on the used market. But why a manpack? They really don't perform any better than table-top models. In fact, in the Amateur Radio realm they are more likely to perform worse - low TX power, poorer receiver performance, cooling issues, no internal tuner, too many accessory cables, and more. I look beyond all that to the unique and fascinating mash-up of technologies that are used in successful military and commercial manpack designs, designs that can overcome many of the limitations I've listed and provide good mid-range TX performance, good receiver performance, robust tuners, robust weatherproofing and long battery life. All in a package small and light enough to toss in a backpack, go for a walk, and make contacts. 

I've got a small collection of both military models (PRC-77, Czech RF-10) and commercial models (Vertex Standard VX-1210, Yaesu FT-70G), But I'm bumping up against some inevitable issues - most of his hardware is 50+ years old, no longer performs as it originally did, and is not really worth the expense to keeping running. That means when one of these radios dies, its next trip will be to a landfill or electronics recycling center.

Twenty five years ago manpack radios were less difficult to find. There were more of them on the market because there were more manufacturers in the market. Additionally, embedded encryption and military only waveforms were not in wide use like we see today. As encrypted systems became the norm, spurred on by America's conflicts in the Middle East and the rise of cyber warfare, the supply of surplus systems started to dry up. The available older systems were snapped up by collectors and reenactors, or sent for recycling. The newer systems could not be released to the surplus market. These encrypted systems, by law, can not be sold to the public. Instead, the radios had to be ground up or melted down to destroy the embedded encryption systems. 

This means that there's really no military manpack radios of recent manufacture available on the surplus market. Some manufacturers like Harris, Barrett and Codan do make civilianized versions of their high end rigs - radios that lack the sensitive embedded encryption. These are designed for sale to organizations like NGOs (UN relief agencies, Red Cross, etc.) and are legal for civilians to own. However, these radios are extremely rare on the used market, and when they do show up are too expensive to consider. As I write this one online vendor, Green Tip Surplus, offers a used Harris RF-7800 radio (civilian version of the PRC-160) starting at $8,500, with no batteries or accessories. And I have no doubt it will sell at that price.


Codan Sentry manpack. Somewhat less ouchy than a Harris 7800, but still painful
at over $6,000 for a new stripped out model

Ham radio manufacturers have gone part way down this path with a few of their radios. I've already mentioned the Vertex Standard VX-1210 (originally made by Yaesu) and the Yaesu FT-70G. These were radios designed for commercial and military markets but bled over into the ham radio market. Other kinda' sorta' manpack rigs designed specifically for the ham radio market include the Icom IC-703, the Yaesu FT-817/818, the Elecraft KX2 and, of course, the current Icom IC-705. Of all of these, the IC-703 came closest to my idealized version of the manpack rig. Icom provided a whole host of manpack accessories, including an internal tuner, direct connect HF antennas, battery packs, and a very well designed backpack. Many hoped (expected?) the IC-705 would just build on the concept of the IC-703, but port over the outstanding digital HF performance of the IC-7300. Alas, while the IC-705 is a great radio, it's also a radio that reflects some missed opportunities, particularly in the awkward physical design and the lack of an internal tuner. Icom does make a well designed backpack for the IC-705 (the LC-192), but it's sized to fit a Japanese school girl and not much use as a serious manpack container.

When the dust settles, we're left with what many would consider a dark horse candidate. The Elecraft KX2. The dark horse perception is odd, because Elecraft actually advertises this rig as suitable for HF handheld operation. This is made possible, in large part, by the excellent internal tuner Elecraft makes for this little rig. 

From Elecraft's own website. This KX2 was designed
with handheld HF operations in mind

The KX2 isn't particularly rugged, and it's very vulnerable to water intrusion (the case is just a stamped metal box with lots of openings), but the performance is world class.

There may be some interesting developments in the manpack HF field just on the horizon. One effort that is beyond the vaporware stage is the Lab599 TX-500MP. This was teased out earlier last year, and one or two pre-production models have seen daylight. Lab599 is a Russian company, but it moved quickly to distance itself from Putin and his antics in Ukraine. The company moved its production to the UAE and seems to have found some stability. The TX-500 has developed something of a cult following, and the company responds well to input and puts out regular firmware updates, always a positive sign. 

There's not a whole lot of info out on the TX-500MP yet other than some basic specs, but Lab599 does keep the user community updated on its development status. The radio looks like a channelized version of the TX-500 with an integrated battery pack and antenna tuner. There has even been talk of a digital soundcard interface. In terms of a real product that may see the light of day in the next year or so, this looks like the best bet.

The other developments are merely speculative. Icom recently teased out that there's something new coming. They won't say what, but it likely won't be a new HT. It may be a new UHF/VHF mobile rig, since the ID-5100 is getting a bit long in the tooth (but is still one of the best dual band mobiles on the market). Or, it could be a new HF/VHF/UHF portable rig. Icom did something odd last year. They pulled the IC-7100 from production, then within literally a few months they put it back into production and acted like nothing every happened. It was a very odd sequence of events, and Icom never commented on what was going on behind the scenes. The IC-7100 is a very nice radio, and it was a strong seller for Icom, but it too is getting long in the tooth, and its DSTAR capabilities are a bit dated. The switcheroo Icom went through may well signal that Icom had the IC-7100's replacement about to enter the pipeline, but hit a snag and decided to keep the 7100 going just a bit longer. So, Icom may be poised to release information on this new radio at Hamvention in Xenia, OH in a few weeks. Fingers crossed that whatever they do release is a good manpack platform.

This last speculation is way out there. Yaesu killed off its FT-818 last year and there's been no discussion of a replacement. Yaesu simply can't let this gap in their product line continue. QRP activities like SOTA and POTA are sweeping the ham radio community, and in the US most of the spend to fill that demand has been on the Icom IC-705. Yaesu can't let Icom go unchallenged in this market. Or maybe they can. In the past decade or so, Yaesu seems to have gotten pretty good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as reflected in some pretty clumsy hardware releases.

Some may be saying, "But Brian, what about the Chinese?" OK, I'll admit that the soon-to-be-released Xeigu 6200 looks pretty neat, but if you've read any of my posts over the past few years you'll know that I don't spend money on Chinese products. 

We'll check back on this subject after Hamvention. I'm hoping we'll have one or more really good manpack releases to talk about. Until then, 73!

W8BYH out

26 April 2024


Yesterday word came out that Martin F. Jue, the president and founder of MFJ Enterprises, has decided to shutter MFJ and all of it's associated brands, and retire:

Martin and MFJ have served Amateur Radio for over half a century. MFJ filled an important niche in the hobby - they created an enormous range of affordable 'gadgets' that filled the void left as hobby manufacturers like Heathkit closed down, and the homebrew movement dwindled. Need an antenna analyzer? MJF's got multiple catalog pages full of them. Need an antenna tuner? Same thing - MFJ's selection of tuners seems endless. Antennas, amplifiers, connectors, meters, power supplies, microphones, headsets, interfaces, clocks, CW keys, and much, much more. MFJ's current print catalog is 90 pages long and absolutely stuffed full of the bits 'n baubles that hams rely on to make the hobby fun. 

Along the way MFJ vacuumed up a number of brands such as Ameritron (amplifiers), Cushcraft (antennas) and Vectronics (meters). Some of these acquisitions were controversial, but the honest truth is that if Martin hadn't bought them, they likely would have folded. At least MFJ gave them a fighting chance.

MFJs departure will leave a huge hole in the ham radio market. The question is, who will fill the void? 

But for now, let's thank Martin for his contributions to the hobby and wish him well. He's right, life is so short and time with family is so precious. 

W8BYH out 

14 April 2024

MARS Modding the IC-705

Yesterday I decided it was time to do the MARS mod - wide-band  HF transmit modification - to my IC-705. There was nothing special about yesterday, other than the fact that I finally screwed up the courage to open up the little radio and git 'er done!

I like to do the MARS mod on as many of my HF radios as possible. I'm a MARS and SHARES operator, and doing the mod gives me the knowledge that I can use this very expensive and capable radio outside of the ham bands. I've done MARS mods on the IC-7100, 7200 and 7300, Yaesu FT-891, the 991 and the Elecraft KX2. The process differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. Icom's process is the most destructive - you have to carefully remove very small diode(s) from one of the boards in the radio. Yaesu's is the least destructive - you create a solder bridge across one or more open pads on one of the boards. Elecraft's is the most elegant - you simply do a firmware update. 

There are several good on-line resources for IC-705 mod. Of course you won't find anything official from Icom on the subject, but it doesn't take long for the info for any radio, from any reputable manufacturer, leak out. So it was with the IC-705. Within a few months of release, word was already circulating on how to do the modification.

Before going further, I need to say this - if  you want a MARS modified radio your best and safest bet is to buy a new one from the major distributors like HRO or GigaParts. They are authorized by the manufacturers to do the mods, have all the technical data, equipment and experienced personnel to do the job, and your radio retains the original manufacturers warranty. Yes, you'll pay extra, but it is the safest route to take if you want a new ham radio with this modification. I only do this mod on radios that are out of warranty, and I do it only on radios I own - I don't do this as a service for others. 

OK, back to the resources. There are several videos on YouTube showing how to do the mod. All follow the same steps, but in each the mod is done with varying levels of expertise. In one or two I'm surprised the radio survived the surgery. The best video I've found, and the one I watched several times before doing my mod, is the one put together by TRX Lab:

There are also modification instruction sheets posted to the mods.dk website. Mods.dk is a paid subscription website, but they do allow the download of one document per day to those who are not paid members. If you go there, look for the document dated 26 March 2023.

The mod involves removing one very, very small surface mount diode from a portion of the main board that is very crowded. This implies finesse, and the right tools. Of course you'll need heat. Most use a soldering iron. However, I've invested in a quality hot air station specifically designed for electronics use. The model I bought is the Quick 861DW. The Quick is considered a basic 'pro' unit, but it gets generally excellent reviews from people I trust. Honestly, I don't even look at my soldering iron when doing this kind of work. The hot air station is a much better tool.

All the other tools are pretty run-of-the-mill for electronics hobbyists:

  • screwdrivers (I use JIS standard screwdrivers when working on Japanese manufactured gear)
  • forceps and tweezers 
  • heat resistant tape (for masking components on the board)
  • static-safe prying and opening tools (commonly called spudgers)
  • wrist grounding strap
  • static free work surface
Magnification is your best friend. I don't care how good your eyesight it, unless you are the Six Million Dollar Man with bionic vision, you are going to need lots of magnification. The diode that needs to be removed is about the size of a speck of ground pepper! I use a combination of a swing-arm LED lamp with a built-in magnifier and an OptiVisor headband magnifier with a separate magnifying loupe and LED illumination. Often it requires using all of these in conjunction to properly see the board components I'm working on

So let's get to the radio. The radio comes apart like a bit of a puzzle box, but overall it's not too bad. Honestly, one of the biggest pains was getting the six screws out that hold the two halves of the radio together. Everything is tight, and two of the screws are, I suspect, set with thread locking compound. They were a PITA to get out, even with the correct JIS screwdriver, and I buggered a few of them up. But once the radio is open, it's pretty straight forward. You have to remove the front panel and the two connecting ribbons, the sheet metal RF shield and another smaller ribbon connector (at the bottom in the photo below). There are two small antenna cables to disconnect. Once everything is unscrewed and disconnected, wiggle the main board out and rotate it so the bottom of the board is facing up. 

The front panel removed and flipped face down (note the speaker in the lower left corner of the panel).
The main board is underneath the RF shield. It has to be removed and flipped over to
access the diode that needs to be removed. This requires disconnecting the two large ribbon cables,
the smaller ribbon cable at the bottom, the RF shield, and then disconnecting two small antenna
cables (underneath the shield). After that the main board can be removed and flipped over

Here are the two black and gray antenna wires on the main board that have to be removed before the main board can be taken out and flipped over. One is the HF connection, the other is the VHF/UHF connection. Not sure which is which.

Here's the main board removed and flipped over. The diode to be removed is in that 'field' of diodes at the bottom center of the board (outlined in yellow). Luckily the diode in a good location at the bottom left corner of the field. (Sorry for the fuzzy quality of the image, I think the camera was stuck on macro mode.)

According to the instructions downloaded from mods.dk, on US versions of the IC-705 only the diode in the lower left corner needs to be removed (circled in yellow below). Other sources say a diode on the second row also needs to be removed (circled in white). However, this diode seems to be related to 60 meter capability, and since the US version of the 705 already has 60 meter capability (enabled in firmware?), I decided to leave it in place. If future testing reveals this second diode does need to come out, I'll tackle that later.

The next step is to apply heat resistant (Kapton) tape to mask out just the diode that needs to be removed (circled in yellow, below), and protect surrounding components. It's even important to mask open component pads, to avoid melting the solder on the pads and accidentally creating a solder bridge.

Next comes the steady hands part. Apply heat from the hot air station to the diode for just a few seconds, grab it with a set of tweezers, and it should lift right off the board, leaving an open pad that doesn't need any clean-up. Some sources say you should add extra lead solder and flux to each end of the diode pad, to lower the melt temperature of the lead-free solder Icom uses when it builds the boards, but I don't find that necessary if I properly mask out the component using the heat resistant tape. 

Gone, gone, gone...

Once the diode is off the board and you've checked the pad to make sure everything is clean, the only thing left to do is put it all back together and test. The 705 goes back together in reverse order, with a little wiggling to make sure all the ribbon cables are routed properly.

Once that's done, test on various ham and non-ham frequencies (into a dummy load, of course) to ensure the radio does in fact transmit outside of the ham bands and at the correct power levels. Everything looks good!

In all, the process was easier than I thought it would be. The little rig really isn't that hard to open up and navigate around in. Just take the usual precautions - use an anti-static wrist band, work on an anti-static work surface, use the appropriate tools, and you should be all right. Oh, and take lots of pictures to document your process in case you forget what board, ribbon cable or screw goes where.

The radio is a very neat, trim and compact design on the inside. Hey, it's an Icom, right? It's also a very rugged build; everything inside the case is very well secured - literally screwed down tight. There's no wasted space and nothing is flopping around in there. It's a brick. Honestly, with everything so tightly packed in and with no airflow it's a wonder these radios run as cool as they do. 

So that's it! If you have any questions or comments please post them below or contact me at w8byh@arrl.net, and I'll be happy to respond.

W8BYH out

24 March 2024

The Acceptance Phase

Over the years I've posted here a few times about my adventures with my Elecraft KX2. Recently I wrote about upgrading it with the new Elecraft KXIBC2 board, which allows charging of the lithium-ion battery while still installed in the radio. I've also sung its praises here and on other forms for it's excellent design, modularity, maintainability, manufacturer support and world-class performance on SSB. 

What I've had to finally come to accept, though, is that the KX2's is a lousy digital mode performer. 

I so desperately want this little rig to run things like Winlink and JS8CALL, but I've struggled on-and-off for two years to get it working correctly, with no real success. Lord knows, I've put a few dozen hours into the effort, and have bought no end of USB sound card dongles, Digirig interfaces, cables and assorted bits 'n bobs. All to no end. My last attempt was a few days ago, when a JS8CALL session on three different bands netted only two very weak beacon reports. OK, I was getting out, but not well, and I have no idea why.

I'm no digital mode dummy. The list of radios I've run Winlink, JS8CALL, VarAC, Fldigi, MS-DMT and other digital modes on is extensive. Probably close to a dozen different models across all manufacturers, some with internal sound card interfaces, some requiring external sound card setups like the Signalink. The KX2 is, hands down, the most difficult radio I've ever dealt with on digital modes.

"No Winlink for you!"

This isn't a tragedy, merely an inconvenience. I've got other QRP rigs that do just fine on digital modes, like the Icom IC-705. It's just disappointing that an otherwise great little rig is a stinker on digital. Going forward it'll be relegated to SSB only, and in that use it's at the top of the heap. It's such a cracking good little radio that it'll stay on my 'do not sell' list, along with my Yaesu FT-818 (which, by the way, runs digital modes without breaking a sweat). One of the reasons is that the KX2 has had the MARS mod done to it, and I've actually used it to check into both MARS and SHARES nets. It's usefulness as a sideband rig is beyond measure.

So if anyone out there has a KX2 (or KX3) and runs it successfully on digital modes, I'd desperately love to talk with you. Drop me a line.

Until then, I'm screwing up the courage to do the MARS mod on my IC-705.

W8BYH out

13 March 2024

Thinking Outside The Box

Pet peeve time.

Ham radio is in love with the go-box. You can't attend a hamfest or club meeting without seeing presentations on, or hearing discussions about, go-boxes; what goes in them, how they are built, how to power them, how to connect to them, etc. Suffice to say, ham radio is go-box batty. Proof? Just Google 'ham radio go box'. 

The go-box concept is good, but it can be limiting in both capabilities and scope. Just the mindset that all your capability has to fit into a single box, and if it doesn't fit, then you don't need it, is a silly way to approach a problem. 

I haven't seen too many go-boxes that were built to meet a specific mission or requirement. For example, I once asked a person demonstrating his go-box why he included a VHF packet modem. He admitted there wasn't a clear need for it - it was there 'just in case'. This in a region that hasn't seen any public service related packet activity for over 15 years.

I don't want to disparage the concept of the go-box, but the 'box' mentality and the lack of a requirements-based approach seems to lead to a lot of implementations that look like solutions in search of a problem.

Let's think beyond the go-box and instead think about the concept of a mission-focused communications hub or, as we used to call them in the Army, a 'comms center'. A comms center is just a place - a table, a room, a shelter, a tent. Heck, it can be the tailgate of a pickup truck. But it is the place at which you build out a communications hub in support of an event or incident, and build it out tailored to the mission requirements.

A comm center can be anywhere, even in a sandbagged bunker

I use the term 'mission focus' a lot, and it really is the key to the comms center concept. You build capability to meet a specified mission. Let's use a county-level ARES group as an example. Do a mission analysis and ask yourself (and your EMA) these questions: 

  • What are your served agencies? 
  • What are the missions of these served agencies? 
  • What communications capabilities do they need to meet their missions? 
  • What are their organic communications capabilities?  
  • What are they lacking? 
The answer to 'What are they lacking?' is what should drive your mission focus. Once you identify and understand that gap, and build capabilities to close it, you are on the path to establishing a formal comms center.

The comms center concept is also fluid. In the Army, I've been in situations where the comms center started out as just a single VHF radio mounted in a truck, a map board and a message log. Over time it morphed into a dedicated shelter with multi-channel voice and digital HF and VHF capabilities, a landline switchboard and a SATCOM link. What all this gear wasn't, was stuffed into a single box. That was impractical and unwieldly; each communications system required more elbow room than a boxed enclosure could offer.

Far-fetched for a civilian operation? Not at all. With growing reliance on systems like Winlink and other HF-based digital tools like JS8CALL, Fldigi, VarAC, and use of internet-linked VHF voice and data modes like DSTAR, C4FM, DMR and Echolink, the technology stack in a civilian comms center can easily match that found in military units. And let's not forget the vulnerability of terrestrial-based internet. There's a reason a Starlink package is a standard part of many civilian communications centers.

But a comms center isn't really about comms equipment. The job of the comms center is moving information, and the synchronization of communications across systems, agencies and departments. With this in mind, a comms center's key functions include:

  • Establishing and maintaining communications support as directed by the event director, incident commander or incident communications leader
  • Maintaining the event/incident radio log
  • Conducting an overall 'radio watch'; ensuring all comms systems are up, operating and proactively monitored
  • Interfacing communications systems. For example, establishing radio-wire interfaces, making sure information received via radio is 'hopped' to the appropriate systems like WebEOC, internal chat systems, status boards, etc.
  • On-boarding new personnel, departments or agencies that show up to support the incident, making sure their organic communications systems are integrated into the communications architecture
  • Radio set-up and programming
  • Troubleshooting communications issues
So... while a go-box can serve as a component of a comms center, it should never be considered an all-encompassing solution. For this reason I'm not a big fan of the 'box' solution. It seems to impose conceptual restrictions, trying to force the mission requirements to fit the box, not the other way around.

So let's stop focusing on go-boxes and instead focus on flexible, mission focused comms centers. Start thinking outside the box.

W8BYH out

03 March 2024

A Small KX2 Upgrade

I continue to be impressed by Elecraft and their long-term support for products that other manufacturers would consider 'end-of-life' and not worth investing time or effort on. Case in point is the KX2, introduced in 2016. While eight years isn't really that long for an amateur radio to be in production, it is unusual for a radio to see firmware improvements and factory hardware upgrades this far into its production life. Yet 'obsolete' and 'end of life' don't seem to be in the Elecraft vocabulary; they continue to provide support for rigs that have been out of production for years. There are no orphans in the Elecraft line-up.

Case in point with the KX2 is the recent release of the KXIBC2 internal battery charger board. The KXIBC2 replaces the internal clock board and adds the ability to charge a factory Li-ion battery inside the rig and provides a real-time clock. This is a big improvement, and addresses one of the major complaints many have of the KX2. As designed, the battery pack had to be charged outside of the rig - open the radio and remove the battery, plug it into a charger, when fully charged re-install it in the radio. Elecraft originally designed the radio this way because back in 2015, when the design was finalized, Li-ion charging technology wasn't what it is today, and Elecraft thought it was smarter and safer to require charging outside the radio. Nine years on, Elecraft figured out a power management system that allows the Li-ion pack to be charged safely while inside the radio. The KXIBC2 board is available as a factory option, or a user installed kit.

The kit arrived a week ago, and yesterday I decided it was time to dive in and do the upgrade. In typical Elecraft fashion, the installation instructions are well thought out and easy to follow. It's a simple matter of pulling out the old clock board, popping in the new charger board, soldering two jumpers to the main board and adjusting the radio settings to recognize the new board. In my case I needed to do a firmware update (v3.00 to v3.02). 

The KXIBC2 board installed (right side of the picture. It replaces to old real-time clock 
board, but provides a charge controller plus real-time clock. The red and white pins
will be soldered to the main board. The large open space will be taken up by the Li-ion battery

The KXIBC2 board seen from the 'outboard' side

Jumper wires soldered in place on the main board

Battery pack in place, time to test. The LED on the charger board is a steady
yellow, so the battery is charging and all's good!

A quick firmware update brings everything up to snuff

The little rig is merrily charging away, getting ready for the next radio adventure!

There you have it. A dandy little rig made even better, courtesy of a company that actually listens to and engages with its customers.

W8BYH out

04 February 2024

So Close, Yet Still Oh So Far

I got bored yesterday and decided to put together yet another one of my ham radio transceiver evaluation spreadsheets. This time I wanted to evaluate QRP and 100 watt HF rigs against the same criteria, but not have them compete in the same space. So I decided to take a look at 100 watt rigs and QRP rigs separately.

My evaluation criteria change around the margins from year-to-year, but there are always a core set of requirements I'm looking for. These are MY requirements, the features and capabilities that matter to me. I also only evaluate rigs I've got personal experience with, or rigs that have caught my eye. For example, as kind of a toss-in to see where the market is today I decided to add the new(ish) Yaesu FT-710 to the evaluation. I have no personal experience with the rig, other than about a 15 minute test session at my local HRO showroom, but felt it deserved to be evaluated against some of its older siblings like the FT-897 and the FT-891.

Some of the radios I evaluate are out of production, so their scores really are not relevant to anyone other than me. But, since they are in my radio arsenal, I figured they would serve a useful purpose to highlight how far current rigs have (or have not) improved in terms of features and capabilities.

Let's talk briefly about the evaluation criteria. As I said, these are features that matter to ME. However, I know from talking to a lot of hams that like to operate outdoors that many of you are interested in these features, too. I also weight the evaluation criteria. For example, I consider the a built-in sound card interface to be critically important, so I give it an evaluation weight of 3, as opposed to having back-lit buttons, which only gets an evaluation weight of 1. While I think back-lit buttons are important, I consider a built-in sound card interface to be three times as important. 

Let's review some of the criteria:

  • Built in panadapter. This implies the radio has a real-time panadapter and waterfall display. Over the years I've found this a very useful feature, particularly when doing digital modes. A panadapter isn't absolutely critical; some high performing rigs on this evaluation, like the KX2, don't have them, but if the radio does have one that's a plus
  • Sound card interface. I've already discussed this above. My feeling is this - with a modern rig of any type, if you are a manufacturer and don't include a sound card interface, you are half-stepping it
  • Ease of digital mode configuration. It's one thing to have a built-in sound card. It's another to have a firmware set that makes it easy to configure for and run sound card digital modes. In my experience, Icom clearly excels at this. While no manufacturer's digital mode configuration settings are exactly 'easy', Icom's configurations are the least confusing and aggravating to set up and troubleshoot. 
  • Internal battery. It used to be only QRP rigs came with internal batteries (and not all of them, at that). I can understand 100 watt rigs not having internal batteries due to cost and technical complexity (although that excuse is becoming harder and harder to swallow, given recent improvements in battery chemistries and charging technologies), but there is NO reason today for a QRP rig to not have replaceable, rechargeable internal batteries or, in the case of rigs like the IC-705 and the Lab599 TX-500, a battery holder that securely attaches to and integrates with the main radio body
  • MARS mod. This is important to me, but likely not to many others. I'm a licensed MARS operator, so the ability to do a wide-band TX mod on any radio I own is important. The good news is that just about any radio can take a MARS modification. The challenge is the cost and difficulty. Most radios need some physical modification - either the removal of diodes or, in the case of some Yaesu rigs, adding a solder bridge across two open pads on a board. But the all-time winner is Elecraft. Their MARS mods are done via software - quick, easy, elegant and reversable
  • Tuners. Most tuners built into 100 watt rigs are anemic, handling (at best) a 4:1 antenna mis-match. They'll tweak up an 'almost resonant' antenna, but choke when the SWR crawls above 5:1. But what if you are dealing with some serious mis-matches under something like disaster response conditions? Spare me the talk about only using resonant antennas. I operate in the real world, where I've got one antenna up, and it's got to work on 10 - 40 meters and, if possible, at reduced power on 80 meters. This is why I want a more robust tuner in my radio. I'm OK with a tuner that can handle a 4:1 mis-match, but if you can give me one that'll handle 10:1, and build it into the radio, you get an extra point in my evaluation
  • IP and MILSTD ratings for water/dust resistance and ruggedness. Every rig fails at this, but I keep it as aspirational evaluation criteria. Both Yaesu and Icom know how to build IPX and MILSTD radios - they do it every day for the military, marine, aviation, commercial and land mobile markets the serve, and they also do it for some of the ham radio UHF/VHF handheld radios they currently make, like the Icom ID-52. There is no reason why they can't put just one HF radio in their lineup that meets these standards
  • Factory ruggedized. This is the most subjective evaluation criteria I have. It is different from IP and MILSTD ratings, but the end goal is the same - a radio that offers improved water and shock resistance for field use. There two radios on my list that manufacturers have either implied or outright stated as built to a higher standard - the Icom IC-7200 (now out of production) and the Lab599 TX-500. I've opened up my IC-7200 several times, and I can tell you that radio is about as water resistant as a submarine with screen hatches. It looks rugged, but it's really just a plastic shell surrounding a huge heat sink. A good radio, yes, but in no way water resistant. Icom should be ashamed of itself for implying in their product literature that the IC-7200 was in some way more water resistant than other radios on the market. The TX-500 is a different story. Lab599 proudly states that the radio is built to offer a higher level of water resistance. While the radio doesn't meet IPX or MILSTD ratings, reports from the field are that the radio really does offer serious water resistance in light rain and snow (it's a Russian design so, yeah, snow). The TX-500 is the only radio I give an extra point to for being truly rugged 

What's not in this evaluation criteria? UHF/VHF capability. Since I'm only interested in HF, I don't take into consideration any UHF/VHF capabilities the radio might have. Both the IC-7100 and the IC-705 offer UHF/VHF, but I simply don't care when it comes to what I'm looking at here. I also don't evaluate for CW capabilities. I'm not a CW operator. HF voice and digital only.

So, winners? Here's a few:

  • In the full-size 100 watt category, the IC-7300 is the winner. I've said this many times in the past - if you want an HF radio that works great in the widest number of scenarios, the IC-7300 is it. After over a decade in the market it really hasn't been beat. It's not a perfect radio by any means, but compared to all the others in it's market niche, it is still the best.
  • In the QRP rig category, the IC-705 is the clear winner. Like the IC-7300, it works best in the widest set of circumstances and offers those used to Icom's command and feature set a very similar menu structure. In fact, if you can operate a current Icom HF radio (7300, 7610) you can operate the 705 with ease. Performance on HF digital, with one exception, is a dream. It is hands down the easiest to configure and run digital QRP radio on the market. That one exception? RFI interference via the USB connection. This is a very serious issue, one that Icom has acknowledged, but not likely to address. The way around this is to run the radio on digital modes via wi-fi. There are several apps you can use for this, but I've had the most success with Icom's own RS-BA1 software 
There's no losers, per-se. Just several second place finishers, and a few radios that should have been spared this comparison (like the Yaesu FT-818 and the Xeigu G90). The #2 finisher in the 100 watt category is the Icom IC-7100. Even after 15 years of production, this is still a very viable design, with an excellent feature set and great digital mode performance. Icom kinda' sorta' killed it off in early 2023, then resurrected it for another production run (and with a corresponding price increase). Speculation is that the 7100's replacement has been delayed due to chip shortages (boy, that excuse is wearing thin), and Icom scraped up enough parts to do a final production run or two of the 7100 as a 'gap filler' until the new radio can make it to market. 

Some observations regarding other radios. The Yaesu FT-891 remains the radio that could have been. If  you look at the score it received, a respectable 9, and then consider where that radio would have placed if Yaesu had put a sound card interface in it (giving the rig 3 more points), that would have put the radio in a solid 2nd place, ahead of the IC-7100. But considering Yaesu has a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Jeezus guys, just a simple sound card interface!

The Yaesu FT-710 looks like a solid performer, and I have to admit that I quite liked the interface when I played with it at HRO. Far, far better than the awful interface on the FT-991A. But I've also heard some of the same stories regarding digital mode configuration with the 710 that I heard with earlier models. Again, an overly and unnecessarily complex command set. I'll be doing more research on this rig before making a final assessment.

In the QRP category, while the Elecraft KX line remain strong contenders, their single biggest weakness is digital mode operations. The KX2 is a bugger to configure and run on digital modes, and the rig heats up very quickly. It just seems that digital operations were an afterthought with these rigs. On sideband they are unmatched in their class - even better than the IC-705. The venerable old FT-818 is such a simple rig that it's actually easy to configure for digital modes, and it'll run all day long on its 5 watt output. Sometimes simpler is better. Too bad the old girl isn't really competitive in any other category. But hey, it's almost a quarter century old design, so it can be forgiven.

OK, this is it for now. Remember, these are MY selections based on MY criteria. I'm sure many of you will disagree, so let me have your comments!

W8BYH out