Wednesday, December 21, 2011

KJ6TFT's First QSO, My First QSL

My daughter's call sign showed up in the FCC ULS database today.

First QSO

I sent her out to the driveway with my 2M HT while I sat inside with my Kenwood TS-700A base station. I had a yagi up on the roof, in horizontal orientation so that I could try out SSB, but I figured at a distance of fifty feet or so orientation wouldn't matter much. I'd set the HT to the simplex frequency 147.510, and had been listening in on that frequency on the base station for a while to see if anyone else was using it.

The frequency was clear, my daughter was outside the house a way, I waved through the window to let her know to go ahead. She called me just fine, "AG6HU this is KJ6TFT." It came in clear on the Kenwood, I came back, "KJ6TFT, this is AG6HU. You're coming in five by nine."

"That's great! KJ6TFT."

"Do you want to give me a signal report?"

"Oh, yeah. You're loud and clear. KJ6TFT."

"Thanks. QSL?"

"What's that? KJ6TFT."

"It's confirmation of contact. Do you agree to confirm our contact?"

"Oh. I thought that was QSO. KJ6TFT."

"That's a communication. Like, Q Signal Out. It can be confusing. So, QSL?"

"Yeah, QSL. KJ6TFT."

"Great. Thanks. AG6HU clear."

"KJ6TFT clear."

You can read my daughter's account of her first contact here.

First QSL

After our communication I pulled up GIMP to make a special one-off QSL card for her. I printed it out on 110# cover stock and coated it with a clear fixative. That stiffened it up nicely. Here's my quick and dirty one-off QSL card:

AG6HU Radio to the World (or at least to the driveway.)

Afterward, I let her know that she didn't have to give her call sign on every transmission. I also had a quick look at the Kenwood. The antenna wasn't plugged in at all! Worrying about polarization is pretty meaningless when you're putting out RF from nothing more than an SO-239 plug. Still, we made the contact. But next time I think I'll at least stick a piece of hangar wire into the plug. ;)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

She Passed the Amateur Radio Test

My oldest daughter, Amaryllis, went to take the Amateur Radio Exam this Saturday. I went along, for moral support and because I already knew the way to the exam site. Plus, she got to study while I drove.

She passed the Technician Class exam handily, and went on to take the General Class exam. She fell short of passing it by a few questions, but did well considering she hadn't studied beyond the Tech question pool and subjects. Maybe she'll want to upgrade this spring, I'm putting together an HF station to deal with the fact my house is in a gully surrounded by 100 foot tall VHF-eating trees. I suspect she'll want more HF privileges once she gets a taste of it.

She's blogged about her experiences here.

I took her up on the roof with me yesterday to put up a trial antenna for 2m SSB. I had her running the antenna analyzer while I made final adjustments to a four-element yagi on a fiberglass pole. She seemed to enjoy being part of the process and talking to me about how the antenna is supposed to work, what the numbers on the analyzer represent, and so on.

Antenna Hijinx

The yagi was a failure (terrain and trees win again), but our time together was good. The Kenwood TS-700A got one side of a nearby conversation on SSB, but it was down in the mud. The static was deafening. Next I'm going to see if turning the yagi to vertical will give me any improvements on FM over the three other antennas I've tried so far. Plus I'm going to see if I can't get a pilot line over a high tree branch with a bow and arrow (blunt tip) to pull up a 2m vertical and possibly a simple HF wire antenna to get started with once I've got an HF rig.

It'll go to the shortwave receiver until then to help me get a better idea of what I can catch here. The shortwave gets plenty of 80m at night, and picks up some 40 and 160m traffic, just with the built-in whip, indoors. It gets some 20m and 10m traffic, with hints of 15m, during the day. I think we're getting some beneficial knife-edge refraction off the surrounding terrain at 80m. I guess there's software to model this, it'd probably be worth my while to look into it before committing to a sizable antenna project.

As to 2m, at some point I'll get a more powerful rig--after I get the HF rig purchased. The Kenwood has no PL, but I'm going to try some FM simplex to see if that works better than SSB. If Amaryllis gets her call in a day or two I can send her out with my 2m HT and a car to see what sort of a pattern and signal strength we can get in and out of here from the nearby area. Plus, once school starts again I want to take a radio into class and do a little demo. Amaryllis can see what sort of signal we can get to the school (if any). Or I'll go if she'd rather run the Kenwood at home. We'll see.

Having a second ham in the house will sure be convenient.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Amateur Radio: A New Hope

After my prior post wondering what I should do to pull together a ham shack for <$1000 or so, I noticed I wasn't getting much feedback either online or off. This is usually a sign I've asked the wrong question. Sure enough, I've gotten a response now that verifies that.

Fortunately I've had a distraction that's kept me from fretting too much.

My oldest daughter has been studying for her own ham radio license.

The First Harmonic Doesn't Fall Far from the Primary

She's been playing with microcontrollers for the past several months, learning the basics of electronics and low level programming. When I talked about some of the things on the amateur radio exam, they sounded familiar to her. I guess I got her interested.

She's been studying for about a month now, in spite of distractions from work and her other hobbies. Tomorrow morning she's going to take the test. A week ago I wasn't sure she'd be ready, her online tests were coming up more fails than passes (the online tests are a really great study tool!) Since then, we've had mini lectures on propagation, capacitors and inductors, and rules & regs. She's also had a chance to focus on her study a lot more this week, and take more tests to see more of the questions. She's scoring much better now, consistently passing the test with 3-5 missed questions. Good enough to drive down to a test tomorrow morning.

Hopefully she'll have a CSCE tomorrow. If not, I'll tell her my stories of how I failed my first attempts at getting my license and reassure her that another test will be available soon. The only way to fail is to stop trying.

My Plan, Revised

To get an HF set-up of the sort I want takes more money than I have now. I started writing down lists of rigs, the necessary bits to get them on the air (power supplies, antenna tuners, etc.) and realized I can afford a single or dual band mobile, not a base station. Kits aren't all that cheap, either, once I look at what I can build without much infrastructure and get something of quality with long term value.

So, 1st step: be patient and build up money for a more realistic station budget--as I learn more.

Step 2: Try some more things to get some QSOs with my 2m FM HT on simplex (like from the parking lot at the store while the wife shops for XMas) plus see if I can get an SSB or CW signal out of my home location with the Kenwood TS-700A 2m rig I've got. Its receiver isn't very sensitive (I think the quartz stones in front of my house convert more signal), but we'll see. Maybe I can adjust that.

I'll also play around with horizontally polarized omnidirectional antennas or put up a beam and reposition it by hand every so often (no rotator yet--something else that'll take money when other things have been dealt with.) I put up a wire yagi last week, but couldn't hear an SSB net that was scheduled with the 700. Maybe I can figure out why this week.

Meanwhile, I'll see what I can log from parking lots with an HT. :)

2 meter band handheld transceiver

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best Starter Ham Shack for <$1000?

In my research I've stumbled on a question that elicits a lot of opinions. What's a good starter ham radio rig to buy? There are a lot of answers, and working through the answers requires a more specific question is what I've learned so far. So here goes. Short form first, more background below.

I'm looking for:

  • A fixed base rig to operate off wall power.

  • 80m to 10m, 160m is greatly desired, 6m would be a nice frill.

  • Rig price on the order of $500 or so, depending on extras:

  • With all the bits--filters, power supply, feedline, key and/or keyer, mike, antenna tuner, etc. I'd like to bring the bundle cost in at about $800, up to as much as $1000 once the last insulator, connector, and screw is in place.

  • Furniture and basic facilities like light, heat, and air isn't included in the cost,

  • but a lot of little things like the antenna feedthrough, cable, switches, and connectors are, which is why I'd like the big pieces to come in around $800.

  • I'd be willing to go higher if I felt really secure that I'm investing in something I'm likely to get much more or better use out of, but I'd still be capped about about $1200-1400 for now, anything more would have to wait.

My present home location appears to be best for HF work, so that's where I'm going to concentrate for now. I expect to pick up a good enough 2m rig to be able to hit the local repeaters for the sake of keeping in touch with the local hams, but VHF isn't where I'm looking to do my regular operating. This rig will be for a fixed station operated when the power is on, so portability and power conserving reception is not a factor, especially when weighed against receiver sensitivity and other such factors.

I have plenty of space for an antenna, but I'm not expecting to start with anything sophisticated in the way of masts--trees will probably be my initial supports, or a small mast off the top of my garage. I have no fixed idea as to whether to build or buy my first HF antenna. I'd like it to be multiband. I'll look at ideas from stringing up a center-fed 12ga wire dipole to a quad band yagi with a rotator.

For the initial antenna set-up, I'm willing to compromise with the expectation of getting more or better later. But I want to start with something good enough that I'm not cut off at the knees while I'm still getting a feel for what I'm up to. It's worth noting that I have an MFJ-259B antenna analyzer on hand.

I don't know what my primary mode is going to be yet. I want to work CW and SSB. I'd like a rig that'll let me dabble a bit, so I'd prefer it to not have any major weaknesses even if it's, say, the greatest CW rig ever built. I'd like to try some digital modes, some SSTV, and some ATV.

The extra equipment for these other modes isn't included in the cost, I just want to be clear that I'd like a rig that can do it at least well enough to get started and figure out if I want to put more money into it later. So a rig that can handle the duty cycle these modes impose is probably going to be necessary.

QRP isn't where I'm looking to start here. I've already got my site working against me, and I really don't know what it's going to take in the way of power to work from here. So the rig should probably be about 100W or more until I know--unless you can tell me better.

I'm expecting to build my own QRP equipment later. The rig I'm looking at getting should be a solid workaday affair, I'll have fun building watch battery wonders later. ;)

So, fellow hams, where does that put me? An old FT-450 or TS-480? Or one of the new "shack in a box" rigs with some extras? Would I be better off springing for a good beam and rotator now, or will a wire dipole hung from some spruce trees get me enough QSOs to keep me going until the money reserves and operating experience build up?

Your opinions are welcome. I know that you can't tell me exactly what I should get. I'm just looking for opinions more seasoned than my own wild guesses. I just want to get an idea to start out reasonably effectively, while keeping the spending down enough that it won't ruin the hobby even if nothing I do works out as planned. ;)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New Ham Progress: Working Toward a Working Station

It's been 3 weeks since I got my CSCE for my amateur radio license, two and a half weeks since my license appeared in the FCC database. Each day I've been working to make material progress to set up a station and start operating. So far I'm not fully "on the air", though I've made a lot of progress.

my certificate of successful completion of exam for all three amateur radio tests
I passed the tests! Now what?

Getting a station up and running could happen quickly through purchasing a "shack in a box" transceiver with antenna, feedline, and accessories and setting them up. The set-up of the antenna, feedline feed-through, and learning to operate the transceiver and the aavailable ba would be no small feat in and of itself. But I'm taking a bit slower path.

As I progress, I'm learning a bit more about what I've got to work with--hopefully leading to better decisions when it does come time to lay out for equipment.

Starting Point
While I had a ham license before, I did very little with it. I had a mobile 2m rig in my car that I used on the local repeater. I helped at a local long-disstance charity run. I hoped for more, but that's all I did. I never really built up a station or even learned the routine on simplex operations.

Since then I had a friend give me a Kenwood TS-700A all-mode 2m rig. I can't locate my old IC-230 mobile rig, it's around somewhere, but I haven't found it yet. No matter, it's not much use to me in the present day. The 700A is a decent rig, but the receiver is pretty insensitive. Even if I just use it for SSB and CW it'll need a preamp and probably a power amp. Because of my location.

I've moved since my last time around with ham radio. I used to live in a fine location, now I live in a place where I'm poorly situated and surrounded by thick VHF-eating trees.

I also turned up about 60 feet of RG-8, a couple of awful little straight keys, and some other odds and ends.

Moving Forward
VHF will be important to staying in touch with local hams, but I need some tools that can deal with my location. For less than the price of a preamp/amp combo for the Kenwood TS-700A I can get a mid power, more flexible, more sensitive current-production 2m or multiband VHF/UHF rig. I still expect to have fun with the TS-700A down the road, but for normal workaday comms, a new 50-75W 2m rig would make more sense.

I did buy a little Yaesu FT-250R handheld, but it can't hit the local repeaters even with an external ground plane antenna mounted about 40' above grade. I built a simple yagi for testing, too, but I'm between repeaters so I'd like to use an omnidirectional antenna for general FM. The yagi was built to see if I could manage any SSB here. So far no luck but this is still work in progress.

More Site Assessment
To get a better idea of what might work here, I picked up a Grundig G3 shortwave receiver last night. I've been tuning around through the ham bands to see what comes in. MF/HF is definitely more promising here than VHF. It seems (so far) that 160m and 80m will be good here at night, with 20m being a decent daytime band. The jury is still out on the other HF bands. I need to put in an external antenna for the G3, so far I've just used the little whip on top.

Build or Buy
While I expect to build equipment in the future, I'm also expecting to establish the station with solid purchased equipment. Whether new or old I'm not sure yet, I have to spend more time with other local hams to find out my options. But prebuilt equipment will allow me to operate while I'm building other rigs--QRP rigs or whatever--plus it'll act as test and calibration tooling for my scratchbuilds.

From what I can see so far, I think I'd be just as happy at this point with solid equipment from any time in the past 25 years or so as I would with new stuff. For example, something like the late-80s Kenwood TS-440S or Icom IC-765 look like they'd still do fine today for my present needs. Maybe--I'm still guessing at this point. So I need to learn more and get some idea of price differentials and all that. ground rod is in, I'm clearing an area for my station that'll get its own AC/heater unit and antenna cable feed-through. I'm experimenting with antennas and mast mounting positions and otherwise trying to make it so that when I do have equipment, I'm prepared to do something at least somewhat effective with it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Neat Modern Retro Computer: The New Elf II

My first computer was a version of the COSMAC Elf computer. It was a simple little computer, costing about $100 in 1976-77. The joy of it was that is was a real computer, and yet it was direct enough in its design philosophy that every single thing about it was understandable and controllable.

I wasn't the only one enchanted by this small computer system, or to have it as a first computer.

Marc Bertrand has built a new, modern version of the Elf computer, visible at his web page. It's not only got the original video interface of the Elf II, but a nice LCD display driven by a PIC microcontroller. It has heaps of I/O ability through several interfaces, nicely controlled by some Altera programmable logic.

Have a look, it's a sweet little system with a layout very reminiscent of the original Elf II computer.

This isn't it, but it's a little test circuit for the 1802 microprocessor used in Elf systems that makes a nice LED blinky:
RCA 1802 test circuit that happens to make a very nice little LRD blinky
A simple test circuit for the RCA 1802 processor used in the Elf computers
There was an error in this gadget