20 December 2015

Yaesu FT-817, Elecraft KX-3 and other portable HF radios

I don't know about other people out there, but I use this blog as a personal journal, basically writing about stuff I like so I can remember later on. Hot new equipment that came out and I'd like to own at some point, ideas that cross my mind and I'd like to remember later or events that I want to capture before the moments fades. Same was with the Elecraft KX-3 vs Yaesu FT-817nd post almost 3 years ago, when I was deciding on what radio to get for portable operations and I wanted to put in writing my research.

Now, the conclusion back then was that the Yaesu FT-817nd was the better choice, not only having a more robust build but also covering more bands and being half the price of the Elecraft. Consequently, for the last 2 years the FT-817nd was my radio for most of the 75-80 portable activities I did - most of them being SOTA activations. Of course, during this time I had the chance not only to get to know it very well but also to compare it with alot of other radios popular among the portable radio crowd, so here's my input on the choices out there:

Yaesu FT-817/nd - Tough little swiss-army-knife of a radio, 1.2Kg, with 5 Watts and 160m to 70cm all-mode coverage it can basically do anything you want. It's probably the most used radio in SOTA - half of the activators I know use it and it's used at home for a variety of tasks too: it can be your satellite earth station, it can drive your microwave transverter, general coverage receiver in your travel bag, main HF station for QRP fans, use a cheap SDR dongle to add a panadapter for it or add Bluetooth CAT control and use your smartphone/tablet to control all it's features. Sure, alot of capabilities in a small package almost all the time means some things had to be traded, and this is pretty much true: the FT-817 is mediocre in receiver performance. But this isn't really important when portable - and you can always add an optional filter to improve things, general consensus being that the Inrad #720 filter is the best for SSB. The user interface can be improved too (screen too small, hard access to important buttons), although in SOTA activations you don't really need to play with the settings too much: just find a clear frequency, lock the front panel and start calling. The supplied rechargeable battery is almost useless (low capacity, low current capability, etc), but it can save you in a situation or two - I replaced it with the much better Sanyo Eneloop 2000mAh cells. Standby current could also be lower (~350mA on RX is too much for a portable radio) but overall it's the best compromise you can realistically get.

09 December 2015

SunSDR MB-1 listed and available in January

Ever since first news of it surfaced in June 2014, the SunSDR MB-1 made by Expert Electronics seemed to be exactly what the amateur radio market lacked: modern technology. At first it was expected by the end of 2014 at a price around US$ 4300 for the basic version and another US$ 200 for the optional internal tuner, then it got delayed for some unexplained reasons.

 At Friedrichshafen 2015 they had a fully working sample of the SunSDR MB-1 that I got to test a bit (most impressive thing on the show!) and I was told it was supposed to arrive by the end of 2015. Expected price around EUR 5000 for the basic version, with options for internal tuner and contest-class preselector.

Finally, today the SunSDR MB-1 was listed for the first time at WIMO, with availability expected in January 2016. Even though the price is EUR 6000 for the basic version, the extra internal tuner costs another EUR 500 and the microphone is optional at EUR 35, it still is a great deal as high-end amateur radio equipment goes.

 There are some differences from the original specs: it doesn't cover the 70MHz band anymore, output power is 100W/50W (HF/VHF) not 125W/60W, the CPU is not and Intel Core i7 but Core i5. They have changed the VHF connectors to N instead of SO-239, the OS is now Windows 10 instead of Windows 7 and they have improved the HF dynamic range from 120dB to 129dB. No words on the promised predistorsion yet.

07 December 2015

Icom IC-7300 available in January, official price announced

Icom's IC-7300 is probably the most expected transceiver of 2016, given the fact that it's the first direct-sampling SDR from one of the "big three" manufacturers, offers a working large-screen spectrum display and is expected to be quite affordable (more details in the original Icom IC-7300 article).

29 September 2015

YO SOTA Marathon 2015 - the story IV

This article is a sequel to YO SOTA Marathon 2015 - the story III.

 Day 5

 The night we spent at 2500m altitude was a true mountain experience - 11 people packed in one small room, and most of us didn't get enough sleep. At 06:00 we were already ready to go - mostly out of boredom since we couldn't sleep anymore anyway. Some of us (YO9IRF, YO6PSX, YO2BP, YO6PIB, HB9DST, YO9IPF) decided to go and activate YO/MC-008 Costila (10p) and the rest (YO2MSB, YO8SEP, PB2T, K2XYL) went ahead to Babele and took the cable car to Busteni, from where they drove to YO/EC-011 Postavaru (8p).

The path from YO/MC-006 to YO/MC-008, just follow the crest

07 September 2015

YO SOTA Marathon 2015 - the story III

This article is a sequel to YO SOTA Marathon - the story II

Day 3

In the second morning at the Tara pension in Ranca the restaurant personnel already got used to our early morning routine, so the restaurant was already opened a bit earlier and the kitchen was already fired up. We had a long drive ahead before getting to our next target, so we wanted to be on the way as soon as possible. Crossing the Transalpina road for the 4th time in 3 days, we met these guys just sitting in the middle of the road:

Donkeys begging for some food, just by the road
 This is actually an usual sight on some part of Transalpina (we met them last year as well) and they're very used to the people - who usually give them some treats. As I had all the food stashed in the trunk, no luck for them this time.

04 September 2015

YO SOTA Marathon 2015 - the story II

This article is a sequel to YO SOTA Marathon - the story

Day 1

As there were enough of us and we wanted to take advantage of the S2S possibilities, we split into 2 teams: Team 1 was YO2MSB, PB2T, K2XYL and HB9DST, with YO6PIB joining in on the way to the first summit, YO/WC-207 Piatra Goznei (8p). This was K2XYL Margreet's first SOTA activation and she got her first QSO (wich was also S2S) with Petronel YO8SEP.

K2XYL Margreet having her first QSOs, from YO/WC-207

The second team was me YO9IRF, YO2BP, YO8SEP and YO2BP and we went for YO/MC-096 Muntele Mic (8p) first. We used VHF to keep in touch with the other cars and Zoli YO2BP was my co-pilot:

28 August 2015

Yaesu's new HF radio, FT-410

Yaesu FT-410 seems to be the latest HF radio to surface from Japan, and from the looks of it it's the successor of FT-600 to fight the Icom IC-718 and Alinco SRT-8/9 series. It's still not FCC approved and probably still has a long way to retail, but it's nice to know what to expect in the following months.

The Yaesu FT-410 is a pretty basic radio, operating in the 30kHz-30MHz* range (160m to 10m amateur bands), 100W AM/SSB/CW, with first IF at 67.899MHz and a secondary one at 24kHz that goes directly into DSP. Judging by that arrangement, it may just be an FT-450 without FM and in another casing.

YO SOTA Marathon 2015 - the story

This was a natural evolution to the YO SOTA Tour 2014 from last year, only this time we decided to make it bigger, better, longer and harder. We added summits and regions, we increased the number of points, we got much more activators to join in and we were on the air for longer, on more bands and more modes. We got the chance to spend more time with people bound by the same passion, field-test alot of radio equipment, antennas and logging methods and give the chance to alot more chasers to log in a contact with a summit from the mountains of Romania. We were there when in cold rain at over 2000m altitude, two of our friends became the first activators in Romania to surpass the 1000 points limit at the same time, qualifying for the "Mountain Goat" status. I would call the YO SOTA Marathon 2015 a success. And this story will probably be the longest post ever on this blog.

Most of the team, at the rendez-vous between YO/MC-052 and MC-050

23 August 2015

Icom reveals first SDR, IC-7300

Saturday, August 22nd 2015, during the Tokyo Ham Fair 2015, Icom revealed their first Software Defined Radio (SDR) HF transceiver, the IC-7300, sporting HF+6m+4m coverage, 100W, touchscreen TFT display and an internal antenna tuner. More than 12 years after the SDR technology became comercially available for amateur radio and after dozens of smaller companies have used it successfully in their products - some of wich are now at the third generation SDR products, one of "the big three" amateur radio equipment manufacturers finally decided to move their technology to the 21st century, too.

07 August 2015

YO SOTA Marathon 2015 starting this wekend

The long awaited YO SOTA Marathon 2015 will be officially starting on Monday, August 10th 2015, and compared to last year we will up the stakes: from 8 to 16 summits, from 80 to 136 points, instead of 5 activators now we will have 12 activators split into 2 teams and the whole thing will last 6 days instead of 5. This should also be a chaser's delight: the summits point average is 8.5, we will be active on both SSB and CW, we will work until the last chaser and all the activations will be spotted on the cluster.

For me this will be an even larger challenge since I plan to activate 4 more summits in the weekend before the marathon starts. So expect alot of SOTA activity from Romania starting tomorrow !

For more details about the YO SOTA Marathon 2015, you can download and check out this presentation.

09 July 2015

Friedrichshafen Ham Radio 2015 (I) - the road, the city and the campsite

Friedrichshafen Ham Radio (yes, the name is not particularly creative) is the largest amateur radio convention in Europe and the second-largest in the world, marginally surpassed by the Dayton Hamfest as far as attendance goes. In 2014 it attracted about 17.000 people and even if the figures aren't out for this year yet, to the regulars it looked to be a just bit smaller. This year's (2015) edition of the Friedrichshafen Ham Radio was the 40th and was held from 26th to the 28th of June in the same place it has always been, the Messe (expo area) of Friedrichshafen, a small university city in the south of Germany, right on the North coast of Lake Constance (Bodensee).

Friedrichshafen is the home for some of Germany's iconic aviation / automotive companies, Zeppelin, Maybach, ZF (second largest automotive parts concern worldwide) and Dornier (manufacturer of bomber and fighter planes in WW II, now defunct) being based here. And thanks to the absolutely scenic geographical placement (you can easily see the majestic Alps in Switzerland and Lichtenstein on the other side of the lake), Friedrichshafen served as a resort for the german Nazi.

26 May 2015

SOTA activation: YO/EC-090 Malaia and YO/EC-093 Siriu

Oh boy, long time I didn't post anything on the blog. There have been some subjects I would've loved to write about, there is another SOTA activation report I need to get out there as well, but the work volume lately was terrible so no more blogging/ham radio/twitter. Nevertheless, this story needs to get out there fast and while it's still fresh, because it was really good.

YO/EC-090 Malaia Peak (1662m, 8 points) and YO/EC-093 Siriu Peak (1657m, 8 points) are two nearby peaks in the Siriu massif, located about halfway between the cities of Brasov and Buzau. Almost between the two peaks there is a periglacial lake called "Eagles' Lake" or "The Bottomless Lake", wich makes for a touristic attraction point in itself.

Eagles Lake seen from Malaia peak
The two names for the lake have their own associated legends; it's called "Eagles' Lake" because in the spring the eagles come down to the lake to drink it's water and get younger, also bringing their cubs by the lake to teach them how to fly. What I can tell you is that i've seen countless eagles circling the air above the lake, probably attracted by the (small) fish, snakes or frogs.

The legend associated with the "Bottomless Lake" name is even more interesting - a shepherd tired by his life decided to give it up and seek a better future for himself, throwing his crook into the lake and leaving the sheep and the places behind. One year later, while travelling the country, he saw his unmistakable hand-carved crook floating on the Danube river, instantly getting homesick and returning to his sheep.

Florin YO9IPF proposed this trip almost 4 weeks before on the SOTA ROMANIA Facebook group and it was because of me that it got delayed so much - all my weekends were full up until May 23rd. It proved to be a great choice in the end, Csaba YO6PIB had the weekend available as well (and he took a few friends with him) and Florin managed to pick up a few more local hams - veteran operators but not too familiar with the SOTA program yet: YO9GSB - Dan and YO9RAO - Mihai.

18 March 2015

SOTA activation: YO/EC-480 and YO/EC-312

YO/EC-480 (Dealul Frumos, 1048m, 6 points) and YO/EC-312 (Secaria, 1149m, 6 points) were some of the many summits I've been planning to activate for some time now, and when I told Florin YO9IPF they're part of my upcoming weekend plan he immediately agreed to come with me. The weather forecast didn't look too good but hey, we were two men on a mission and didn't plan to be stopped by a few drops of rain.

Finding Florin was fortunate, as it's pretty hard for a SOTA activator to have an activation partner: friends or girlfriends may come with you for a hike now and then, but not many have the patience to wait until you do your radio thing. Romania is not a very big country but there aren't that many activators yet (SOTA is growing very fast here though), so we definetely jump on any chance we get to do team activations.

We met near Ploiesti and in 30 minutes we were already at the base of the first summit (YO/EC-480) after passing trough the city of Comarnic. There are basically two choices if you want to get to YO/EC-480: either you choose the easier but longer route that starts from the DJ101S road, or a steeper but shorter one from DC2C. We chose the first option, the hike ahead of us looked easy and it actually was.

11 March 2015

SOTA Spotter Android app

The name basically speaks for itself, we're talking about an app that sends spots to the SOTA cluster; it runs on Android and takes very few resources (about 4.2MB of space when installed). SOTA Spotter was released back in October 2014 by fellow romanian SOTA afficionado Bogdan Lazanu (YO8SAW) and now it went up to version 0.4.56, wich includes spot filtering and visual/audible/vibrating alerts.

22 February 2015

SOTA: gathered season bonus points this weekend

It's the middle of February, sunny outside and I'm in an outdoors mood - of course some SOTA will happen. As in this time of year the mountains are covered in snow, I decided to go for two low-effort high-reward 6 point summits I've visited before - only this time I will also collect the seasonal bonuses. These are YO/EC-252 Piatra Arsa and YO/EC-241 Fitifoiul and more details about them you can find in the previous activation article.

First in line is YO/EC-252 Piatra Arsa and this time the 10-minute walk from where I could park the car to the lodge at the base of  the mountain turned into a 30-minute one, since because of the snow I couldn't park on the side of the road, let alone enter the road leading to the lodge. So I had to park further away - in a small motel's parking lot, plus once I entered the woods the snow wasn't exactly making things easier.

09 February 2015

Raspberry Pi 2 freezes when photographed

The all new Raspberry Pi 2 is the new maker's sensation, sporting 6 times more performance and 2 times more memory than the previous model, keeping the same affordable US$35 price label. And this is not everything, Microsoft is also offering a free version of ARM-compatible Windows 10 for it (yes, you just read a sentence that includes "Windows" and "free"). These are great times if you like fiddling around with hardware, software and electronics.

There is however some sort of a funny issue with the Raspberry Foundation's new creation: when exposed to strong infrared light (such as that from a Xenon photocamera flash or a small red laser pointer) it just freezes and crashes. The source of this problem has been identified as a small PWM voltage regulator that powers the processor and the memory - NCP6343 made by OnSemi, wich is dubbed U16 on the small Raspberry Pi 2 board - I dare you to find it in under 1 minute in the image above (click to enlarge).

14 January 2015

About the Elecraft K3 vs Kenwood TS-590 debate

I was just reading earlier Simone IW5EDI's article about a short overview on the K3 and the TS-590. This is an interesting debate as they are some of the popular high-performance transceivers on the market today, and I would like to share my views.

13 January 2015

HF-P1 portable antenna review

The HF-P1 is a lightweight antenna with HF to UHF coverage, designed for portable operations where size and weight are important. Thoughtful design and the use of quality materials make it look like a reliable choice for outdoors aficionados, but is it so ? Read further to find out.

Looking for the HF-P1 name, not many results popped up - it's not a very widespread brand name. The HF-P1 is sourced in Germany and you can find it in amateur radio shops there, plus probably a few other countries in the EU. It's not clear who is the manufacturer as the german websites don't list one and the product comes in a whitebox, but it seems identical to the Superantennas MP1B (US made). The small leaflet inside just says "HF-P1 portable HF antenna", so that doesnt help much.

The leaflet also claims that this antenna can cover 3.5MHz to 440MHz, a bold claim that got easier to understand once I saw what it's all about. The design is optimised for small size, reduced weight and versatility, being able to form a resonant antenna system on almost any frequency between 3.5 and 440MHz by the use of various fixed or adjustable elements and coils.

HF-P1's leaflet contains the minimal information needed to get you going

05 January 2015

Testing the Ultimate 3 WSPR beacon

Some time ago Aurel YO3IBZ borrowed me his Ultimate3 to try and replace the AD9850 DDS with AD9851 so we could make it into a useful 6m WSPR beacon. Unfortunately I only managed to make it work at low frequencies (below 10Mhz or so), and even though Hans (who created the Ultimate3) was very supportive with firmware and such, I came to the conclusion the easiest way was to just force the AD9850 to work at 50Mhz.

This is not really an issue, it's just that above ~25MHz the AD9850 output level starts decreasing and spurs start to appear. Output level is not really an issue because there is some amplification after the DDS, and the spurs above 50MHz should be largely stopped by the DDS onboard low-pass elliptic filter (cutoff around 72MHz) plus the other low-pass filter I've attached to the output (cutoff around 55MHz).

So I just strapped the new filters I made (not only for 6m, but also for 10m and 15m) into the sockets of the Ultimate3 and found a nice metal casing for it: