Thursday, October 2, 2014

Trial and hopefully not error

For most ham radio operators... having a decent working HF station is somewhat of a holy grail. First, let me define HF for those not familiar. The term HF stands for "high frequency". This is the type of ham radio where you can talk around the world. Other types of ham radio (like VHF and UHF) are only suitable for local communications.

So most hams want to do HF, but it takes a lot more energy and effort. It also takes more dollars and higher license privileges. I've had the license privileges needed to do this for quite a few years. But I've only had an HF station very briefly. An HF antenna typically takes a lot of room. People who live in apartments or in houses that are on small lots face many challenges in setting up an antenna that will work. Also, many homeowners find themselves restricted from putting up antennas due to CC&R rules and such.

My wife and I recently bought a house and we live under such restrictions. The rule is basically, no antennas. However, there are a lot of "stealth" options available where you can put up an antenna (particularly a wire antenna) that people cannot see or will not recognize as an antenna. As I've recently become interested in operating HF, I've been thinking a lot about those options.

One possibility is putting up an antenna in one's attic. Radio waves typically go right through wood and other building materials like sheetrock and roofing. However metal such as ducting or electrical wiring are problems. Other problems with antennas indoors or in the attic have to do with all the interference caused by normal household electronics. Not only will the electronics bother the radio reception, but the radio will likely bother the household electronics when it transmits as well. Then there is the reality that a misstep in the attic will mean a large hole in the ceiling and/or an injury. That's the part that discourages me.

One can string wire antennas around their property. But a common example of a wire antenna would be 102 feet long. I have nowhere outside where I could possibly string a wire that long in a straight line. You can get creative and zig zag wires different directions or around corners but then you face the fact that it's fairly likely that you'll try many things that don't work or don't work very well. I know a lot of hams like this trial and error. But honestly, I just don't want to dork around that much.

So I decided to go with the very well-known portable antenna called a Buddipole.

This will be 18 feet high. And while it's not exactly "stealth". It is not a fixed antenna. I can take it down in about one minute. And I would typically only have it up when it's in use. So I think because it's not mounted on the house or any fixed structure, I should be able to squeak by the restrictions. And it has the distinct advantage of being known as a very effective antenna (for it's kind) where you basically follow the instructions, put it together, and it works! Gotta love it.

For my radio... I have long been wanting a Yaesu FT-857D. There was a $50 rebate on these that ended two days ago. I bought the radio online with the "will-call" shipping option on the last day of the rebate offer. I had been debating between that radio and the Yaesu FTDX1200. The FTDX1200 is far more radio. But it's not as versatile (and certainly not as cheap). And it didn't have a rebate.

However, the day after the rebate offer on the FT-857D expired I was on the store's web site and guess what was on their front page? The FTDX1200... with a $200 rebate!

While it's not typically going to be something I'll take out of the house to operate at the park or whatever, it will be much nicer to use at home than the little FT-857D.

The reason for the title of this post... is because in spite of the fact that this is a "good" radio and a "good" antenna. There is no guarantee that it will work well here, or even be usable. There is only one way to know. It's possible that it will totally suck. Here's hoping it doesn't.

Monday, September 15, 2014

More new gear

I've been playing with my new Yaesu FT-60R HT a bit. Works great at home. And works fine in the mobile. I have ordered a headset to use with it while I'm driving. But even without the headset I was able to use it while driving with the top down on the freeway today. Although it was a little hard to hear. However the audio is quite good.

My involvement in ham radio has dramatically increased since getting the new HT. Mainly as a result of trying harder. Rather than simply tossing out my call sign and hoping someone will come back to me (which they rarely did). I am now attempting to come back to others who come on the air wanting to talk. Really, for that to work I just need to be willing to talk to anyone. And honestly, that's great practice for life in general.

As a result of my renewed interest and increase in activity, I decided to go ahead with my initial plan to replace my ICOM base (IC-208H) with the Yaesu equivalent shown below (the FT-7900R). I'll be running it on low power (5 watts) using a 1/2 wave mag mount stuck to my metal desk. This is a setup that I already know works quite well for the local repeaters.

I figure I'll use new FT-7900R for my base unit at home, and my HT for mobile use... with a mag mount and a headset. I've decided that I'm definitely a Yaesu fan.

One of the issues I've been wrestling with is the idea that an SMA connector on an HT is not designed robustly enough to withstand repeated and frequent swapping back and forth between antennas. So my thought was that I need to stick with either the normal HT whip, or a pigtail for connecting to an PL-259, but not normally switch between both. So that means if I default to using it for mobile/base use with a pigtail, then I generally won't be using it as a portable.

While this is a little bit of a disappointment, considering how nicely the FT-60R works as an actual "handheld". The idea of having a radio that is strictly for handheld use is not that feasible either. Because it would rarely get used. Although it's hard to anticipate my usage habits. As I get more involved, my past habits are not necessarily useful for determining future usage.

I have thought of the idea of perhaps getting a second FT-60R. I already have all the accessories. But how doofy would it be to have a second radio just so I don't have to swap antennas. I will continue to ponder this.

The eBay auction where I was selling my old ICOM IC-208H closed yesterday for $282. That should cover the new radio. I like the top-facing speaker. That means I might get away without having to use an external speaker on my desk.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ham radio equipment fun

I haven't been that into ham radio since moving out of Salem. I knew folks in Salem. The further away I move, the lower the percentage of people on the radio I actually know. In addition... my involvement/usage declined quite a bit after getting married. Funny how that happens when you actually have someone to talk to (as opposed to when you don't).

A couple of months ago I sold one of my two mobile radios and my HT to help offset the cost of the new PC that I built. This left me with one mobile radio, which I was using at home as a base. Since I use this radio with an indoor antenna, I don't go above low power (5 watts). But that's no problem because I can hit all the local repeaters with that just fine.

The HT I sold was a Kenwood TH-F6A. Widely held (at one time) to be the best HT out there. It's a tri-band radio that will transmit with a full 5 watts on 220. It has dual-receive and all sorts of nice things. I never liked it. The main reason was the lack of a physical squelch adjustment, and an inconveniently located volume control. To me, those two things totally deserve their own physical controls that are easy to manipulate.

After selling these two radios, it wasn't too long before I was kinda longing for a Yaesu FT-60R HT. I've had one of those before and really liked it. And it has nicely-placed squelch and volume controls. It's also very well-built.

So a couple of days ago I did it. I bought the FT-60R along with a number of accessories. I've always had spare batteries and quick-chargers for every HT that I've had. So I wanted to do that again. But this time instead of going with cheap knock-off accessories, I went with the name-brand Yaesu battery and quick-charger. Add to that a factory Yaesu speaker-mic, a Diamond after-market antenna, and an antenna pigtail/adapter so that I can use the HT with standard external antennas.

After this purchase I started thinking that, dang, I like Yaesu products! Maybe I should sell my ICOM IC-208H base rig and replace it with a Yaesu too! However I also started thinking that, dang, that new Yaesu HT was spendy. My poor allowance is going to be in the hole for awhile on that one.

That's when I made the decision to sell my ICOM base rig and use the new Yaesu HT for both base and mobile. No replacement necessary. I already have two really good mag-mount antennas. One for use at home and one to use in the car.

One really nice aspect to using an HT and a mag-mount for mobile use is... no installation. Slap it on and go! No issue with where to get power. No issue with where to mount the antenna. Perfect! Of course I won't be able to work weak repeaters with that mobile setup. But it seems to me that the benefits are totally worth that tradeoff.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Build complete

Got the new machine built and running.

I reconsidered the RAM and went with 16GB RAM instead of 8GB. The i5 processor I went with is pretty high-end (for an i5). So I didn't want to hinder the performance of the box by shorting it on the RAM. And 16GB is the max for this motherboard (cheap motherboard).

I am using a 120GB SSD as my boot drive and a 1TB HD for extra storage.

I had to send the original case back and get a replacement. A number of the plastic tabs that held the front panel on were broken. Luckily there was no issue with the RAM (I was worried). NewEgg was very good about it.

The internal wifi adapter I bought proved to be very problematic. It had significant driver issues with Linux (and Windows too according to the unfavorable reviews). So I opted instead for a wireless bridge. That way all I need to deal with is the wired LAN adapter. I got a 4-port dual-band 802.11n bridge. It will connect our whole office to the router in the living room. And I even managed to position the two so that they are pretty much line-of-sight with no obstructions. That should be quite reliable.

After a lot of back and forth I decided I will run Fedora on it. I know I change my mind on this sort of thing almost as often as my underwear, but I'm hoping to sit still on this choice for awhile.

One of the problems with the Haswell chip on-board graphics is drivers. That chip is so new that a number of Linux distributions do not support the graphics on it yet. I was initially going to run Debian. No support. Then I thought it might be a lot of fun to run FreeBSD again. Got it all installed. No support for my graphics.

I could run a *buntu derivative, but I figured Fedora should be fun. Arch would be ok, but I don't really need that level of frustration with getting basic things to work. So Fedora it is.

After placing my order for the new machine I decided to sell a few things on Ebay to offset the cost. The processor I went with was about 4 times the price of the Celeron I was initially going to go with. And changing my mind on the RAM cost a bit as well. So I sold my recently-purchased Chromebox and my Kenwood hand-held ham radio that was rarely-used.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Long time coming

I think I finally came to a solution for my restlestness regarding my computer setup at home. One reason why I found myself frequently switching operating systems on my machines was because I simply didn't have enough machines.

I love running and playing with Linux. But I also need a Windows machine that is pretty much full-time Windows. I need that for the rare thing that Linux can't do, as well as to run a few daemons that are Windows-only.

And unfortunately I just added to the reasons why I can't get along without Windows by buying another iPod. I got it mainly for the purpose of listening to podcasts. Podcasts certainly work best if iTunes is left running so that it can download them automatically in the background. And it would rather suck to have to re-boot a dual-boot machine back into Windows every day or two just to update the podcasts and sync with my iPod.

So if I need a dedicated always-on Windows machine, my Dell all-in-one is by far the best answer. First, a desktop machine is way better to have up 24/7 than a laptop. And the Dell has never been happy dual-booting thanks to the UEFI mess. Unfortunately that leaves only my laptop for running Linux on.

The laptop will run with the lid closed while allowing the use of two external monitors plus keyboard/mouse. But that's not a very good solution for what is supposed to be my main machine. I really want my main desktop machine to be... well, a desktop machine.

And even if I wanted to dual-boot Linux and Windows with my Dell all-in-one, it's really problematic thanks to it's goofy UEFI "bios". It was really meant to run Windows 8. Although it is too bad that Linux doesn't handle that better.

So the answer??... well... build a new machine of course! So today I ordered the parts for a fairly bare-bones desktop machine. I already have two monitors and a 1TB hard drive. So it wasn't horribly painful. It will be an Intel i5 with 8GB of RAM. Although it's not a high-end machine, it will easily out-perform anything we have now.

I could double the RAM down the road. But really, Linux is pretty darn happy with just 8GB. I even have a spare SSD that I could use for the operating system.

Sounds like fun ahead!

Monday, June 9, 2014

New strategy

I came up with a new strategy for my computer configuration(s). I do this a lot. And it's not necessarily because what I'm doing isn't working. I often change things around just due to boredom.

I'd already decided that I don't really like dual-booting. So each of the machines will have only one bootable operating system. No virtual machine wussiness. Just bare metal booting.
  1. My first machine is a Core-i5 laptop with 8GB RAM and a 750GB HD. This will run Windows 8.1. It has enough room for all my data. It will mostly be unused, but will come in handy when I need to do something that Linux or Chrome OS won't do. So far, photo printing is the only thing I care about that is on that list. And that need is so rare, not a big deal.
  2. My second machine is an Acer C720 Chromebook. This will be a good on-the-go laptop with 8+ hours of battery life and zero maintenance. Typically I'd grab this when going somewhere over my Windows laptop due to those factors.
  3. My third machine is an ASUS Chromebox with a 23" monitor. It will sit in the kitchen/front room. This will be a spare computer with zero maintenance. Great for looking up recipes, browsing, or being near my wife while she's out there doing something.
  4. My fourth and main machine is a 23" all-in-one with a 23" second monitor. This will be my geek machine. It will run the Linux "flavor of the week".
One nice thing about the geek machine. I don't need it. If I mess it up and it's not operational I can just hop on another. That's one advantage to having all my data in the cloud.

So last night I bit the bullet and installed Arch Linux on my geek machine. This was exciting for several reasons.
  • Arch Linux is known to be challenging. That means I'm not as likely to get bored with it. And the fact that this will help me learn stuff is a bonus.
  • I wanted to replace my current Linux Mint installation on LVM with Arch Linux without losing my data on other LVM volumes. That made a tricky install even more tricky.
  • Of course the main reason it was exciting is because I was successful at installing it last night, without losing data. And by this morning it's all mostly functional.
For those of you not familiar with Arch Linux... this is a totally do-it-yourself version of Linux. It comes with no GUI or anything installed. You have to roll your own. For example, I had to download, install, and configure a program just to set the desktop background image! There are a zillion little single-purpose programs that are required to do all sorts of things that most computer users take for granted.

This may be more work to set up... but the opportunities for customization are endless. There are typically no two Arch Linux systems that are setup the same. And of course the tinkering is at least half the fun.

I'm not sure if anyone actually reads this blog. But you may notice in past entries... my relationship with Linux is a bit of a love/hate thing. It's fun. I love setting it up and playing with it. But there is no doubt that it's really not a good replacement for Windows. Unless of course you lower your expectations to where Linux will actually meet them.

This is sort of what I did when buying my two Chrome OS devices. With all my data in the Google cloud... I can survive in Chrome OS. And if I can survive in Chrome OS, I can definitely survive with Linux.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Shortcomings

I've finally realized something about the various operating systems that I have been playing around with for the past few months.

People keep saying that Windows is on it's way out. And the desktop is dead. But there are currently no suitable replacements (except for Mac OS X).

I consider the ability to print photos to be basic functionality. This is not new technology. People have been printing photos for years. I have a Canon all-in-one printer. It prints great photos... if you're using Windows or OS X. But if you're using Chrome OS or any flavor of Linux... forget it.

Chrome OS just isn't mature enough to have that functionality. And the Linux driver for my printer is so buggy that if I specify any paper type other than "plain paper", it just doesn't print. No really.

This is 2014 right? It is absurd that people think an operating system that doesn't support mainstream printers is actually usable. I could probably hunt down a different printer that has better Linux support. But it's not like Canon is some obscure brand.

I've deliberately scaled-back my requirements for operating systems that I mess with so as to be as tolerant and undemanding as possible. That allows me more room to play. However, one has to draw the line somewhere. And "can't print photos" is a bit of a show-stopper.

But here is the punchline. The first hit that comes up when searching for a list of printers with good Linux support is a list of recommended printers from the free software foundation. Great! Unfortunately it also states that the list is "currently unmaintained". And that... is the story of Linux in a nutshell.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Everything is a Chromebox

Not long ago I bought an ASUS Chromebox. And not long before that, I bought an Acer Chromebook. Around the time of my Chromebox purchase… I decided that Chrome OS would be the environment of choice for my personal computing needs.

As a result of that decision I moved all my personal data onto Google Drive. I still have large stash of MP3s. I also have a fair number of TV shows and movies that I bought from the Apple iTunes store.

I’ve already uploaded all my MP3s to Google Play Music. So I don’t need access to those. And I can stream any of the shows I bought from the Apple iTunes store directly from Apple via my Apple TV. So that means I’m done. My life is in the cloud.

After some exposure to the community and the various ideas about Chrome OS, I’ve been very excited about the whole concept. But here’s the thing. Sure a Chromebox is simple, nice and convenient. It boots quickly and updates seamlessly. And they're typically inexpensive when compared to a full-blown PC or Mac.

But the nicest thing about choosing to live within the boundaries of Chrome OS is that the operating system and hardware that I use is no longer important. Any machine that has Google Chrome installed will give me the same functionality as a Chrome OS device. It actually makes no difference at all what hardware or operating system is running under the Chrome browser.

Our household has three Windows 8.1 machines. I also like to play with various distributions of Linux. But none of that matters. Because now, to me they are all Chrome devices. That is now the only functionality of these machines that I need or depend on.

A new version of Ubuntu came out yesterday, and I had previously been anxious for it’s release. But I figured my days of playing with Linux distributions were over now that I had moved to Chrome OS. Then I realized, not only could I slap the latest Ubuntu on my machine, but I could largely skip the painful and tedious configuration process that always follows. Because all I need it to do is run Google Chrome!

I have to say that it’s pretty liberating to wipe a drive and install a new OS and not worry one little bit about my data or configuration. My computers now only have one operating requirement. As long as they run Google Chrome, the rest is gravy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Another reason

I’ve been thinking more about the Chrome OS thing. See here’s the sweet thing… if a person can do the Chrome OS thing and live with it… they’ve just become the ultimate tech nomad. They use any computer anywhere, login to their Google account and walla. Everything is there. Everything. No configuration. No set up. No installing anything. No compatibility issues.

Ok, does one give up a thing or two? Sure. I am assuming I’ll need occasional access to a real PC. I have a 160GB iPod. It’s needs to be synced. Honestly… that’s probably about the only reason.

Part of what will make this easier for me is that I’ve been working toward it for over a decade. In all my playing with Linux, Windows, and Macs… the holy grail has been trying to put my data in a format that was independent of the platform. Otherwise it would be very cumbersome and painful to switch from one OS to another. And yes… I used to do it anyway. But I like the idea of what amounts to zero impact.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New experiment (Chrome OS)

I have played with Linux a lot over the years (and in the last 12 months). Been running Windows 8.1 on a few computers since it came out. I’ve used Macs exclusively for about a 10-year stretch.

It used to be about the technology. It was fun. I liked trying different things. But anymore… how much energy and time do I really want to spend so that I can do things that pretty much any $299 computer will do out of the box? I mean really?

At some point it should no longer be about the technology, but about what one can do with the technology. Short of setting up computers with different operating systems and playing with all kinds of different configurations… I don’t actually DO that much with computers.

Maybe it’s time to focus more on doing things and less on the means involved. Rather than continuing to go through the endless number of ways I can setup a computer to do the basic stuff I normally do, I’ve decided to dumb down.

The fact is, I just don’t do that much on a computer anymore that is outside my browser. So I’m going to try an experiment. Yesterday I pre-ordered the new ASUS Chromebox. This will go nicely with the Acer Chromebook I bought a few months ago. And Google just announced a huge price cut for their Google Drive cloud storage options. I think my life is about to get a lot simpler.

My plan is to put pretty much all my data into the cloud on Google Drive. And because I will be running Chrome OS, I will essentially be doing without anything that won’t run in a Chrome browser. I think I can do this. There are a few loose ends and known concerns.

1. I’ll give up Quicken. Not really a big deal. It’s been messing up my transaction downloads for the last few months anyway. My custom-designed spreadsheet (in Google Docs) is better.

2. I’ll need a different backup solution. I’m thinking about using something called “Spanning Backup”. It’s essentially a cloud-to-cloud backup solution designed to backup one’s Google data. It will backup all my Google stuff for me (gmail, calendar, contacts, and Google Drive stuff) to some other location in the cloud.

3. I’ll need to think about no longer using iTunes. I could leave it running on a spare Windows machine just so I can use it from my Apple TV. Might do that, might not. All my music is already available on Google Play. So no compelling reason to stick with iTunes except for the movies and TV shows I own and never watch that are DRM-locked to only play in iTunes (yay).

4. I need to figure out printing and scanning. There is something called Google “cloud printing” which would be perfect except that my printer won’t natively do it. New printers will. I might be able to get mine to work. Or I might just pop for a new printer.

I have no need to do this. I have a Windows desktop machine and a Windows laptop. Both are happily running Windows 8.1. My wife also has a Windows 8.1 desktop machine. But I like the idea of an experiment. I want to give Chrome OS a whirl to see if it might be enough. Honestly we’re talking about less than a $400 total investment in the equipment necessary (Chromebook and Chromebox).

I do understand the irony of setting up yet another computer configuration while at the same time saying that I’m doing it because I’m tired of playing with all the different computer configurations. We’ll have to see about that. Will this be the final iteration? Probably not.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Being a hobbyist

Technology hobbies are a funny thing. We might be talking about computers, operating systems, ham radio, cell phones, tablets… you name it.

Let’s take Linux as an example. When I install a Linux on my computer, what do I use it for? Honestly, the first thing I do is join forums, chat channels, and mailing lists so I can talk to other people who are using whatever flavor of Linux I’ve just installed. And for the next number of weeks I spend a lot of time using Linux to talk to people regarding the use of Linux.

Is there something wrong with this picture? Ham radio is no different. People get their ham license. They set up a radio station. When they get on the air the main thing they talk about is ham radio. So they are using the technology they’re interested in primarily for the purpose of talking to others about that technology.

Of course I use my computer and my cell phone for a few other things. But my main use of technology in general is to learn about and keep up on what's happening with that very technology.

That just seems a little funny to me. I wonder how much I would use technology if I only used it things not related to the technology itself. Honestly, probably not much. But it might be a fun experiment.