Finally!!!

I just realized I haven’t posted anything here in months. I am truly ashamed of myself. Really I am.

Well, okay, not really. It’s just that it’s been one hell of a busy winter. And bloody cold. We had over 50 days of temperatures below zero, and it took it’s toll on everyone and everything. Water supply froze up out at the farm, non-starting cars, water main breaks here in town… So let’s see if I can get caught up a little bit here.

This is the Jeep. Got that late last fall. I was looking at a Dodge Dart, a nice, sporty little commuter style car with good fuel economy, useful, fairly comfortable to drive. So, of course, I came home with this.

Screen Shot 2014 03 16 at 9 31 23 AM

A 2013 totally over the top Jeep with a lift kit, 35” tires, rock guards, skid plates and a soon-to-be-installed 9,500 pound capacity winch.

And yes, it’s generally that dirty. In fact, the poor thing has been covered in mud, snow, salt, slush and miscellaneous debris since I got it.

I finally got the Yaesu 7900 dual band transceiver installed in it yesterday. Moving with my usual lightening speed, it only took me four months to get the thing installed. Well, it’s been bloody cold around here, and trying to install radios when your fingers go numb literally within seconds of taking your gloves off isn’t a good idea. But now it’s March and it’s getting warmer… Yeah, sure it is. Was 20 degrees yesterday. So much for spring. Had to fire up the big kerosene heater in the garage for half an hour before I could even start.

Had to get a new antenna mount and antenna for it. I’d been using a mag-mount on the Magnum, which won’t work on the Jeep because it’s a sort-of convertible. There’s a T-top over the passenger compartment and the whole back roof of the thing comes off after removing about six bolts. So the mag-mount was out. Finally got a tailgate mounting bracket and I’m finally back on the air. which is a good thing because I’m a storm spotter for the local ARES/RACES group and it’s damned hard to spot storms when you can’t communicate with the EmCom center down at the sheriff’s department.

I’ve managed to pick up a ton of various radio equipment over the last few months. Most of which I can’t use because of the antenna situation around here. The performance of the Comet vertical is, well, let’s just say not very good and leave it at that. I want to get down on 80/75 meters, and the poor Comet just doesn’t hack it. It’s so inefficient on the lower bands I might as well be dumping my transmitter directly into a dummy load. I also can’t use the big 1,500 watt amplifier I picked up recently because the Comet can only handle around 250 watts.

I have two antennas laying around I want to try. I picked up another vertical, this one far more efficient and able to handle legal limit, and an off center fed dipole. Both are theoretically able to handle multiple bands without an antenna tuner, and both are able to handle full legal limit power. 

Again, though, the weather hasn’t been cooperating. Aside from one day when the temperature actually flirted with 50 degrees, we’ve been in the deep freeze around here. Trying to hang dipoles from trees, running nearly a hundred feet of LMR-400, assembling 31 foot long vertical antennas and tuning them with temperatures barely up in the 20s isn’t exactly my idea of fun, so I’m impatiently waiting for warmer weather.

Speaking of radio stuff… 10 meters has been absolutely crazy the last couple of weeks during the daylight hours. This is a screen shot from the Kenwood 990’s waterfall display:

IMG 0698

The ‘old timers’ tell me this is the best they’ve seen 10 meters in decades. I’m monitoring the PSK part of the band right now, around 28.120.150 and I’m seeing wall to wall PSK traces on the display. Lots of eastern European countries coming in at the moment. Last night around 7:30 PM local time I even saw a few coming in from Japan when the band was apparently closing down for the night.

Ham Radio Deluxe Redeux

I simply couldn’t give up on HRD and I think I finally got it working! Maybe. Kind of.

I was having all kinds of issues with the thing. I did all the upgrades, upgraded the operating system on the 990, checked all the connections, settings, everything. I followed all of the advice on various forums I found on the internet.

Finally I disregarded everything I was reading on the Internet and just did what seemed to make sense to me, and lo and behold, I got the bloody thing working at last. I even solved the PTT problems I was having with the digital modes.

So I finally had all of the controls working properly. Decided to take it for test run. I turned the transmitter down to 5 watts and tried a test transmission in PSK31 while checking the tone and frequency on a different receiver. It was putting out a nice, pure tone, spot on the right frequency.

So I stopped the test CQ I was doing, and as soon as it went back into receive, I heard a reply to my CQ. From France. So even with that dopey multi-band vertical antenna, putting out only 5 watts, I was hitting France. Not bad at all.

So HRD is working, and it’s stayed working for about a week now. And I am content.

Good Bye Ham Radio Deluxe

I’ve finally given up on HRD (Ham Radio Deluxe). Version 6.0 gave me nothing but grief when I was attempting to use it with the TS-990S. HRD 6 sort of, almost, kind of worked with the 990. The rig control part of the program would stop working for no apparent reason from time to time, it occasionally did bizarre things, like somehow change the maximum transmission power to 25 watts for no reason I was ever able to figure out. I couldn’t get it to trigger transmit via the COM ports no matter what I tried, and had to resort to using VOX. Even worse, I couldn’t make contacts with it in the digital modes, which is what I wanted it for in the first place. I’d call CQ until I was blue in the face, and nothing. I didn’t even show up on the PSK spotting network. According to the dials I was putting out a nice, clean signal. I fired up another receiver and hung my iPad on it with a PSK program running and it had no trouble reading what was coming out of the 990. Nothing. No contacts. No spotting reports.

Switch to Fldigi and guess what? My call sign started to immediately pop up on the spotting network.

Fast forward to now. I upgraded HRD to version 6.1. This version directly supports the TS-990. It’s supposed to have more bells and whistles and work better.

No, it doesn’t. First, rig control is abysmally slow and unresponsive. After clicking on a frequency, you sit there and wait for two, four, eight seconds before it finally gets around to actually changing the frequency. There are similar delays when switching between windows, such as jumping from rig control to the logger to the digital software.

Still, there are so many goodies buried in that program that I kept trying to use it.

I checked my output, it was putting out a nice PSK31 signal, or so it seemed. The response I got? Nothing. Zip. Not even showing up on the spotting network.

Switched over to Fldigi, and the very first CQ I did popped up on the spotting network.

So what the heck is going on? I have no idea. I give up. I have dozens of hours into trying to get this bloody program working properly. It seems to be working, it’s putting out a PSK signal. But I get zilch results. I switch to Fldigi, and I start getting contacts and showing up on the spotting networks. 

So I’m saying good bye to Ham Radio Deluxe, at least in it’s current incarnation. I’ve wasted entirely too much time on this when the alternative, Fldigi, works just fine and dandy.

The Curse of Macros

One of the things that’s fun about amateur radio is the opportunity to meet people, talk with them, exchange information, learn from each other, and just plan shoot the breeze.

Oh, I enjoy the experimenting, tinkering with new antennas, learning the science behind radio technology and all that. But it’s the people who share the hobby that make it really interesting.

That’s why I get so irritated when operating in digital modes. Everyone seems to be running software with pre-programmed macros these days. I keep seeing the same things over and over again. Operator created on such and such a date, rig is (insert model of your choice). Antenna is this. Software is that… Your RST is 599. Thanks for the contact. 73s…

It’s all over in 30 seconds. The two people ‘chatting’ never even touched a keyboard, just clicked the mouse on macro buttons that sent pre-recorded messages. I can understand doing that if you’re contesting and trying to rack up points by making as many contacts as possible. But the whole contact is so meaningless that you might as well just relegate the whole thing to the computer and just have the computers scanning the airwaves, picking out call signs, sending reports to each other, while you go watch television or weed the garden.

Come on, guys. Just start whacking away at the keyboard. Forget the macros. Tell a joke, complain about your car. Brag about your equipment. Tell the funny story about your brother-in-law and the badger. I’ll tell you what happens when you put 120 volts through a Z-80 CPU (Helpful hint: wear eye protection).

The technology is interesting, true, but it’s the people that make it fun

First look at the Kenwood TS-990S

 

IMG 0540

While I really like my TS-2000, I wanted something more sophisticated (i.e. more buttons and knobs and shiny bits). I was at the AES show earlier this year and they had the new TS-990 on display, and immediately lusted for the thing. This isn’t really a review of the 990, more of a first impressions kind of thing. I’ve only had it a little over two weeks and I’m still trying to learn all the various options.

Physically the radio itself is impressive. It’s big. I mean really big. Shipping weight is around 60 pounds according to the label. As for size, it’s about the size of a computer tower laid on it’s side. It takes up a lot of desk space. In fact, I had to get a bigger desk to hold it. The one I had the 2000 on just couldn’t handle it.

It’s extremely well made. The fit and finish is superb. Well, considering the price it had better be, eh?

And it is an intimidating piece of equipment, even for a geek like me. Two brilliant video displays (the big one a touch screen), 16 knobs to fiddle with, and a mind bogglingly large number of buttons, most of which have multiple functions, and 14 “soft” buttons which are labeled on the big screen and whose functions change depending on the mode of operation you’re in, and you get one complicated piece of equipment.

Fortunately, basic functionality is not that difficult to figure out, and within an hour of unpacking the rig and reading the first couple of sections of the manual (which frankly could use a bit of work) I had it up and running and working quite nicely, thank you very much.

First a word about the manual. It needs some help. It’s incomplete in some areas. In others it’s obvious that whoever translated it from it’s original language (probably Japanese) wasn’t all that fluent in some areas. All of the essentials are there, but you’re going to have to do some digging and some reading between the lines to figure it out. Don’t despair, though, you’ll get there eventually. (Maybe. I have yet to figure out how to get the sub-receiver to work properly.)

But let’s get on with this, shall we?

Build quality is excellent. Cosmetically the rig was flawless out of the box. One thing that impressed me with both the 2000 and now the 990S is how well it feels. It’s something that’s difficult to describe. When I was looking at the Yaesu and ICOM high-end transceivers at AES, one thing that struck me negatively was how cheap the controls felt. The knobs wiggled, the buttons were mushy and loose. It felt like you were using a mass-market toy picked up at Walmart, to be honest.

Not so with either of the Kenwoods. Everything on these radios is rock solid and substantial. The knobs are solid, with excellent feel and no side play at all. They move with silky smoothness and feel substantial and reassuring. Same with the buttons. They’re rock solid with excellent tactile feedback.

The front panel may look intimidating, but actually it’s laid out with considerable thought, with various controls arranged into logical groupings.

IMG 0542

My favorite mode of communications is PSK31/63, so I was curious about the 990S’ built in decoder/encoder for these modes. Basically just plug a USB keyboard into the front panel of the transceiver, kick it into PSK mode, hit the Decode button, tune the frequency you want to use, and away you go. Nothing could be simpler.

It works pretty well, but I’m not about to abandon Fldigi. It took me all of three seconds to begin to badly miss the functions I had on the computer, such as automatically filling in my log, call sign look up and all of the macros. The 990 does have memory slots you can pre-load with frequently used text strings for transmissions, but they aren’t real macros.

Still, it does work nicely and I made a few contacts shortly after learning how to get into the PSK mode.

There are some issues, though, one of which is tuning. You can see the waterfall display to the right of the text screen in the photo above. See that nice clean signal? Seeing signals like that is very, very rare. I took that shot when the noise level was extremely low. Normally the waterfall is so filled with noise that it’s almost solid yellow across the entire display. I can hear a signal, but can’t find it visually.

It also seems to have some issues decoding. Weak signals that Fldigi can decode quite nicely, don’t even show up. I can hear them, I can see them in the waterfall display, but the 990 won’t get a ‘lock’ on the signal and begin decoding. All I see is random noise.

Something similar happens with extremely strong signals. it seems to overwhelm the decoder. Fldigi can deal with them quite nicely, thank you, but not the 990S. So while it can do PSK pretty well, I’m not going to be abandoning the computer any time soon.

I’m sure as I gain more experience with the almost overwhelming number of filter options I can gain some significant improvement in the reception area, but at the moment it’s easier to just us the computer.

Speaking of computers, the 990S is ready to hook to a computer right out of the box. It has a network connector, USB port and RS-232 port on the back. While it isn’t exactly what i’d call “plug and play”, it was far easier to get it working with the computer than the 2000 (which I still have issues with)

Kenwood has rig control software for the WinOS available as a free download from their website. Nothing is available for Mac or Linux, of course. I dug out my cheap Toshiba Win7 laptop and tried it, and the software does work. You can control pretty much all of the radio with it, but frankly it’s of limited usefulness, at least for me.

On the Win7 machine I tried Ham Radio Deluxe, which was an utter failure. Fldigi worked, of course, because it relies primarily on sound input/output and doesn’t need to directly control the radio. Flrig didn’t work at all.

The problem is that the 990S just hit the streets in March, I think, and no one seems to have updated their software to work with it yet. I tried a variety of Kenwood protocols without success on the Win7 machine.

Curiously, Fldigi and Flrig both work with the 990 on the Mac. Sort of. I’ve been using the TS-2000 protocols in Flrig and it sort of, almost, kinda works. At least to the point where I can change frequency from within Fldigi/Flrig. (pretty much nothing else works for rig control, but at least the frequency will change correctly, which is better than nothing).

Why does it work on the Mac and not on the Win7 machine? Well, pretty much nothing works on the Win7 machine when it comes to my amateur radio software. It loses drivers, crashes, can’t find com ports… The list of failures goes on and on.

I have it at the point now where changing frequency in Fldigi will change frequency on the TS-990. However, only when Flrig is running at the same time. And changing frequency on the radio itself does not cause the frequency in Fldigi/Flrig to update. Nor does Flrig recognize any of the radio’s settings. But it does allow me to change frequency with the click of a mouse rather than having to punch in frequencies manually on the radio.

THis is getting a bit longer than I’d intended, so let’s wrap it up.

What it all comes down to, is the TS-990S worth the money? This is one hell of an expensive radio, after all. This thing will set you back around $8,000. For me it is. I became addicted to amateur radio the moment I started. But for others who aren’t as active, probably not. You can put together a complete ham station for less than the cost of this single rig. It all depends on your wants and needs. The 990 is an exceptionally fine piece of equipment and I’m having an absolute blast with it, and in the long run that’s what matters.