Old Radios And What To Do With Them

Because people know I like fiddling with radios, sometimes people give me old radios they don’t want or that don’t work in the hopes I can do something with them. I thought you might be interested in how your grandparents listened to radio, so take a look at this beast. I’ve had this thing sitting on the shelf for a long time now and finally decided to pull it out and deal with it because I need the space.

There is a technical term for radios like these: Junk

I have a term for radios like these – junk. It’s a shame, really. Once upon a time this was probably a nice little multi-band radio receiver. The rust on the chassis isn’t a big deal, that’s pretty common and can be dealt with, but this thing has some other, much more serious problems. It is unrepairable, but there are some useful parts I can salvage.

I looked all over this thing and I can’t find a manufacturer’s name or brand name. If I did some research I could probably find out what company made it originally, but there’s no real point because it isn’t worth the effort. There might have been a paper label that fell off long ago.

Or it’s entirely possible there never was a maker’s mark stamped on it. It wouldn’t be that uncommon. Like today, the name you see on the case of a piece of equipment isn’t necessarily the name of the company that actually made it. Back when this radio was made, big retailers like Sears and others would contract with manufacturers to produce equipment that the retailer would sell under their own brand name. Sometimes they’d buy the electronics from one company, buy the case from another, assemble it somewhere, slap their name on it and sell it as their own. It’s very common even today.

You’ll also note there is no outer case for this unit, either. That’s how it was when I got it. I find that fairly often today as well. Often the outer cases were made of cheap plywood with a thin veneer of nice wood on the outside to make it look fancy, and the cases would never last long. The plywood would begin to delaminate if it got damp, and they’d get damaged easily. Or if the case was in good shape, it’s fairly common for people to strip the old electronics out of it and throw them away and use the case as a decorative item or even build a modern radio into it.

Now if that radio up there looks complicated with the big transformer, variable capacitor, all the tubes and coils, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait until you see what’s underneath:

That – that mess up there, my friends, is what all radios looked like under the cover back in the day. When this radio was built, there were no transistors or solid state devices. This radio even predates printed circuit boards. Every single bit of this radio was built by hand. All of those components and wires were soldered in place by some poor schmuck who stood at a work station all day long doing nothing but soldering bits and nubbins and gubbins together.

Radios back then were very, very expensive, partly because they had to be all assembled by hand. It’s hard to tell how much this particular radio cost when it was new. Let’s say it was made in 1950, and it cost about $60 back then, which was a fairly common price for a decent, but not top of the line, multi-band receiver back then. That doesn’t sound like much until you take inflation into account. Accounting for inflation, that radio up there would sell for about $640 today. Ouch!

Another reason they were expensive was the sheer number of parts necessary, and, of course, these things:

Those are vacuum tubes. Now there is a wave of nostalgia going on about tubes, especially among stereo and audio aficionados who claim that sound amplifiers that use vacuum tubes sound “better” somehow, than those that use solid state devices and, well, it’s all BS, really. Vacuum tubes, to put it bluntly, suck. (Vacuum? Suck? Is there a pun in there somewhere? No, don’t go there…)

Sidenote: To give you an idea of how ridiculous this whole tube amplifier thing has gotten in the audio market, let me give you an example. An acquaintance of mine had a friend bring over a tube style stereo amplifier that had some problems. The four prominently displayed vacuum tubes on the top of the unit weren’t lighting up. But interestingly enough, it was still working as a stereo amplifier. Which it shouldn’t have been if the tubes were actually doing anything. Which they weren’t. The only connection to the tubes was a line to feed power to the filaments so they’d light up. None of the other pins were even connected. The tubes were being used for nothing but decorative lighting.

Vacuum tubes look really cool and retro and all that, but as actual electronic components they’re horrible. They suck up huge amounts of power, give off large amounts of heat, are physically large, often require massive transformers to provide high voltages, are expensive to make, and as soon as solid state devices began to be mass produced, radio manufacturers abandoned them as fast as they could redesign their equipment.

As I was looking this thing over, I found it had a rather serious problem. This:

If you look close at that photo up there, you’ll see what I mean, charred parts, melted wires – basically this thing was damn near on fire at one point. Probably some component failed, overheated, and started the insulation on the wiring on fire.

So what am I going to do with this thing? There are some parts I can salvage. The tube sockets are still good, and they’re hard to come by, so I’ll pull those out. The tubes themselves – I’ll keep ’em but I don’t know if they’re any good. They do make nice decorative items, though. Some of the big rotary switches may be salvageable as well. The actual electronic components aren’t worth even bothering with. A lot of them probably would still work within their original specifications, but without tearing them out of the circuits and testing them it’s impossible to tell, and frankly it isn’t worth the effort. Would you use a 50 or 60 year old resistor in a project you’re building today, even if a meter said it was within specification? I wouldn’t. But I am hoping I can salvage this:

These big air variable capacitors were (and still are) used for tuning, and they’re damned expensive if you have to buy them new. So I’m hoping that once I get this one out and cleaned up it might still be useful. It looks in pretty rough shape with some significant rust issues, but that seems to be limited to the nonessential parts. I can’t tell until I can pull it out and test it. I’m hoping it will work because a new one like this sells for about $50.

Is Repairing Old Radios Worth It?

Well, I’m not going to give you a whole lecture on antique electronics, but the answer to that question is … Well, to be perfectly honest, probably not unless it is something you personally enjoy.

My SX-43 isn’t worth much, maybe $100 – $150 if I wanted to sell it, but it is a really cool looking radio. And yes, it works quite well. This one has the advantage of receiving not just the ham bands, but also the AM and FM broadcast bands.

Financially speaking repairing and refurbishing old radios is almost never worth it. You aren’t going to get much money for them unless they are something rare or exotic. Often the people who buy antique radios aren’t so much interested in them working, they want them for decorative items. Considering the amount of time, effort, research, and the difficulty in finding some parts, you’ll be lucky if you break even if you try making money off restoring old radios. Fiddling with old radios is sort of a hobby of mine, but to be honest I don’t do it very often because I generally find it more rewarding to spend the time on other things.

Damn, I need to paint that wall and those shelves. Sheesh that looks like crap. Anyway, this is one of my other old receivers, an SX-96. I didn’t have to do anything to this one. The person who owned it before me completely refurbished it and it works probably better than it did when new. This one also isn’t really worth that much. I’ve seen people asking a lot of money for this model, but even in near perfect condition it isn’t worth more than about $125- $175

There are exceptions, of course. Old amateur radio equipment is one of them. Sometimes. It depends on the condition of the unit (external physical appearance is very important in this market, almost as important as it’s actual functionality), the desirability of the particular brand and model, and, of course, whether or not it works up to its original specifications. I’ve seen some old Collins, Hallicrafters, Hammerlund and the other “legendary” brands of amateur radio equipment being sold for eye-wateringly high prices. But it depends on the model, condition, etc. While at the same time other equipment of the same era, from a lesser known manufacturer, may sell for a fraction of what the popular models sell for, even if electronically speaking the off-brand was superior.

Replacing things like capacitors, resistors and other common components is fairly simple and cheap. You can almost always use easily available modern day equivalents. But things like vacuum tubes can be a serious issue. I don’t think anyone makes vacuum tubes except for a few Chinese and Russian companies, and they only make a very, very small variety of tubes, mostly for amplifiers. There are used ones out there, maybe, and some “new old stock” (NOS) laying around, but they’re getting harder and harder to find, and more expensive. If you can find them at all. Transformers can be a problem too.

Some of these old radios had some serious safety issues as well. I really doubt if some of these old radios would pass modern UL safety standards. So there are liability issues here as well. If a radio you repaired or restored causes a problem later, like someone gets an electric shock from it or a 60 year old component fails and starts a fire, could you be held liable and get sued?

I don’t want to discourage you from dabbling with repairing and restoring old electronics, but I do want you to know that you probably aren’t going to make any money at it, and if you do try to sell the equipment you repair, there could be legal issues as well. It can be a fun hobby but you need to be aware of the potential problems as well.

Roses of Winter and Holy Cow it is Bloody Cold Plus Some Radio Stuff

Apparently Mother Nature wasn’t satisfied with deluging us with snow a month early, now she’s trying to freeze us with temperatures we usually don’t see until well into January. It’s about 3 degrees (F) out there, with windchills down in the -10 range. Sheesh…

Meanwhile, MrsGF has this growing in the living room. Just took these photos the other day-

Yeah, roses. I’ve put up photos of this before, but I figured this plant would go dormant or something by now. But it just keeps right on blooming.

This thing started out as one of those goofy little teacup roses, a tiny plant in a cheap cup that they sell for a few bucks on Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. Think I paid all of $7 for it, oh, must be at least two or three years ago. And after we got sick of it sitting around the house MrsGF said what the heck, let’s put it in a big pot and see what happens and the dopey thing just kept growing and flowering. We were putting it in the basement, letting it go dormant over winter, but this year she thought she’d put it in the living room where it could get some light and keep watering it, and well, it apparently likes it there, and it’s been flowering on a regular basis all winter so far.

I asked her how she’s keeping it flowering and she swears she’s just watering it and isn’t doing anything else. Personally I figure witchcraft is involved.

The MagLoop Antenna

I talked about this antenna before, and I continue to be more than pleased with it. Since my dipole came down in the last snowstorm it’s been the main antenna for my TS-990, sitting on the floor behind me in the office. And it is doing ridiculously good.

This is putting 15 watts into an antenna sitting just behind me in my office this morning.

The Great Radio Fiasco Project

I mentioned this before, but let me summarize what I’m trying to do here. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I challenged myself to build, from scratch, a decent radio receiver, preferably shortwave. Emphasis on the word “decent” because I could throw together a few parts and end up with – well, with something that would receive, well, something that might be a radio signal, and pump it into a speaker and you’d hear some sound that might be interpreted as a radio transmission by someone with bad hearing. It could technically be called a radio receiver, but, well, let’s face it, it wouldn’t exactly be useful.

When I first conceived of this project I was like how hard can this be? In those WWII movies the Resistance throws together a radio out of bits of string, a piece of wire, an old cigar box and bits off a horse (don’t ask me what bits, I don’t know, ask them, they built the thing) and call up Churchill at Bomber Command and call in an air strike on Hitler’s outhouse. And the Good Ole Boys in amateur radio weep bitter tears of disappointment over the fact that modern day hams don’t build stuff any more like they did, when they’d throw together a 1,500 watt amplifier, transmitter and superhet receiver in an afternoon, out of parts they salvaged from old washing machines. And bits off a horse for all I know.

Here’s the thing, though – 95% of that (maybe even 98%) is pure BS. I’m sorry, but it just is.

The days of being able to salvage anything useful from discarded electronics are long gone. Modern SMD (surface mount devices) and robotic assembly methods make it virtually impossible to salvage anything useful from relatively modern equipment. And while you can buy discrete components like resistors, capacitors, etc. in the more common values, increasingly it is difficult to find a lot of stuff in anything but SMD form, and in quantities of 1,000 or more. I was trying to find what had once been a very common opamp the other day. It is still available. But if I want to get it from a US supplier I can only buy it in quantities of 1,000 or more, and in SMD format. If I want it in the traditional 6 pin IC form, and only want a few of them, it looks like I’m going to have to order it from China and it won’t get here until mid-March.

Nor are parts cheap. Oh, some are, true, but not the kind of stuff I’m looking for. A single variable capacitor I need for a project sells for $25. And I need two of them. So I’m going to have $50 stuck in that project before I even get started on it.

And then there’s the design of the equipment you want to build. If you were going to set out to build your own radio receiver, probably the first thing you’d do is fire up Google and look for something like “build your own radio” and find, well, hundreds and hundreds of hits that are utterly worthless, along with a few sites that might have actual plans to build something. Only most of those plans are for useless crystal radios and other nonsense. And the designs that do look useful are probably going to be wrong and no one is going to tell you how to fix it when you build it and it doesn’t work. In fact, most of the designs I saw out there were copies of stuff pulled out of old radio or electronics magazines from the 1960s or 70s that didn’t work in the first place.

(Sidenote: I’m convinced that the building plans in all those electronics magazines published in the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. were never actually built by anyone because about six or eight months after the plans were published there’d be a “corrections” item pointing out that they forgot this part, or the wiring was wrong and if you’d actually build the thing it would have exploded, electrocuted your cat or something.)

So the question is, can I build a decent radio receiver from scratch? Probably. Will it work? Maybe. Can I do it for less than what it would cost to just go buy one? No way in hell. Will it work as good as even a cheap piece of junk commercial radio? Almost certainly not.

So why am I doing this? Uh, because I’m a stubborn old goat?

Cheap Amateur Radio. The FT-450D and holy s**t it’s cold! And some flowers and stuff

Okay, can we stop with this nonsense already? It’s only Nov 8, for pete’s sake! Normally we don’t get really cold weather and snow until mid to late December. Usually it’s in the mid 30s to low 40s this time of year and you can still go outside without freezing your bits off. Last night it was 10 degrees. Night before that it was 11 degrees. And snow? Really? A lot of years we’re lucky if we have snow by Christmas. In the last two weeks we’ve had a total of about 12 inches here. Most of that melted off, thank goodness, but now that the temperatures have plummeted it’s sticking around.

There’s so much we didn’t get done outside this fall. Between MrsGF’s knee surgery and everything else that’s been going on, I just didn’t have time to get everything done. I didn’t get some of the dahlias dug up, so those are probably going to be a total loss. Didn’t get any of the leaves raked because I was waiting for both the pear tree and the maple in the backyard to shed their leaves. Only they didn’t this year for some reason. It’s been a strange, strange autumn.

On the plus side, MrsGF’s Christmas cactus is in full bloom and it’s gorgeous. I know a lot of people who just can’t get these things to blossom no matter what they do, but MrsGF has a real knack with plants. I’m not sure what it is. I suspect she could take an old, half rotted twig, shove it in the ground, and in a few weeks it would turn into a healthy tree. This thing just keeps going and going. Some years it blooms twice.

And she has a rose bush in the living room this year, also in full blossom, in November. I don’t know how she does that, either. But it does make me grin like an idiot to have a rose in full bloom while it’s 10 degrees and snowy outside.

But I was really going to talk about amateur radio stuff when I started all of this so let’s get on with this…

Yaesu FT-450D hooked to the SCU-17 interface. It’s been in production for a while but it’s still one heck of a nice little radio for the money

Oh, before that, though, I thought I’d just throw this in even though it has nothing to do with the headline starting this off. This is what it looked like here on Oct 31 a little after 6 AM.

Last day of October in Wisconsin.

Now I know this is Wisconsin and the weather here is a bit, well, odd, but still, really? Ick.

Now, finally, the amateur radio stuff!

The Dilemma

Whenever I start talking to someone about amateur radio, whether they’re other amateur radio operators or people who know nothing at all about it, invariably the topic turns to cost, and it becomes clear immediately that a lot of people, including a lot of hams, think that amateur radio is way too expensive. A lot of people I know who would otherwise be interested in getting into the hobby think it’s so expensive they could never be able to afford it. And that simply isn’t true.

I can’t really blame them for thinking that because some of this equipment is indeed expensive. The top of the line transceivers that the manufacturers and owners love to show off can quickly push up into the $5,000+ range or more. The Kenwood TS-990 sells new for just under $8,000 and iCom makes one that sells for more than $12K, for heaven’s sake. Once you add in other things that you may think you need, if you believe the ads, like amplifiers, computers, morse code keys, etc. you can quickly end up sinking $15,000 or more in a top of the line set up.

But here’s something the manufacturers don’t want you to know:

You don’t need any of that high priced junk.

Seriously. You don’t. If you want to get on the air on the HF bands (shortwave) you don’t have to spend a fortune. That little Yaesu in that photo up there costs literally less than one tenth of what my TS-990 costs new, and to be perfectly honest, does everything you need. Granted, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles the 990 has, doesn’t have the fancy displays and all that, but when it comes down to actually communicating, those bells and whistles aren’t really necessary and the 450 will do everything you need.

I was looking for a fairly full featured, small, full power (100 watts output), 12V powered transceiver to lug out to field day and special events or whenever I feel like it, in situations where the little low powered 818 wouldn’t do the job. I love that little 818, but let’s face it, with a maximum of 6 watts output (3 watts or less running digital), any kind of communications using it is going to depend more on luck than anything else. I ran across someone talking about the 450 and it sounded like a nice little transceiver so I looked into it more and decided it was just what I needed. It sells new for about $750 – $800 which is, as I said before, one tenth of the cost of my TS-990. You can find them used for about $500 or even less if you look around.

And for that price what you get is not some stripped down little radio, either. This thing has a lot of features, including a built in antenna tuner, decent filtering, good noise reduction features, etc. In fact, just about everything you might need in an HF transceiver is packed into this little unit. True, it doesn’t have many of the goodies my 990 has, but I have to admit that in real life I don’t use a lot of those goodies anyway. If this were the only transceiver I had, I would be more than satisfied with its capabilities.

But for me the main question was how well was it going to work using digital modes like PSK, FT8 and JS8Call because those are pretty much the only modes I use. And it turned out it deals with digital very, very well indeed. It took me all of 10 minutes to get it up and running with the SCU-17 you see sitting on top of it in that photo. It was just a matter of plugging in the cables, setting the baud rate in the menu, firing up the computer and setting things up in the software there, and I was on the air. Now granted I had only just fairly recently set up the Yaesu 818 with the same interface, computer and software, so I already had experience working with Yaesu equipment which certainly made it easier. But still, for me, getting a rig up and running on digital modes in under 10 minutes is a bit of a miracle, really. It took me days to get my TS-2000 working properly with digital modes when I first started this years ago.

It’s currently set up in the basement, hooked to the Titan Gap vertical antenna, and it’s been doing a very, very nice job. I’ve made contacts all over the place with it using JS8 and FT8, putting out about 40 watts.

Sidenote: The 450 may be capable of putting out 100 watts, but you never run full power in the digital modes on any transceiver because the power ratings of all transceivers are seriously misleading. Those maximum power ratings they give you are for single side band, which does not stress the transmitter in the radio. With SSB you’re actually averaging far less power output than advertised. Your signal may peak at 100 watts, but you’re actually averaging 50 – 60 watts or so because of how SSB works. Unlike SSB, most digital modes are considered to be 100% duty cycle. A general rule of thumb is when using digital, always dial your power levels back to less than 50% of the radio’s maximum. Sometimes the recommendations are as low as 25%. Otherwise you risk overheating the radio and damaging it.

Anyway, I’m very pleased with this little radio. I didn’t really expect much from it when I got it, and it has certainly exceeded all of my expectations. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, and I’ve been using it more than my TS-990 of late.

Lets see, what else? Oh, yeah. This showed up courtsey of our friendly UPS delivery person the other day.

I picked up a Raspberry Pi 4 to play with to join the RPi 3s I’ve already been playing with. I have a specific goal for this one. There are Linux versions of FT8 and JS8Call that, I’m told, run just fine and dandy on the RPi. I’ll find out this winter as I experiment. My eventual goal is to put together a compact QRP digital system that is backpackable that I can take along when I’m out on the trails with the bicycle. I’d thought about configuring the Rpi as a tablet computer with just a touch screen and no keyboard. I’ve done that before with the Rpi3s I’ve had, but I think that might be a bit awkward, so I’m looking at compact keyboards and maybe a small trackball or touchpad for mouse control. We’ll see. This is still very much a work in progress.

I know, I know… The used Lenovo laptop I picked up was supposed to serve that role, and it does, but while it works just fine it is also big, heavy and clumsy to lug around. I can squeeze a RPi into a package not much bigger than a small tablet computer and a fraction of the weight. We’ll see how it goes.

And that’s about it for now. I’ve been boring you long enough with this.

TRS-80, a Bit of Computer Nostalgia

TRS-80 Mod IV with dual floppy drives and a whopping 64K RAM. Note the front edge of the keyboard. Radio Shack was notorious for this battleship gray paint they used on their computer cases that started to rub off almost immediately exposing the even uglier plastic underneath. We went through this for something like 4 generations of computers before RS finally just started using colored plastic like everyone else.

I have a lot of elderly computers laying around that probably should have gone to recycling long ago, and probably will. I hang on to some of the because of nostalgia, like the one up above. That’s one of two TRS-80 Model IVs that have been kicking around here for ages now. I worked on a lot of these dopey things in the early 1980s, along with its predecessor the Mod III. All things considered, it was a pretty darn nice computer for its day, if a bit on the expensive side. And they did have some “issues”, as they say, thanks largely to some quirky design decisions made by Radio Shack that were probably done to save money.

Not exactly what you’d call a ‘high tech’ video system, even for that era. Basically it’s a cheap, generic black and white television without the tuner or audio.

They were made as cheaply as they could possibly be made (The TRS-80 Mod I came with a video display that was literally an old RCA black and white television with the channel tuner and audio circuits stripped out of it, for example.).

Yummy yummy RAM chips! Guacamole dip costs extra. Despite the Tandy Corporation brand, they were made by Motorola.

I had a couple of Mod III computers, and basically the Mod IV was little more than an enhanced III. And they were expensive. The III sold for, I think, about $800 with a whopping 16K RAM, and RS wanted an arm and a leg to upgrade it to a full 48K. (That’s all you could add to the Mod III) I don’t remember exactly what RS charged to upgrade to 48K, but it was a ridiculously high price. $180 sticks in my mind for some reason. Anyway, you could easily do the upgrade yourself for about a quarter of what RS charged. RS was selling the exact same RAM chips in blister packs at their stores. Total cost for that was about $30-$40. All you had to do was open the case, pop the chips in, and that was it.

The interesting thing is that you actually couldn’t use all of that memory even if you had it, so the memory claims were very misleading. The system ROMS (the computer’s basic operating system) were mapped into the system’s memory map, replacing the first 16 of RAM with the ROMS, so you actually only had access to 48K. If you used a disk drive, then TRS-DOS, the disk operating system, sucked up even more memory. Unless you used a non Radio Shack OS, you couldn’t use more than about 32K – 48K (which was the maximum you could have on the Mod III). So why load the computer up with memory you couldn’t use? Because RS was trying hard to push the computer at the business market, and a lot of businesses were running CP/M. RS didn’t actually sell CP/M for the Mod IV (at least I don’t think they did) but you could get it from other companies. But this was also the time when CP/M became obsolete thanks to the introduction of the IBM-PC and MS-DOS. Radio Shack/Tandy started out as a leader in the personal computer business, but because of an unwillingness to spend money on serious R&D they quickly fell behind and were desperately trying to keep up until they finally washed their hands of computers all together.

RS/Tandy sold the Xenix OS (a UNIX clone) for their business models like the Mod-6. They were bigger, better, faster, had 8 inch floppy drives and you could get hard drives for them. But they were expensive, clunky, and non-standard in just about every way. I have a Mod 6 and a Mod II laying around somewhere too and one of these days when I get bored enough I’ll open one of those up.

Speaking of floppy drives – my, aren’t those dirty… Actually the whole thing looks like it’s been sitting in a barn for the last 30 years. For all I know it was. Or is this the one that got soaked when my 50 gallon aquarium broke one night and the water poured through the floor into the storage area in the basement?

See? Didn’t believe me about the cassette tape, did you?

Those are some real pieces of junk, gems, those drives up there. Genuine single sided, double density, 5 1/4 inch floppies, those are. And holy fright they were expensive when they were being sold! I don’t know what the ones for the Mod-IV went for, but the drives for the Mod-III were ridiculously expensive. But then floppy drives were expensive across the board back then. The Mod-III was mostly sold bare bones when it first came out. You could get it ‘fully loaded’ with dual floppies and 48K of RAM but not many people bought the drives at first because they were so expensive. The ‘standard’ configuration was 16K RAM and a cassette tape player was used to store programs and data. Seriously. Cassette tape. You can imagine how well that worked.

The first drive, which contained the required floppy drive controller adaptor, sold for about $1,200. Adjusted for inflation that’s almost $3,000 today. The second drive sold for about $800.

These floppies are single sided, double density, so they could store a whopping 180K on a single floppy disk. That’s 180 thousand bytes. Not even enough to store a single average sized JPEG photo.

Oh, and did I mention that floppies back then cost up to $5 to $10 each? The company I worked for back then sold genuine IBM brand floppy disks. They sold for “just” $10 each. We’d give you a deal, $95 for a box of ten. I just paid about that much for a 4 terabyte drive for pete’s sake. But at the time I was selling 5 megabyte hard drives to businesses for a cool $5,000 each. Considering what prices were like back then I’m surprised anyone ever bought one of these things. Adjusted for inflation that hard drive would sell today for over $12K.

This is what ran the whole show, the Z80 CPU. Most of the really popular computers of the day like the Apple ][, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, etc. used the 6502 processor in their equipment. They used it not because it was good (it wasn’t), they used it because it was cheap. The Z80 was more expensive, but it was also more powerful. It had a better register system (it had some 16 bit registers which the 6502 lacked), more registers, better indexing, better instruction set, etc. It was more expensive, yes, but it more than made up for that with its capabilities. I’m not sure why RS decided to go with the Z80, but they did, and they kept using it for a rather long time. It served as the primary processing power for the Mod I, Mod II, Mod III, Mod IV, and the Mod-100. RS did use other processors as well. It used the 6809 in its “toy” computer, the Color Computer (ironically, the 6809 in their toy color computer was a much, much more powerful processor than the Z-80 used in their ‘professional’ computers)

The picture above shows the main board of the Mod IV. This was the first time I’ve had a Mod IV open (back in the day Mod I, Mod III and Atari were the ones I mostly worked on. By the time the Mod IV came out I’d switched to the Color Computer and OS9) and I was a bit disappointed when I saw this, well, mess is the only way you can describe that board. If you look closely at that photo you’ll find jumper wires hand soldered to various points all over the board. The backside of the board is just as bad. More wires running everywhere. And most of those don’t look like repairs or modifications, they look like they were done at the factory. When I see a main board with jumpers running all over like that it makes me nervous. It means either the circuit board was badly designed in the first place, or they found serious bugs in the hardware after it went into production and they had to pull them off the line and do some pretty serious rewiring to get them working, or they were trying to make modifications without bothering to redesign the circuit board. I don’t know what’s going on here, but if I’d opened up my brand new Mod IV and saw this it wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Radio Shack/Tandy sold a lot of computers back then, but it also made a lot of mistakes, some of them serious. Once the IBM-PC was introduced, RS tried to compete in the business market with the Model 6, which was, for the time, a very sophisticated, multi-user system that sported a 5 meg hard drive, and the Xenix operating system. But it was also very, very expensive and if you wanted to do anything that couldn’t be done with the very limited selection of software available for it, required you to hire a professional programmer to write it for you. They brought out a line of PC clones which had a whole host of problems and were generally more expensive than other equipment with the same specifications. Basically they did just about everything wrong that they could do, and ended up abandoning the computer business entirely. Now the company is gone completely, for the most part.

That’s all for now. One of these days I might talk about the Tandy Color Computer. That was the Radio Shack computer I was the most involved with back in the day. Despite the fact most people looked at it as little more than a toy, it was an amazingly sophisticated computer once you got past the ridiculous operating system Radio Shack crippled it with. Most of us back then chucked Radio Shack’s OS in the trash and ran a multitasking, multiuser operating system called OS9

Fiddling With the Yaesu 818ND

Yes, it’s more amateur radio stuff. Hey, I got new toys so I have to play with ’em, right? Anyway, this is not an equipment review. I don’t do those. Doing a proper equipment review requires proper test equipment, extensive knowledge, patience, and a lot of work, and I don’t have any of that stuff. Well, okay, so I do except for the patience thing. And the work thing… I have mentioned I’m one of the laziest people in the state, right? Besides, the 818 has been on the market for some time now and it’s been reviewed by people a lot better than me. Even by people who actually know what they’re doing. Which I don’t. What I do is play with stuff, mess around with it, use it, fiddle with it. I look at stuff not like a reviewer, but as someone who actually uses the equipment I talk about.

Disclaimer: I suppose I should stick this in here because it seems every other person I know these days is trying to be an “influencer” and get companies to send them free stuff and make gazillions of dollars on the youtubes and myspaces and facefarts. I don’t get paid by anyone to do these. The equipment was all purchased by myself, through regular retail channels (in this case Gigaparts). No one gives me free stuff or discounts or anything like that. I am not an “influencer” because apparently you have to be A) young, B) good looking, and C) morally and ethically compromised to be able to do that crap, and I don’t fit in with A, B or C. Although if Kenwood would want to give me a new 890 or Yaesu has an extra 101 laying around with one of those fancy $1,000 microphones, I might be willing to reconsider the whole ethics thing.

Anyway, let’s get on with this, shall we?

Of course it didn’t take me long after getting the Yaesu 818ND in my hot little hands to be overcome with the desperate need to actually play with it. So, while enduring scathing looks of disapproval from MrsGF, I temporarily took over the dining room table to fiddle with it. First with 8 AA alkaline batteries powering it and then with the included rechargeable power pack, and then the next day with an Astron power supply feeding it a more adequate amount of juice.

The 818 is definitely a fun little transceiver, and it is also definitely annoying at the same time, although I’m sure the annoyances will fade as I become more familiar with it. Well, some of them, anyway.

I did read the manual before I set it up and tried using it. Despite what I said in the last post where I implied I never read manuals, that’s not true when it comes to things as complex as transceivers because there is always the possibility of actually damaging the equipment if you do something wrong. Not that the 818 is difficult to set up and get going. Basically you just hook up an antenna, plug in the mic, use the internal battery or connect to a 12V power supply, and it’s ready to go. But if you want to actually do anything useful with it, well, read the manual first!

Speaking of the manual, it’s about average for the kind of thing that comes with amateur radio equipment these days. Which means, of course, that it isn’t really very good. Oh, all the essential details are in there. Sort of. If you managed to pass your general class license test you should be able to figure it out. Maybe.

Like most modern transceivers, the 818 is almost ridiculously complex, which means there are lots and lots of settings and functions to play with, and in order to get at any of them you have to delve into the menu system which I’m not even going to try to describe. I’ll just put it this way, if you lose the manual, you’re screwed.

I want to talk about the annoyances first. I should point out that I really, really like the little 818. It is a nifty little QRP transceiver that does everything I want it to do and more. But there are always annoyances with any piece of equipment, and this one is no exception. And all of them pertain to the user interface, so to speak, not how the radio actually works as a radio.

The most obvious and visible of the annoyances is that LCD display. Take a look at that closeup up there. If it looks a bit dim and fuzzy, that’s because it is dim and fuzzy. It is, frankly, awful. I’m sorry, but it is just utterly terrible and it shouldn’t be. I don’t know if it’s just mine or if this is true for all 818s. This is not a cheap piece of equipment. This thing sells for $650. But that LCD looks like something they swiped off a disposable $5 handheld game. In normal room lighting or in the shade or evening outside, with the backlight off, it’s almost impossible to read it at all. Even with the backlight turned on it’s difficult to read unless I’m directly in front of it at the proper viewing angle. Out in bright sunlight it isn’t bad, but still, there is simply no excuse for that on a piece of equipment this expensive.

Then there is the Squelch/RF/AF gain knob. Like a lot of knobs on transceivers these days it is a double knob. There is a sort of collar around the base of the knob that turns which is the RF gain adjustment, while the main knob is the AF gain. It’s, well, floppy is the only way I can describe it. If I put my index finger on the tip of it and move it, the end of the knob can wiggle back and about 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch. It feels cheap, like that $5 kid’s toy mentioned earlier, and this is more than a little troubling because it makes me wonder how long it’s going to last.

The collar around the base of the knob controls the RF gain and it’s damned near impossible for me to turn it. It’s positioned awkwardly. I can’t actually grasp it. I have to put the tip of my index finger on the side of it and try to push up and down to move it. More often than not I end up moving both the RF gain and the AF knob at the same time.

Interestingly enough, the SEL knob on the left side of the radio is rock solid and exhibits none of the floppiness of the AF gain knob.

Then there are the buttons. They are very small, which is understandable because this is a very small radio. But the buttons are also either recessed into the bezel or there are plastic extrusions surrounding the buttons, which makes them damned near impossible for me to push with a finger tip. I either have to try to use the edge my fingernail to push the buttons or use the eraser end of a pencil.

The only reason to recess the buttons like that is to protect them from accidentally being pressed. But exactly how would they be accidentally be pressed on this radio? You aren’t going to be operating this thing while it’s in your pocket. In fact, I can’t think of any circumstances when it would actually be in operation when there it would experience conditions that would cause a button to be accidentally pressed. If it’s in a carrying bag, sure, it might jostle around to the point where something in the bag could make contact with a button, but the radio isn’t going to be turned on and operating if you’re carrying it in a bag. So what, exactly, are they protecting the buttons from?

Like most transceivers these days, the little 818 is loaded with bells and whistles, all of which are accessed via a system of menus. The menu system is, well, all I can say is that it’s no worse than any other I’ve worked with. You’re going to want to keep a copy of the manual with the radio itself, or at least a cheat sheet with the more commonly used menu items written down. You can get a PDF file of the Yaesu 818 manual here directly from the company’s web site. Once you get to the 818 page, click on the “Files” tab and it will take you to a download page where you can get it as a .PDF in English and several other languages.

Using the 818

As you can see from the lead photo, I’ve had the 818 set up and running on the dining room table (while enduring some rather irritated looks from MrsGF, but then she’s an amateur radio operator as well so she understands that if I have a new piece of equipment laying around there’s no way I can keep my hands off it).

The 818 operates either from it’s internal batteries (either 8 AA alkaline batteries or the included rechargeable battery pack) or an external 13V power supply that can handle at least a 3 amp load. When operated with the internal batteries the 818’s transmit power automatically drops to 2.5 watts. You can override this in the menus, but don’t bother. If you try to transmit at 6 watts with the radio on it’s internal batteries it will just turn itself off because the batteries just don’t have enough power to handle that kind of output power.

I put in 8 AA batteries and fired it up and played around with it for a while to get familiar with the menu system, with the Alpha mag loop antenna hooked to the rear antenna connector.

Once I had the antenna tuned, I was faced with a noise level running about S8 to S9+. Now that isn’t at all surprising. I don’t exactly live in a radio quiet zone here. I have a huge cattle feed processing facility just down the street from me, a shop that does powder coating and painting for a major manufacturer of lawn equipment, and about 5 blocks away Sargento has a huge processing facility. Then add in all the electronics here in the house which includes a half dozen computers, networking gear, printers, WiFi points, etc., and, well, some days it gets pretty bad around here. Some days are better than others, it all depends on what equipment is running where. But an S8 noise level is pretty typical.

Now with my Kenwood TS-990 I can generally deal with that kind of thing thanks to some pretty sophisticated filtering. With the 818, well, not so much. I was able to pick up a few very strong CW stations and one or two SSB conversations on 20 and 40 meters, but then I had to pack it all up because it was time for dinner. (I really, really need to stop procrastinating and get the shop in the basement set up!)

Next morning I tried again, feeding the 818 with an external power supply instead of batteries, and was determined to sit down and do some serious goofing around with the little transceiver. That’s the jury rigged setup you see in the lead photo up at the top of the page. And yes, that’s a DX Engineering sticker on the Alexa thingie sitting there. Every time I order something from DXE they send a fistful of stickers and, well, I have to do something with ’em, so they’re everywhere. I tried putting one on MrsGF but she was a wee bit irritated. Tried to put one on one of the cats and she got even more irritated. So after several bandaids to cover the scratches (from the cat, not MrsGF. MrsGF just gives me one of those looks and I know it’s time to stop whatever it is I’m doing.) I only put them on inanimate objects now.

I was picking up several decent CW and SSB transmissions, well above the S7 noise level, which was encouraging. I tried replying to several CQs from other operators, and got nothing in reply. Wondering if I was putting out anything at all I put MrsGF on the 990 in the other room and, well, just about blew her ears out. Forgot to turn on the attenuator. Sigh… Still, the 818 was transmitting. I tried calling CQ on SSB for quite a while on 20 and 40 meters and got nothing.

Hard to tell in the photo but the poor thing is covered with dust from disuse. Still, considering how bad I am at CW that’s probably not a bad thing.

I dragged out the CW keys and dusted them off. I mean seriously dusted them off. Oh dear, had it been that long since I used ’em? How the heck had they gotten so filthy? They were in a drawer, for heaven’s sake. And cat fur? Really? How the heck did they get covered with cat fur in a drawer? Do the cats like open up all the drawers and look for things to shed on?

Anyway, I dialed down to the frequencies where the QRP people allegedly hang out and fiddled around with CW for a while. Nothing there, either. Sigh…

Getting discouraged I went in the other room and fired up the TS-990 again on the dipole antenna in the backyard. If there’s anybody on the air who can be heard, that sucker will pick it up. And, well, nothing. Tuning from one end of 20 and 40 to the other and nothing. Well, almost nothing. Just a few signals way down in the weeds. Oh, and FT8. The FT8 portions of the bands were lighting up the waterfall like a Christmas tree. (Has everyone moved to FT8? Seems that way sometimes)

Still, the experiment did give me an excuse to clean up the straight key and iambic paddle.

So I know the 818 receives (although after about 5 minutes I really, really missed the filters and noise reduction systems on the TS-990). I know it transmits. I know the Alpha antenna works because I’ve been using it on the 990 with considerable success. It’s just that the gods of propagation have a grudge against me, I guess.

I’m still waiting for the connectors and other things I need to get the 818 on the air with digital so I can’t try FT8 yet. Oh, and I still haven’t come up with a laptop yet.

I suppose I should to a better test. Dial the 818 down to 1 watt, put MrsGF on the 990 in the next room (with the attenuator on this time) and see what kind of signal the 818 is actually putting out. But that’s going to have to wait until MrsGF lets me use the kitchen table again.

First Look At The Alpha Mag-Loop Antenna

The antenna with the optional “booster loop” allowing operation on 80 & 60 meters installed, with it’s tripod and mast.

If you’ve come here looking for pictures of flowers and nature and me babbling about gardening and farming, you might want to skip this one because this entry is entirely amateur radio related. I want to talk about mag loop antennas. I’ve been fascinated with mag loop antennas since I first heard about them, and have always wanted to build or buy one to experiment with. I finally broke down and bought one from Alpha Antenna.

I’m not going to explain what a mag-loop antenna is. If you’ve read this far you either already know or you’ve already used Google to look it up. I’ll just say that these compact, efficient antennas have become extremely popular, especially in the QRP (low power) amateur radio community, and for good reason. But mag-loops do have some issues. There are always trade offs in the world of radio. First they have an extremely narrow bandwidth, making it necessary to retune the antenna if you change frequency. And second, they are generally only rated for low power transmissions. They’re usually considered to be QRP (low power) antennas. Mag loop antennas can be built that can handle impressive amounts of wattage, but there are problems that are difficult (and expensive) to deal with.

I should explain why I picked the Alpha rather than one of the other antennas on the market. The Alpha can handle more power than many other mag loops on the market, up to 100 watts on SSB, 50 watts on CW, and 25 on digital, depending on the frequency being used. This is more than what a lot of the other ones can deal with, at least in this price range. It works from 4o meters to 10 meters, and with the Booster Cable, can even work down on 80 meters. A lot of mag loops only work from 20 to 10 meters, and most have no options to extend their range down to the 80 meter band. The Alpha I bought also included the tripod, mast, and other parts necessary to fully assemble and use the antenna. Basically it is a complete antenna system. All you have to do is put it together, hook up your coax and begin using it. It was everything I really wanted in one convenient package.

You can order it directly from the company, but I bought mine off Amazon. Retail price is $500 including the main antenna, the booster cable, tripod and mast and a carrying bag. (Note: I have no connection to either Amazon nor Alpha, do not get paid by them, do not get special deals or anything else. I paid full retail price for the antenna and ordered it through normal retail channels.)

There’s enough room in the bag that it would hold just about everything I’d need, the 818, SignaLink, cables, battery, etc. plus the antenna itself.

The antenna comes in its own gym style carrying bag with the Alpha logo on it. Everything, including the tripod and short mast (basically a selfie stick, and Alpha refers to it as such), fits neatly in the bag with room left over.

Once you unpack everything from the bag, this is what you get:

This is the entire antenna, including both the normal loop, the “booster cable” loop for 80/60 meter operations, the tuning box, the tripod and mast, and the plastic bag containing nylon clips to position the antenna, a sheet of instructions, and an extra “T” coax connector.

Note the extra “T” coax connector in the plastic bag. I had no idea why that was included, but a bit of research turned up why they tucked that in with the rest of the antenna. That’s being included because Alpha had reports of bad T connectors in the recent past. All previous owners of the antenna were sent new T connectors and they’re including spare T’s just in case.

Assembly is a piece of cake. Being a typical amateur radio operator I, of course, never looked at the instructions until after I’d put it together. (I really should stop doing that, shouldn’t I?) Even so, it took me all of about five minutes to get it fully assembled and ready to go. And, amazingly enough, I even got it right the first time. Alpha has a video up on youtube showing how to assemble it, including how to add the Booster Cable for 80 meter operations. Just click the link there to see it. It’s all very straight forward.

Note that the loop does not have to be perfectly circular to work properly. As long as it’s reasonably close, you’re good to go. Note: Yes, that is the world’s ugliest recliner back there behind the antenna. And the less said about that sofa, the better. We can’t have nice furniture because we have cats who think they own the house and its contents and we’re just there to feed them and occasionally provide them with entertainment when they’re bored.

The photo above shows it fully assembled, without the booster cable, in my dining room. The loops are all made of LMR 400 coax, which is extremely stiff and has no trouble holding any shape you want to bend it into. Use some caution when you’re coiling and uncoiling the coax. It can be awkward to work with because of how stiff it is. Note the two plastic clips holding the large loop in the proper position above the small loop. 6 of those clips are included. The other four are required for use with the Booster Cable installed. This is the antenna with the “Booster Cable” installed.

The booster cable is connected in series with the regular large loop, so you now have a double loop instead of just a single loop. All the proper connectors are already installed on the ends of the cable so you don’t need adaptors.

Without the booster cable installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies below 40 meters. And I should point out that with the booster installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies higher than 40 meters. So you can either work 80/75 to 60 meters, or you can work 40 to 10 meters, but not both.

Overall quality is quite good. The coax is genuine LMR 400 from Times Microwave. The small tripod is more than sturdy enough to handle the antenna. The mast/selfie stick is sturdy enough to handle supporting the loops. Once it’s set up the mast and tripod are very easy to adjust if necessary. The connectors on the coax and on the tuning unit look to be of good quality and appear to be silver plated. I did not open up the box to look at the variable capacitor, but others have and if you want to see what’s in there, you can find photos and videos on Youtube and other sources. It looks well made from quality materials and should provide years of reliable use.

I should point out that if you’re using it outside and there is more than a gentle breeze you’re going to have to stabilize the tripod somehow. A stiff breeze will blow it over.

The first thing I did after putting it together was hook it to my antenna analyzer to see how good of a match I could get on the frequencies I normally use.

Now most of you reading this probably know this already, but just in case I’ll mention it. You never use your transceiver’s internal antenna tuner or an external tuner, with a mag-loop antenna. You adjust the antenna for a proper match by turning the knob connected to the variable capacitor inside that little gray box. And getting a match can be very touchy sometimes depending on the antenna, the type of capacitor being used and other factors. Now I don’t have any personal experience with mag-loop antennas before getting the Alpha, but from what I’ve heard from others, tuning the Alpha is no worse than tuning any of the others, and actually a lot easier than some reports from other models.

BTW: If you do any kind of fiddling around with antennas, an antenna analyzer quickly becomes your best friend.

I don’t use 80/75 meters much, and have no plans to use it for QRP, but since I already had the booster cable installed for the photo I checked that first. I didn’t have high hopes for a decent match down there, but much to my surprise the Alpha with the booster installed indicated an SWR of a bit over 1.1:1.

I took the booster cable off and set it up the way I would normally use it and looked at the rest of the HF frequency range.

I got excellent, or at least decent, SWR all across the amateur radio bands with one exception, 12 meters. No matter what I did I couldn’t get an SWR of less than 2.5:1 on 12 meters. Considering that I’m getting matches of 1.5:1 or better, usually much better, on the other bands, I’m assuming that there’s something wrong with what I’m doing and I’ll look into it further when I get some time. It’s entirely possible that I simply missed the “sweet spot” when trying to tune the antenna because I was in a hurry to get it hooked up and on the air.

Now, the question is, of course, does the thing actually work as an antenna? The answer to that question is an emphatic yes!

I don’t have my Yaesu 818 yet, so I tested it with my Kenwood TS-990, with the antenna standing on it’s tripod right behind me in the office where I could easily reach the knob to adjust it. Once I got a few glitches straightened out (My fault, not the antenna’s. Turned out the coax I was using had a bad connector. Once I re-soldered that all was well.), I gave it a try on 20 meters using FT8 with the 990’s power turned down to 8 watts and the SWR adjusted down to 1.4:1. And this is what popped up on PSK Reporter a short time later:

Now FT8 is a pretty efficient mode, but still… Damn. I was getting reception reports from all over the country while putting about 8 watts into an antenna sitting on the floor behind me in the office.

I moved up to 10 meters. Now 10 meters has been in the doldrums because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle, but you never know. After adjusting things tried with the 990’s output set to 6 watts. I honestly didn’t expect to see anything pop up on PSK Reporter, but low and behold, when it cycled through, there I was, with reception reports popping up all over the place.:

Reaching Texas, Kansas and a large part of the east coast with 6 watts output using an antenna sitting in my office? Yeah, that’s not bad at all. Okay, I am officially impressed.

So far I’m very pleased with this antenna. More than pleased. In fact the few times I’ve had a chance to operate this past week or two, I’ve been using the loop exclusively when I use FT8. Getting it tuned is a bit fiddly, but as I’ve gained experience with it I’ve found I can tune it reasonably quickly and easily. (More about that in a minute.) I can’t wait to have a chance to really work with it and see what it can do out in the field. Once the Yaesu 818 gets here I’m hoping to throw together a complete portable digital system compact enough to throw into the back of the car along with my fishing gear and making some contacts out in the wild, so to speak.

Let’s talk about tuning mag-loop antennas for a moment. I mentioned before that you do not use an antenna tuner with these antennas because they have their own built in tuners, that variable capacitor. That’s how you adjust ’em to get a match. And these antennas are very, very touchy when it comes to tuning. They are very narrow bandwidth to begin with, and moving the dial a fraction of a degree can make a huge difference in the SWR.

I used an antenna analyzer at first when testing. It’s pretty easy to dial them in that way, but connecting and disconnecting an analyzer is a pain in the neck, and you don’t want to have to lug one along if you’re going portable. There is a technique to make it easier to set them up. The trick is to hook it up to your transceiver, set your transceiver to the frequency you want to use, and then listen to the receiver as you turn the dial on the antenna. (Hint: Turn that knob slowly. It is very, very easy to slip right past the sweet spot if you turn the knob too quickly.) As you get close to a match there will be a sudden increase in noise coming from your receiver. When you reach that point watch your S meter or listen to the noise level to bring that noise to a peak. Once you do that you’ll be pretty close and you can use a test transmission to dial it in for the best SWR before you being actually trying to make contacts.

Another issue with tuning is how the antenna reacts to being close to y0ur body. The mere presence of your hand near the antenna when turning the knob is enough to alter it’s characteristics in some cases. Since you have to bring your hand close to the antenna to adjust the tuner, this can mean that as soon as you take your hand away from the antenna, your SWR will change, sometimes significantly so. If that kind of thing happens, you can often compensate for it. I quickly learned to stop tuning a bit before or a bit after the ideal SWR in order to get a good match once I took my hand away when that happened. Interestingly, it doesn’t happen all the time. This is due to a phenomenon known as body capacitance or hand capacitance. The human body can act like a capacitor. The actual amount of capacitance varies depending on environmental conditions. So depending on conditions, just bringing your hand close to the antenna can cause it’s characteristics to change. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t happen all the time, and if it does, you’ll learn to adapt.

So overall the Alpha has been a lot of fun to use. Only time will tell how it holds up, but it looks to be well made and certainly it works as advertised. I’m really very, very pleased with it so far.

Later — Look what the nice UPS driver just delivered today !!!

The 818 is here! I still have some bits and bobs to put together before I’m ready to take it out on the road. I want to do digital modes, and that means I need a laptop, and the elderly Toshiba I was planning on using looks like it is instead headed for the recycling center, so I’m going to have to scrounge up a laptop. I’ll need make or buy connector cables to hook everything up to the laptop and SignaLink. Then I’ll need a power supply of some sort. The 818 does have it’s own battery, but the SignaLink requires a power source and I’d like to have a central power source to run everything. Nothing serious but it’s going to take some time, which is in short supply right now because we’re up to our necks with landscaping and gardening projects and house updating projects and other stuff at the moment. Until I get all the bits together I need for digital operations I may try it with the Alpha on SSB and see what happens.

I’ll keep you posted as “The Great QRP Project” progresses

I thought I’d have time for all this stuff once I retired, but it turns out that between things MrsGF wants me to do, landscaping, gardening and other things going on around here, I actually have less time for playing radio than I did before I retired. How the hell did that happen?

Catching Up with Ham Radio Stuff : The Move and A New (sort of) digital mode

The Move, shifting all of my radio and computer gear to the basement, is now officially underway. Well, sort of. Nothing has actually gotten moved yet. I’m still in the process of cleaning out the area I want to use and getting it ready. But the handwriting is on the wall. MrsGF is retiring at the end of Feb and if I don’t move out of our shared office we’re going to drive each other nuts.

For years now my “radio shack” has been shoved into a corner of the office MrsGF and I share, with all my equipment perched on a single desk and a small filing cabinet. It’s worked, but it has been awkward and cramped. There just isn’t enough room. I have a work table in that room as well where, theoretically, at least, I was going to be able to tinker with electronics and repair equipment. But because the room is also our office, what actually happened was the table ended up with about ten inches of papers, books, files and I don’t know what all else on top of my tools and test gear. To make things even more cramped, I also have a big iMac, various graphics tablets, several RAID arrays, three printers, including a massive professional photo printer, well, you get the idea. Then add in MrsGF’s desk, computer and all her stuff, and something has to go, and that’s me.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for my own psychological quirks. I simply cannot concentrate if there is someone behind me. I’ve always been that way. Her desk and computers are directly behind me and when she’s back there I can’t concentrate on anything. I can’t read, can’t write, can’t work on photos or drawings. I also need a fairly quiet environment to get anything done. Soft music is okay, but the sound of someone behind me moving, coughing, talking on the phone… well, I just can’t deal with it.

So between the crowded environment up here and my own personal issues, well, I need to move this whole operation if MrsGF and I are going to stick together for another 40 years or so…

Unfortunately, the area I want to move into looks like this.

This is what your basement will end up looking like if both you and your son are A) packrats, and B) computer/electronics geeks.

This used to be Eldest Son’s workshop in the basement when he lived with us years ago, and represents years worth of accumulated computers, parts, hard drives, terminals, networking gear and I don’t know what all else that he neglected to take with him when he moved out years ago. We never bothered with it before because I didn’t have any use for this space. And now that I do, the first order of business is getting all this stuff out of there, and that’s what I’ve been working on.

Some progress has been made, though! Really.

That bench there used to be covered three feet deep in stuff, so just getting that cleared out is a major victory. I’m hoping that by the end of the week I’ll have enough stuff shifted so I can start painting the walls. I’ll keep that work bench but put a nice sheet of plywood or something similar over the top of it to make a smooth work surface. The radios and computers will go here eventually. We’ll also have to rewire the whole area, adding a half dozen or so 120V outlets and at least one 220V outlet (maybe two) for the amplifiers.

There is another work bench behind me and to the left, about the same size, that is going to be where I’ll have my actual workbench with my meters and test gear, soldering equipment, tools, etc.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on here of late. I’m sure MrsGF is eagerly looking forward to getting me out of the office so she can move all her stuff in.

JS8Call

I’ve been playing with a fairly new digital mode in amateur radio called JS8Call. It is based on the wildly popular FT8 mode that was first implemented with the WSJT-X software developed by K1JT and others. (WSJT-X is open source and it is available for Linux, Windows, OSX and Unix like operating systems. You can learn more about FT8 at https://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/k1jt/index.html)

This is what the WSJT-X software looks like when running FT8.

FT8 works well as a weak signal mode, allowing contacts to be made under poor conditions and with modest or even poor antennas and low power levels. But FT8 isn’t designed to actually communicate with other people. It is intended to make “contacts” only. And in the amateur radio world, “contact” means exchanging only enough information to fulfill the requirements of some contest or award program, and not actually talking to another person. In fact, it would be almost impossible to use FT8 to exchange any kind of useful information with another radio operator. FT8 exchanges call signs, a grid reference (location) and a signal report, and that’s it. And all of that is pre-programmed into the system. Once the contact is started, the WSJT software conducts the entire exchange by itself. There are provisions for a so-called “free message”, but it is extremely awkward to use and very limited.

And, frankly, boring. At least to me. Don’t get me wrong, I use FT8 myself. But after about half an hour of it I’m bored. I can’t actually talk to anyone, can’t ask questions, just sit there and watch WSJT go through it’s automated contact sequence. It gets dull fast.

Screen capture of JS8Call running on my system.

That’s where JS8Call comes in. It uses the same digital encoding techniques used by FT8. It still uses the same 15 second transmission bursts. But it permits actual conversations to be held between two operators. Not very quickly, true. It looks like it’s limited to about 15 words per minute or less, but that’s still a heck of a lot faster than a lot of us can bang along in CW.

And since it uses the exact same encoding protocols used by FT8, it shares that mode’s robust nature and permits people with less than ideal equipment and antennas to make contacts they otherwise would not be able to make.

JS8Call has a lot of fun and potentially useful features as well as the ability to send actual text messages back and forth rather than FT8’s limited contact system. Messages can be directed to a specific call sign or a group of call signs. There are directed commands that you can send which will generated automated replies from anyone who hears them, it can relay messages to others if you have it set up right. There is a lot of neat stuff JS8Call is capable of doing. Read the documentation at their website to find out more.

So if you’ve use FT8 but have found it’s pre-programmed, automated contact system frustrating, give JS8Call a try. You can find out more about it at their website. Click here to take a peek.

A few things, though.

First, JS8Call is still very much in beta testing. New versions with added/changed features and bug fixes are being released every few weeks. While the program seems stable, it can have odd little quirks and problems from time to time. How it works and its various functions can change with each new edition of the software.

Second, because it is still in beta testing, it is not available for general release. You can indeed get it, but you need to join a discussion group to get access to the download. It isn’t a big deal. They aren’t going to spam you or anything like that. The reason for restricting access is, as I said, because it is still in testing and is being changed frequently. Once the feature set is frozen and they’ve worked all of the bugs out, a version will be made available for general release.

Third, because it is based on FT8, it has a lot of the same quirks and drawbacks FT8 has. It only transmits in 12.6 second bursts, based on a 15 second time frame. Your computer clock must be accurately synchronized. You are going to need to run a utility program that will keep your computer’s internal clock accurate. Most computer clocks are not accurate enough by themselves.

Fourth, as noted earlier, it isn’t exactly fast. You’re going to average about 10 – 15 wpm when using it. But as I also said, most CW operators don’t work much faster than that.

If you’re interested in the digital modes, are getting bored of FT8, give JS8Call a try.