Wednesday, May 30, 2012

First 6m Sporadic-E

On Sunday afternoon, while the WPX contest was still on, DX Sherlock sent me an email to say that there was a possibility of Sporadic-E propagation on 4m from my location. Getting equipped for 4m is something I'm going to have to leave for another year - right now I'm not steady enough on my feet to go clambering about in the attic making additions to my antenna farm. But I do have a 6m antenna, though it's only a dipole. The KX3 was plugged into it, so I had a tune around 6m, heard a few stations and managed to work OK2OV with 59 reports both ways. Not bad for 10W to an attic dipole.

Station of OK2OV, Czech Republic (from
I was quite tired after my session in the CQ WW WPX contest so I called it a day. The following morning DX Sherlock sent another email alert to say there was possible Sporadic-E on 6m. I quickly switched the KX3 on and sure enough, there was a big Sporadic-E opening in progress. I made 18 contacts in all into France, Spain, Italy and Slovenia and heard OK2OV for a second time. Some of the signals were absolutely enormous and I received 59+ signal reports. This was with 10W of SSB to a dipole, remember.

Hopefully there will be more Sporadic-E fun before the end of summer.


Last weekend was the weekend of the CW version of the CQ WW WPX contest. I am not a serious competitor as it isn't really practical with attic antennas but I like to come on for the big contests to give away a few points and see what I can work. (Perhaps they should create a special category for stations with indoor antennas. :) )

I only managed about an hour on Saturday and a couple of hours on Sunday as I easily get tired out. But I thought it would be an opportunity to put the KX3 through its paces. Although I don't plan on sending in any more than a check log, when operating QRP I like to adhere to QRP power levels, so I limited the KX3's output to 5 watts.

Other bloggers have written that conditions were good for the contest, but I thought they were poorer than in previous years. True, there was some activity on 10m this year. But on 20m it seemed I spent more time searching and less time pouncing than on previous occasions. And I didn't hear any US stations at all. Perhaps I was just operating at the wrong time.

The KX3 performed superbly hooked up to KComm, my simple logging program for Elecraft transceivers. I logged 30 QSOs with 29 prefixes and 13 countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. My short term memory is abominable - I forget a serial number the moment I stop to send my serial number to the other station, so I really appreciated KComm's ability to read the text output by the KX3's built-in Morse decoder and print it up on the screen.

So that was the CQ WW WPX CW 2012 for me. Hopefully next year I'll be able to make a more respectable show.

W&S to sell Elecraft

UK ham radio dealer Waters and Stanton plc has announced that they will be exclusive resellers of Elecraft products in the UK. This will be a great benefit to those who like to try before they buy or are just nervous about buying from abroad via the internet.

I have been buying direct from Elecraft for 12 years and have never had a problem apart from the high cost of shipping and the courier's tax collection fee, both of which make buying some of the smaller Elecraft kits and modules rather expensive. But then, I have been lucky so far never to have had a faulty radio that had to be shipped back to California. Touch wood.

Elecraft has said that UK hams will still be able to buy direct if they want to.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

First impressions

Good conditions and a new toy to play with has resulted in a lack of time to write about them. Since my last post I have spent a lot of time getting to know the Elecraft KX3. For those of you on the waiting list all I can say is: it's worth the wait. If you aren't, then what are you waiting for?

The KX3 really is the ultimate portable rig. It knocks the FT-817 into a cocked hat. It looks and feels like a baby K3. The only reservation I would have about its adoption by diehard SOTA enthusiasts who go out in all weathers is that it is rather an expensive radio to subject to the worst of the British climate. But as a fair weather walker I would have no such reservations. In fact I have already got a plastic toolbox with a foam insert into which I will soon be making a KX3-sized hole!

If you are a K3 owner then the KX3's similarity to its parent means you will know what to expect. But there are also things where familiarity to the K3 is not an advantage, where functions are not in the same place. The KX3's front panel is a little bit shorter and quite a lot less wide, but the same number of functions have been crammed into it. All the buttons have dual functions depending on whether they are pressed or long-pressed. The radio is powered on and off by pressing two buttons at once. Some of the knobs have three functions depending on whether you press them first or long-press the button below.

If it sounds complicated then it really isn't and you'll quickly get the hang of it. The only thing I can't understand is the decision to make AGC Slow/Fast/Off an option on the configuration menu. The AGC button on my K3 gets a fair bit of use, mainly to turn AGC off when operating PSK with a wide bandwidth. But I don't plan on using the KX3 for data modes much so this isn't an issue I'm particularly bothered with.

The KX3 designers have made a few unusual choices of interface sockets, notably a 4-pole 3.5mm jack for the microphone. These jacks are a bit hard to obtain but don't worry: you probably won't need to. Four poles are only needed to support the up/down buttons of the Elecraft MH3 mic. You can actually plug a computer headset with its two 3-pole 3.5mm jacks into the phones and mic sockets (RF immunity not guaranteed.) You won't have a PTT but you can use VOX instead or the XMIT button on the front panel. Ideal for windy hilltops (is there any other sort?

Some SOTA operators may be put off by the lack of 2m coverage. Elecraft has promised 2m will be available as an option, as it is for the K3. Hopefully it will perform better than the ubiquitous hand-helds and even the FT-817 when subjected to the large out of band signals experienced on British hilltops.

What many people will want to know is: what is the receiver performance like? "Better than an FT-817" But that would surprise no-one and in any case is only an educated guess. I don't have the antennas or QTH to subject the KX3 to challenging input levels. All I can say is that the KX3 receiver is quiet and delivers clear and open-sounding audio. Just like a K3, in fact.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Spot on

A few days ago a package arrived from the USA. Fellow bloggers Eldon, WA0UWH and Jeff, KO7M sent me a Parallax Propeller board with one of Eldon's TCVCXO modules on it. I'm very grateful to Jeff and Eldon for sending this board as I'm not up to making something like that at the moment and as I found a few weeks ago the oscillator on the Propeller prototyping board is not thermally stable enough for WSPR use.

After a few modifications I installed my WSPR beacon code on to the board and this was the result:

My signal was spot-on frequency and there was zero drift. I let it run for several transmit cycles and there was a change of just 1Hz as the components warmed up. I am more than satisfied with that, so hopefully there will be more progress with the beacon project in due course.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A wonderful surprise

A couple of weeks ago I received an email to inform me that a 5lb package was on its way to me by UPS from Elecraft. As I had not ordered a KX3 or indeed anything else from Elecraft recently I wondered if I was the winner of a competition I had forgotten about or whether it was just my lucky day. I accepted the explanation from Elecraft Sales that it was just finger trouble at their end - those drop-down auto-complete lists can sometimes be a bit too helpful - and thought no more about it.

This morning the postman knocked on the door and handed over a package that looked as if it weighed about 5 pounds...

KX3 S/N 110
Actually it was not a complete surprise as by then I had been let into the secret. A fellow Elecraft reflector subscriber, blog follower and someone with whom I have often corresponded about Elecraft and other matters (who wishes to remain anonymous) suggested to Elecraft that, in his words, "in appreciation for all of your constructive criticisms and suggestions over the years of how to improve Elecraft (and other) ham radio products that a fully accessorized KX-3 arriving on your doorstep would be a pleasant surprise." It was, you better believe it!

Wayne and Eric were in on the conspiracy, as was a friend of my benefactor who was passing through the UK on his way home from the US and carried the radio across the Atlantic in his hand luggage before consigning it to the Royal Mail for the final leg of its journey.

I can hardly find the words to describe how delighted I am at this wonderful surprise. As I have written before, I didn't want to even think about ordering a KX3 until orders were being fulfilled off-the-shelf because my health situation makes it impossible to plan very far ahead. My wish is to "beat the bugger" and survive as long as possible, but having a brain tumour is like having a time-bomb in your head with no idea what the fuse is set to.

A trio of Elecrafts
For the time being, Elecraft KX3 serial number 110 joins its two older siblings: K3 s/n 222 and K2 s/n 392 in my shack. But it will be a constant reminder and incentive to get fit and well enough for some QRPTTF operation. Thanks to everyone involved in sending me this wonderful little radio.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Happy birthday to me

Today is my 59th birthday. I opened my inbox to find several greetings messages from various websites and forums. Ah, you're never without a friend in cyberspace!

Olga and I are not planning any special celebration today, though Olga is such a great cook that I prefer eating in anyway. I'm still off wine, despite still having a cupboard full of the stuff from when I was a member of a mail order wine club. At the moment I have enough trouble staying upright when sober. Surprisingly, I really don't miss it (wine, I mean, not staying upright.)

But today deserves celebration as the birthday doctors told me I'd have a slim chance of seeing. Pah! Doctors! What do they know anyway?

There's no reason why you, my loyal readers, can't have a drink on my behalf, though. So here's hoping I'll still be hamming, blogging and beating the bugger in 365 days time, and many more days after that.

Thanks for all your support, and for reading my blog.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Relay GB

Thanks to Rob, G0JSO for letting me know about a charity event in aid of what I hope you'll agree is an extremely good cause. Relay GB is a round Britain relay event attempting to break a world record and raise money for Brain Tumour UK, a leading charity committed to fighting and raising awareness about brain tumours. Rob organized and ran the leg from Caldbeck to Kirkpatrick-Fleming with some of his club mates.

Find out more or make a donation on the Relay GB website.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

KX3 on its way?

I opened my mailbox this morning to discover the email that hundreds if not thousands of hams worldwide have been waiting for - a shipping notification from UPS to say that a 5lb package from Elecraft is on its way!

A 5lb package from Elecraft? What could that be? Ah. it must be the KX3 I didn't order.

That's right. Didn't order. I haven't ordered a KX3! I'm not saying I'm never going to, but I am not even going to think about it until such time as orders are fulfilled off the shelf. At the moment I believe that the lead time for an Elecraft KX3 ordered today is about 4 months. These days I just don't plan that far ahead.

I forwarded the email to Elecraft Sales in the hope that they can figure out who this notification should really have gone to and why it came to me. But for a brief moment this morning I thought this was going to be my lucky day!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Look, No IP

A couple of years ago we changed our broadband Internet service provider. The new provider did not support a static IP address. I have a QNAP network attached storage device which is primarily used for backup. However, it's actually a Linux box that runs the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) software which I occasionally use as a web server for experimentation. I sometimes need it to be accessible from the internet. So I opened a free account with DynDNS in order to access the server using a host name.

Some time last year after I came out of hospital I started to receive emails from DynDNS informing me that my account was being disabled due to abuse and inviting me to open a paid account. As far as I could tell, the only "abuse" was that my script to inform DynDNS of my current IP address was running more than the number of times DynDNS permitted. I had no idea why it should start misbehaving like that and cynically thought it was just a ploy to convert free users to paid subscriptions. I was in no frame of mind to deal with the problem, nor to dig into my wallet, so I simply closed the account and had done with it. This would have had the effect of breaking some APRS-related functions on my site but I had other things of greater concern to think about.

A few days ago I decided to look into why the CDGVHF ANSRVR group was not sending any messages. ANSRVR is an APRS tool used to send APRS messages to groups of interested people. CDGVHF stands for Cumbria Dumfries and Galloway VHF group and it is intended to disseminate alerts about VHF and UHF openings in the Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway area (grid square IO84.) It's essentially a filter that acts on emails sent out by DX Sherlock and converts them to APRS messages addressed to ANSRVR. I could, of course, just have the emails sent to my smartphone. But it's more fun to make use of ham radio!

I looked for an alternative free service to DynDNS and decided to try No-IP Free. As far as I can tell, No-IP won't accuse you of abuse for updating your IP address too frequently, in fact its client software appears to do this every few minutes which seems like plenty. It does have a requirement that you confirm your account is being used once a month, which could be a bit annoying, but I'll see what happens at the next update.

In the meantime, CDGVHF is now sending out propagation alerts again. To receive alerts of VHF and UHF openings in the IO84 area just send an APRS message to ANSRVR with the text CQ CDGVHF. You'll need to repeat this from time to time as the server unsubscribes you from the group after 8 hours of no activity, unless you are using KJ4ERJ's APRSISCE software which can maintain your subscription for you.

Friday, May 04, 2012

No GO at G4ILO

From May 5 until June 10 British amateur radio stations that have been granted permission to do so may use the prefix GQ, MQ and 2Q0 in place of their regular G, M or 2x0. For the duration of the 2012 Olympic Games British amateurs may use GO, MO and 2O0 instead of their normal calls.

As a sport-hating republican (and I don't mean the American political party of the same name) G4ILO will continue to use the callsign that has declared me to be an ENGLISH amateur radio operator for the last 30-odd years. So now you know!