Tuesday, 27 September 2016

FT-2900 G4HFQ programming software plus 70cm dedicated rig - the Baofeng 888.

I guess you might say I "like a bargain". Or I am "a bit tight" might be another way of putting it.

It might appear that as I have a nice rig I must have money to spread around. Yes, I do quite well and I am thankful for that. I do not earn much of it. Instead I avoid spending on things that I think I can manage myself, and save the rest for nice things.

A bit of penny pinching brought the Yaesu FT-2900 into the shack. "Proper Yaesu. None of that Chinese junk" someone said. It says underneath it "Made in China". I hadn't the heart to tell him.

Why should I care which part of the world it comes from, so long as it works? Which it does after a fashion. I do not like it, I just cannot justify spending money on a squalk box which only serves to work three people.

I am not anti-social, there really are only three people who I can regularly work on 2m FM. Regularly means once a month. Hard as I try, three people worked each month is all 2m FM does for me.

Now discontinued, this model was one of those rigs with a huge heatsink built onto the back, in an attempt to avoid the expense of a fan (what, 50p?). "Does not need a fan as it has a large heatsink" the blurb said, but it does need a fan anyway. I should have known: my FT-1900 also used to run hot even though it had a lower maximum power.

I feel guilty that I sold that FT-1900 to someone and it blew up shortly afterwards.

It need not be so. My Anytone 888 has a passive heatsink and no fan but it runs dead cool. But of course it is none of your "Proper Yaesu". It is unashamed of being made in China.

So you can get the idea. I want it to work, and I am not so bothered about where it came from. Let us say that "value for money" has clearly been a big part in my buying decisions for FM rigs.

The biggest bugbear I have with the FT-2900, apart from the heat, is that it is utterly fiendish to progamme channels into it. It takes hours, and you are not very sure if what you have done is correct. And I had to use the "memory bank link scan" to do what I wanted to do and then if the scan stopped in one bank you could not tune to the other bank ... dreadful.

I set my heart on some programming software, but this ran up against my skinflint nature. Spend £50 to a certain company for their product! Shudder. Too much. So I struggled on until I could have no more of it. Well, I used the FT-817 on 2m FM for a while and it taught me that a proper progamming suite (in that case the ancient but free "817commander") was a big plus. I could organise leaving out my local repeater (3km away), install the one I use (30km away), screen out the ones I can hear every day (50 to 60km) and listen to the one I use as a propagation predictor (80km). And I can change them at any time. Simples.

So I bought a lead with a chip and USB plug on one end and a mic plug on the other. Yes, I could have made that myself but at £4.36, post paid, from Shenzen, why bother? Ordered on 25 August, it was due here on 12 September to 6 October. Nice wide range of delivery there then. It arrived, not with a Chinese but with a Netherlands stamp on it, on 10 September.

Next step, the free programming software CHIRP. I have used CHIRP successfully on several handhelds and it is great. It claimed that the latest version worked on the FT-2900. It didn't work, or more accurately I could not get it to work. It wouldn't read the data from the rig and I could not find out why. I chased all over the shop, trying drivers (but the lead seemed to work) fiddled with CHIRP settings, and got nowhere. I now think that I could not understand the way to set up the rig for cloning. But without that information I was lost.

There is also the issue that the well known company appear to be introducing leads which do not work with CHIRP, and software which only works with their leads. I have already bought a cheap lead, and this is amateur radio. We do not mind if somebody finds his own solution to part of the problem. Or we shouldn't mind.

At this stage I might have dipped into my wallet and paid £50 or so to get a nice bit of software and lead in a neat box. £50 because no local shop seemed to stock it and I would have had to order it from USA, from which the postage is half the cost of the kit. But no, I wanted my bargain.

So I decided to give G4HFQ a try. He sells programming software which does everything which CHIRP might do but it has comprehensive instructions and explanations, which seems to be missing from CHIRP.

G4HFQ allows you to download and try his software for 2 weeks in "download only" mode. You can use anybody's lead as he does not supply them. He explains how to build your own lead. Then if it works you can pay him for a full version of the software and he sends you a code to unlock the limitations.

This is more like it. Cheap lead and cheap software? Yes! I downloaded the 2900 software and it worked perfectly with the rig in download mode. After buying the licence it works perfectly in upload too. The instructions are crystal clear and go sequentially as you work through them.

You can find G4HFQ's programming software here: http://g4hfq.co.uk/index.html

On the PC it looks like most of them do, with various screens for different functions, and one large sheet for all the memory options ...

Now that I can see what I am doing I no longer need to use to cumbersome "Memory Bank Link Scan".

The total cost to me was £4.36 for the lead and £14.33 for the software licence. As G4HFQ's site is priced in dollars it would have been cheaper for me before the BREXIT vote. Ah well. Still, £18.69 is a much better price than £50 or so, plus I engaged a bit of brain power to get it to work.

In the hobby you can always get someone to pack things together into a neat bag and by paying them more you get some sort of guarantee that everything will work together. But I have saved enough money to do something else too, and the risk of it not working opens the door to me to do some more fiddling with chips and leads, which I love anyway. In some way buying bits which work together actually spoils the enjoyment of trying to solve the problems I expect to have. I suppose trying to get CHIRP to work with the 2900 did give me a bit of a brain-teaser.
In a dark corner of the FVM shack lies the 70cm FM department. The re-emergence of the single band FT-2900 means that some other rig needs to be used to access our local 70cms repeater GB3BE. Not that anyone ever uses that repeater, but I am ready to pounce if anyone does.

The rig used for 70cms is now another of my cheese-paring specials. It is my trusty Baofeng 888, costing £8 from China on eBay. OK, it has no display, no VFO, and only 16 pre-installed channels. It cannot scan these channels, and it has no tone burst, though it can produce CTCSS tones. It runs about 5 watts on "UHF". I pre-programmed the channels using CHIRP, with the repeater, the 70cms calling frequency and a working channel.

It sits in a bit of a shelf next to a power supply unit, beside the phone and generally out of sight. I use a speaker mike, and I have never yet had a reason to change the channel. Antenna is the 1/2 wave on the FT-2900 which the 888 shares via a duplexer. On 70cms it is "a colinear" - gee, what sophistication.
I needed to use flash to take a picture down there of course, and it shows up the general starkness of the situation. Out of sight and often out of mind. But crucially it works.

If the FT-2900 had been a decent rig it would have 70cms on it. But I was saving cash when I bought it. So the combined cost of the 2900 and the 888 comes nowhere near the cost of a dual band FM mobile. I am a happy camper.

The only drawback of the 888 is that it does not have the 1750hz toneburst needed to open the BE repeater. BE may say it responds to CTCSS, but it doesn't. Not worth building a tone burst as no doubt as soon as I do BE will go over to CTCSS. So I recorded a 1750hz tone which I play through the 888's speaker mic. Tight? Me? Well, that is the secret to me being able to afford all the other stuff I have. And also how I can afford to go to Italy (on the train to keep it cheap of course).

I am ... careful with my money.

I propose a toast to the £8 ham radio. Long may cheapies keep us going. Bravo Chinese sites on eBay.

Hail to everyone who allows me to save on the run of the mill stuff and spend my savings on useful things.



Monday, 26 September 2016

Back again, PW 70MHz contest, and limited activity

Hello again.

I am back in the country again.

I have been in Italy. I travelled by train from Berwick upon Tweed to Bari for four days sightseeing and general diversion, with no radio. There should have been a photo now of me standing in front of a train as far South as it is possible to go by rail in South East Italy (Gagliano Leuca). However, thanks to the staggering inefficiency of the local railway company FSE, we only got as far as Gallipoli (note not Galipoli, which is in Turkey).

So we will have to settle for this one which shows me at Gallipoli. The train in the background is more typical of the FSE company's trains than the one in the foreground

I also made it on a different railway, narrow gauge this time, to Matera, which is famous for troglodytic dwellings. On the journey this rather unsteady photo was taken in the station bar in Altamura by my fellow traveller Norman.
The couple in the background seem to be having a better time than I was. As soon as we sat down, took that photo and started to plan where to go next, the barman shut the bar and threw us out (the closing time for Italian station bars appears to be 13:12). We had tried to take a photo on the platform instead, but the station master told us we needed authorisation to take pictures and threw us out of there too.

The return journey I did as one continuous trip, Bari - Milan - Paris - London - Berwick, using the overnight Thello train between Milan and Paris. In Sporadic E terms that is too far for a single hop anyway, being well over 2000km, though 4 hops were a bit exhausting.

As overnight trains are becoming increasingly rare it was nice to travel on my first "International" night train - or at least that is so provided you regard Scotland and England as one country. As I have heard is always the routine on any International night train, the Border Police arrived into the compartment at 03:25 to check us against our passports. And a warm welcome they received too.

Enough of this, as we are in a radio blog rather than a railway one.
Yesterday, 25 September, was the date of the annual Practical Wireless 70MHz contest. I do read and occasionally contribute to PW. It is a venerable publication and deserves some support. So I usually wade into their 2m and 4m contests. Yesterday was beset with fairly dire conditions. Signals were masked by choppy QSB. I did not stay on for long, and no dramatic DX was worked.

I did hear one other station fairly strongly but I know from experience that if he is strength 5 he will not be able to hear me. He needs to be S8 for him to even copy my callsign. We both use similar power, or at least my power is similar to what he says he runs. Any more would be over the legal limit, so he can hardly be doing that, now can he?
So far in September I have of course been away for quite a while when I would normally have been on the air. There was a good VHF Es opening on 10 September. This brought in a best DX of UX4UA at 2263km, but also nice contacts into DL, F, HB9, YO and HA. I even ventured onto 4m to work HA6ZB a nice 1767km away. This was a good reminder that Es is not just a May to August phenomenon. On 40m (yes, HF!) I worked PY8JL on my wire dipole which has the centre about 5m above ground (if even that). Over 8000km on a thrown together antenna. I must give 40m a bit more of a workout this autumn.
While I was away the new mast for the 6m antenna has arrived. Much to my surprise, the existing lash-up did not blow down while I was away. All we need now is to get the brackets, mast and winches organised and installed.

Geomagnetic conditions are disturbed and two coronal holes are approaching the right position to affect us. They are numbered 19 and 20 on this photo which I have copied from Solarham (Solarham is a great site and you will find a link to it on the sidebar on this site)
There are early signs of aurora. As usual we await developments.



Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Yaesu FT-450D firmware update

I have been away for a few days - in North Yorkshire minus radio.

Well, I took the Wouxun handheld and heard nothing for a week on 2m plus one brief squawk on 4m. So it is not just South East Scotland which has low activity.

"Mark" pointed out on the FT-450D posting here that it is possible to update the firmware on the FT-450D. True. I have never done it so I guessed it was time to try.

Maybe my reluctance to do anything was at least partly caused by the fact that the Yaesu UK site does not mention to possibility of a firmware update, or they hide it away very well. In either case, that site was no use.

Mark provided a link to the yaesu.com site. I could not get that to work but I did get onto the FT-450D page on that site :-


Then from that I clicked "Files" and scrolled down to "Amateur radio/software". Note that there is a different version available for earlier versions of the FT-450 too. I wanted the FT-450D one.

Note also that you can read the information pages as a PDF, and that contains a link to download the software. However, that link just takes you back to the main FT-450 page, which foxed me for a while. What you have to do is follow "Files" and scroll down and then select the firmware download specifically. Easy enough really, but apt to confuse people like me.

At this stage I might just point out that I can only quote links valid at the date of writing (in this case 14-09-16). Over time links get moved, sites close and so forth. Nevertheless, if a link does not work you can usually find the page somehow, and I try to name pages so that you can find them by using a "search engine" (I use something now called "Yahoo", which I know as Alta Vista, though I have heard that some other search engines now exist). (Aren't the Celts strange people?)

Of course your rig needs to be connected to a computer which has the update files ready to transfer. The Yaesu instructions go out of their way to say that some USB leads may not work. This has been my experience with cheap USB leads. My computer has an RS-232 D-9 socket so not using USB is not a great problem for me.

If you need to use USB I would suggest using a CAT lead with a good chip in it (available on eBay for under £20). I haven't tried this one, but it looks fine:-


Another route is to use a USB to RS-232 converter and then use a straight-though D9 to D9 RS232 lead. However, I would suggest using a converter with an FTDI chip. Prolific chips are all well and good, but I have found problems with them beyond the much talked about fake chip issue. And if, on the other hand, you do use an RS-232 lead, make sure you are using a straight-through wired one. The old ones in your parts box might be wired for "cross-over".

NOTE - if you already have CAT up and running reliably on the FT-450D then whatever you have should be able to communicate with the rig and the above paragraph is not for you.

So at this point things take their usual dreary way for firmware updates. You download the files from the site, unzip them, save them to a folder. For the FT-450D you turn if off and disconnect the power and CAT lead, slide the switch under the front right hand corner (as viewed from the front) across - the switch is hidden under a slot in the bottom panel). Then put the power back on but leave the rig off ,and reconnect the CAT lead.

Then you run the firmware update software and watch the data load. Once that is done, you have to do a hard re-boot of the rig so you will lose all your settings. The instructions say that you should have written down all your memory and function pre-sets before you started all this, but of course being a real amateur I decided not to. Real amateurs work it out for themselves (and get screwed up in the process).

So turn everything off, disconnect the DC power and CAT again, turn the slider switch under the rig back to where it was, and then turn the power back on. Press and hold the "Home/recall" button (left hand in the middle of the top right-hand buttons) and press the power button. The FT-450 should come back on and do a hard reset. After that you can reconnect the CAT lead and everything should be fine again, but with a factory reset to the new firmware settings.

All you have to do now is re-input all your settings. I found that the main issues I had to were restore "D Type" from RTTY to "User-U" for data modes, change "CAT RTS" to "Disable", "CAT TOT" to "3000" and "CAT RATE" to "9600". Of course your settings might be different , so for example I also had to reduce the keyer speed (of course) and reverse the key polarity. Those are just my things.

You can check you firmware version by keeping the "MODE down" button pressed while turning the rig on. Here is mine to prove that I now have the latest firmware settings (ver. 244).

Exactly what has changed? Not sure. Most firmware updates I have done have not really surprised me with new features. Generally they are about tweaks and minor improvements. They are worth doing though, especially for rigs with DSP or other major digital processes. Updating your firmware is like having the latest rig off the production line. Any noticeable improvements I find will be reported here.

While looking for this, I did check out the PCC-450D software on the Yaesu site. It is a remote package for operating the 450D from a computer. This could be handy enough, and it is free. Generally with this type of software you can find ways to change things which take ages to do by hand using the knobs on the rig. I may investigate that further soon.

The rig was running fine this week, with cross-Atlantic 40m contacts worked with no strain at all.

It might not be The King of Rigs, but the FT-450D continues to work away efficiently and without fuss.

Thanks to Mark for pointing me towards the yaesu.com site or I might never have found this.



Thursday, 1 September 2016

A good VHF August with added computerised logging.

Data entry and testing.

Data entry and testing.

When I worked for a large government agency in Edinburgh I had to do the accounts and run the personnel section. One group of staff were organising a new computer system which would save our bacon by reducing the staff numbers and save the money we would not have in future years.

All they did was sit in an office in front of screens. Their time sheets just said ...

Data entry and testing.

Every week. I just had to accept that this justified their salaries.

And so, since VQLog arrived at GM4FVM, all that I have been doing is ...

Data entry and testing.

What a boring job this turned out to be. I just hope I get as many efficiency benefits as my former colleagues used to promise.

All my 2m contacts from here are now in the log, apart from some rather tedious contest contacts. Almost no FM QSOs get logged here anyway. All the 4m contacts back to 2 October 2015 (don't ask) are also in plus all the new DXCC entities and squares back to 2009. All the 6m contacts go back to 1 April 2016, with all new countries as they arose, back to 2009. I have not yet formally organised 6m squares. And as for HF, just a few that caught my attention. It is not hard to see where my heart is. Many of the HF ones are interesting, but I have to set some priorities or this would go on forever. Also in are almost all the contacts confirmed by paper QSL cards.

What I really needed to do was get everything that mattered into VQLog, and the paper record will remain for the things I have not transferred in.

So most of August's contacts were entered live and it all went well except for one session.

Let us see what happened in August then.

Before the 14th there was a Sporadic E ("Es") opening from here almost every day, each of which was over 1000km, and on the day when there was no Es opening I worked into OZ on 4 metres meteor scatter. I would have to say that it really was very good stuff.

You can click on the images to enlarge if necessary.

VHF DX Squares Sporadic 1 - 13 August 2016

That includes new 4m squares provided by M0TBS/P and SP3RNZ/8, plus a new 6m country and square with C37MS in Andorra.  There were also some very nice long distance 6m QSOs to US0LW (2637km), SV3BSF (2638) and SV9CVY (3091). All in all a nice period after such a long drought on Es.

Then came 14 August when 6m opened again across the Atlantic. It was a good enough VHF day for me to do a proper map ..
Once again I stuck to JT65 and I lost one in QSB but still worked three

AB1NJ again (VT, FN34 4961km), NK1K (MA, FN42 4993) and WA1NPZ (NH, FN43 4914). The one that got away would have been quite nice DX - K8EB in MI, EN73, 5758km. We both stuck at it for quite a while but it just was not to be.

I was pleased that I was around for a second trans-Atlantic opening on 6m in 2016, and two new stations were worked as well. The repaired 6m linear worked well at 125 watts. I was in touch with AB1NJ who thought this was the best opening of the year from his end, but it was second best from here. Es is very selective.

Not only was 14 August the best opening of the month, but 14 August marked the decline in Es. After that there were 6 days of the month with nothing heard on Es at all. The openings which did occur were shorter and more limited in their scope.
VHF DX Squares Sporadic E 15 to 31 August 2016

Although the second half of the month was very nice, it is immediately apparent that the steam has gone out of Es for now. Not that this means the end of it. As I found out pursuing another question, I have worked more Es in January than in September, but it can happen anytime.

As the Es fades each year I tend to turn to meteor scatter. MS also worked quite well during August, with the Perseids shower doing very well for me. A new country on 4m was provided by the Andorra expedition C37MS, which I had worked earlier on 6m Es.
VHF Squares Meteor Scatter 1 to 31 August 2016

I do not turn to 2 metres too often, but in August I did. The 2m meteor scatter contacts to LY2AO (KO16, 1505km), SF3NR (JP92, 1396) SM1FMT (JO96, 1247)F4ARU (JN03 1398) LA8KV (JP52 1075) were all notable in their own ways, and not bad for 2m by any standard.

EI9E/P (IO44 560) was a new square on 4m even if was rather close. OH2BYJ (KP10, 1571) on 4m was best meteor scatter DX of the month, but I have worked him before.

IZ0MIT is showing up as a meter scatter QSO on 6m, but to be accurate it was really mostly Es with a bit of MS thrown in.

So that is it for the month of August. Sorry that shortage of time has force me to cover the whole month in one page. However, it shows what a difference there was between the first half and the second half of August. August started with Es every day, and ended with it tailing away. Good old reliable meteor scatter filled in the gaps.

The one aspect where I did not get on with VQLog was in the RSGB 4m UKAC contest on 30 August. I only had ten contacts, but keeping track of the serial numbers when I heard stations but did not work them was tricky. I need a good record of who I have worked already. No doubt VQLog can help me, it can certainly do sequential serial numbers, but I am not sure I want that type of help. Maybe contests are just better done on paper, for me anyway. 

Or maybe I just do not love contests, although I see their benefits and I do come on the bands specifically for them.

We shall see as time goes on.

Right, I am off to do some more ...

Data entry and testing.