Over the past few months I have taken a fancy to QRP portable operation. It has been a big thrill for me to go to a local park or forest and throw up and antenna to see what stations I can work with 5 watts.
I decided to invest in a small portable HF radio, the Elecraft KX-3. I chose the KX3 mainly because of its ultra small size and awesome receiver performance. But having a good QRP radio is only part of the equation. Having a good antenna is also just as important as the radio as you need to get those 5 watts to work for you.
I checked out several designs online. From the humble dipole to portable vertical style antennas. Although I don’t plan on just using one particular antenna, I wanted something that I could deploy quickly and as easily as possible. After searching about, I found plans for a End-Fed random wire antenna that was fed by a 9:1 un-un that would work mult-band 40-6m. Seeing from the plans that this antenna looked easy enough to build I started construction on my own antenna. *Note – this antenna will require a tuner for multi-band use!
I had just a few requirements really…I wanted to build this antenna with things that I found lying about so that I spent really nothing to build it. However it really wouldn’t cost much in parts anyway to build. I found an excellent PDF article from EARC Amateur Radio Club. Here is a link to this PDF file: http://www.earchi.org/92011endfedfiles/Endfed6_40.pdf
Here is a parts list that I used to build my 9:1 un-un box:
After looking through my junk box (it would seem that every ham radio operator has a box of junk lying about) I found an old TV signal amplifier box. The box is an all aluminum box, so I thought this would be good to ground connections and keep everything contained. I gutted all the electronics (it was a good thing anyway since this device had a live chassis to mains voltage! – If you have one of these laying about don’t use them. They are not safe). I drilled some holes in the metal box to accommodate a SO-239 and the binding posts that I could connect my antenna and counterpoise to.
The gutted Wineguard TV antenna amplifier box I used as the chassis.
(Note the SO-239 connector – I drilled out the hole and used rivets to attach SO-239 to chassis)
Next I needed to wind the toroid. This was actually pretty easy and I learned a few things to help make it an easier process. I found that if I used zip ties that I could hold the wire in place easier. This may not be the best solution for you, but for me it did help. Every time that you put a wire through the center of the toroid core means that the wire has been wrapped once. So that is an easy way for you to keep track of how many turns you are making. Since this is a 9:1 un-un, you will make 9 turns around the core. (Easy right?) You start by taking all 3 wires (red, green, and black) and wrapping them 9 times around the core.
The 3 wires wrapped 9 times around the toroid core. Try to keep the coils around the torid core evenly spaced. Make sure wires do not overlap.
Once that is done you will connect the left hand black wire and the right hand red wire. You will need to trim the wire a bit since they still may be long:
The wound toroid with the red and black wires
For the last bit with the winding of the toroid you will need to connect the other end of the red wire with one end of the green wire:
The black and the green wire. Leave them long as you will need to connect these. Also you can add ring terminal lugs if you wish to the red and green wires to more easily connect them to the biding posts, or bolts with wingnuts that you will use for the counterpoise and wire antenna.
The twisted green and black wire will be soldered to the SO-239 connector’s center conductor. The end of the green wire with no connector will be soldered to the shield of the SO-239 connector and the green wire with the ring terminal will be attached to the binding post or bolt that you use to connect the counterpoise wire to. The red wire with the ring lug is used to connect to your antenna binding post or bolt.
Here is a picture of the assembled antenna showing the connections in an enclosure:
That photo really shows the connections to very well. You can see that the bolt with the wingnut that is on the top is connected to the red wire. This is the antenna connection and where you will connect your 30 feet of wire that you will use as the antenna.
The bottom bolt with wingnut is the counterpoise connection. You can add 15-20 feet of wire to get your SWR just right, however you may not need a counterpoise most of the time for this type of antenna design as it will use the shield of your coax cable as the counterpoise.
The SO-239 coax connector is used to connect your radio to the antenna. If you use this type of antenna a minimum of 20 ft of coax is recommended as the shield is used as a counterpoise. If you want to use a shorter piece of coax to connect to your radio, then attach a 20 ft piece of wire to the counterpoise connection and lay it on the ground.
Here are pictures of my particular build:
This is my toroid that I wound. Note the white, black and red wire (I had this wire lying around so I used it).
My box with the binding posts, 9:1 toroid transformer and SO-239. (Note the terminal strip a the bottom right. This was already in the box so I decided to use it as a convenient place to make my connections!)
The end product with the case on and my custom labels!
After the build I decided to take it out and give it a try. I connected my 30 foot piece of wire to the antenna binding post and then sent the other end skyward into a tree getting it up around 25 feet or so (I could have probably got it higher, but this was good enough for testing). I connected my 20 ft of coax to my Elecraft KX-3 and then powered it on.
Using the built-in tuner on the KX3 I was able to tune up on the 40m band with a 1.2:1 SWR on 7.185 MHz.
I tried the antenna on several other bands, taking note on how difficult it was to tune using the KX3’s ATU. I also tried it on 80m and was able to tune it with a decent SWR (2.2:1) Although this antenna just wont work well on 75/80m (it is to short and the wire is not high enough).
Just in the front yard, I decided to setup my QRP portable station:
I used my KX3 transciever, the PX3 panadapter and a 6AH Bioenno branded LiFePO4 battery to power it all. I made several US contacts using 5-10 watts and the end fed antenna that day, including a QRP contact to Ireland on 20m! I found performance on 20 and 40m to be superb with only 30 feet of wire. Conditions were good as it was spring time 2017 and the bands were in good shape. I am always blown away by the fact that you can use 5 or 10 watts and talk so very far away. QRP has been a lot of fun and I cannot wait until the winter is over so I can get back outside. (At the time of writing this article it is January 2018 and is -15 degrees here at my QTH in NW Indiana).
My verdict is that this antenna is a quick, cheap, and easy to build and deploy antenna that should be considered for QRP portable ops. I still tend to use dipoles as they work very well, but there are times when you may not be able to have 3 supports for the center and two ends of a dipole antenna. This antenna solves a lot of problems for portable ops such as the support of the antenna, quick deployment and stealthy deployment if you don’t want to attract a lot of attention.
If your into portable ops I urge you to give this a try. Although you can buy antennas like these for $40 – $100 I urge you to build it yourself. The satisfaction from building something, putting it on the air and making contacts with it is a joy to behold!
73! de Nick N9SJA
Recently I found myself with some extra money that of course for an Amateur Radio op, just seems to light a fire right in your pocket when there is some sort of hamsexy radio gear around. The conflagration of my wallet started when my very good friend Jeff N9IZ and myself took a trip over to another collector’s home Ward K8FD. Ward is into collecting military radios and wanted to clear out bits of his other collection to facilitate his collection of military gear (when we visited we saw 6 R390’s there). Ward had a complete C-line set that he was wanting to part with, and with my trusty wallet on fire I was soon carrying the C line out to the car.
1. Drake T-4XC Transmitter – Excellent cosmetic shape. Works perfectly.
2. Drake R-4C Receiver – Very Good cosmetic shape. 1.5 kHz/500 Hz/250 Hz filters installed. Various Sherwood Engineering modifications installed.
3. Drake MS-4 external speaker – Very Good cosmetic shape. Speaker sounds great.
4. Drake AC-4 power supply – Power supply is original, and it also works just fine.
5. Drake C-4 station monitor/control – Excellent cosmetic shape. Works fine.
6. Drake RCS-4 remote coax switch – NEW OLD STOCK IN BOX. Never removed from box, purchased 1977.
When I got my haul back home I did bring up the AC4 power supply, the R-4C and the C4 up on a variac. I first connected the AC 4 to the variac and also connected my Fluke ammeter so that I could monitor the current. After about 24 hrs, the power supply and the other gear were all brought up to modern line voltage on the variac (120 VAC). Since there were no sharp increases in current, and nothing went “bang!” and let the magic smoke out, I figured I was good to go to bring them on the air.
I didn’t have a microphone for this gear yet, but my friend Jeff N9IZ was kind enough to let me borrow a Sure 444 microphone so that I could get them on the air.
After getting the myriad of interconnecting cables plugged in and working I was ready for my first QSO using this old gear.
My first contact with the Drakes was with W5FMX Scott – in Texas on 7/4/2017. I had an excellent signal report and Scott told me that my audio was fantastic. After hearing the encouragement I went on to make about 25 more QSOs (many with the 13 Colonies special event stations) of which I made about 5 DX contacts on 20m.
I love collecting radios. I decided perhaps the Drake line of gear was for me. It is a bit cheaper to collect than the Collins stuff and is fairly available at hamfests and online at places like QRZ Swapmeet and QTH Swapmeet.
Tuning up old tube radios is a lot of fun. These older radios require a bit more interaction than newer radios. But that is some of the fun. I’m always tweaking that preselector on the R-4C along with the tuning dial to get stations tuned in just right.
Recently I just purchased a used ElectroVoice 664 microphone to use with the Drake station. This microphone was first designed in 1955, and was sold until the early 1960’s. A thing of beauty, the chrome microphone sitting on it’s grey base brings a smile to my face every time I lay eyes on it.
The EV664 is a unidirectional cardioid dynamic microphone. They were sold for use as a general purpose/communication/PA microphone. Big and beefy there is no plastic on this microphone (well, except for the small switch). It weighs in at a hefty 1 lb, 12 oz (without the base). The 419 desk stand is also a heavy chunk of metal weighing over 2 lbs. This isn’t the type of microphone that you are going to just knock over. If you were to say drop this on your foot, your toes would most likely be broken.
I did order some cable for this guy so that I can get it cabled up. I think I am going to have to wire up also a foot switch for this since there is no PTT (push-to-talk) button and I really don’t want to mod the base with a switch.
I am having a bast operating with this gear, and when I get some more of the station setup, I will write another post. In the mean time, 73! and gud DX.
Does your shack look like this? I know most of the time mine does. For the past year I have been contemplating just how to get a handle on the massive mess that is my shack.
It didn’t always used to be this way. When I first bought my home, I saw the potential of a finished basement area that would be the ideal man-cave. I had visions of all my favorite toys/hobbies neatly co-existing in one harmonious space. In my mind I saw neatly built shelves displaying my massive ham radio collection with plenty of room for a dart board, a pool table and all my favorite bobbles on display while Kate Upton brought me a cold beer in a bikini. So how did all this just go so terribly wrong?
Now my beloved man cave is a crazy mish-mash of wires, half completed projects, and parts all over the place. I have noticed that I have small baggies with various parts still in new in unopened packages because I thought I would use it for a project, or something later.
Now, as a Ham I love a good hamfest (who doesn’t?) and find myself going to half a dozen of the flea market fests every year. I seem to go berserk at these shows every time. From buying some bits and parts to someone else’s junk that in my mind is the perfect project. After the trip I seem to go down to the shack and deposit the bag of goodies that I just bought with every good intention on the desk, just to be forgotten in the rest of the clutter.
The worst bit for me is the workbench. It seems to collect my mess like a huge magnet. I have purchased the little organizer cabinets and the shelves to properly put things away, but they seldom if ever make it back to their little homes. Every now and then I can convence myself that if I clean up first, then I can work on whatever project I want to. This seems to help keep things tidy for a little while at least.
For me the mess just feels so overwhelming at times. Like I don’t even know where to start with it. I say things to myself like “If I just had some cabinets, or more shelves, I could keep things tidy.”
But the truth is that I buy and bring to my house too much stuff. If I didn’t have 1/2 of the stuff I have now it would be easier to manage and keep things clean. Us hams seem to have the dream of 90 MINT Collins radios <or substitute your favorite collectible boat anchor here> all on display for others to gawk at. But the reality for most of us is quite different. Boxes of parts for those favorite boat anchors to get them working stacked on the floor and wires all over the place.
My non-radio appreciating friends call my shack the “Cold War Nuclear Bunker” for it’s resemblance to such a place. (First off it is underground in my basement, I have a lot of cold war era radio equipment, and lots of old radio books from the 1950’s and 60’s). What I want is something…well….more….refined.
So, I have put a bit of a plan together. My plan is to first move everything from my “bunker” place it in boxes and store it neatly in my utility room. Once everything is moved out, I plan on cleaning the floors and painting the walls (perhaps the shack could use a new fung-shui by a lovely color of paint!) Then installation of some shelves and cabinets. Once it is clean to then move back in just the things that I need. For the remainder, that is stuff for my entry into the flea market of the next local hamfest and or put it on QRZ.
(we’ll see what actually happens here – I am terrible at sticking with plans to clean up my shack).
Perhaps it would be inspirational to look at some clean and organized shacks. I know there must be some neat and tidy shacks out there (although I would venture to say those shacks would be in the minority for us hams).
I have seen some guys with custom consoles with their gear installed that looked totally awesome. Some shacks with all rack mount equipment and even built-in shelving systems with automatic doors!
More shelving and cupboards would be nice. Modern desks seldom come with drawers anymore for whatever the reason, so where do you put things that would be nice to just shove in a cabinet and shut the door on?
Recently I have purchased several of the plastic see-through bins from my favorite local retailer. I thought these might be good to put various bits and pieces in, but I could still see what was in them, so when I wanted something I can just look at them and see what was inside. I think this might be a good way to store and organize everything.
My biggest problem really seems to be that when I go down to organize and clean everything, if I cannot get it done the way that I want to, perfectly, then I become disillusioned by the whole process. This is a bit of perfectionism creeping in which is not a good thing. People that are perfectionists are known for not getting anything finished beacuse they mainly find out that the world is not perfect and nothing they can do is going to make it so (hey at least I realize my main fault).
Anyway…that’s about enough for this blog post. I plan on my spring cleaning to start soon and over the course of the next few weekends get things cleaned up a bit at a time.
Now…if I can just stay off the darn radio enough when I’m down there to clean…ta ta for now.
73! de Nick N9SJA
Nice information from Jeff N9IZ about some ongoing development for PowerSDR.
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This past May during a trip to the Mecca of Amateur Radio in Dayton Ohio, I ordered a Ten-Tec 507 Patriot QRP rig at the 2015 Dayton Hamvention. I have been having a blast playing about with this small yet robust little rig!
I have always heard about the joys of QRP operation and I do love to operate portable. It’s always a lot of fun to take a small bit of HF kit, a dipole that I can throw up into a tree or something, and a battery to power everything.
I have decided to make a quick post to share my operations with the Ten-Tec 507.
Open Source meets Amateur Radio:
This particular rig is one of two now “open source” transceivers made by Ten-Tec. The first reiteration was the Ten-Tec 506 Rebel, a small 40m/20m CW transceiver. The Patriot continues from the heritage of the Rebel but this time gives you SSB phone as well as CW capabilities.
The thing about the Rebel and Patriot that makes them “open source” is really the fact that they both use a ChipKit 32 Uno microprocessor for DDS (direct digital synthesis) and is the overall “brains” of this radio. The ChipKit 32 Uno is a Ardunio compatible micro controller. The microprocessor code is easily changed to add/change features and capabilities. With all that being said, there is still much that you cannot change about the Rebel or Patriot. They are both locked into the bands that they have been designed to work on. This is because of the filters and other parts of the radio that are specifically designed to operate in those frequency areas. The Rebel is also always going to be a CW only rig because of a lack of other circuitry that would enable phone modes, however there are ways around that doing digital voice modes for example with a connected PC.
The main source for alternate forms of firmware worked on by the community is the Patriot Yahoo! group at https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/TenTec507Patriot/info. This is a closed community group and you must register to join. I generally do not care for Yahoo groups, however the people on this group seem cooperative and always ready to help. A few months after I joined I decided to start my own group on Reddit. This way nobody had to register or sign in to gain access to the information and files created. My Reddit site is more of a brain dump style site so that anyone with information can post there. My Reddit site for the Patriot is at http://www.reddit.com/r/TenTecPatriots/.
A plain wrapper with lots of potential!
When you first purchase your Ten-Tec Patriot it is a seemingly basic radio with few options, but the potential for it to be much more is brewing from beneath it’s black aluminium chassis. The stock version has no display, which is a bit of a pain in the rear since the only way to know what frequency you are on is to press and hold the SELECT button to “announce” the frequency in CW using a tone over a connected headset or speaker. Additionally the TT logo has a LED that also flashes the CW announcement. SSB phone operation is automatic when the microphone is connected and is automatically set to LSB for 40m and USB for 20m. If you connect a key to the rear jack then CW can be uses on those bands as well. There are 3 select-able tuning steps for the patriot 100 kHz, 1 kHz and 10 kHz (for fast tuning) by default with the factory firmware. Additionally there are 3 bandwidth filters: W (wide ~2.5 kHz), M (medium ~1.5 kHz), N (narrow ~800 Hz) and a RIT control. There is code to support an optional 20×4 LCD display with the factory code.
Patriot Alliance Modification (PAM) ver 1.2:
The latest code to be floating about the Internet for the Patriot is the Patriot Alliance Modification ver 1.2 written by PA3ANG and modified by various other hams, or PAM 1.2 for short. PAM 1.2 introduces a great deal of features that were not available with the Ten-Tec stock firmware. The code is based on the original Ten-Tec factory code but also ads the following features:
IAMBIC (type A or B) keyer with keyer speed on front panel ‘CW SPD’ (A7).
Detection of Straight Keyer (middle ring 3.5mm stereo plug to ground).
Automatic mode change to CW (Key) or SSB (Ptt).
CW offset (parameter) during CW reception.
Frequency announce in CW when > .5 seconds SELECT.
Tune Carrier when > .5 FUNCTION.
CAT based on K3 protocol (tested with HRD).
Added support for OLED 128 x 32 pixel displays.
Furthermore they introduced a number of improvements:
DDS offset compensation (parameter).
Faster display routines (no updates when no changes).
Improved display layout and added S-meter and CW speed.
Easy selection of starting band and default frequencies.
After I loaded this code, I absolutely loved the features that were added. I ordered a 128×32 pix OLED display from Adafruit to use as the display on this rig. After a bit of tinkering about and picking the brain of fellow ham and good friend Mike, AC9ID we together got the display working, and it looks great! It can be seen well even in bright sunlight without being washed out and has quite a bit of information on the display.
The display has the frequency shown at top. Then on the next line starting at the bottom right is the bandwidth selection (W/M/N), the tuning step indicator (10 Hz/100 Hz/1 kHz), the mode (USB/LSB/CW), the keyer speed for CW (mine is set at 14 wpm), and finally an S-meter.
I loved the feature of holding in the FUNCTION key to transmit a tone carrier for tuning. The Iambic keyer setting is nice so that you can use a paddle for CW or a straight key. It will detect the type based on the how many conductors the 3.5mm plug has that is inserted into the keyer jack.
CAT rig control can be used by connecting the ChipKit 32 UNO’s mini USB cable to your PC and using HRD or other software. Using the K3 rig control options, this seems to work very well, however there is no means of keying the transceiver that I know of using CAT control. This would be immensely helpful for running data modes.
Users of the Patriot can easily change firmware parameters to customize the radio in several ways:
My experiences with the Ten-Tec 507 Patriot:
The receiver: I have found this small radio to be actually quite a good performer as far as QRP rigs go. The receiver performance seems to be fairly sensitive however there is a potential for overload of strong signals. I would suspect changes to the AGC circuit would help with the strong signal overloading. I found the bandwidth filters sufficient to reject adjacent channel interference to some degree, however they are fairly basic DSP filters and cannot perform miracles. The RIT control is very nice to tweak stations that are slightly off frequency and is intuitive to use. Although it is NOT the receiver in a KX3, it does perform surprisingly well overall with only the strong signal overload to be of minor issue.
The Transmitter: Feeding this rig with 13.8 V with a power supply able to provide at least 5 Amps I have found that I can get just over 5 watts out of the transmitter into a dummy load on both 40m and 20m. The mic gain control was really pretty weak set from the factory, so I had to turn up the mic gain (MIC LEVEL IN) pot a bit in order to get adequate modulation to drive the transmitter. I am running the mic gain almost fully open, but I had a friend listen to me on another radio and the audio sounded good, not distorted using a Yaesu style 8-pin hand microphone. I may need to turn this down when using a headset such as my Heil Pro7 or other microphone or headset.
My Setup for QRP portable ops using the TT-507 Patriot:
My setup for portable operations consists of the following equipment squeezed into 2 small go boxes:
At $299.00 US, the Ten-Tec 507 Patriot is a bit expensive for a two band QRP rig. I think a better price point would be $199 for it. The unit comes with the stock firmware, and paper manual and that’s it. No cables, no microphone, no key or paddle. Everything else is up to the operator to supply. However it is a solid little performer and is not a kit. You CAN operate this radio right out of the box if you supply the microphone and power, and antenna for it.
I have made several CW and SSB contacts using this little radio and have been absolutely ecstatic each time I do so. I guess there is a thrill of operating on 20m and chatting to a ham that is several states away with only 5 watts. I haven’t had this much fun with amateur radio since I first got my general license and was able to get on the HF bands! Going to a local park and setting up on a hill with a dipole in some trees is a lot of fun and it’s always good to be outdoors.
I did use my Patriot on field day and had an absolute blast, although it was a challenge to get through with QRP power.
Overall I would recommend this radio. QRP operation requires a great deal of patience, and so does tinkering and modifying the Patriot. The patriot isn’t something for the instant gratification crowd, so by that virtue it isn’t for everyone. There are other radios out there, but this one is a lot of fun if you like to tinker about with your radios and antennas.
You can find more information about the Ten-Tec 507 Patriot at Ten-Tec’s web site: http://www.rkrdesignsllc.com/products/transceivers-receivers/507-patriot-open-source-arduino-based-ssbcw-qrp-transceiver/
Do you own a Patriot, Rebel or other QRP rig? Let me know about your setup in the comments below! Also if you are a Rebel or Patriot owner or want to chat with others that have these rigs, please visit the Ten-Tec 506/507 Reddit subreddit at http://www.reddit.com/r/TenTecPatriots/
73! de Nick N9SJA
With the highly anticipated release of SmartSDR 1.4 now available I wanted to do a review of this software package. Then the review was pushed back just a bit because of the recent upgrade to version 1.4.3 with even MORE features. I decided to wait and just do one comprehensive review on version 1.4.3. This is my review of the features from an average DX’ers point of view. Let’s go over the release notes of version 1.4.0 first for new features and changes:
SmartSDR version 1.4.0
The highly anticipated release of version 1.4.0 came exceptionally late as the original target release date was supposed to be October, 2014 according to Flex Radio Systems road map for SmartSDR releases. There were a bunch of cranky Flex signature series owners that were really clammering for a new release to hopefully address problems, and also to give them the new features that were promised. Let’s take a look at the features released in 1.4.0:
LAN Remote: With this feature you can now operate your Flex radio from anywhere within your local network. For example, if your shack is downstairs in the basement, you can now use your laptop upstairs over a wireless network using a cheap headset plugged into your laptop.
This feature works very well indeed, even over wireless. I have found that you will need a descent enough Windows laptop however to have the best results. I tested the remote with an older Core2 Duo laptop with 4GB of ram, and there was some audio cut-outs and lag using that laptop with 802.11n wireless network in my home. Overall though, it still worked very well.
I had much better results using my Intel Core i7 laptop with 8GB of RAM on the same 802.11n wireless network with no noticeable audio drop outs. I really believe that the drop out were due to the poor disk IO on the Core2 Duo laptop (it only has a 5400 rpm HDD. The Core i7 has a Solid State Drive).
Since most likely you will be using a laptop headset for your audio, quality could vary quite a bit between different types. I used a Logitech USB headset. This was easy to setup as the default headset and I had excellent audio reports from various stations on the 40 and 20 meter bands. I would not recommend using the built-in speakers and microphone on the laptop for obvious reasons as the microphone will pickup keystrokes, wind noise, and other sources of noise close to your laptop. Also
Network quality is a huge factor for good performance of the remote feature. You really must use either a cabled network in your home or a higher speed 802.11n wireless network. The bandwidth requirements are simply going to be too high for older 802.11b or even 802.11a wireless networks. Make sure that your wireless network is setup well and working properly BEFORE attempting to use the LAN Remote features of SmartSDR 1.4.x. You will have far less headaches if you do so.
Being in the computer business, I am very well versed in various computer networks, such as wireless and VPNs. And although it is unofficial and not directly supported by Flex Radio Systems yet, I have tested SmartSDR over a WAN link using various VPN methods. I would like to state now however that using SmartSDR over a WAN link is heavily dependent on having enough Internet bandwidth. Because most home consumers will have asynchronous Internet connections (asynchronous means having a different speed for downloads than uploads), you must know ahead of time what your Internet speed is for uploads as well as downloads. DSL Internet connections with only 1MB uploads will not work using SmartSDR using a VPN, so forget about even attempting it. You will need a connection with at least 5MB upload speeds, and even then you may experience trouble with broken TX audio.
I tested 3 different types of VPN connections using my Flex 6500 and my Internet connection. My ISP is Metronet and I have a 200MB download with a 25MB upload speed over fiber optic cable. It is by all accounts a better than average speed connection than most consumers seem to have at this time (well at least in my area). I tested 3 different types of VPN: PPTP VPN (using Windows Server 2012 host), OpenVPN (Using a Linux host), and Cisco Secure VPN (using a Cisco ASA 5520 firewall host). Going through the setup of VPNs is WAY beyond the scope of the review I am writing on this blog and there are differences for just about any network people use, so I won’t go over how I set it up here, but I had great results with all 3 types of VPNs. If you would like to try to access your Flex 6000 series from over the internet securely, VPN does work well if you have adequate Internet bandwidth at both sites.
One criticism that I would have is that when you choose remote, and “PC” as the microphone to redirect your mic audio, these settings seem to be remembered by the transceiver and not by the SmartSDR software on the individual machines. For example, when I am in my shack, I want to use my fancy Heil PR-781 mic and JBL Control 2P monitor speakers. But when I use the laptop upstairs I need to click the “REMOTE” button then select “PC” for the microphone input. But if I forget to turn off the “REMOTE” button before I exit SmartSDR, then when I go back into the shack it will still be selected. It would be nice if it would store the preference for these settings in the SmartSDR client software instead of in the transceiver just to make it more intuitive to use. Not a big criticism, but hey I gotta be thorough!
Overall Flex Radio Systems did a great job with the implementation of the LAN remote feature, and it even works using a VPN over the Internet (WAN) quite well if not supported by them at this time. Eventually they plan on releasing their own way of connecting over the Internet for WAN operations without the use of a VPN. But this will not be available until a future release.
FM Mode: Finally, Flex Radio Systems has included FM on the Flex 6500 for those that want to chat up their favorite 10m or 6m repeater, not to mention for Transverter use. I know that several Flex customers were really livid about this not being included from the get-go, and I really agree with them about that. The Flex 6000 series was advertised with having FM mode, but when people bought the rig, they got NO FM!
The implementation was very good, with narrow FM mode (NFM) that uses 2.5k deviation and standard FM (FM) that uses 5k deviation. There is also a Digital FM (DFM) mode that has no pre-emphasis applied which is nice for digital modes such as packet over FM.
The FM mode implementation has a CTCSS tone encoder, a nice squelch control, and adjustments for offsets. It would also be nice however if the included full CTCSS decode for RX as well, but alas we don’t have that. Boo… Note that the offset is set in MHz and not kHz so you will have to use 0.5 for a 500 kHz offset. Not a big deal, but interesting to note.
I did try to access a 6m repeater using my Flex 6500, but unfortunately I couldn’t access any repeaters in my area on 6m or 10m. They all seemed to be not functional in my area. I know that the 6m repeater that my club runs is currently offline due to a horrible lightning strike, but has been repaired and as soon as it is placed back in service I can test it out. I have used the Flex FM mode on 10m simplex with another ham here in town where I live just to try it and it worked well.
Memories Feature: This is a great feature so that you can store your favorite frequencies and modes. It is quite detailed so that you can name the memories, and even crate memory groups to group them all together. I typically do not use memories, but I put a few in to try it out and was quite happy with the implementation. I kind of wish however that there could be a small right side dock-able window with memories instead of a new pop-up window. It would just be nice to streamline the interface a bit better.
I really like how they also added a column to set TX power, and also you can put a custom name description in. This has been done very well.
CW Enhancements: If you are a CW guy (or gal) you will love the new QSK improvements for better CW break-in! This was somewhat broken in previous versions of SmartSDR but now has been fixed quite well. No more popping sounds between CW characters. Thumbs up!
SmartSDR Software Client Optimizations: Flex Radio Systems really retooled SmartSDR so that it uses a fraction of the PC power it once used. I did notice a quite significant decrease in CPU (computer processor) utilization and WAY lower RAM (memory) usage! The spectrum display is much smoother and more responsive and the software itself is way more stable. I never had too much of an issue with stability with SmartSDR in previous versions, but I know that several users had a lot of SmartSDR crashes.
Some users experience crashes however because of the configuration of their individual computer systems. I don’t believe I have ever had a proper crash going back to SmartSDR v 1.2, but I did notice it was a bit heavy on system resources.
Overall another welcome change, thumbs way up for this! My PC fans thank you…
DAX Enhancements: Ok, this has got to be the best single improvement to SmartSDR! In prior SmartSDR versions DAX has simply just been broken. The drivers were awful (especially the 64-bit drivers), and users reported having to re-install DAX every so often just to get it to work. I too was one of these folks, and have been really angry about using DAX. As a matter of fact I have avoided using digi modes in the past using my 6500 because DAX was so problematic.
Well, I am happy to report that the drivers seem stable now, and you no longer have to continually re-install the DAX drivers to get DAX to pass audio! YEA FLEX!!!!!
In addition to the stability fix with DAX, there have been changes to the DAX control pannel to provide you with more information so that you can understand which DAX channel is being used on which slice and even on a particular computer. Since DAX can be used on multiple computers now with the remote feature this is handy information to have!
Note the slice is displayed next to the DAX channel number, and for DAX IQ streams it displays the frequency of the slice that you are using.
DAX IQ streams are totally awesome for use in other SDR applications, keeping everything in the digital domain. For example you may wish to use another SDR applications to record a chunk of the spectrum (on a Flex 6300 that is 7 MHz of bandwidth, on a Flex 6500 and 6700 that’s 14 MHz of bandwidth!) and then play it back later for analysis. For SDR noobs, this is not recording just audio, this is recording the radio spectrum of several transmitting stations and saving it and or playing it back later! A truly awesome feature of modern SDR technology! Tell that to the guys who tell you that they don’t like SDR radio because their are no knobs. SDRs can just do way more. Period. And it is the future of all things radio!
Finally DAX works like it should! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, FLEX!
SmartSDR CAT Improvements: Can’t say too much about this really. The folks at Flex Radio Systems added some more CAT commands to the signature series of radios so that 3rd party applications can access more of the the 6000 series hardware features. These include, but are not limited to, several significant fixes for interfacing with slice B and support for the CWU/CWL tuning modes. In addition to the CAT protocol enhancements, improved diagnostic capabilities and virtual COM port driver modifications have been incorporated to improve SmartSDR CAT usage with CAT enabled programs. Good deal.
FlexControl Improvements: There have been improvements to the COM port driver so that the FlexControl is better identified by the computer when you plug it into the USB port. Some Flex users out there have had a lot of problems where when they turned on their PC the knob was not recognized properly and didn’t work, and they had to fiddle with port (COM) settings to get the FlexControl knob to work. I personally never had this issue, and the FlexControl knob has always worked just fine for me, so I am not sure if this has been totally resolved or not.
EQ Modifications: The 8-band graphical EQ has been modified for the 2 kHz, 4 kHz, and 6 kHz frequencies to increase bandwidth around the center point frequency to ensure a smoother transition between these EQ bands. This is nice so their isn’t such an abrupt change now between adjustments of the 2 kHz, 4 kHz, and 6 kHz sliders. Not that this was a huge problem for most folks, but the audio quality of the Flex is one of its most redeeming qualities. We should all want it to be the best it can be.
TX Profiles: Flex added some default transmit (TX) profiles for the RadioSport model of headsets by Arlan. A nice addition I would say.
Expanded X/RIT frequency range: The X/RIT frequency offset range has been increased to 99.999 kHz to accommodate very wide splits when operating digital modes. Awesome.
Now on to the version 1.4.3 specific additions!
Binaural Receive Audio Mode: SmartSDR for Windows now has the capability to receive audio in Binaural mode. Enabling this option will produce a virtual 3D spatial depth of field listening sensation by shifting the phase of the recovered audio relative to one channel of the speakers or headphone channel. The effect may enhance weak signal reception. If any of you out there have been PowerSDR users with the Legacy Flex 5000A, 3000, or 1500 then you will be familiar with Binaural audio mode. This is a really great feature, however Flex chose to put the button that enables in in the “Radio Setup” menu under the “Receive” tab. This is really lousy since you have to access two menus to get to the darn thing. They really need to change this to a button in the audio menu on the slice where it is intuitive for users to find and use. After just installing 1.4.3 I had a hell of a time trying to find out how to enable the Binaural mode since the button was not in the location in the SmartSDR GUI where I thought it should logically be.
Transmit Monitor for DIGITAL Modes: You now have the ability to monitor the transmitted audio while operating in DIGU and DIGL modes. This is especially useful for 3rd party digital software setup and troubleshooting. This is great because it allows you to hear the sound of your transmission to better identify over driven audio, or perhaps problems with the transmitted signal when using 3rd party sound card digital mode applications.
Actual Transmitted Audio Record and Playback: The slice RECORD function now records actual audio being transmitted over the air. This includes transmit audio bandwidth, equalization, and other audio effects. Once the audio is recorded, the PLAYBACK function will transmit a faithful reproduction of the recorded signal without adding any additional processing.
Additional Function Button Options for FlexControl: Flex finally let folks with the good ‘ol FlexControl knob to be able to use one of the programmable buttons as a transmit switch. This switch does not however operate in a momentary fashion. Meaning that you push it once to transmit and then you need to push it again to stop transmitting (toggle function). It would be really nice to allow folks the option between the on/off (toggle) style of button versus the push and hold ability. But I am guess that pushing the button simply is just sending a CAT command stored as a macro to the radio, so it was simple for them to implement. It’s OK, but I would still rather use my Heil hand-switch, or foot-switch instead of clicking that button. I’m just sayin’. The other button addition is the CHANGE ACTIVE SLICE function allows you to step through all of the enabled slices, making them “ACTIVE” for tuning.
Well that about covers all the features. Now for a list of the GOTCHAS that I experienced.
After installing SmartSDR ver 1.4.3 I had problems getting my amplifier working. At first I suspected a problem with the amp, but after troubleshooting a bit more I noticed that the TX relay was not engaging. This was because there is now a button to enable external TX through the RCA jack on the rear of the transceiver. Sneaky!
So, if you have an amplifier and it doesn’t seem to want to transmit anymore, check to make sure RCA TX1 is ENABLED. Perhaps this button has been here in other versions, but was enabled by default or something, I am not sure without researching it, but I thought that was quite interesting that my settings were not passed on from one version of SmartSDR to another.
That actually seems to be a big problem for most users that when they upgrade SmartSDR, or upgrade computers and re-install the software that various settings are not retained. I did backup my global profile and transmit profiles, but some settings are obviously still not part of either those two profiles yet.
The bottom line: Overall the version 1.4.0 and version 1.4.3 SmartSDR updates are really great! Until DAX was fixed in version 1.4.0 I would not have recommended a Flex 6000 series to hams that were big on data modes. This was really because DAX was so sketchy. Also I should state that there have been many other improvements made to SmartSDR other than what I covered here. I just stuck to the main bigger picture type features and problem fixes. For more information please see the release notes for the the version of SmartSDR that you wish to update to. The guys at Flex Radio Systems do a great job with documentation.
As a Flex 5000A user previously, I do remember versions of PowerSDR that were a bit wonky and features did not work well. The thing is with Flex SDRs are that the software is a fluid, living entity of its own that is always evolving. If you have not yet taken the SDR plunge, that is a major consideration from changing from a traditional radio to an SDR like the Flex. But the power that SDR technology delivers cannot be denied. SDR radios are far more flexible, configurable, and powerful than a comparable traditional radio in a desktop box with knobs on the front.
I hope that you have found this review useful. It took a lot of time for me to test various features of these software releases, but I had a blast doing it. A new release of SmartSDR is almost like getting a new radio. As soon as Flex announces a new software release, I always get excited to see what features have been added and what bugs have been resolved. It adds to the enjoyment of owning an SDR transceiver.
If you have any comments, or questions submit them in the comments section below!
73 de Nick N9SJA
For those of you that are interested in all the strange and mysterious buzzing, beeps, and shrill tones of shortwave (as well as the VHF/UHF bands) identifying these signals can be difficult. However with the advent of SDR and more and more people dedicated to the identification and decoding of these types of signals it has recently got quite a bit easier.
Enter Artemis and Sigidwiki.com. These resources allow you to easier identify that strange signal that you are receiving on your shortwave receiver and even have links to software to help you decode it.
I have been a user of sigidwiki.com for quite some time now and love how there is a listing of these signals with a waterfall image and a sound file. Artemis takes this a step further by being an installed Windows application so that you can download the sigidwiki database and then keep it on your local computer. It has a dedicated interface and is quite a nice little program.
Artemis is software created by Dalla Tiezza Marco in cooporation with RTL-SDR.com forum.
When you open the software for the first time you will need to update the database files and then load them:
This is a really nice feature as it lets you know if the software and the database files are up to date. Don’t have internet and you are going to be on the go? Just update your laptop before you go and then listen away and you can identify those stations.
The interface has many different modes and explains where most likey there are found, the bandwidth of the type of signal being used, a spectrum waterfall photo, as well as a sound file that will play a sample sound.
Some of these signals listed are quite exotic and interesting. A link to Sigidwiki.com will take you to a web page (Wiki) where you can find out even more informaiton about a given signal.
I found this software and the wiki to be excellent and always have a lot of fun checking out these different signals on shortwave in particular.
This signal is quite interesting: CODAR (Coastal Ocean Dynamics Application Radar) and has been used since the early 1970s to measure and map near-surface ocean currents in coastal waters.
If you ever seem to hear something strange on your receiver you can even capture the audio and the spectrum and then upload it to sigidwiki.com and add a new signal to the list. New signals are being added all the time and it is interesting to see what changes from month to month.
You can download Project Artemis (currently version 1.0 Beta) from http://markslab.tk/project-artemis/ and you can check out sigidwiki.com at http://www.sigidwiki.com/wiki/Signal_Identification_Guide
I can’t wait to see what also becomes of project Artemis. I would love for them to add software decoders built in to the interface or perhaps at least links to the decoders in Artemis.
All in all, it is a very cool little program and I look forward to further development.
73! de Nick N9SJA