Hands-on with the new Elecraft KX2

kx2-4

This lucky guy scored a KX2 in Dayton.

I had a chance to play around with the Elecraft KX2 on Saturday. While I wasn’t able to do a thorough test, I was certainly able to form some impressions of this little radio.

I know some of the guys in the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group (our clubs have been collaborating more in recent months), and one of them, knowing I have a K3, invited me to an unveiling of the KX2. After meeting with a group of members for lunch Saturday we made our way over to the DFARG club shack in Little Mountain and all gathered round while one of their members conducted a show-and-tell of Elecraft’s newest offering.

According to the member who owns the radio, he was second in line to purchase it at Dayton the previous week, and attributed his luck obtaining the radio by having a vendor pass that allowed him to get into Hara Arena earlier than most attendees.

The first impression, not surprisingly, concerns the size. We’ve seen the images and read the specs, but it certainly does seems smaller in person. Even with the “handles” this particular owner had already installed on the sides, it’s still a small rig. Saw an FT-817 in half longways and you’ll approximate the size and thickness of the radio. It’s also very light, maybe slightly heavier than my Tytera DMR handheld.

kx2-2

One of the DFARG members holds the KX2 as we all swoon at the small size.

We placed it next to a KX3 and indeed the KX3 feels quite a bit larger in comparison to the KX2. Interestingly, both radios share the same screen size and display cues, which is also the same display as the full-size K3. The advantages of the display are obvious, particularly when compared to an FT-817, which has a display about the size of a 42mm Apple Watch.

The information layout is the same as its older siblings, and anyone familiar with operating Elecraft gear will be able to pick up the KX2 and get on the air quickly. I still had to poke around a bit to find some of the more esoteric functions, but options such as power output, filter width, mode/band, were right where you’d expect them to be.

kx2-3

The KX3, top, and the KX2 side-by-side. Apologies for the glare!

kx2-7

The KX2 is dwarfed by the full-sized K3, but note the screen sizes are exactly the same.

I only managed to test the rig in single side band mode because we didn’t have a code key handy. In the confusion I didn’t try tuning around to listen to CW, but I have no doubt CW operation is a pleasure because SSB was excellent.

Edit: I have since played with this rig again and did manage to listen to some CW. It sounds EXCELLENT through the built-in speaker and the CW decoder is no doubt the same firmware used in the K3/KX3, so it functions quite well also. It’s quiet with the 500 hz filter in line, and receiving code is nice and punchy.

Members commented on how good the tiny bottom-mounted speaker sounded and it sounded good to my ear as well, even though I did hear some crackle and buzz. Another member mentioned it was an improvement over the KX3’s sound. I’d probably still want a good set of cans if I were using it, but for casual operating, particularly in a quiet room, it would be fine without.

The receiver seems sufficiently hot. We tuned around on 20 meters on the club’s tri-band beam and there seemed to be a lack of stations Saturday, but we did roll up on KX5AR conducting an NPOTA activation and scored a QSO on the first shot, having no issues conversing with the operator on our 10 watts of power. I managed to record the QSO in the below video.

The small size makes this a neat little radio for digital modes and it would tuck away nicely under a monitor on a desk or alongside a tablet or laptop for portable use. If I wanted to dramatically scale down my shack, I’d still select the KX3 and an amp, just for 6 meters and the additional control surface.

That does bring me to the one thing I didn’t really like about the rig, and that was the cheap-feeling VFO dial and secondary knobs. This isn’t an issue limited to the KX2, as even the K3 has some cheap knobs (the VFO B knob comes to mind…). Of course, this does save weight, but the rotation of the main VFO didn’t “feel” like that of a $700-1000 radio, if I’m being honest. Even the FT-817 has a smoother action. But again, considering functionality over aesthetics, I can live with the “plastic fantastic” knobs knowing the receiver is good.

Much has been made of this being a “handheld” rig, and I’d say that’s true. We didn’t test the internal microphone. The design is the typical Elecraft style: That of a utilitarian black box, and as such, it’s not particularly ergonomic. It’s larger than most modern handhelds, but yes, it can easily be used in this fashion if that’s what you’re into!

There isn’t really much else I can say. It’s an Elecraft, and a worthy offspring of the venerable K3. It just works very well and portable ops will love it. It functions just as you’d expect an Elecraft rig to, and maybe that’s the highest praise it can be given.

Speaking of portability, one of DFARG’s operators has figured out an easy way to mount a KX2 or a KX3 on a car dash. We’re calling this the “W1TEF solution” and it uses a $28 clamshell style GPS holder from ChargerCity. See the photos of this in action below.

kx2-6

kx2-5

I’m not sure the KX2 is going to replace my FT-817 at this point, as I don’t do enough portable operation to make it worth the while. But there’s no doubt Elecraft has made an intriguing little radio at an attractive price-point.

 

 

DMR is getting big around here

roger_mull-1024x776I remember seeing some of the first DMR handhelds appear around here about 2 years ago, and I wasn’t really impressed. The audio quality sounded great, but to me it was another infrastructure-heavy type of system that fell somewhere between a repeater on steroids, D-Star and a VOIP system like Echolink.

Apparently here in Columbia, a proof of concept of the system was installed in late 2013 at Little Mountain, and it’s really taken off locally. The large statewide SCHEART network obtained some funding, and the DMR network is now in its second (possibly third?) phase here in the state, with new machines and talk groups being added frequently. I recently participated in a statewide emergency exercise  as a member of Auxcomm, and I noticed DMR radios were in heavy use at the state EOC. Also, every time I get around a group of hams, the subject of DMR comes up. So I thought maybe it was time to learn more.

In an effort to demystify the mode a bit, I asked a local emcomm expert to present a program on DMR at our April club meeting. We had record attendance at the meeting, with many operators I’ve never met coming out of the woodwork to attend. There were no shortage of questions either. For the better part of an hour, we inspected actual DMR hardware (two repeaters, numerous handhelds), viewed real-time DMR traffic on the web, learned about the networked talk groups, time division systems, and a local “bridge” that connects DMR with D-Star and other proprietary systems.

At at the end of the day, the presentation helped me understand the mode and I actually wanted to give it a shot. I don’t currently own a DMR radio, but I suppose I’m in the market — in particular, the Tytera handhelds seems very popular here, and one can be had for a reasonable $140 or less on Amazon. Programming is obviously important, and the folks at SCHEART release new “code plugs” frequently as the network expands.

First steps:

  • Before purchasing a DMR rig, register your callsign at DMR-MARC. This is the “master listing” of DMR users to prevent ID/callsign conflicts. You can’t really use your radio until you have an ID.
  • Get a radio. The Tytera 380 is popular here, and cheap. Offerings from Connect Systems and of course, Motorola are also popular, with the latter being many more times expensive.
  • Get some code plugs. NCPRN.net and SCHEART.us have the most recent files. These are programming files that contain info about the repeaters on the system.
  • Use the radio: Select the proper zone for your area and choose a talk group. It’s helpful to understand the architecture of the network, and know exactly what’s happening in the background too. For example, if you key up on the entire “PRN” network, you are simultaneously bringing more than 40 repeaters across the eastern US online. You probably don’t want to use PRN for ragchew, so you should move your QSO to a more localized “chat” frequency.

Download the presentation

Build your own power distribution box; blue radio displays

Just a couple interesting links I wanted to make a note of:

dcboxI was calling the local 2M net Sunday night and one of our very new hams, Tom, KK4VWX, mentioned he had crafted his own power distribution box. I mentioned on-air that I was interested in checking that out, since these boxes are slightly overpriced for what they are. I do love the PowerPole system though.

So a day later, Tom e-mailed me the above link to the plans for the box, and he shared some experiences and tips from building it.

From Tom’s e-mail:

  1. Be sure to ‘bottom out’ the Faston connectors before soldering. I didn’t do that for one pair and I ended up pushing it in further when seating a fuse and ended up breaking the copper trace on the other side. Soldering both sides of the copper board might have helped with that. You might want to solder with a fuse in place to keep the alignment straight on both legs.
  2. Use a small screwdriver to loosen up the Faston connector. It’s much too ‘grippy’ when it comes out of the bag. Too easy to tear the Faston out of the circuit board when inserting or removing fuses.
  3. Get the LED holder for the power indicator LED. Much easier to secure it into the project top.
  4. Cutting the top of the box was not easy. I used the printout as template, but it still was not aligned properly for the fuses. Maybe practice makes perfect….
  5. The 12vdc source wires should be twisted along their length before adding the Anderson PowerPoles at the ends. The twisting will cause each conductor to rotate with respect to the other conductor as you twist. Twisting will reduce the RFI by a significant amount from the power leads.

Thanks Tom!

FT-8800 in blue to match my car?

FT-8800 in blue to match my car?

Elsewhere on the web, I ran across a link that describes how to change the LCD color of the Yaesu FT-8800. Now this is admittedly pretty wacky… but I’ve developed an obsession with having blue displays on everything (we all have our psychotic hang-ups I guess). I thought about buying the FT-350 for this exact purpose. Some rigs, such as those made my Kenwood, offer a choice of color. My FT-817 and FT-847 both have nice blue displays. I’m stuck with amber on the K3 and my new FT-8800. Or so I thought!

I doubt I’ll be pulling my new (used) rig apart anytime soon to desolder surface-mount LEDs, but the prospect is certainly intriguing and wow, that blue looks beautiful.

Setup on Winlink

WINMOR, connecting to a mail station in Georgia

It’s easy to take e-mail for granted nowadays. Some of us have jobs in which we are bombarded with e-mail all day long, and dashing off an e-mail message to a co-worker in the neighboring cubicle is more convenient than actually speaking to them.

Likewise, many of us carry smartphones now, and e-mail is a flick of the thumb away.

But what happens if the Internet fails and e-mail becomes unavailable? Well naturally ham radio will save the day.

I’d been hearing some of the guys in the club talking about Winlink. I didn’t know much about it, but one of the guys mentioned I would need a SignaLink or something similar. Being a digital modes geek, I indeed have a SignaLink. So last weekend I had some free time on my hands and decided to see what Winlink was all about.

Following one of the excellent guides on the Winlink site, I installed RMS Express and configured it for my FT-817 and the SignaLink (Yes, I was going to attempt this QRP). I composed an e-mail in the client and selected the nearest RMS station I could find, a station in Brunswick, Ga., about 400 kilometers away on 40 meters.

Using audio settings on the SignaLink that I’ve used for PSK and JT65, I managed to connect to the Brunswick RMS on the first shot and the test message to my personal e-mail address appeared to send properly. A quick check of my gmail address showed the message had indeed been delivered, at a whopping 150 bytes per minute (according to the program log).

Successful delivery via Winlink

I dashed off an e-mail to my buddy Ronnie and connected to Brunswick again. I was delighted to find his response waiting for me the next morning at my fresh KK4DSD@winlink.org address!

Overall the software is very easy to get running as long as you follow one of the FAQs on the Winlink site. True to it’s name, the software is Windows-only, although it’s been known to be usable under Linux and OSX via virtual machines or some variant of WINE.

Also, be sure to download the RMS Express package ONLY. Yes, WINMOR is required if you don’t have a hardware packet modem (at a grand per pop, why bother?). I thought I needed to install the WINMOR standalone package, but I didn’t. It’s included with RMS Express.

The best metaphors I can conjure to describe this system to friends is to think of RMS Express as an old-school mail client, which in fact is exactly what it is. WINMOR is akin to the old dial-up networking package that used to be required to make an internet connection. Compose e-mails in RMS, invoke a WINMOR session, and assuming you’ve configured everything properly and selected a legitimate frequency, hit the “start” button and watch the program do its thing. Your computer will signal the RMS station and if you’re heard, handshakes will be exchanged and your station will exchange data with the remote station, which is also computer controlled and connected to the Internet for mail relay.

The FAQ I read noted that when using a SignaLink, your Windows audio should be maxed out, and the TX and RX knobs on the SignaLink should be in the 12 o’clock position. Results may vary, but I found leaving my Windows audio at 50% and the SignaLink knobs around the 9 o’clock positions worked just right. Also, be sure the delay knob is set to minimum.

With the FT-817 on full power, I was seeing about 3 watts out on the meter, with no ALC showing. I’m thinking I’d have faster transfer speeds with the higher power levels of my 100 watt rig, particularly during the noisy conditions on 40 meters last Friday during afternoon storms. But who knows?

Anyway, I’m glad to have a new tool in my radio kit, perhaps placing me one step closer to getting involved in some local EmComm efforts.

On the web this week

A couple interesting bits I’ve seen on the web this week:

From the blog of Neil, W2NDG, this is an exhaustive list of amateur radio kit resources.

Fofio!: Amateur Radio Kit Roundup

The “Splinter” from Breadboardradio.com

I’d also like to mention the great kits sold over at Breadboard Radio. These are some neat rigs and they were all designed by fellow CARC member Bill, W4FSV.

Last year many members of our club built his “Splinter” 40-meter CW QRPp rig, and we were featured in the April 2012 issue of CQ Magazine. I can’t wait to build one myself!

Here’s something a little unusual … I’m not likely to craft one of these, but Make Projects posted instructions on how to create a “bottle radio.” It looks very fun though!

And now for something completely different.

One of the things I’ve always been fascinated by are “number stations” … these allegedly broadcast information to spies using a variety of techniques, mostly encryption through a one-time pad.

The first time I heard about them was way back in 2004 or so when I heard Wilco’s album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which uses a lot of weird background sounds and samples of numbers stations.

I’ve never actually heard a number station, but now that I have a ham radio and a large antenna, I can tune pretty much anything anywhere.

Cloud Warmer featured a post today about number stations. That got me to Googling, and I quickly discovered this: Priyom.org: Radio, Number Stations and More.

The great thing about Priyom is they have a Google calendar up that contains the predicted times and frequencies of known number stations, plus a great “getting started” page for beginners like me.

My PSK31 macros for Field Day

I spent a few days researching PSK macros for Field Day and the main theme that surfaced again and again was that macros should be brief, efficient, and include some redundancy. I managed to narrow our process down to basically five buttons, assuming we would call CQ more often than pouncing. Here’s what I used in Ham Radio Deluxe’s Digital Master 780 program:

CTRL-1 | CQ Field Day

cq fd cq fd W4CAE W4CAE W4CAE cq fd k
<erase><stop>

CTRL-2 | Answer (For search and pounce contacts)

<his:callsign> de W4CAE W4CAE k
<erase><stop>

CTRL-3 | Send report

<his:callsign> <his:sent_rpt> 11A SC 11A SC 11A SC <his:callsign> k
<erase> <stop>

CTL-4 | 73 and write to log

<his:callsign> QSL 73 sk<add-log>
<erase><stop>

CTRL-5 | Again? Again?

AGN? AGN?
<erase><stop>

So basically I’d call CQ. If a station responded I’d click their callsign to get it in the log and hit CTRL-3 to issue the signal report. Once I get their report I click and select their sent exchange, which places it into the log, then finish with the “73” macro, which saves the log entry and starts a new one.

If I pounced on a CQ, I’d simply run the “answer” macro, and follow through to 73. The “again” macro was useful if we had a garbled response and needed information resent.

These may not be pretty, but they don’t need to be. We kept it simple and had no problems. Our QSOs were conducted very quickly and we didn’t keep anyone waiting.

(Notes: W4CAE is our club call, 11A SC was our exchange. Yep, we had 11 stations! The <his:sent_rpt> tag produces a 599 signal report, which is the default behavior in DM780. I don’t think an RST is even required with the Field Day exchange.)

Computer control on the FT-817

I’d been holding off on purchasing the Yaesu CT-62 CAT interface cable for the FT-817 because $36.95 (From Ham Radio Outlet) seemed a bit excessive. And that’s one of the better prices I’ve seen for it.

Bottom line is, the cable is simply a DB-9 to 8-pin DIN serial cable. No need to overpay for it.

A Google search revealed this $11.97 alternative on eBay.

I ordered it on 6/14 and had it in my mailbox on 6/16. Two days! I connected it between my Z-817 autotuner and my serial-to-USB converter, the TRENDnet TU-S9, and I’m happy to report that it worked just fine. I fired up Ham Radio Deluxe, created a new radio definition and had full control of the 817 within seconds.

With many of the 817’s controls buried in menus, HRD really makes it easy to make quick adjustments to controls such as mic gain, setting up for split, etc.

Enjoying ham while walking

The days seem endless now that Daylight Saving Time is in effect, and with the 80+ degree temperatures, it’s time to start walking again in the afternoons.

I always associate my afternoon walks with ham radio, because last summer I studied for my Technician and General exams using the Ham Radio Podclass. Podcasters John and Mike often accompanied me on my evening explorations of the neighborhood. Sadly, they have decided to discontinue the podclass, which is too bad, because their training is excellent. (I also suggest Dan, KB6NU’s, “no-nonsense” study guides!)

Last week when I hit the streets I realized I didn’t have any good ham radio-related podcasts on my iPhone. I’m mostly caught up on TWiT’s Ham Nation, so I was on the lookout for something new. I’m happy to say I found it!

I’m now listening to The Practical Amateur Radio Podcast (PARP), by Jerry, KDØBIK. These are great! The length is perfect. They are informative (today, from episode 52, I learned how to use the QSL bureau, something I’d been wondering about for a while), and they are well-produced with great audio.

After listening to episode 51 I’ve been inspired to try and make a QSO every day. So when I returned home from this afternoon’s walk, I turned on the rig with that intention in mind, and made a nice contact on 20 meters with John, V47JA, on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts.

I only had a single contact on Sunday, Andy, 9Y4LAS, from Trinidad, on 40 meters.

Just after midnight Tuesday morning I had a brief QSO with Julio, HI8JQE, of the Dominican Republic. I’ve tried working him before with no luck, but tonight I easily made contact on 40 meters.

So that’s at least one QSO a day for the last three days!

Setup on Logbook of the World

Seems like Logbook of the World leaves a lot of hams frustrated. I recall a ham at our last meeting telling an ARRL rep that he never managed to complete the setup.

And the setup is a pain, but the ARRL’s documentation on it is fairly meticulous. It’s just aggravating that you can’t set it up in a single sitting. You have to get it halfway setup, wait for the ARRL to send you a postcard with a special code, punch in the special code on the ARRL website, then wait several more days for them to create a certificate for you, THEN, continue the final setup.

No, it’s not hard; it’s just time-consuming, and a minor annoyance to impatient folks like me. And to be honest, I’m not sure how much use I’ll get out of it.

Example: After uploading a log file with more than 50 QSOs, LoTW only reported 8 confirmed QSLs from that batch. So out of all the operators I’ve spoken with, only eight of them use LoTW. Since I’m not really chasing awards, I guess there isn’t really much of a point for me to use it, although it does provide a nice searchable backup of my QSOs in case my logging program ever pukes up (But for added safety, I maintain a backup of my log on Dropbox!)

Anyway, I’ll keep using it, having gone to the trouble of getting it rigged up. In fact, I think my logging program, jLog, will even sync to LoTW automatically.

More on getting started with digital modes

I found this PDF – An Introduction to Digital Data Modes. I don’t how current any of the information is, but it looked fairly recent. Of interest to me, was the chart at the bottom showing the frequencies where one is likely to find some digital action.

In playing around a bit more with Fldigi, I have discovered the wonderful tool known as the “Signal Browser” which allows the user to monitor all the QSOs taking place on a slice of the band. It will even filter out “CQs” so you can quickly locate stations calling CQ.

I’ve heard other digital modes, but I haven’t been able to get Fldigi to decode any of them. It’s my fault; I can’t yet tell the difference between the various modes, so I don’t know what mode to set Fldigi to.

Again, I’m just listening/reading right now. I discovered a nice hack on my Mac to monitor the input audio. When I plug my audio cable into my radio and into my computer, it mutes my radio’s audio, even through the headphone jack.

A virtual mixer built in AU Lab, running on my Mac.

To correct that, I used a tool in the OS X Xcode developer’s kit called “AU Lab” to create a virtual “mixer board” with the line input from my radio, and an output channel to my Mac’s internal audio. It works great! I saved the “mixer” file on my desktop, simply named “Audio Pass-Through” and I can double-click it anytime to monitor my line-in audio.

An added bonus to this method is that I can assign Apple’s digital effects to my input and output sound, giving me another way to tune my radio’s audio. For instance, I can add a dynamic EQ, a high pass, a compressor, etc. as needed.

Once I hook up my Altec Lansing speakers, the computer itself will be a powerful DSP speaker for my FT-847!

Had I been running Snow Leopard, I could have used the developer kit program Audio Monitor, as described in this Lifehacker article.

Alternately, I could have used a physical solution, like an audio Y-splitter.