Sunday, September 30, 2012

AlexLoop gets an airing

Several of my readers have been patiently waiting to know how the AlexLoop and KX3 have been performing together. I am interested too, but I'm not yet well enough to attempt any outings with a rucksack full of radio gear. Today it was raining and I wouldn't have wanted to go out anyway. So I decided to operate portable from inside the warm, dry shack instead.

The AlexLoop was assembled, mounted on its tripod and stood in a corner of the shack. The position is far from ideal: my shack is really small and the antenna was too close to the shelves containing books, magazines and equipment. I could only get an SWR of around 5 to 1 on the higher bands. I used the KX3's built-in AMU to take care of it. That's not how a magnetic loop is supposed to be used, but in this situation there's no alternative.

The KX3 was run off the shack power supply so the power out was the full 10 watts. I hope to find a battery that will provide enough volts that I can run 10 watts in the field, but as I don't yet have one this was a little bit of cheating!

The first band I tried was 12 metres. Here, Valery, ER3ZZ in Moldova came back to my first call and gave me a 5 and 5 report. Easy peasy.

Next stop was 10 metres, where Yakov RA9XAU quickly replied to my call. Another 5 and 5 was logged. Can, TA3GO was next in the log. This time a 5 and 9 was received.

One EA9 didn't want to talk to me as I wasn't DX. That would actually have been an all-time new country for me, as I think Ceuta-Melilla is a separate entity from Spain. Victor, RV3RM was working other G stations and gave me a 5 and 8 report.

After lunch I spent some time listening to, and attempting to call, Stateside stations. Some were very strong but I couldn't be heard over the pile of stations calling them. That would have been quite a scoop -  to cross the Atlantic with QRP and a portable antenna. I heard Yuri UT9MZ working Europe so I called him and 5 and 9 reports were exchanged.

I spent some time listening on other bands. Peter I5CTE was a massive signal - genuinely peaking more than S9+20dB on the KX3's S meter. on 15m. Italy is a good direction for me, for some reason. We had a proper chat lasting several minutes and Peter told me that my QRP signal peaked over 5 and 9 at times.

My very subjective conclusion is that the AlexLoop feels no different in operation than my attic multiband dipole and MFJ magnetic loop. I didn't even feel at a particular disadvantage from the low power, except perhaps when I was attempting to work USA stations. The AlexLoop is a very good antenna and together with the Elecraft KX3 make for a potent combination, especially if you can take advantage of the KX3's full 10 watts output.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Ten watts on ten metres

The trouble with having 100 watts at your disposal is that the temptation is there to use it if the going gets tough. So I thought I would avoid temptation and give the KX3 an airing using my attic antennas.
My first contact was on 20m SSB with CT1DQV near the Spanish border. I then popped up to 10 metres. The first contact on Ten was with a mobile station, Steve K0STP/M. Next was Todd KC4TVZ in the prettily named Flowery Branch in the state of Georgia.
After that I called another Steve, K3PIN in Philadelphia. Steve was using a K3 with an amp. On hearing I was using a KX3 he reduced power and was still 5 and 9. Steve complimented me on the audio of the KX3 and played some back. I thought it sounded great, with the KX3's compressor doing a great job of turning my rather soft voice into a punchy signal.

The final contact of the session was with Joe N2CEP in New Jersey. QSB caused part of my over to fade out but it was still a solid contact. It's good now and again to remind yourself what can be achieved with low power!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Double-hop Es?

Thursday brought more great 10m propagation. Take a look at the screen-grab below.

10m WSPR signals received on G4ILO's attic dipole
The bright trace at the top right is the 10 watt signal of W3CSW at 11dB over noise. That is one of the strongest WSPR traces I've ever seen, and definitely the strongest signal from a station outside Europe. I think it has to be double-hop Sporadic-E propagation. It is interesting that my previous spot of the same station was 11dB below the noise. My 2 watts produced a positive result from his side as well.

Tuning around the 10m band and there was not the wall of loud signals that such good propagation would suggest. A couple of good old boys from Mississippi and Tennessee were chewing the rag, oblivious to the fact that their signals were bending S meter needles thousands of miles away. But apart from those few stations there was an absence of signals. A station I worked called CQ with no takers for some time afterwards. I tried CQing myself, with no result. To me this also shows that the enhanced propagation was very selective, supporting the theory that it was Sporadic-E propagation.

10m signals spotted by G4ILO, 27/9/2012
I did make a couple more SSB contacts but once again the digital sector provided the best returns for my efforts.

There is yet more interesting 10m propagation today. I have already spotted stations from VK2 and from Thailand. It's a shame you can't WSPR and operate on the same band at the same time. Or rather, it's a shame that I can't. So I'll switch between modes, running WSPR when I'm not actually in the shack and able to use the keyboard or mic.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

10m wide open!

Ten metres has been wide open today. Stations have been heard or worked in just about all directions. I ran 2 watts of WSPR during the periods that I wasn't in the shack and the program screen resembled 30m!

WSPR spots on 10m at G4ILO, 26/9/2012
After a short period of WSPR I switched to voice mode and made a nice SSB contact with Ken, JA2FJP near Nagoya (nothing to do with cheap Chinese antennas!) After a rubber-stamp contact with R100BG I found phone a bit hard going with all the QRM and pileups so I retreated to the more restful pastime of working digimodes.

Digital stations hrd/wkd at G4ILO, 26/9/2012
I made one more Japanese contact - with JI4POR - and made my first-ever China contact - with BG8GAM - all on PSK31. I heard several more stations from those countries and also one from Korea (South, presumably) and one from Indonesia but didn't manage to work them. Better luck next time!

A session of calling CQ produced an endless succession of Russian stations. Where do they all come from? There is no chance of working interesting DX unless you search and pounce on the DX stations. Even when calling a specific DX station I was being called by Russian stations! Why do they do it? I lost the chance of a couple of first contacts because of it.

As the afternoon wore on many stations from North America and Canada started to be in evidence. My final PSK31 contact for the day was with Bob KZ0G in Missouri which is probably a first for that state for me.

Not a bad haul for a few hours listening / operating using a maximum of 40 watts PSK31 to an attic dipole. I wish there were more days like that!

Sunday, September 23, 2012


I have been itching to try venturing further afield and thought we might go down to the river Derwent at Papcastle. I carried the Kenwood TH-D72 on my belt to track the walk using APRS and see how far we got. When we reached the path down to the river we saw a paper sign saying "Derventio." Olga thought - wisely with hindsight - that it would not be a good idea to walk down to the river as we would then have to climb back up again. We walked a bit further along the road and looked down towards the river where we could see substantial excavations were taking place. This looks like being a major archeological site. One day when I'm just a bit fitter we will go down and take a closer look.

We continued our walk with a loop through the village of Papcastle, then returned home the way we had come. On the way I heard and worked Richard G1JTD portable on the summit of Great Calva, and Liz M6EPW on my local SOTA summit of Watch Hill. That will undoubtedly be the first summit I will attempt but at the moment it is still too far - about 3 miles from our front door.

I was pretty tired and very sweaty by the time we got back to Cockermouth but I resisted Olga's suggestion that we finish the excursion by taxi. Although what we had done was an easy walk by normal standards this was my most ambitious outing since finishing my treatment.

When we got home I could see that our track had been perfectly recorded by APRS. I was happy with that - and with the two contacts I made. I had only been using one of those stubby antennas about 5 cm long which are a couple of dB down on a rubber duck.

I saved the track as a GPX file and then produced a report using one of the online GPX report generators. According to the report we had walked exactly 4 kilometres. 1.5km of this had been climbing for a total ascent of 87m. To me it felt as if I had just climbed Scafell Pike!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Beacon update

I have updated the beacon data file for VOAProp today. The NCDXF/IARU beacons in Kenya (5Z4B) and Argentina (LU4AA) are back on the air after a long absence.

The thought crossed my mind: Now we have WSPR and remote beacon skimmers covering all bands, does anyone use these beacons any more?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Interesting conditions on 15m this afternoon.

Amazing where 2 watts of WSPR can end up!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

PSK31 to Amman, Jordan

Conditions have been good recently on 15m. On that band I have a choice of two antennas - the multiband dipole or the magnetic loop. The multiband dipole doesn't actually have elements for 15m so on that band I think the 40m element must do the work. The K3 ATU is needed to produce a good match.

There is quite a big difference in performance between the two antennas on 15m. The magnetic loop, surprisingly, has a higher noise level but it also produces stronger signals on some stations. On other stations the dipole seems best. It's a pity I don't have a sub-receiver in the K3. It would be interesting to try diversity reception one day.
Amman, Jordan
Whenever a band is open you can usually find some PSK31 activity even if you can't hear any phone. That was the case yesterday on 15 metres when I worked Nart, JY5IB from Amman, Jordan. That's an all-time new country for me so I was very pleased to get him into the log. On this occasion it was the magnetic loop that did the job.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


The magazine Practical Wireless is celebrating 80 years of publication this year and has a permit to use the special call GB80PW. I don't usually make a point of hunting for special callsigns but as a reader of the magazine I particularly wanted to work this one which I knew would be on today it being the publication date of the October issue and the actual 80th anniversary day.

I switched the K3 to 40 metres which I thought the station would be operating on and and began tuning down the band. Lo and behold, GB80PW was the first station I heard, on 7120kHz, coming in at 5 and 7 at the top of the QSB. I switched the magnetic loop from 30m APRS duty over to the K3 so I had a choice of either the loop or the multiband dipole. Switching between the two there was almost nothing to choose between the two antennas but the magnetic loop just seemed to have the advantage by a whisker so that is what I chose to use.

I cranked the power up to 100 watts. After my first call it was clear that Rob had quite a pile-up of people wanting to work him and he couldn't pick anything out of the pile. For the second call I gave my call twice, once phonetically, and added "... in Cockermouth, Cumbria." Straight away Rob came back with "the station in Cockermouth, Cumbria." I thought that would get his attention as the magazine's technical editor G1TEX comes from here! I went on to have a very nice, if brief, chat with Rob before letting him get back to the pile.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Programming again

Recently I downloaded the latest version of Lazarus, the rapid application development tool that uses Free Pascal. It's a clone of Delphi but open source and cross platform. I've used it for hobby program development for the last few years, when I was no longer able to get free copies of Delphi. But now I actually prefer Lazarus to Delphi. It's like how Delphi used to be.

The Lazarus IDE
In Lazarus I have been making a few changes to my logging program for Elecraft transceivers, KComm. Programming again marks another milestone in my return to normality, though in all honesty the time it takes and the number of stupid mistakes I make show that my brain still isn't firing on all cylinders.

Why write my own logging program when there are so many good alternatives available? For one thing it is the same motivation that makes people build their own gear. For another, it allows me to use a program that works the way I want. If I want a certain feature then I get on and implement it. By limiting its use to the Elecraft community I avoid the troubles encountered by, say, the developers of Ham Radio Deluxe: the problem of dealing with thousands of users. There are probably only a handful of users of KComm, but that's all right because I'm mainly developing it for my own use.

KComm can speak Russian
An example of what writing my own software allows me to do can be seen in the screenshot above. KComm supports user choice of character set for digital modes. So that if someone sends me a message in Russian (for instance) I can see what they sent (and copy and paste it into Google Translate, since I don't speak Russian.)

This should not be taken as a sign that I will start writing new programs again. I'm just making a few changes to programs I use myself. I have downloaded the source code to the last released version of JT65-HF (which happens to have been developed in Lazarus too.) Perhaps one day I'll see if I can make a few tweaks to that!

Friday, September 07, 2012

Which ham sites would you really miss?

This morning I received an email to warn me my subscription to will run out next month. Forgetful as I am becoming, I thought that this time I'd better get on and renew it right away before I forget.

The amount asked for Bronze membership is $20.00 US. But if you think that's too much you can pay any amount, even as little as $5. You could probably get away with $1 but surely nobody is that cheap?

Bronze membership is really worth it because it allows you to use your own QSL design. Free members only get a plain text card which is pretty boring.

I'm glad eQSL allows free membership because it's better to have as many hams as possible registered with the system (and hopefully take the steps needed to become Authenticity Guaranteed) even if they don't pay a cent.  According to eQSL nearly 90% of members never donate any money. I'm not very good at mental arithmetic but if every user paid something then the minimum membership fee would be about $2 a year I think.

It's always tempting to freeload, to put off donating until another day, but I think everyone should donate to help keep running the sites they use most.

Here's my list of sites I use most every day and would really miss:
There are a couple of omissions that may surprise you. But those big sites you're thinking of must make enough from advertising to get along without my help. I probably visit them less than once a week, so I wouldn't miss them as much as the sites in my list.

Which ham radio sites would you really miss if they closed tomorrow?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Icom launches a new handy

Icom ID-51
Icom has demonstrated a prototype of its latest dual-band handheld transceiver - the ID-51A. (The European version will be the ID-51E.)

Covering 2m and 70cm, the ID-51 can also receive FM broadcasts and AM short wave radio. It supports D-Star (of course) as well as FM mode, and boasts a large 128x104 pixels display, the largest yet seen on an amateur radio handheld rig.

Like its smaller sibling the UHF-only ID-31, the ID-51A/E has a built-in GPS which can be used for track logging to a micro-SD card. The storage card can also be used to record incoming and outgoing voice traffic. Very useful - not!

Disappointingly though not unexpectedly, this new Icom does not support APRS, though it presumably supports D-Star's rather lame version, D-PRS.

The ID-51 is being billed as the most technically advanced handheld, though it looks like you will be paying a lot for features - like the GPS and short wave receiver - for which most hams will have little use. I doubt that the large display - never mind the GPS - will do much to extend battery life, though Icom will offer an extended battery pack (at the usual inflated Icom prices no doubt.) However it is nice to see a manufacturer breaking the mould for HT user interfaces which have changed little for the last 20 years.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Tuning up an NA-666

The Nagoya VHF/UHF antennas made in China and available from sellers like 409Shop are popular and cheap, but I think they leave a lot to be desired in the quality control department.

A couple of years ago I bought a Nagoya NA-666 with a regular male SMA connector for use with my Kenwood and Yaesu rigs. I was impressed with the performance of this antenna, and with the fact that it achieved a true 1:1 SWR at bang on 145MHz.

So when I ordered another antenna of the same model but with a BNC connector to work with all my HTs (which have now all been fitted, where needed, with SMA to BNC adapters) I was surprised to find that its performance was a disappointment.

I am well aware of the existence of fake antennas on eBay and have bought more than my fair share of them, but this looked to all intents and purposes to be a genuine Nagoya (silver on black label on the base and a serial numbered Nagoya hologram on the pack.) It had been purchased from 409Shop, a reputable seller. However, when tested on my RigExpert AA-200 antenna analyzer the nice sharp SWR curve dipped to a minimum at 135MHz - 10MHz too low. The SWR at 145MHz was off the scale. Ho hum.

As any ham knows, if an antenna tunes too low in frequency the solution is to cut bits off. After a bit of a struggle the rubber end cap came off and I gingerly pruned about a tenth of an inch . The antenna analyzer showed the minimum SWR point had moved up 1MHz. So I carried on with the cycle of cut, test, cut, test until I had achieved a much more reasonable SWR at 145MHz.
Final SWR curve of the shortened antenna

As I approached 145MHz the antenna was now quite noticeably shorter and I was concerned that I may have passed the point at which the improvement due to a better match was counteracted by the reduced size of the radiating element. I may have passed that point but it is very difficult to make reliable and repeatable field strength measurements. Therefore I didn't make the final cut which would have brought the SWR (shown above) to 1.0:1 at exactly 145MHz.

Field strength measurements and on-air tests led me to the conclusion that the 7-inch shortened NA-666 performed 2-3dB better than my 8.5 inch long NA-701. It beat all the stock rubber ducks by another 2 or 3 dB. The only antennas that outperformed it were a quarter wave telescopic (19 in long) an even longer Nagoya NA-767, a nicely made but unbranded "RH-770" and a "Diamond" RH-205 5/8 wave telescopic, all of which are really too long and cumbersome to use with a small radio like the Baofeng.

Using the shortened NA-666 I have had solid simplex contacts with 5 and 9 reports over distances of several miles and can even access a repeater 50 miles away from inside the shack. So I'm pretty pleased with the result.