I run a very modest amateur radio station at home. This is partly due to where the station has to be located and partly due to the size of our garden.
The shack is located at the front of the house on the second floor, over thirty feet above the ground. This means that cables to the antennas, located in the back garden, are relatively long and, not being able to afford the very best antenna cable, this compromises my station somewhat due to losses in those cables. The result is, on VHF at least, a good proportion of the signal transmitted by the transceivers are lost before they even reach the antennas.
The antennas are located in the back garden, but at only twenty-odd feet long and less than twenty feet wide at the house, tapering to around eight foot wide at the bottom of the garden, there isn’t a huge amount of space to erect antennas. As a result I’ve only got room for a vertical VHF antenna, a short VHF/UHF beam, a trapped HF vertical and a dog-leg long-wire of between thirty and forty feet in length.
They’re not hugely efficient antennas and none of them are particularly high off the ground. Combined with the long cable lengths it’s not a recipe for record breaking communications around the world.
The main HF transceiver is a, now elderly, Yaesu FT-1000MP. As soon as the ‘MP was launched in 1995 I wanted one; it was the top of the tree at the time and highly desirable – there was little to touch its feature list and performance at the time. Mines the basic model; 100 watts of power with no additional filters. However, everything you could want to adjust is instantly available through the push of a button, there’s no fiddly menus here.
Supplied with the hand-microphone, I’ve steadily upgraded to an MD-100 desktop microphone and recently replaced that with an MD-200. However most of its use is at 30 to 50 watts using digital modes using a Buxcom Rascal interface to the computer. It’s of early eighties vintage which shows because the PTT is triggered using a serial port; yep, some of us still use good old-fashioned RS-232 serial ports.
The antenna tuner’s not bad in this rig, matching some pretty amazing SWRs, not like more modern transceivers that fail to match anything above an SWR of 3:1. However, it does have a problem with the really short long-wire antenna on 7MHz (40m) so I have recently attached the ‘MP to an LDG AT-100 Pro external tuner. It’s pretty amazing, automatically re-tuning itself in a fraction of a second when I change bands and it makes the long-wire work pretty well given its limitations.
There’s two VHF rigs on the shack desk. There’s the Kenwood TM-V71 dual-band (2m/70cm) FM-only rig that used to run the Echolink node here in Ormskirk and the Icom IC-7000 that’s used mainly for VHF/UHF SSB (single side-band) transmission and reception during contests, though I haven’t done much contesting in the last eighteen months. The latter’s also used, attenuated to reduce the signal strength and without an antenna, to monitor the relatively strong local FT-8 transmissions from the FT-1000MP.
The TM-V71 has a data port and that’s connected to another ageing piece of kit, a Kantronics KPC-3 terminal node controller (TNC). It’s had its ROMs upgraded so that I can use it for processing APRS (amateur radio position reporting) signals and its memory upgraded in case I ever get the opportunity to reintroduce packet radio to the area (who knows – we live in hope). I’ll be adding a modern USB sound-card data interface to the IC-7000 in the near future so that I can play with FT-8 on 2m and maybe have a go at entering the RSGB affiliated clubs competitions.
I’ve got a very nice Heil Proset headphone and boom microphone for the IC-7000 and this makes a great difference when contesting.
I do use a large screen with the IC-7000 and it does help read what can be quite a cramped display when all the meters are turned on. It’s not the genuine Icom screen, it’s a Maxim TFT LCD colour TV with a composite input. However, it does make the job of interpreting the screen so much easier despite the colour difference; it doesn’t display the same colours as those on the Icom’s small screen. It’ll be a cabling issue but it’s not causing me a real problem so I haven’t really bothered sorting it out.
The VHF antenna is a dual-band Watson W-300. I’ve been using these for years (I think this is my second one) and they perform really well given the modest cost. Living on top of the only hill on the West Lancashire plain it does a really good job of allowing me to work down in to the Midlands (100 miles, or so) and further when conditions are right.
I miss my old Maspro 8 element short beam on 2m, it was a great antenna. It was really well constructed and performed admirably given its short boom length. However, when it got damaged in the wind I took it down and replaced it, temporarily, with a Cushcraft AS270-6S dual band beam. I thought I’d like to work the 70cm contests using a beam instead of using the Watson vertical and it certainly improved the 70cm scores. However, only being 3 element on 2m really hurt my scores on that band. I’ve got to find somewhere to put the repaired Maspro antenna back up and keep the Cushcraft for 70cm operations.
I’m not sure what the trapped HF vertical is, I scoured the Internet but not found anything that looks like the one I’ve got. It’s mounted on a 30 foot Tennamast secured to the back of the house which ensures the antenna breaks the ridge of the roof. It’s resident on 20m, 15m and 10m and tunes up on all bands between. It’ll tune up on 40m with the LDG tuner, but the FT-1000MP’s built-in tuner doesn’t do a good job of it at all. The results are acceptable given the limitations of height and environment working down in to South America when conditions are right.
We’ve already discussed the HF long-wire’s short-comings, but it does a pretty decent job of European contacts when the wind’s too strong to put up the vertical (most of the time suring the 2017/18 winter to-date as we’ve had nothing but gales since late November). The wire’s attached to a 9:1 unun manufactured by my friend Simon Poyser (MW0GSR) at the now sadly defunct Snowdonia Radio Company. Given a longer wire and a bit more height I’m sure this would be a much better performer than it currently is.
The two elderly tower computers, one running a triple core AMD processor of some vintage and a Dell Vostro sporting a Pentium processor, have recently been replaced by a Dell Optiplex 790 ultra small form factor desktop. It’s so small that I can actually have it sitting on the shack desk freeing up lots of space for my feet (at last) beneath the desk. It’s driving two full HD displays (a Philips who’s colour cast is a little on the warn side and a Samsung that’s a little on the cool side – I can’t get them balanced no matter what I try) sports seven USB ports and 4Gb of RAM, though this will be upgraded to 8Gb soon so that I can run a couple more communications programs simultaneously.
The processor’s nothing to write home about being a second generation Intel Core i3 from around 2012. However, the vintage dual-core i3-2100 running at 3.1GHz isn’t actually that bad, despite its age. It’s streets ahead of what I had and the processor still ranks well in to the top half of Passmark’s High Mid Range performance table with a score of over 3,600.
There are a couple of two port serial USB adaptors attached to bring the total number of ports up to five (including the on-board one). Again, they’re relatively old and use the detestable Prolific PL-2303HX chipset. But providing you don’t unplug them, and plug them back in again, they’ve proven pretty reliable. I’ve deliberately gone for two double-port adaptors so that all ports are using the same driver; I’ve had lots of problems using two different Prolific USB serial port adaptors in the past as they rarely work with the same version of the drivers – very messy.
The keyboard’s a treat to myself. Being around during the early days of IBM desktop computing, and becoming used to their Model M keyboard, I’ve hankered after a decent mechanical keyboard with the right amount of tactile and audible feedback for many years. I recently came across a compacy (no numeric key-pad) Turtle Beach Impact 500 keyboard in my local CEX for about £30. It’s proven to be just right and I love it, but I’m not so sure everyone in the house shares my love of it – I keep having to check to see whether anybody’s chucked it out to save their eardrums (I type a little on the heavy side at the best of times).
The internal hard disk has been upgraded to a faster 500Gb model but I am considering swapping it for a 250Gb SSD. I don’t need the large hard disk space for amateur radio work, but the speed increase would be a big bonus.
All data is stored in the Onedrive folder on my hard disk to ensure that the data is backed up to the cloud automatically once it has been changed. I share the amateur radio folders with a few of my laptops so that I always have my up-to-date logbook with me where ever I go and regardless of which laptop/tablet I take with me. Furthermore, if I change the log whilst away, it will automatically snych back with the logbook on the Dell when I get back home. It’s a great system.
I also back the One drive folder up to an external hard disk that’s permanently attached to the Dell – belts and braces and all that.
The Dell’s running the Windows 8.1 Pro operating system which does work well enough, unlike its earlier Windows 8 sibling which was really quite awful. I’ve resisted the temptation to upgrade to Windows 10 because I want to control what updates are installed and when. Given that this computer’s on twenty four hours a dat reporting FT-8 signals to the PSK Reporter web site when I’m not around, I don’t want it automatically rebooting itself because an unannounced update has taken place.
The only real modification I’ve made to Windows is the use of the Classic Shell software. It provides a Windows 7 like start menu that was sadly missing from Windows 8. It works really well and is the missing link that would have made ‘8.1 really good.
I do pay for Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) as I do think it’s a really good piece of software that covers all the things I want of an amateur radio software application. It handled, until recently, all the data modes I want to work, slow scan television (SSTV), shows the DX Cluster in a clear manner and does a good job of logging my contacts. Unlike other software variants, it is updated regularly and I honestly think it’s worth the £50 a year.
The only thing that HRD doesn’t provide is the FT-8 digital mode. I’m hooked on this now and made more contacts in the month of January (2018) than I’ve ever done before. The best piece of software for this mode is, without a doubt, WSJT-X. It’s really easy to setup and use, has some really good colour coding to alert you to stations you’ve already worked, those you haven’t and those that are located in a country you’ve never worked before. It’s good and it’s free.
Being a digital modes operator I am a member of several digital modes clubs throughout Europe. The Ultimate Award Application Centre application does a great job of taking my logbook and working out which of the awards offered by the various clubs I qualify for. Once it’s worked out the awards I’m due it submits the applications for me and then I receive the certificates in my email from the club a week, or so, later. This is a great award chasing tool for digital operators and thoroughly recommended.
So that’s it, that’s the tour of my amateur radio station complete. It’s an eclectic mix of older and more modern equipment but, amazingly, it all works really well together.
If you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned please do not hesitate to contact me and I’d be happy to have a chat with you.