Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Skip the Software for Programming Your Radio

I finally made the plunge and dumped my over complicated feature-rich HT and bought a shiny new Yaesu FT60r. The venerable king of dual-band HTs--at least in my mind. I always look for a few key things in a radio: it must be robust, it must run on easy to find and readily available power sources, and it must be relatively easy to program...by hand. The FT60r fits the bill. It is built like a tank, runs on inexpensive battery packs or AA's (at full 5W output no less), and it can be easily programmed without software.

Last night I spent an hour or two programming in all my local repeaters, simplex frequencies, and public service channels. I did it all with the manual in one hand and the radio in the other. Why program by hand? Because now I know my radio inside out. I can program anything I want on the fly, without the manual or need of a computer. So, when I'm working comms for a bike race and net control decides to use a cross-band repeater or I'm in a strange city and I catch wind of an active net, I can quickly and easily program the channel, even if it is an odd split, has DCS and PL tones, or whatever else. I don't need a computer, I don't need the manual. I KNOW how to do it. I think you should too. 

Sure, software in convenient, until you need it and either don't have it with you or can't get it to work properly. I can't tell you how many times I've run into issues where I needed to make a simple change on my HT and needed to take out a student loan to figure out how to complete the task. So I would wait. I would go home, power up the computer, be forced to go through 27,000 "critical" software updates, try and remember which port my programming cable worked on last time so I could fashion a guess at which one might work this time, find the last file I uploaded, make the changes, send them to the radio, shut everything down, power up the radio and realize that I had nothing programmed now, power everything back on, start over... After a few attempts, I would give up. I have enough frustration in my life to add any to my hobby, so I decided to go simple.

I imagine that people wonder how to tackle a long hand-programming project, so let me give you a few pointers:

Plan your Program on Paper (or Computer)


I have 152 channels programmed on my FT60r. That's a fair bit to tackle in an evening, but I did it. Print out a spread sheet with all the required information (i.e. RX Frequency, Repeater Offset, PL or DCS tone Frequencies, etc..). Print out two copies, one to cross out as you go and one for reference later. Spend time programing five or six channels at a time and then check your work. I small mix up can be caught quickly that way rather than a hundred channels down the road.

Plan for Operational Efficiency


My first elmer taught me a trick that has stuck with me. When I program a repeater into my radio, I add a channel above and below it. The channel preceding the repeater is set to simplex on the repeater's input frequency. So, if I have a hypothetical repeater on 146.625 MHz with a standard negative offset, I would set the proceeding channel to 146.025 MHz Simplex. Then on the channel after the repeater, I program the repeater's output (in this case 146.625 MHz) also simplex. Then I set the radio to skip the channels before and after the repeater when scanning. Why would I go through all this trouble? I'm glad you asked.

So, I'm out in the field and talking to my buddy or net control or some random other Ham on the repeater, when I notice that there are a lot of "breaks" happening. Maybe we've been chatting too long. So, on his next transmission I rotate the dial back a click and see if I can hear him on the input or the repeater. I can. So I suggest that we QSY to a nearby simplex frequency and let the repeater cool down. OR. A massive storm is under way and I'm net control for the local SkyWarn team when the repeater goes down. I quickly spin the dial one click forward and keep communicating critical information to the team. 

Because I set the radio to skip the simplex frequencies on either side of the repeater channel. I am assured that I will be on the right channel when my radio is scanning and I hear a friend throw out his call. I can stop the scan and talk away unencumbered.

If your radio's memory system utilizes memory banks, now is a great time to set your channels up accordingly. I set the channels I use most often into Bank 1, local Emergency and Public Service Channels go into Bank 2, Bank 3 holds other channels I use from time to time, and Bank 4 is everything else. By using the banks, I can weed out unnecessary scanning depending on the intended use of the radio on any given day.

Have a Highlighter Handy

A radio manual should be dog-eared, highlighted, annotated, and stuffed with post-it notes. Most people will suggest that you carry the manual with the radio. While that is sound advice, it is rarely practical, so a well studied manual, that resides in your mind's eye, is your best bet. When you find those little "ah-hah" snippets in the manual, please highlight them, star them, underline them, and dog-ear the page. Flip through your marked up manual once in a while and you are sure to remember the pink starred post-it-noted line on page 106 that tells you which button to push.

So that's it. That's why I think you should program your radio by hand, with a good solid plan in hand. That being said, programming software is not evil, in fact it can be quite handy, but not as a substitute for actually learning how to use your gear. Have fun programming.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Wonderland

The QTH is warm and cozy, but everything outside is frozen. It seems like the bands are as well. This AM a few stations were floating in, but most of them were from Europe and about to go QRT by the time I got on the air, so I switched it up.

I heated up the iron and turned on some old-time Christmas tunes. I soldered away and wound a toroid or two in hopes of getting my new QRPP beacon on the air before the new year. The build is going slowly, but that's because there are so many other things going on this time of year. I don't mind. I love the Christmas season and with three young children, it's a magical time of year, full of plays, shows, rides in the car looking at decorations, and of course...sledding.

I've been pretty lax on my CW lately. I fear I've forgotten more than I remember, so I guess it's about time to get back into it. I really want to be proficient enough to have a few QSOs before the New Year. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to learn Morse code. I feel like I've tried everything available to me. CDs, apps, on-line tools have all proved useful, but not complete. I really wish I had someone local to work with, but I've visited two clubs in the area and honestly...I want no part in them. One is run like a prison camp and the other is exactly the opposite. Is it impossible to have a Radio club that is both fun and organized? I'm losing faith.

Winter has always been a time of rumination and soul-searching for me, so I apologize if this post is a little too much of a downer. Like all things in life, Ham Radio has seasons and maybe winter is for rebuilding and reinventing. If that's the truth: I've got some work to do, but first, I'm taking my kids out back to go sledding.