Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Digital modes... Digital *VOICE* modes!

Yeah, you'd never put me in the digital voice camp I'm guessing.  Well it turns out, being apartment bound with a lust for DX just makes you do crazy stuff sometimes.
We're still house shopping and with our best luck, we'll be close to work, but chances are my commute time will increase by at least 100%, so I convinced my wife to allow me to upgrade my old TM-V7A mobile to a new (to me) ID-880H from Icom.

I had an 880H on loan from the Collins club up in IA a few years ago and I found it to be a very agreeable radio.  Our D-Star activity was severely minimal, mostly due to the fact that the N0CXX repeater has a terrible network connection which makes the linking functions basically useless.  Needless to say, I didn't use D-Star much back then.  The 880H is a great FM radio too!
Fast forward to today, and D-Star is far more prevalent worldwide, and the DFW area is no exception.  In fact, the US Trust server that serves as the registration backbone of D-Star started in Dallas with the K5TIT group, so I have lots of choices for digital repeaters here.

I've had very good experiences with these repeaters.  I've kept myself tuned in to the K5PRK (Plano Amateur Radio Klub) repeater for the most part since it is the closest to my apartment, and is rarely linked to any reflectors when I hop on.  I'm trying to maintain proper D-Star etiquette and if the repeater is linked already, I'll leave it alone.  Usually it isn't and I'll hook up REF001C during my short 10 min drive to and from work.  It's really simple once you figure out how to program the radio.  The 880H has something like 60 UR field memories which is where you put the linking commands so you just pick the one you want and key up, then go back to CQCQCQ.  Pretty easy stuff, but honestly, the videos on YouTube make it look a lot more confusing than it really is.  Anyway, I've talked to quite a few guys on the reflectors now and generally the audio quality is pleasant unless there's packet loss, which causes all kinds of weird beeps and boops that are not very pleasant.  It has its moments.
Crummy shot of the 88H control head installed in my 4Runner
So using the repeaters has been fine, but I can't help but feel I'm using up too much of the repeater's resources by linking up every day at the same time, what if someone else wants to use the repeater?  Well then there's hotspots and DVAPs for the rest of us.  I have looked at these options to play with but they're all pretty expensive (well not bad at ~$150).  Then I found out about the ircDDB system which has a few software applications, including one that can actually make a GMSK modem using the soundcard: no AMBE chip needed!

I took a couple nights to play with my FT-817 and a variety of computers from my Raspberry Pi B+ to my wife's Windows 8 tablet to Windows XP running on a virtual machine on my Mac Mini but unfortunately I was unable to get the system to work reliably.  It was incredibly cool to know I was receiving D-Star data from my 817 but for some reason I could not get a clear decode on the receiving end of things.  The worst part was that maybe 5% of the time, I would change something then get a perfect copy on the 880H, filling me with hope that I had figured out the problem, only to have completely garbled nonsense on the next transmission.  There was a lot of this back and forth until I finally gave up and threw in the towel.  I may revisit the project again but I'm probably best of just going for one of the GMSK modem boards instead.  Still it was an interesting investigation no less.

In other news, it looks like our lease is up at our current apartment and after everything we've had to go through with management we decided to just move to another complex while we continue our house hunt.  We're probably justified in moving just because of the management but the real reason we can't stand to stay is the road noise!  We live on the corner of 2 very busy streets and only a couple blocks from the police and fire departments.  Needless to say, even with good windows and doors, it'd be noisy.  Unfortunately we don't have good windows or doors either so the noise is incredible.  People don't usually believe us when we tell them!  We're looking forward to some peace and quiet for sure.

I'll be sure to update with the move and if I make any progress with the D-Star setup!  Thanks for reading as always and don't forget to subscribe and add the blog to your reading list. 73!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Long overdue update!

Hello readers!  I'm writing you now from the great state of Texas!  Yes, we've finally begun to settle down after our move in November.  Things have been good for us and we're very much enjoying the change of venue!

For starters, the move went pretty well.  Most of our stuff is crammed into a 15 foot by 10 foot storage unit, but I managed to keep most of my radio stuff with me and that made it to the apartment unscathed.  I did lose my mast I was using for my hex beam, apparently it was left on a different truck.  How someone forgets a 12 foot long pole I do not know.  That isn't a huge loss though, it was free to me and I didn't plan on using it at our new QTH anyway.  I'll be putting up a real tower instead.

As for our new QTH, we've been apartment bound so far and it looks like we'll continue to be for at least a few more months.  Luckily that has not meant I had to be off the radio.  I've had pretty good luck using my homebrew magnetic loop with my TS-590S from the apartment, even though I'm limited to QRP levels.  I've got a few DX contacts on sideband even in the ARRL contest!  All in all, I can't complain too much.  Noise levels are relatively low and I can get out from time to time so I'm not at all upset about the operating conditions.  It's keeping me on the air and that's what matters.

We have been shopping around for houses and we might even be building.  The housing market here in Texas is very dynamic and with springtime around the corner, things should be picking up again.  It isn't uncommon to see stuff listed and sold within a week so if we find something we're going to want to be ready to go on it.  So far, we have not seen much, which is why we're thinking about building.  As you know, HOAs can be a real big pain and there's no exception in the DFW area.  All the new developments have them and a fair share of the older ones do too.  We have found a few properties outside of the HOAs but we haven't fallen in love yet.  Whatever way we go, I'll be planning to include room for a 40' tower and a K9AY loop of some sort for low band receive.  It'll be quite a step up from what I'm used to so I'm very excited about the prospects.  Still, it all seems like it will probably be a long way out.  If I have a dipole up before next winter, I'll be surprised.

I am missing my contest club, N0MA, up in IA.  I'm still on the email reflector so I'm keeping in touch but I've missed a few of the good contests with the group and I have not found a good group down here yet.  There's a meeting for the DFW Contesters group on Wednesday this week though so hopefully I can make some face-to-face connections and get something planned for a future contest.

I went to the Irving Hamfest last weekend which was all right.  Back in IA it was one hamfest a year for me, and down here it looks like they're a little more common with many of the suburbs holding their own throughout the year.  I didn't find much worth looking at there but I was on the lookout for a D-Star capable mobile rig.  With our inevitable move to a house, we've been looking further away from work and my commute may triple so I figure a more capable mobile radio for the car may be in order.  There was a guy selling an ID-880H but he wanted too much and wouldn't take my lowball offer.  Other than that, it was a lot of boat anchor junk, and not even the "good" boat anchor stuff.  I did see a guy get a brand new Begali Traveler for the tiny sum of $150.  They go for $260 from Italy so I would say the guy got a pretty good deal!

I also ran into a young ham who somehow recognized me from Dayton last year.  Apparently he was working one of the vendor tables inside one of the halls.  How he remembered my face out of the thousands of people who walked by, I'll never know!  Regardless, we had a nice little chat on the benefits of digital voice on the VHF bands and he mentioned that he's been into P25, along with a few guys from the area.  He dissuaded me from D-Star a bit but I'm not really convinced either way.  We're going to keep in touch though and see if we can put something together for Field Day maybe. I guess he works pretty closely with the SMU radio club so we could probably put together a decent group of young guys.  I also know of several Rose-Hulman students working down here on co-op that I might enlist for FD too, but there's lots of time for that yet.

That's a big update, and all I have for now.  Keep tuned for more stuff in the following weeks and months!  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A failure, and a new adventure

Fall has arrived.  And my goal to operate 100 days portable this year is all but lost.  My motivation was weak and I lost focus sometime through the summer and had no external motivation driving me on.  Unfortunately, there will be no 100 Days of Summer.  That said, I still have the kits from Etherkit that I'd like to give away, so once I figure out how to do that effectively, I will have a post describing how to enter!  Keep an eye out for that.

I found out in mid September that I am going to be permanently reassigned to Rockwell Collins' facility in Richardson, TX starting in November.  This is a pretty big deal, I mean, everything in Texas is BIG!  The good news is, I volunteered so I'm quite excited to be moving someplace warm (and sometimes HOT) that will allow more outdoor activities almost year round.  Not only that, but there are actually people I know living there so it should make my IRL social experience better.  I have had the worst time finding like-minded people here in Cedar Rapids.  I should have much better luck down there.  I could spend a lot of words listing the exciting new and better opportunities I'll have there but you will see them in time as I experience them first hand and report back here and on Twitter.

Of course this move means I have to dismantle my station, which I've already done, save for removing the mast and hex beam.  All the radios are packed up and I'm essentially off the air until we get established in Texas.  Furthermore, we're going to be apartment based until we find a house to buy but as I mentioned, the opportunities for portable operations should be numerous.  I think there's even a fairly active QRP community down there, so maybe I will have some extra external impetus to get out.  It doesn't look like there's any SOTA summits very close so I don't think I'll be doing much of that in the coming months, but flights to Colorado are cheap so I may make it out there more too.

Speaking of travelling, we'll finally be within driving distance of a couple cruise ports (Galveston and New Orleans) so that means we'll probably find ourselves at sea a bit more, which is certainly exciting.  I'm still hoping I can operate /MM one of these days.

I'm still planning on attending Dayton in 2015 with the N0MA Radio Farm group but we will see.  I think money is due soon and we're still trying to figure out how vacation and everything will work when we move but it seems like I'll probably have the vacation to go and I figured it will probably only cost an extra $50 or so to fly than it did for me to drive myself from Iowa.  We will see, when the money comes due, I'll have to decide what to do I guess.  I would really hate to miss it again, it is just too much fun to miss!

That's about it for now, the next time you hear from me, it'll probably be from our new QTH!  Thanks for reading as always! 73 de W0EA/5 (that's going to take some getting used to)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Shack updates

Sorry for the extended delays in posts!  It has been a very busy summer, and as you might suspect, my 100 Days of Summer goal has really taken a hit this year.  With the bathroom remodel and loads of radios to build, I have just not had the get up and go to get portable.  That said, the main goal of the whole event was to get me active, and I have succeeded with that.  My wife and I got Fitbit Flex activity trackers and we're both walking extra every day to reach our step goals.  So while I may not be operating at the end of my walks, I am getting those steps in and I've already lost 7 lbs this summer, well on my way to my goal weight before our cruise in September.
Anyway, that isn't what this post is about after all.  Now that I've got my amplifier set up and running in the shack, I have been struggling to get a clean, efficient, comfortable setup at the operating position.  One of the major problems is having access to the connections on my radio.  As you are aware, the weather in the Midwest is quite volatile this time of the year so thunderstorms are a nearly daily occurrence.  This means lots of disconnecting coaxes.  I also find myself wanting to connect another radio to my antennas which usually means I have to pull the 590 out, and unplug stuff.  Not any good.

At the moment, the shack is set up like this:
The rotor controller and power/SWR meter are on top of the 590, and the cables are barely long enough for me to move them to the top of the amp to pull the 590 out when a storm comes through. 
It may not be very obvious in the picture but the amp end of the shelf is about 3/4 inch closer to the desk top than the left side.  My brackets might be a little unlevel but I think the beast is pulling the shelf down a bit!  I decided I'd try to go without the shelf in the new setup.

I've been looking at mounting the monitors on an arm for a while but they are typically pretty expensive.  As luck would have it, Newegg had a crazy sale on this model.  Only $42 with free shipping from Illinois, which I expected would be at most 2 days.  Lo and behold, I got a notification shortly after shipping that it would be delivered overnight!  Free shipping for overnight?  I can't complain!

Anyway the stand arrived in the early evening which gave me just enough time to clear the desk and get things ready.  It took me just a few minutes to mount the arms and re-route the cabling and this is what I ended up with:
Looking pretty good.  Everything is well within reach and I can swivel the monitor out of the way and very quickly remove the connections from the 590 (I put BNC adapters on the 590 for quick RF connections too).  Very slick!  The only remaining problem is I often have the connections falling off the back of the desk, if anybody has an easy/cheap solution to this, I'd love to know.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Quick update

Hey guys/gals - I wanted to put up a quick update to let everybody know what I've been up to the last few weeks.  Before Dayton I started working on remodeling our main floor bathroom and it has been a bear so I've pretty  much been spending all my free time working on that or tired enough that I just want to veg.  I will be getting back to my 100 Days of Summer stuff soon enough though.  Just keep an eye on Twitter for operating announcements!

I did get out to the deck last night while dinner was cooking on the grill.  I tossed my EFHW over the pergola and stuck the end to a 20' crappie pole.  I wanted to try out the Youkits FG-01a antenna analyzer I got at Dayton (well ordered at Dayton, apparently Ten Tec didn't bring anything to the actual hamfest).  Granted the setup was not ideal but I only saw at best 2:1 SWR so I may have to go re-trim or re-cut that antenna once I get out to the park again.  None the less, the analyzer is pretty easy to use and I'll have to do a writeup and/or video on that in the future.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Losing my Religion

Oh life.  It's bigger.  It's bigger than you.  And it is a lot bigger when you have a pair of these....
572B valves
Yeah, the rumors are true.  I have finally taken the big plunge and purchased an amp.  In all honesty, I really have treated my QRP operating in an almost religious way.  I am a purist.  But as you are well aware, my needs and desires have evolved over the years and QRP is no longer the end-all aspect of ham radio it once was for me.  Really, this is all for the better, an all-or-nothing approach to most things is not good!  So my recent excitement and success with DX drove me towards QRO.  First with the homebrew amp for my KX3, then the 590, and now with the new amplifier.  As I've seen others say, power is simply another tool in the ham's toolkit.  It doesn't always have to be on.

The amp is a Heathkit SB-200, good for around 500w on all bands, considerably more on 80 and 40m.  This one was in great shape, probably the cleanest one I saw in the flea at Hamvention.  The guy had $375 on it and my goal was to keep it under $300 and he came back at $325.  I thought it was worth it but I went and got my amp gurus - K0DAS and W0ODS - to review the sale.  Rod (DAS) looked over the amp with an eye on wear and tear, and seeing none, gave me the thumbs up.  Jeff (ODS) was standing behind me literally whispering in my ear "Buy it! Buy it!"  I guess I can't deny that kind of argument!
Doing the deed (K0DAS, Rod in the background. Photo by W0ODS, Jeff)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Great Contest University Video from 2013

Each year, the day before Hamvention starts, there's a couple of "specialty" events going on in Dayton.  FDIM and Contest University are just 2 of them.  I have not yet attended Contest University but you don't really have to in order to get the goods - they have posted videos of the presentations from last year!  Some of the stuff is not really applicable to the modest, home station, but there are a lot of great tips on operating techniques and tips & tricks that can make contests more fun and rewarding for even the more casual operators.  Check em out!

Contest University Videos


 Dayton 2013 Contest University:

  • Contest University I:  Welcome to CTU by Tim Duffy, K3LR and Radio Sport Contesting, It’s More than Rules by Dave McCarty, K5GN
Note:  There were some technical difficulties and the presentation is not showing in the video. 
  • Contest University II:  Tips on Being a Better Single Operator by Randy Thompson, K5ZD
  • Contest University III:  Design, Installation, and Maintenance of Antennas by Frank Donavan, W3LPL
  • Contest University IV:  Contest Antennas and Coaxial Cables by Frank Donavan, W3LPL
  • Contest University V:  2013 Eye Ball Sprint Contest by Doug Grant, K1DG (Not Norman)
  • Contest University VI:  K9AY Look Arrays for Low Band Contesting by Richard Jaeger, K4IQJ
  • Contest University VIIA:  Propagation Trends 2013 – 2014 Intro by Frank Donavan, W3LPL
  • Contest University VIIB: Propagation Trends 2013 – 2014 by Frank Donavan, W3LPL
  • Contest University VIII:  Rotors & Construction Practices Q&A by Frank Donavan, W3LPL
  • Contest University IX:  Contest Radio Performance by Rob Sherwood, NC0B