Wednesday, February 25, 2009

K3 Transverter woes

A few days ago I decided that I would make the most of my Elecraft K3 by using it on 2 metres as well with the aid of a transverter. I was wondering what one to get, probably one from Spectrum Communications as all of the others on the market are very high end with price tags to match. The Elecraft transverters would have been the obvious choice but they are also quite pricey, styled to match the K2 not the K3, and have inadequate heat sinking for FM use which is my main interest on 2m.

The decision was made when I saw a Spectrum Communications transverter advertised on by Mick, G6HUP at a very good price. It arrived today, so securely packed it could have survived being thrown out of an aircraft! It is in very good condition and works very nicely indeed. Thanks, Mick, you are a great guy to deal with!

Unfortunately after connecting it to the K3 I found more of the problems that have made ownership of this radio so frustrating. I could receive on 2m OK but could not transmit, and when I checked the K3 was producing no RF output.

The transverter I bought is designed to be used with a radio that has no special low level transverter output, which my K3 hasn't - it's a $99 option. The K3 has special transverter ranges that can be configured either to use the KXV3 transverter interface, if you have one, or else the normal antenna socket with higher power. I set up the K3 for the latter option, but it became clear that it was still behaving as if the KXV3 was being used. By chance I discovered that if I toggled the KXV3 option in the configuration menu to "installed" and then "not installed", it would work as requested and produce the 5W output my transverter needed. But as soon as I changed bands or even recalled a frequency from memory it would forget this setting and I would have no output again.

Having found the workaround for this obvious bug, I then stumbled on the next problem. The K3 would refuse to transmit if the receiver was tuned above 145.700. It displayed the "out of band" warning. I guessed that the problem was occurring because the upper band limit of the 10m band (the transverter's IF) is 29.700MHz. But it occurs even when the repeater offset is selected and the transmit frequency is 600KHz lower and well inside the 10m band. Because of this I can't use one of the two local 2m repeaters!

I dare say Elecraft will fix these problems. But it is extremely annoying to keep coming across such basic faults on a radio that cost this much money. The K3 would be a fine radio, but its firmware is only half thought out, poorly written and inadequately tested, and I'm tired of being a beta tester.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

When is a hill not a mountain?

Living so near the Lake District, it is perhaps surprising that I have not previously taken an interest in Summits On The Air (SOTA). But a few days ago I spent some time browsing the website and joined the reflector to get more information, as part of a personal resolution to get involved in activities that would help improve my fitness.

One of the things that struck me when browsing the SOTA database was the apparently arbitrary choice of Lake District fells as official SOTA summits. Many popular fells listed in the Lake District "bible" by A. Wainwright such as Cat Bells near Keswick are not included.

In fact, I learned that the choice is not arbitrary at all, but based on a list called the "Marilyns" in which the qualifying criterion is a drop of 150m. This has the advantage of defining "summits" in parts of the country that are not considered mountainous. But it has the disadvantage of not satisfying those who feel that what they have believed to be a mountain all their lives ought to be included.

A more significant disadvantage, at least from my point of view, is that most of the official SOTA summits in the Lake District are full day hikes to reach, by people with more than my level of fitness. Whereas many that I would enjoy climbing and activating are not included. So it seems to me that the current criteria defining a summit is discouraging participation by many, especially when you consider that the majority of radio amateurs are well past the first flush of youth and fitness.

Having brought this up on the SOTA Reflector, it seems that there is a considerable difference of opinion on the matter. Some are clearly in favour of more relaxed criteria that would increase the number of more easily accessible summits. Others are complaining about "dumbing down" of the programme, and even questioning whether all activators are entitled to have a say in the matter, if someone who merely drives to a local SOTA hill, walks a few yards and makes the requisite number of contacts counts as an activator.

These arguments seem to me all too reminiscent of the arguments used by many old timers against no-code licenses and novice / foundation licenses. What is it about this hobby that makes so many people want to make it an exclusive club rather than encouraging wider participation?

Monday, February 23, 2009

K3 vs K2

Bob Brown (N1CVX) posed an interesting question in his entry in my site's visitors' book. He wrote: "Would be especially interested in hearing some of your observations regarding the K3 vs. K2. Like you, I have both - but find myself lately gravitating back to the K2. Among other things, the audio seems 'cleaner' (the noise level seems lower), and the push-button crystal filters are simply easier to use. And, of course, the receive power requirements aren't really in the same ballpark (K2 clearly wins there). Though I feel like I should like the K3 more, I find myself reaching for the K2 ever more. Perhaps, I simply haven't figured out the K3 (one difference: running with AGC off in the K3 significantly reduces noise - and if the RF gain is at about 12 o'clock, I've not yet seen the K3 overload; K2 AGC off is a bit trickier in my experience)."

I'm not really the guy to ask about running with the AGC off. I'm not one of those people who tries to work someone down in the noise right next to someone else who is 40 over 9. I just tune around and try to work what I can hear. I did try turning the AGC off once and hurt my ears, so I turned it back on again and never repeated the experiment.

However, unlike Bob I have never felt the urge to revert to using my K2. I find the K3 audio cleaner and crisper. I put that down to the flatter (and wider, in the case of SSB) filters. I also find the razor-sharp selectivity of the K3 better in CW and digimodes to the gentler slopes of the K2's filters. I should point out that I have never had the opportunity to try the K2 DSP module. My K2 has the original analog audio filters, but I rarely used them.

The K2 certainly uses less energy on receive than the K3, but I'm not too bothered about it, and the K3 is still more efficient than many of its oriental competitors. As for the ease of use of the filters, I prefer the K3's rotary Shift and Width controls to the K2's buttons, that forced you to cycle through three different bandwidths when you wanted to go back one.

Perhaps there is something in the suggestion that the K3 sounds noisy when receiving a lot of signals at once, like at the sharp end of a pileup. There is an interesting thread on the Elecraft reflector right now in which some people have described the K3 audio when receiving a number of signals of similar strength as sounding like "a sea of mush". I haven't heard it myself, but I wonder if this - as well as Bob's observations - is the difference between digital and analog? It sounds reminiscent of the arguments that audiophiles had when CDs started to become popular. They were sure they could hear detail in a vinyl recording that was inaudible in the CD equivalent.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Slim Jim for 2m

One of the benefits of having an attic antenna farm is that making and putting up antennas is really cheap and easy. You don't have to bother making your antennas look nice or weather resistant, and erection (if you'll pardon the expression) may require nothing more elaborate than a drawing pin.

I am wanting to get more active on 2m and in this VHF black hole a quarter wave telescopic on the back of the FT-817 in the shack doesn't cut it. I looked at ads for collinears costing £60 and then decided why not try to make a 2m antenna?

A Slim Jim made out of 300 ohm flat twin is probably one of the easiest antennas to make. It takes about ten minutes for the first cut, based on a web page from Southgate Amateur Radio Club. Unfortunately my antenna analyzer told me that it was resonant on about 141 MHz. So it took me a further hour to prune off a little at a time from each end, as well as to try slightly different points for the feedpoint.

The final result had a total length of 57 inches (144.7cm) with the long section above the cutout 37 1/4 in (94.6cm) and the short stub section 18 3/4 in (47.6cm). The cutout length is one inch (2.5cm). The feedpoint is 3 1/2 in (9 cm) up from the bottom. The SWR was below 1.3:1 at just under 145.0 MHz when I decided that was good enough.

Erecting it in the attic was a simple matter of making a small hole at the top, threading a bit of string through, and securing it to a convenient beam in the attic with a drawing pin. I then found that the minimum SWR point had shifted up to about 146.25MHz, which was a bit annoying. The SWR at 145.0 MHz is 1.5:1 according to the antenna analyzer, although my SWR meter shows it as 2:1 and the FT-817 gives it three bars.

Still, it seems to work quite well despite this. I can get both GB3AS and GB3DG at S8, and made a contact with Richard G1JTD/P using a hand-held on Blencathra, about 14 miles away, for my first Summits On The Air contact. Not bad for an hour's work and a cost of about two quid.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dead repeaters

I live in a VHF black hole. There is almost no activity here on two metres. I can access two repeaters from home: GB3AS and GB3DG. Most of the time there is no activity on either them, and if you put a call through them it goes unanswered. It's a bit disappointing. One of the reasons I bought the TH-F7E was to get me to go out for a walk and get some exercise. The possibility of making some contacts while I was out was meant to be a bit of incentive. But there is no-one to talk to.

A few years ago the Isle of Man repeater GB3GD used to be a good signal from the hilltops round here, and through it you could have contacts with England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and, of course, the Isle of Man. But nowadays you can barely hear it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Digital delight

There was excitement followed by jubilation this morning in the G4ILO shack when I received an email from Wayne at Elecraft with the subject line "K3 FIRMWARE WITH DATA-MODE FIXES". As soon as I could, I extracted the firmware from the attached zip file and uploaded it to the K3. Then I attached the power meter and dummy load and transmitted a tuning tone using the Fldigi software. To my great delight, no matter where I clicked in the waterfall (within reason) the output power was exactly what I had selected using the power control. At last!

I get a certain amount of online flak for being hard on Elecraft. In fact, also in my inbox was an email from a ham in the States asking if my K3 was for sale, since I didn't have a lot of good to say about it. Actually I don't think it is a bad radio at all. I just don't look at it through rose-tinted spectacles that make me blind to its faults. And if those faults really bug me then I complain about them. I was quite amazed to see how many K3 owners had simply been ignoring the DATA mode and working digimodes using SSB instead of sticking their heads up and asking for DATA to be made to work right.

So kudos to Elecraft for listening to their customers and being willing to respond to their demands. There aren't many, if any, other radio manufacturers where you can exchange emails with the designers and get your wishes and feedback acted on. Of course, it would be better if the K3 didn't have faults in the first place. But it's getting better all the time. Soon, it may even be almost perfect!

Monday, February 16, 2009

How long is a quarter wave?

I always thought a quarter wave on two metres (145MHz) was about 19 inches. I've made 2m dipoles with 19in. elements and they seemed to work. I have one of those telescopic whips with a BNC connector to use with 2m handies, and the length when fully extended was 19in.

So I was a bit surprised when I plugged this telescopic into my FT-817 to note that it resulted in an SWR reading of three bars. After a bit of experimentation I croc-clipped a bit of stiff wire on to the end of the whip and found I could get the SWR down to no bars with a total length of about 22.5 inches. And not only did the SWR go down but the strength of a repeater I was monitoring came up.

I decided to look at the 19in whip using my AA-200 antenna analyzer. Sure enough, the dip in the SWR was some way to the right of 145MHz.

An antenna analyzer by itself doesn't provide much of a ground plane, so I attached a quarter wave counterpoise. This begged the question of what length to use. Since old habits die hard, I used 19 inches for this. There seemed to be some interaction between the length of the counterpoise and the SWR plot. Instead of a sharp null I got a broader valley with two dips. Nevertheless it still worked out that 22 or 23 inches gave a better match. Go figure!

I also thought that a 3/4 wave vertical will match to 50 ohms, so that a quarter wave on 2m will work on 70cm as well. Well, nobody has told my FT-817, which moans "HIGH SWR!" if I try to transmit on 70 into this 2m whip. My antenna analyzer doesn't go up above 200MHz, so I can't investigate this.

eQSL Gallery

Simon, 2E0HTS, has a very interesting and well illustrated blog about his radio activities, which includes a number of videos. I have particularly enjoyed the ones showing satellite contacts being made.

Simon also recently created an online gallery of all his eQSLs. It certainly beats printing them all out and sticking them on the wall! I wouldn't have the patience to download them all and then upload them again to a gallery. Perhaps the eQSL folks could add a gallery feature to their site, that members could link to.

Outdated information

The Internet is a fantastic resource for radio amateurs. Without it, it would be much harder to get information on different aspects of the hobby. But the amount of outdated information that has never been either removed or updated can result in a lot of time wasted.

I have been trying to find out about amateur FM satellites currently operation. My searches turned up several pages about the South African satellite Sunsat, one of which states that it "recently commenced operation." Another article on how to work your first satellite gives a detailed description of how to work Sunsat, despite the fact that it apparently ceased operation some time in 2001!

A search for the current ARISS operational schedule found pages listing a schedule for 2001, and another for 2005!

Is it too much to ask for people who post information on the web to take it down again when it is no longer valid, if it cannot be updated?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Finishing the K3

Let me make it clear right from the start that I do not have a grudge against Elecraft. I think Eric, Wayne and Lyle are great guys and enthusiastic amateurs running a radio business that has earned a good reputation for listening to its customers and providing good customer service. However it should be clear to anyone who is not wearing rose-tinted glasses that the K3 was an ambitious project that turned out to be a bit more difficult to complete than they first thought. More than 18 months after the original announcement, they are still struggling to make everything work as it should.

Unfortunately one runs the risk of upsetting the rose-tinted spectacle wearers if you make any remark that could be construed as criticism on Elecraft's email reflector. When someone posted an email asking about new product releases for Dayton, I replied that it might be a good idea to let them finish the K3 first. This resulted in a reply to the effect that adding the support for .5ppm accuracy of the TCXO was hardly important enough to hold everything else up.

I'll be honest, and admit that the lack of support for the high stability TCXO is not a major operational problem for me. But it is one of the features that was promised right from the start. The procedure for calibrating the oscillator is even documented in the manual. I paid $99 for this option, therefore I think I am entitled to receive it. Even a budget radio like the Icom IC-7200 claims .5ppm stability, and the K3 is supposed to be a high end radio.

But there are more important things that still don't work correctly, as of the date of this posting, and I think these should be addressed before Elecraft starts to ease off on the K3 and spend more time developing other products. The ones that immediately spring to mind are:
  • Failure of the ALC to limit initial speech peaks to the power level selected. This has been noted by several experienced UK amateurs who know what they are about. If you speak after a pause, or scratch the mic, or key the PTT with a creaky switch, the first 50ms or so of RF out can considerably exceed 100 watts, regardless of the power level set. This is a serious issue for many who use linear amps that generate the full legal output with less than 100W drive. Elecraft is currently working on it.
  • Excessive power output on data modes. When the audio level is set up as described in the manual, the output can be up to twice the power level requested. The only way to ensure that the output power is what you expect is to adjust the audio drive level from the computer. This is inconvenient at best, and means that you can't use the K3 remotely because you need to be able to see what the output power is with your own eyes, you can't rely on the power control to control it. Elecraft is working on this, too, but without success so far which is not confidence inspiring. Currently I am getting 65W out in data when 50W is selected, on most bands, but only 20W on 30m! But the power levels seem to change sometimes for no apparent reason.
  • Disabling the DSP transmit and receive equalization in data modes. Equalization is not required in these modes and can potentially distort the signal resulting in inferior copy. This has been requested on several occasions over the last year but as far as I know it is still "on the list" of things to be done.
Independent equalization settings for each voice mode would be nice. But I'm not asking for anything other radios don't have. I'd just like the K3 to be not inferior in this or any other respect to radios that cost a similar price.

The K3 is a great radio for CW, and the receiver is extremely good. But in certain other respects it is quite frankly not up to scratch, and I make no apology as a paying customer for expecting these issues to be addressed, not put on one side so that new products can be developed.

TH-F7E is here!

My TH-F7E is here. Unfortunately I can't play with it, as the first thing you have to do is charge the battery, which takes 6.5 hours. Well, I can always read the manual!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fake Diamond?

One reason why I decided to buy a Kenwood TH-F7E was that I thought it would be fun to try some FM satellite operation. I realized that I would need a better antenna for this than the supplied rubber duck, so after spending a lot of time comparing reviews of different dual band whip antennas with SMA connectors, and matching them with what was available at a reasonable cost here in the UK, I decided to order a Diamond SRH536 from PRJ Communicatons, who trade on eBay.

At least, that's what I thought I was ordering, though to be fair to PRJ, nowhere in their advertisement do they state that the antenna they sell is made by Diamond. However, the model number and spec are identical, and the antenna looks the same.

When I received the antenna the packaging states that it is made by Sharman multiCOM Ltd and the model number is WTA-SRH536. The name Diamond is missing from the antenna base as well. So I am guessing that it is not made by the same manufacturer, and its performance may not be the same.

As I am still awaiting the TH-F7E I decided to try the antenna out on my FT-817 using an adapter. The SWR is not great - three bars at full power on either band. Performance on 2m seems to be about 3dB down on a quarter wave telescopic whip, and also down on the FT-817's stock rubber duck. This is the difference between accessing a local repeater and not accessing it.

My SRH536 appears to work better on 70cm than the telescopic whip shortened to 5/8 of a wavelength, though that is based entirely on a field strength meter measurement - there are no 70cm repeaters within reach of this location. I couldn't compare it with the FT-817 rubber duck because the radio complains of high SWR whenever it is used.

I'm disappointed with the performance on 2m, which is the uplink frequency for the satellites, and wonder whether a different whip antenna would have performed better. I know that a short dual-band hand-held Yagi is the best solution for portable satellite operation. But that isn't portable enough for me, so I really wanted the best performing dual band whip antenna to use with a small HT.

Waters and Stanton customer service

On Wednesday I ordered a Kenwood TH-F7E from Waters and Stanton. I ordered it from their eBay shop since they were advertising a lower price than on their website. A few minutes later I ordered from them an earpiece/mic for the same radio. Within an hour I received two notifications to say "Your eBay item has been shipped."

On Thursday morning the earpiece/mic arrived by Royal Mail, delivered by our postwoman. I expected that the radio would come later on by van, but it did not appear that day.

Today, Friday, an antenna I ordered from a different eBay trader arrived in the post. Still no radio. So I emailed Waters and Stanton through eBay and about an hour later received the following terse reply: "sorry slow progress it will ship today". Pretty disappointing, as I'd been looking forward to having the TH-F7E for the weekend.

This isn't the first time I've had shoddy service from W&S. A couple of years ago I ordered an MFJ magnetic loop from them. I didn't hear anything for weeks, and no money was taken, so I decided they must have lost my order and I could probably manage without the antenna anyway. About three months later, a huge square box arrived. I accepted the antenna, and am quite pleased with it, but when I complained to W&S I just got a feeble apology that "we should have notifed you it was out of stock."

Waters and Stanton are supposedly the biggest amateur radio dealer in the UK, but with this kind of attitude to customer service I'm very surprised.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Begging bowl in the Elecraft list

As the owner of an Elecraft K2, K3, T1 and a few other bits and pieces, I am a long-time subscriber to and active participant in the Elecraft email list. In the last couple of weeks I have noticed that appended to the bottom of every email is a note stating that the list is hosted by and a request to support it by donating. It is probably no coincidence that this started happening shortly after the transfer of and from Al Waller K3TKJ, who is retiring from the business, to Scott KA9FOX.

Now I have no objection to people asking for donations when providing a service, although if the demands are persistent enough I would question their right to call the service "free". However I gave up using Al's painfully sluggish servers several years ago because I could get a much better service from a commercial web host for less than the $15 a year I used to donate.

I feel that I am "supporting" the Elecraft email reflector by having purchased several thousand dollars' worth of Elecraft products over the last few years. If Elecraft chooses to use a "free" service to host its reflector then that's its business not mine. I don't think it looks very professional having someone else's begging message at the foot of every message in your official support forum. Whatever Elecraft's pretensions to become the next Ten-Tec, it still behaves a lot like the QRP kit maker it started as.

Weather Satellite Images

I used to receive and decode weather satellite images from the NOAA APT satellites and publish the images on this site, but I gave up about a year ago when I wanted to improve the ham radio antennas in my small attic and there was nowhere left to put the QFH. Out of the blue, I received an email from Paul Dransfield at the local high school, Cockermouth School, who informed me that they are receiving APT images there. A new satellite, NOAA 19, has just been launched, but unfortunately it is transmitting on the highest channel, close to the local pagers, and he is experiencing bad interference.

I wasn't able to help him with this, other than to point out that the receiver he is using, the R2FX, is rather poor in that respect. But visitors to my site who miss my images might like to see the ones Cockermouth School is publishing on their rather fine Weather Centre website.

Ham apps for Macs

On the Elecraft email reflector, Paul N1SEZ laments the fact that Mac users are used to not having much choice when it comes to applications. It's the same under Linux, which is one of the main reasons I switched back to Windows (albeit with gritted teeth.)

It's a pity more amateur developers don't use Lazarus, a Pascal-based free software development tool that can create programs for Windows, Linux and Mac OS from the same source code. My Elecraft logging software KComm was created using it. I have compiled versions for both Windows and Linux. All it needs to create a Mac version is for someone with a Mac and enough developer smarts to install and use Lazarus on it to compile it, or for someone to give me a Mac!

Any takers?

Satellites collide

I see in the news that two satellites, one Russian and one American, have collided over Siberia. "The Russian satellite was out of control" claims the Americans. Of course. It's always the other driver's fault. Hopefully they will be able to claim on their insurance.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Using Top Band for a local natter

Last night I had a chat with Jim, G3ZPD, on Top Band. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think, except that Jim only lives three or four miles down the road from me and I was chatting to him using the FT-817ND running 5W to the Wonder Wand L-Whip. Who needs two metres? As there is a hill between us, I'm not certain that signals would have been as solid if we had tried to use VHF anyway.

Templates and stylesheets

It has taken me several hours and I still don't have the blog pages looking exactly like the rest of my website. It really is incredibly difficult formatting pages as you want them. I can understand why most people just use a standard template.

At least this is a job I only have to do once. But if I had known it was going to be this hard I probably would never have started!

New blog

I have decided to add a blog to the site. This is my first posting. We'll see how it goes!