A Tale Of Two Radios
It was the best of radio gear, it was the worst of radio gear… ☺
The Small Wonder Labs PSK-20
My last post described the motivations behind my decision to purchase a QRP PSK-31 transceiver kit (model PSK-20 from Small Wonder Labs) as well as the issues I was having with getting rig to transmit. Attempting to troubleshoot the radio via e-mail with Dave Benson from Small Wonder Labs ended up leading to a dead end. At Dave’s recommendation, I shipped the radio to Alan Wilcox, W3DVX, a designated repair person for Small Wonder Labs products.
Within one day of receiving the radio, Alan diagnosed and fixed the problem and shipped the radio back to me. It turned out that there was a bad transistor in the power amplifier stage of the transmitter, so the fix was pretty simple; I was relieved to know that I had at least assembled the radio correctly. Alan charged $40 for his time and services–his flat fee for Small Wonder Labs PSK-series tuneups–plus $10 return shipping. This was reasonable considering his expertise and the turnaround time. I wasn’t charged for the bad transistor itself since it was defective. Alan was happy to communicate via e-mail and phone about the details of the repair and was a pleasure to work with. I believe Alan specializes in Small Wonder Labs and Elecraft products. If you ever need a radio repaired I highly recommend him for the task!
I received the repaired radio on Monday, 04/26/10. After I got home that day, I scrambled to set up my station to play with the rig during the last few remaining hours of daylight (20 meters works best during daylight hours.) After experimenting with a few different computer/software combinations, I ended up using the free and feature-rich FLDigi application, running on a MacBook Pro. I spent a while tweaking the output volume on the computer to make sure that the rig wouldn’t get over-driven. I found a ‘sweet spot’ for the output volume that yielded between 2 and 3 watts of transmit power, according to my cheap RadioShack HF power meter. Since I don’t have a dummy load, I had to make a few test transmissions on the air in order to find that sweet spot (I transmitted W1JDD TESTING DISREGARD on an unused PSK-31 ‘channel’/audio frequency.)
A brief aside: if you operate PSK or any other type of digital mode, and you don’t already know about http://pskreporter.info, I highly recommend that you check it out. The basic concept is that a bunch of volunteer stations worldwide automatically monitor the airwaves for mentioned callsigns across various bands and digital modes, including PSK-31. You can type your callsign into the site and see which, if any, stations heard your callsign, thereby giving you an idea of how your transmitted signal is propagating.
After I got the Fldigi software and sound levels set up the way I wanted, I started calling CQ. Eventually, pskreporter.info showed hits for my callsign from two or three other US stations, so I knew my signal was getting out. It took about 45 minutes of me calling CQ, but a station in Germany finally came back to me. A few minutes after that, I had a QSO with a station in France. And the entire time, the wattmeter showed 2-3 watts out. The French station even asked me to confirm that I was really only putting out ~3 watts. I was utterly amazed that I was able to contact these stations using a modest setup (my antenna was leaning against a couch, indoors,) and such little power. I’ve heard others talk about the thrill of QRP, but that was the first time I experienced it for myself. This is what ham radio is all about!
Go figure that I didn’t talk to any US stations that day.
I know that I’m going to continue having a blast with the rig. Of course, I’ll mention anything notable on this blog.
The Yaesu VX-8R Handheld Transceiver
Ever since I first learned about it, I was always interested in tinkering with APRS operation. The problem was that I never had the cash to sacrifice on a GPS module, interface cables, a TNC, and other related devices to start playing with APRS. Even so, a recent episode of Jerry Taylor’s Practical Amateur Radio Podcast renewed my interest in APRS.
I periodically monitor Craigslist for deals on ham radio equipment in my area, and I saw a great deal on a Yaesu VX-8R tri-band handheld transceiver. What’s appealing about the VX-8R is that it is APRS capable and has a built-in TNC, making it relatively easy to get started with APRS. Yaesu offers a separate GPS accessory that mounts directly to the radio (or, optionally, a supported speaker mic) to make its APRS functionality that much more effortless and useful.
Since the deal on Craigslist seemed to good to pass up, I decided to spring for it. A few days later I became the proud owner of a lightly used (and importantly, still under warranty) VX-8R. I had already owned a Yaesu FT-60R HT, and because I don’t do enough VHF/UHF stuff to merit having two radios, I decided to sell my the FT-60R on eBay.
To enhance APRS operation, I bought some accessories for the VX-8R: the GPS unit, a mounting bracket to mount the GPS to the radio (sigh, Yeasu,) and an extended battery for the radio. I’m hoping that using the extended battery will offset the extra power consumed by the GPS and by the fact that RX SAVE must be turned off while operating APRS to prevent received packets from being cut off.
My intial impressions of the VX-8R are positive. It has many, many more features than my FT-60R had, all crammed into a smaller space. Even, so the radio is much easier to use than my FT-60R. This is largely because of the radio’s high-resolution LCD, as opposed to the 7-segment display that the FT-60R had. With all of the excitement surrounding the aforementioned PSK-20, I haven’t extensively played with the radio’s APRS functionality yet, but I already have two gripes about the radio:
- If the GPS module is attached to the radio, there’s no straightforward way to disable it/prevent it from drawing battery power when you’re not using it. The GPS is also not meant to be removed and re-attached repeatedly, so you kind of just have to live with the issue. In my limited experimenting, it seeems as though turning RX SAVE on MAY disable the GPS, but that may also just be preventing it from working properly, while still drawing power.
- The radio’s battery meter is completely inaccurate. Despite resetting the radio and using two different batteries (the stock and extended batteries,) the radio’s battery meter reads 100%/full permanently, up until the battery dies and the radio shuts off. Again, minor, but annoying.
I’ll write more about the VX-8R and APRS operation when I start doing some deeper exploring.
…and that concludes another blog post. If you operate PSK-31 on 20 meters, I hope to hear and see you on the air! If you’d like to try to schedule a 20 meter PSK-31 QSO with me, please let me know.
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