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

 

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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.

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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.

fldigi help (radio stuff so everybody can ignore this)

Saw your posting about PSK31 and stuff. I got fldigi installed on my macbook air and it’s up and running fine. Wanted to put it on my iMac too and thought the easiest thing to do was just copy the configuration files, but I can’t find them! Where in the world does fldigi keep the blasted thing?

Ah, you discovered that, have you? It’s OSXs fault. The program keeps all of the configuration files in a folder called .fldigi and that’s where the issue is. OSX apparently things that any folder that starts with a . is a system file and should be invisible. It’s there, you just can’t find the dopey thing. I ran into the same thing when I wanted to put it on my iMac and couldn’t find it.

You can make the invisible files visible. Go to this website:

http://www.mikesel.info/show-hidden-files-mac-os-x-10-7-lion/

He’s got instructions on how to do it.

Oh, and make sure you change things back to invisible again! You DO NOT WANT TO MESS WITH INVISIBLE FILES under normal circumstances!

Yet another PSK31 setup

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I’m still experimenting with PSK and this is a quick snapshot of the setup I was playing with today. Again, cheap and quick and dirty, using stuff I already had in the house; my Macbook and the USB microphone adaptor plugged into the Kenwood.

This system works a lot better than the iPad version did for several reasons. First, the audio output quality of the laptop is better, allowing me to turn on the radio’s VOX system so it transmits automatically when I want to send something. Second, the Macbook is much, much more powerful, and the software’s level of sophistication reflects that.

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I’m running Fldigi on the Macbook and it works quite well indeed. All of the iPad apps I’ve seen are limited to working with a single type of digital communication; RTTY, PSK, CW, etc. Fldigi works with all of them. Plus it includes an enormous number of bells and whistles, like built in logging capabilities and, if you have the right interface, even control of the radio right from the program itself.

Unlike the iPad software I was running, Fldigi doesn’t just decode the selected stream in the waterfall, it decodes all of them, at the same time. In the screen image above, it’s simultaneously decoding four separate transmissions at the same time. 

The question, of course, is does it work? And the answer is yes, even with the cobbled together setup I’m using here. In the short time I was playing around with it, I made two contacts, one in Oregon, the other in California. And that was with my transmit power dialed down to 25 watts, and feeding my Comet vertical antenna, which some people claim is little more than an over priced dummy load.

(Interestingly, I’ve made far more contacts with PSK31 running my cobbled together equipment than I have on voice)

Once I get the actual interface between the computer and radio up and running, this could get real interesting.

Bare Bones PSK31 setup

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So I’m a grouchy farmer so why all this stuff about amateur radio? Because we still have snowbanks 4 feet high around here despite warming temperatures, so I mess with radio stuff.

I’ve been using an iPad app called PSKer which works far better than it has any right to. It ‘hears’ the PSK31 tones from the radio and decodes them, and when you type something in, it sends the PSK tones out the speaker. But background noise is an issue. I am now using Apple’s camera adaptor with the USB connector on it, with a USB microphone adaptor plugged into that. The output from the speaker on the radio goes into that, and bingo, a nice, clean display without any hash from background noise.

Unfortunately I still haven’t got things set up for transmit, hence the microphone aimed at the iPad’s speaker. It works. Sort of. But just having a truck roll by outside can cause havoc. I need to get the output from the adaptor into the microphone inputs on the radio, and hopefully figure out how to trigger the PTT circuits at the same time, or perhaps use the radio’s VOX capabilities to deal with triggering transmit.

This will give you an idea of what you can do with little or no money, though. Except for the Kenwood, everything else was stuff I had laying around the house already; iPad, camera adaptor, USB mic adaptor, etc. The only thing I actually had to buy was the PSKer software, and that was all of about $3.

Still More Ham Stuff: PSK31

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I’m new to amateur radio. Just got my license in February when I passed my Tech and General tests. So a lot of this stuff is still new to me and I still find it a bit amazing, like this set-up. This is an ordinary iPad running a program called PSKer, available on the App Store. Using no additional hardware at all, just the iPad, with it’s internal microphone and speakers, it will decode and send text in PSK31. Now I’ve been working with computers, radios and electronics for ages, but sometimes modern technology still surprises me. I haven’t tried transmitting with it yet. That’s a bit awkward, but decoding works pretty well, although you do need a very clear signal with little or no interference, which is sometimes hard to do.

And look at that nifty waterfall display! Heck, it was worth the $3 just for that!

First Look at the Kenwood TS-2000

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I wanted to talk a bit about the Kenwood TS-2000 now that I’ve spent a couple of weeks actually using it. This isn’t a formal review, you’ll find enough of those out on the net, along with specifications and all that other fun stuff. I want to talk about what it’s like to actually use it, something that gets lost in the mix in formal reviews.

The 2000 is an impressive piece of equipment straight out of the box. I’m used to consumer grade electronics which are generally so badly made that it’s lucky if they survive being unpacked. The build quality of the 2000 is so far beyond what I’m used to that I am still impressed by it. The knobs and keys are rock solid. The knobs are silky smooth in action, with no side play at all. The keys are extremely well fitted and solid as well, with positive tactile feedback. Everything about this radio is extremely well made with tight tolerances, with excellent attention to detail.

The display is reasonably well laid out, if a bit cramped. It’s generally easy to read, although a bit intimidating and confusing at first as all of the different functions come into play. Fortunately the manual has several pages devoted to just explaining what in the world pops up on the display. Although a bit confusing at first, it doesn’t take long to get used to.

There is an SWR meter built into the unit, but you can’t see it here. It appears over on the left side of the display with the other meters and seems to only appear when you hit the button to activate the internal antenna tuner (yes, it has a built in antenna tuner). Unless I’m missing something (which I admit is entirely possible), the SWR meter appears only at that time, and is only active during the actual process of tuning for the antenna. Considering that this takes all of about 2 seconds, during which time the meter jumps around all over the place as the unit works on acquiring the best SWR reading for the antenna, you’d better keep an eye on that thing when you hit the antenna tuner button or you’re going to miss it.

By the way, the antenna tuner and SWR meter only work on HF.

Once I got used to the control configuration, the radio isn’t hard to use. It can be a bit intimidating, though, because all of the keys have multiple functions. A quick press does one thing. Press the key and hold it down, and it activates yet another function. Press the FUNC button, and the keys now activate an entire different group of functions. It may seem confusing at first, but I got used to it quickly, although I found it necessary to keep the manual handy. But once I started to use it seriously, everything started to make sense with control groups laid out in a logical fashion.

There are 2 HF antenna connectors on the back and 1 VHF, both 259 style connectors for standard coax. The UHF antenna is an N style connector (which means that to use UHF I’m either going to have to get a separate UHF antenna or cobble together adaptors to feed my multi-band VHF/UHF antenna). There is also an antenna jack for HF receive only if you want to go that route. (There is a lot of other stuff back there that I’m ignoring because I don’t use any of it, except for the CW key jack).

On the VHF side the transceiver is being fed with a Comet VHF/UHF vertical antenna that seems to work pretty well. On HF it’s hooked to a Comet 250B vertical because a) I’m really lazy and the 250 is real easy to put up, and b) it’s the middle of winter and trying to put up complex antenna systems with 3 feet of snow on the ground and -10 wind chills is no fun at all.

Actually using the 2000 is pretty straightforward, with no glitches or nasty surprises. Everything works exactly the way it’s supposed to and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

I did replace the included hand held mobile mike with a desktop model.

There are some minor irritations, like the numeric keypad. I find the buttons too small for my short, stubby farmer fingers. I also question why I have to press the ENTer button before I can enter a frequency directly. I understand the need to have multiple functions for keys, but the thing most users are going to use that numeric keypad for is entering frequencies (or at least that’s the case with me), not using the functions associated with the keys. But the ENT button has to be pressed first or you’ll end up selecting various functions you don’t want. Even after having used the radio for a couple of weeks I still find myself trying to punch in frequencies without hitting that blasted ENT button first.

Having the dual receivers is fantastic. It lets me monitor my favorite repeater frequencies up on VHF while I work on HF on the other side. In the photo you can see that the main receiver on the left is down on 14.27 mHz while the sub receiver is on 144 mHz. Since the photo was taken, I’ve programmed the memories in the radio with a dozen or so of the repeaters I use on a regular basis, and generally I keep the ‘B’ receiver on the left scanning those frequencies for activity while I’m down on HF with the main receiver. If I hear someone I want to talk to on VHF I just hit the ‘SUB’ button to the right of the main tuning dial to transfer the transmit functions over to the sub-receiver and away I go.

VHF-wise, the radio has been fantastic. Even with transmit power dialed down I can hit the local repeaters with no trouble at all. 

On HF the results have been mixed. Not because of the 2000, but because of the antenna I’m using. I’m not going to go into detail about the drawbacks of a multi-band HF vertical antenna because you can read those anywhere. Let’s just say that the Comet 250 isn’t the most efficient antenna in the world and leave it at that. At best it is a compromise for someone like me who wants to get on the air on HF fast and easy.