Monday, August 26, 2013


With my son Toby recently passing his Basic exam and getting licensed, he was obviously going to want a radio of his own and a little 2m/70cm hand-hand is a good place to start.

There's are many fine radios on offer that could have fit the bill.  Of course, the big Japanese firms have a considerable range of radios, but recently the Chinese have been trying to break into the Ham market with options at a cheaper price point.

Not being sure exactly how much use the radio was going to get, I had considered the second-hand market, but also scanned the catalogues of new gear.  Alinco and Wouxun offer 'cheaper' options, but these still start at about $150, rising to around $350.  However, there are a new wave of even cheaper options arriving from China.

One such newcomer is Baofeng.  These are compact handy-talkies and I first heard of them a few years ago in a report at a club meeting.  The most striking thing about them is their price - they are less than half the price of pretty much any of the products from the established brands (even the Wouxuns).

Now, the old adage that "you get what you pay for" is not a bad guideline, so when researching a possible acquisition for Toby I wasn't expecting to read very good reports about the Baofeng.  However, much to my surprise there were YouTube videos, consumer reviews and articles all pretty much saying that the radio was actually pretty solid.  It looks like Baofeng have developed a pretty sound radio VHF/UHF core here and while not as fully featured as other more expensive options the radio is certainly not bare-bones either.  Here's the summary feature list:

1)      Output : 4W/1W
2)      Frequency Range: 136.00-174.00 MHz
3)      Frequency Step Setting
4)      High &Low Power Switchover
5)      Battery Saving
6)      VOX Function
7)      Wide/Narrow Band Selection
8)      Auto-Back Light
9)      Dual Band Standby
10)  Time-out Timer (TOT)
11)  50 CTCSS and 104 DCS Codes
12)  Voice Prompt
13)  ANI Code
14)  PC or Manual Program
15)  DTMF Code
16)  PTT-ID
17)  ATUO Keypad Lock
18)  Busy Channel Lock Function
19)  Dual Band, Dual Display and Dual Standby
20)  Emergency Alarm
21)  Priory Scanning Function
22)  Relay Forwarding Confirmed (1750 HZ)
23)  Low Battery Warning
24)  U/V Cross Band Dual Watch
25)  Dimension: 110x58x32mm
26)  Packing Details:  40 Units/CTN,  Carton Size: 47.5x42x50 cm
                                        N.W: 21.5 KGS, G.W: 22.5KGS

Searching on ebay revealed a number of vendors that will supply the Baofeng.  The radio is now available in several body styles and apparently the firmware is updated periodically.  I was able to find vendors listed that fulfilled directly via Amazon Canada and from stock, which importantly means faster delivery.  As this was for Toby, I chose a more 'futuristic' design with metalled speaker grill and it was billed as having "the new 2013 firmware with enhanced features".  You don't really get to know what these 'enhanced features' are, but I gather they have improved things like the voice announcements to use a North American accent, rather than a Chinese sounding voice (not that the latter was a problem, as far as I can tell from some YouTube videos).

The bundle I opted for included:

  • A Baofeng UV-5RA radio (with battery, antenna)
  • Desktop charger with 110v wall adapter
  • Lightweight headset (earpiece/microphone)
This was priced at C$49.99.  An amazing price is the radio is half-decent.  An Icom desk charger alone would set you back more than this.

As I personally like to you a separate hand mike, I decided to order this too from the same Amazon vendor (and also fulfilled by Amazon from stock).  This was an additional C$12.99.  Around the same time I ordered an Icom mike for my ID-51a.  This cost me over C$70 and when it arrived it was clear that this was essentially the same product.  I can only assume Icom have these made for less than C$10 in China and all the rest is markup!

Finally, I ordered the programming USB cable and software on CD from another Amazon vendor.   Prices for this varied a lot, but I paid C$9.99.  The programming software is actually free from the Baofeng web site, but some sort of cable will be necessary - and these seemed like a reasonable option.

The whole bundle arrived within days.  Everything was nicely packaged and arrived in excellent condition.  I was immediately struck with the good looks and quality of the radio and accessories.  The particular design might be be a little gaudy for some, but it's perfect for a 15 year old and I do actually like it myself  The radio is very compact but feels sturdy and just the right weight in the hand.  


The radio's display and keypad are illuminated the controls are operated and there is good audio feedback.  The voice announcement is on by default, but the radio is highly configurable and a lot of this behaviour is alterable.  Even the LCD backlight colour can be set to taste (or mood!).

The only aspect of the radio that seemed a little cheap was the knob on the top and the bright LED torch that emerges from the top of the case.  The former wasn't quite straight, although it operates perfectly.  The LED torch has nothing wrong with it, but it looks a bit retro and just slightly naff in the way it protrudes.  We're just not used to seeing these old dome style LEDs protruding outside cases like this any more.  This is actually a feature of the particular design that I chose.  Other designs offered a flush LED.  In any case, I don't want these comments to detract from the plain fact that the radio comes across as rather more quality than you have any right to expect for less than fifty bucks!

As usual the radio can be operated in either VCO or memory mode.  With a rather compact, two-line display settings are presented as a linear list.  The keypad arrow keys are used to move up/down this list until you find a setting that you wish to change.  There's also a fast-access method where the number of the menu is entered to get straight to a particular setting - though of course you'll have to remember the numbers or have a crib-sheet handy.  Some common settings are split over two menus.  For instance, the repeater offset is one setting and the repeater offset direction (e.g. + or -) is set in another.  Various tone settings (e.g. CTCSS) take a numeric value, which corresponds to a particular option in a lookup table, so again, you'll need to have the manual handy if you need to change such things.

Overall, I would say the radio is no harder to configure from the front panel than most.  I have had no issues of it not doing what I expected once I've located the appropriate options to change.

The manual supplied with the radio is 'adequate'.  It is (mostly!) written in English, rather than inscrutable Chinglish, which was another fear I had.  I was able to download the manual ahead of my decision to purchase in order to verify this.  Since acquiring the radio, I have learned that there are some third party projects to better document this radio, including an excellent free PDF manual from The (Chinese) Radio Documentation Project.

The Baofung arrived just in time for it to be taken on our family summer vacation this year, for a bit of 'field testing'.  It sounded just fine on both 2m and 70cm when we tried some local simplex.  However, it was noticeably not able to activate any of the repeaters in the area we were staying on Vancouver Island.  My ID-51a is itself challenged with a less-than-stellar standard antenna IMHO, but I was able to access a number of repeaters that the Baofeng simply couldn't.  I'm pretty sure the little compact/stubby standard antenna on the Baofeng is to blame.  I have not measured the output power from the radio, but others have consistently reported it to be very close to the specified 4W on their radios.  That's admittedly a watt less than the 51a, but not much.  We were able to activate the Vancouver repeaters on return from holiday.  I'm planning to get hold of a VHF power meter sometime and validate the full transmit power, but I think a replacement SMA antenna may be in order.

As well as the amateur bands, the radio has an FM broadcast station receiver - something Toby also enjoyed.

Overall, I'm very impressed with the Baofeng UV-5RA.  It's way more radio (and accessories) that I would have believed possible for the price.  As others have commented, at that price you could almost consider the radio 'disposable', but hopefully it will continue to work solidly.  It certainly has all the critical features you need for a handy-talkie and it's programmable with the available software.  Of course, it doesn't have a digital mode, isn't waterproof, doesn't have GPS or packet/APRS, nor any other whizz-bang proprietary features... but do you really need any of that most of the time?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Icom demonstrates significant Q4 upgrade to 7800 firmware

Despite my expectations of nothing particularly interesting happening with the 7800, it seems I was wrong!

I was extremely happy today to learn that Icom will be delivering a significant update to the 7800 before the end of the year.  This has just been showcased at the Tokyo Ham Fair.  Here's a link to a YouTube video of a demo.  Unsurprisingly it's in Japanese, but you can get the gist of it from what's happening on the radio.

The features that are alledgedly included in this update are:

  • Waterfall screens for RF and AF (Audio Scope/FFT Scope/Oscilloscope) 
  • Mouse operation for scopes, click to select the frequency (Use USB hub to connect both of the keyboard and mouse at the same time) and other scope improvements 
  • Remote control without radio side PC by RS-BA1 (new version). Shack side PC (user operation PC) is still required. 
  • Voice recorder improvement (like the ID-31/51, IC-7100 function) 
  • USB flash drive compatibility (in addition to Compact Flash) 
  • New APF function improvement (0-6dB six steps volume adjustment) 
  • Transmit delay function (for linear amplifier) 
  • Expansion of 7MHz band (EUR version) 
  • One-hand operation for filter setting change 
  • New CI-V command additions (quasi-power-On/Off, setting/reading current status of RIT/Delta TX Freq, RIT On/Off and Delta TX On/Off)
This new love and attention that Icom are showering on the 7800 is continued commitment to their current flagship radio and of course a gift to their existing customers who have made a considerable outlay to acquire Icom's top-of-the-line HF rig.  It's great that Icom are showing continued support of their flagship in continuing to add value over a nice long product lifecycle that warrants the premium price that the product commands.  No doubt there are other commercial motives, e.g. keep the 7800 relevant in the market a little longer and competing against new products (from Kenwood in particular).  

I'm particularly gratified that with the panafall and finally practical uses for the modern hardware interfaces in the radio.  It seemed almost criminal that the radio is outfitted with ethernet and USB, yet to date on the 7800 these have been practically useless.  

The panafall should be a really nice addition, assuming bandwidth and speed are balanced nicely and it's practical rather than just a check-box feature.

Having a remote control server built into the radio and connectable over ethernet is simply awesome.  I've read lots of less-than-stellar reviews of the RS-BA1 remoting product.  Messing around with a server PC and lots of connecting cables to the radio is a nightmare.  I'm glad they've found a way to get all that hosted internally and to finally make that ethernet connectivity meaningful.

I really hope they go all the way and publish the full spec of the protocol used over the ethernet.  It's possible this is already defined and published (between the two copies of the RS-BA1 software you'd currently need to have remoting working), but I haven't stumbled over this yet.  I'd really like to leverage the possibilities this opens up for convenient rig control and remote operations by writing other client software (for me that means OS X and iOS by choice, though I also enjoy Haskell/GTK, which is cross-platform). 

So, 2013 is turning out to be a year loaded with quite a bit of excitement for me (my son getting his license, Flex 6700 delivered, 7800 being upgraded)!

Icom, if you're listening (!) a big thanks from me.  I'm looking forward to seeing this all in the flesh and discovering just how much this turns my 7800 into a 'new radio'!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ham Nation - the next generation

Over the school summer holidays this year my son Toby (15) decided to get himself qualified and licensed as a "Basic" Canadian amateur radio operator.  Now, this wasn't 100% self-motivated... I'd been telling him that this would be a 'cool' thing to do for a while and suggested it as a good summer project.  I then applied a gentle pressure by enquiring after his progress on a daily basis.  Nevertheless, to his credit he kept up the work (focus and consistency being important to make real progress) and then passed his exam with flying colours - earning the 'honours' distinction of being able to operate on HF.

After his exam success, Toby's application for a Canadian call sign was processed in absolutely record time by Industry Canada (literally two days)!  That meant that he was licensed as VA7TOB in time for a week's family vacation - providing some opportunity for a bit of initial airtime on 2m as we took a couple of handheld radios with us.  Toby acquired a very inexpensive Beofung 2m/70cm handheld, which I'll probably blog about soon.

Having Toby get himself through the exam has caused me to think again about the evolving nature of the hobby - particularly in terms of its appeal to the younger demographic.  It's interesting talking with him to hear his attitudes to the advantages and interests that he associates with Amateur Radio, and also to hear what his friends have said in relation to his recent qualification and licensing.  In the rest of this blog I'll write a few thoughts about this.

I remember quite well the attraction that Amateur Radio held for me when I was in my sophomore year.  Away home home and living in student digs, one of other tenants in the house had recently obtained his 'Class B' UK license and had a nice little set up in his room - consisting of a Yaesu mobile rig, an AEA TNC and a mobile antenna.  He was into packet radio and demonstrated what it could do in terms of mail and bulletin board access.  All this was at a time before the internet and when accessing a bulletin board network meant paying quite large phone bills in the UK - being before any of the schemes that essentially make local or 'family and friends' numbers essentially free.

In a nutshell, what I saw was 'magic'.

Also, as a computer guy, the idea of large-area distributed radio networks was uber cool.  The fact that this cool technology and capability was essentially out of reach due to a license requirement just made it all the more compelling - I had to get licensed :-)

Actually, my first exposure to Amateur Radio was actually at a "Jamboree on the Air" (JOTA) as a cub scout.  This was an all-night affair, with a chance to chat with other cub scouts around the world.  I was very young so didn't take all of the details in at the time, but the idea of exchanging a few words with distant people 'of a similar feather' did have some appeal and again, the capability afforded by HF radio to do this was essentially unique

Winding the clock forward to today, we all have very high speed global communication devices in our pockets.  Of course, this access isn't 100% reliable even at the best of times, but it does represent the new norm.  The biggest upshot of this is that the 'magic' of cheap long distance communications has been removed for most people.  Had I been in my digs today I may very well not have developed an interest in radio enough to actually do anything about getting licensed.  These days, people use communications technology to develop and maintain wide social networks that are grown organically around their own interests (which do not have to have anything to do with the medium over which they are acquiring this capability).

Given these changes I think it is quite normal for us to see quite a change in the 'how' and 'why' of people entering the hobby.  The good news apparently is that new licenses are at an all time high in the US and the UK (I believe).  So, in these places as least the intake is strong and no doubt driven by changes in licensing to create a lower barrier to entry, improved outreach and in carefully modifying the 'marketing hooks' that make the hobby appealing to modern audiences - specifically young people.

Amateur Radio is fundamentally a technical hobby, so any appeal necessarily involves contact with some technical concepts.  However, while it's absolutely a necessity that the freedoms afforded to hams are pegged to sufficient knowledge of how radio works, it's probably increasingly true that radio design and implementation is less of a fundamental interest.  There are more 'derived' interests in the hobby than ever before.  The oldest of these is simply operating (rag chews, contesting, DX, etc.).  However, there are now so many other dimensions:
  • Digital modes and computing in general 
  • Low power modes
  • Emergency response/support
  • Antenna construction 
  • Support software 
  • Software Defined Radio
  • Satellites/ISS/Moonbounce
  • Social networks and socialised learning
  • Fox hunting
  • Remote control, telemetry (e.g. weather balloon launches), position reporting (e.g. APRS)
  • Activating landmarks, summits, islands etc.
It's almost certainly the case that newcomers to the hobby are going to get to hooked with one of these derived interests.  Therefore any outreach will need to place itself squarely in the way of people who might find these things interesting.

Another dynamic, I think, is that it is easier to get them while they're young (and specifically while they have imagination, ambition, energy and time).

Also, when we reach out we are competing, whether we like it or not, with many other messages and appeals.  There is much that is bright and shiny in the world and the production values used to appeal to people have skyrocketed.  

Finally, there's the issue of the 'cohort'.  People are drawn to something that they see other similar people getting into.  This applies in spades when it comes to young people, according to recent studies.

In my opinion, all this adds to the need for a fairly sophisticated outreach, with attractive displays showcasing the cool high-tech and varied elements of the hobby, coupled with activities that can be run with groups of people (who share the experience together and possibly get inspired together).

Not every ARC is going to have a lot of resources for the necessary outreach, but I think attendance at community events with both exhibit and activity materials is surely the way to go.  In the UK, almost every town and village has a summer fair - a great place to exhibit some cool displays showcasing elements of the hobby, to demonstrate operating and perhaps to run a few activities such as a fox hunt.

One very exciting initiative involving technology and young people is what the Raspberry Pi Foundation are doing with computing/software.  I think this is something that Amateur Radio can both attach itself to and also learn from.  While there is probably more awareness of computing than there is of radio amongst the general public, it has nevertheless become true that most people's exposure to computing is via appliances (game devices, phones) or common software (email, Facebook, the web).  As the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation surmised, much has been lost because young people no longer have access to a simple inexpensive computer that is designed as an experimenter's platform with lots of connectivity and interfacing to the 'real world'.  Having such a platform again, coupled with educational activities to showcase 'coolness' and help people begin to understand how they can build things that do something novel and exciting, is clearly having a very positive effect on getting young people to appreciate the 'payback' of investing a little time in learning how to leverage technology.  What seems to work very well are classes that get bright kids together, each with a Raspberry Pi, working on one or more projects with appropriate encouragement and guidance.  This creates both a great environment for personal learning, but also a group effect.  I remember this effect in the 80s when I was experimenting on my own 8-bit 'micro' and would share all kinds of learning and experiences with my friends who were doing similar things.

While most endeavours are social at some level, radio is social to an even greater extent.  Generally speaking if you are doing radio you are interacting with others.  This makes the cohort effect even more important.  It's alarming, that in my local ham community I see and aging male demographic.  Certainly, going along to my radio club makes me feel young :-)  We urgently need to appeal to groups of young people that strongly and permanently adopt some aspect of the hobby, from which point they can continue to deepen their knowledge.  Starting clubs in schools or colleges might be one idea.  Another thing that seems to be working in the US is engagement of young people in emergency response in their communities, which again probably starts in schools.

As a final thought, from my point of view Canada seems to have a bit of a problem and it is rapidly falling behind in appealing to the next generation of amateurs.  It's important we find out how to fix this before we loose too many of the elmers that will keep the deeper technical skills alive through teaching/coaching once the original sparks of interest are ignited.

The problem with arresting the sort of decline based on demographics is that it takes real effort to reach and acquire new blood.  Hopefully you can find new leaders in the any new intake, that will bootstrap sustainable outreach within their own peer group.  What's clear though is that in order to start, we have to stop being exclusively an "old engineers club" (almost exclusively guys over 40!) and invest in a programme of activities that will bring in the younger people.  Naturally, nothing gets done unless there are a few people with the both passion and time to run a programme however and the comfort levels of the currently available hams to do various kinds of outreach is a big factor.

In the UK they do seem to be finding new avenues to connect with people via 'marketing' and education, whereas in the US, there seems to be ever higher emphasis on the role of amateur radio in emergency response.   Perhaps the latter is an easier route for the current generation of hams to build outreach (and our club already has a strong relationship with the local Emergency Management Centre).   I get the sense that, so far, this approach has a stronger support from government and the national amateur radio club (e.g. the ARRL) in the US than in does in Canada - which probably says something about the lack of resources and significance of the Radio Amateurs of Canada.  Without umbrella coordination and funding to organise outreach programs effectively, every local club has to decide for itself what it can do - but outreach is probably not the highest priority at local club level in most cases.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Icom ID-51a

I recently purchased an Icom ID-51A.

I was looking out for this radio, having decided quite a while ago that I really wanted a D-Star handheld, but the IC-92AD had already been in the market a few years and I was convinced that Icom must have its successor in development.

The 51A looks and feels great in the hand.  It exudes the quality that I've come to expect from Icom.
I also own a Yaesu VX-8R, which I still think is an awesome radio.  It too has a similar sturdiness and naturally I'm bound to compare the two.

I've heard the 51A is selling very well for Icom, which suggests that it is appealing as a product - and possibly that it is also seen as enough of a step change for existing customers to upgrade (like me perhaps).

The radio is pretty feature rich, as you'd expect for its pedigree - and its price (it's by no means cheap!). I'm not going to go into listing features here, but I'll offer a few comparisons and observations vs the VX-8R from the bit of operating I've done over the summer - including during a week's vacation on Vancouver Island.

The first difference to highlight are the available bands.  The VX-8R supports the usual 2m, 70m bands, but also has 6m (requiring the attachment of an short antenna extension).  In fact, much to my delight the radio also operates on the 1.25m band.  So you have a quad band HT there.

The 51A meanwhile sticks to the bread and butter 2m and 70cm bands.

Whereas Icom strongly adopted D-Star as a product differentiator and has build out the technology across its entire product line, Yaesu has eschewed this technology.  It's too bad that the big boys have to play this game, but it is what it is.  To its credit though Yaesu have embraced APRS in their VX-8 line of radios, which is a feature very much worth having in a handheld.  True packet radio APRS is really the only way to go if you want automatic beaconing with position and status reporting.  D-Star has grown a position reporting feature using the 1200 bps data channel that is available parallel to voice, however, it cannot be used on repeaters in automatic mode as beaconing would interfere with voice communications (unlike the use of the dedicated 144.390 frequency for APRS beaconing).

Of course, the VX-8R has no equivalent to D-Star when it comes to digital voice (DV).  D-Star really is an awesome thing when you consider the relative ease and convenience of doing routed voice calls across the entire world via the already very significant network of D-Star repeaters.  Yes, there are other repeater linking systems out there (e.g. IRLP and EchoLink), but D-Star is much lighter weight in usage and is controllable with relatively nice UI instead of obscure DTMF controls.

Talking of DTMF, this is an area where the VX-8R has an advantage.  Icom clearly wanted to tidy up and declutter the radio controls on the 51A and in this they did a pretty good job.  The menu system and the few dedicated buttons that the 51A possesses are well designed and pretty intuitive (although any radio takes time to learn).  However, in simplifying the controls this much, Icom have elided any numeric keypad and therefore there is no direct way of 'dialling' DTML tones.  Instead, you can somewhat clumsily set up DTMF sequences that can be played back from the menu.  I suppose this is fine for common repeater access and controls, but there's no way you could fumble your way through this in the 'heat of the moment', so to speak.

A final observation is that I think I find the provided antenna on the 51A a little sub-par.  It's very compact and I'd guess that it's not very 'gainy'.  It doesn't seem to do the job of the antenna on the VX-8R.  I don't know whether the 6m extension on the 8R does anything for the gain on the higher bands, but in any cae the 8R's provided antenna is longer and seems superior to the 51A's standard fare.  Consequently I have now bought a comet 'high gain' 2m/70cm whip for the 51A to use except when I'm clearly wanting something more compact.

So, at the end of the day, I tend to think of the VX-8R as more down-to-earth and workman-like.  Both radios are pretty IMHO.  The Icom menu system is much better than the VX-8Rs (although the latter is adequate, it's certainly not as intuitive IMO).  For me a big clincher is the D-Star support in the 51A, although I had absolutely no luck getting into a D-Star repeater with the standard antenna while I was on holiday.  I suspect I would have had more luck on the new whip, but that's not an experiment I can repeat easily.  I have heard similar grumbling from other 51A owners - often in terms that they could only produce or hear "R2D2" (e.g. digital gobbledegook produced by digital stream errors).

Friday, August 2, 2013

New blog to capture my experiences with the FlexRadio 6700

Well, I'll soon be wearing the jacket.  My 6700 is apparently on its way.

I've started a separate blog to document my experiences with this radio specifically.
Head on over to My Flex 6700 blog to read more.