Friday, October 12, 2012

Flex 5000 Diary - Troubles and Resolutions

I've learned a lot in the last 24 hours and it wasn't all fun or easy.

The Microphone Problem

I still have a support ticket open with Flex for my new radio's front microphone connector, but today I got the go ahead to open the case and inspect the ribbon cable connection from the circuit board to to the front panel.


So I re-connected it, put the radio back together and BAM, my Heil mic and hand switch are working. Dudley the Flex tech support guy is great to deal with.

The Crash Problem

Last night was tough. After a couple of evenings playing around on 80m and 40m I finally had band conditions suitable for playing around on 20m as well. So on 20m I keyed the mic and the PowerSDR software froze and died! I rebooted everything and tried again, same result. I rebooted and went back to 80m and 40m, no problems. I then went back to 20m and keyed the mic once again, and CRASH.

This pattern of crashes and reboots went on for a few hours of troubleshooting and I finally went to bed frustrated. As I sat watching TV I composed an email to the Flex owners mailing list and for the next 24 hours I got some great replies from people with solid advice and things to try.

#1 - Better Firewire Cable - So today I started by ordering a new 6 foot firewire cable from Granite Digital. This premium cable was highly recommended by multiple responders to my email. CHECK!

#2 - Better Grounding - Second I built some insanely big shielded grounding cables. One will go from my ground system to the back of the Flex (replacing the one I was using). And the second will go from the back of the Flex to the back of my PC. As multiple people reminded me an SDR is one radio made up of two components (the 5000a and the PC). I went to a car audio shop for the great flex cable and suitable connectors and I borrowed the solder pots at work to dip the ends for a nice fit and finish. Do you think I over did it? CHECK!

#3 - Shield from RF - The unanimous advice from all the hams who responded to my email was clean up the RF. So with the help of a dozen snap-on ferrite's I put them everywhere. Both ends of the firewire cable (2 per end), the PC power cord, both monitor cables, the PC audio cable, etc. I also looked at all the cables running around and tried to clean up their paths and eliminated anything not required. CHECK!

#4 - Check DPC Latency - DPC is apparently important in SDR and checking the systems DPC score is a way of knowing if your systems passes or fails. I downloaded an app called DPClat and my QuadCore passed well under the recommended level of 350 or lower (my score average between 175 - 200). CHECK!

So with all that extra work I crossed my fingers and plugged everything back in. Powered up the Flex and the PC, and loaded PowerSDR.

I don't want to jinx it, but two hours have gone by and no crashes. I tested on multiple bands with the drive on the radio set to full 100 and everything is working GREAT!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Flex 5000 Diary - Installation & First Impressions

Well the bands last night were garbage. The usual net traffic was struggling and it wasn't conditions that I would of liked on the first evening with the Flex radio.

After unboxing I took my time and put Anderson Powerpole connecters on the power cord and connected the best ground cable I have. I cleaned up all the wiring from the previous radio and tried to make the cleanest and RF free environment for the Flex right from the start.

I had already installed PowerSDR 2.4.4 prior to arrival so it was just a matter of powering up the Flex and letting the drivers install in Windows as the firewire device is detected for the first time. In my case a firmware update for the 5000 was required and installed as part of this detection process as well. When PowerSDR finally booted for the first time I paniced as the software crashed with multiple errors connecting to the radio. Since the firmware was just updated I stopped, BREATHED, powered off the radio, turned off the 12v power supply, rebooted the PC, and started everything up fresh again. This was all that was needed to initialize the radio with the new firmware and PowerSDR loaded with no other problems for the rest of the night.

After setting up the basic startup settings for PowerSDR I realized that my Heil HM-Pro and CC1Y cable did not appear to be working. I tried numerous things and eventually created a Trouble Ticket with Flex Radio Support and switched to a trusty old xlr Shure 58 and plugged into the Balanced Input on the back of the radio. No PTT, but it was workable for the evening clicking on MOX with the mouse to transmit.

UPDATE - Flex Support has already replied to my ticket and I'll try their suggestions tonight.

So now I was operational with PowerSDR and I just played for a few hours with the settings, features, filters, DSP, etc. It was just incredible and exactly what I had hoped for. As I mentioned before the band conditions were horrible but I could tell that I was getting better reception than a lot of the others and even provided relay for the first time ever on a daily 80m net.

I have three separate HF antenna systems to work with and  never have I been able to switch so quickly between then and compare their performance both by ear, and visually on the Panafall display in PowerSDR. If you had asked me before yesterday I would have been extremely confident that my 80 Horizontal Loop was my best antenna, but with the visual display options on the PowerSDR display I could see subtle differences when comparing the Loop (ANT1) to my G5RV (ANT2) on certain bands. Differences I couldn't hear, but ones I could 'see' had slightly less noise and better signal reception on certain bands. My 3 element tri-band Yagi (ANT3) also had a chance to shine while I compared it's performance on 10m, 15m, & 20m.  Thanks Flex! I love that feature.

With the built in Antenna Tuner option in the Flex it was quick at tuning every new band and frequency as I scanned around and the only time it failed to tune is when the wrong antenna was selected for the band I was trying to tune on. But even then I got to see the tuner at work and how PowerSDR warns you when it fails to tune and your SWR is too high to transmit on.

It did take a while to figure out navigation in PowerSDR with the mouse and keyboard, but it only took an hour and I was moving around the band and narrowing in on weak signals with great success and incredible clarity.

I'm lucky that in my first year as a licensed ham radio operator I've owned and played with 3 distinct generations of HF radios. A 1970's Kenwood with no DSP. An early 2000's Yaesu with basic DSP and some noise cancellation, and now a brand new premier software defined radio with all the bells and whistle of filters, DSP, noise reduction, and a top tier receiver.  WOW


Flex 5000 Diary - Arrival

My Flex 5000a arrived today in the mail. Trust me I was worried about Canada Post Expidited Parcel Service instead of a courier with overnight air, but alas the Flex busted the budget and I didn't have the extra $143 bucks for the courier.

Anyhow, exactly a week from the order date the package arrived and I rushed home from work to beat the closing time for the local village post office.

Outer packaging looked good.

No strange sounds when handling the package that might indicate breakage.

So straight home for a quick unboxing video and an evening of setup.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Flex 5000 Diary - SDR Explained

A software-defined radio system, or SDR, is a radio communication system where components that have been typically implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system.[1] While the concept of SDR is not new, the rapidly evolving capabilities of digital electronics render practical many processes which used to be only theoretically possible.

A basic SDR system may consist of a personal computer equipped with a sound card, or other analog-to-digital converter, preceded by some form of RF front end. Significant amounts of signal processing are handed over to the general-purpose processor, rather than being done in special-purpose hardware. Such a design produces a radio which can receive and transmit widely different radio protocols (sometimes referred to as waveforms) based solely on the software used.

Now that I have a software defined radio (SDR) ordered and en-route I plan to document everything as much as possible for my own benefit, and possibly others who may stumble onto these pages.

As the description above states SDR is a new generation of radio where a large portion of the electronic hardware formerly embedded into a receiver or transceiver is built in software and run on a personal computer.

This is overly simplistic, but think of it as a traditional radio transceiver chopped in two.
  • The first half is a box that contains just the essential electronic pieces of a traditional radio (for simplification let's say it's the power supply, receiver and transmitter).
  • The second half of the radio is your personal computer running a software package that emulates all the other pieces of a traditional radio that are now missing from the first half (filters, signal processing, control interface, etc). 
  • With a high speed digital connection cable between the two halves (Firewire, USB, or ethernet), we now have a complete radio again.
The Advantages of a SDR?
  • The first half of the radio can be simplied and the quality of the components can be increased because the overall cost of the hardware is now much lower. You can spend your development money on building a better receiver and trasmitter.
  • Personal computers have tons of processing power, way more then the embedded chips used in radios for filters, dsp, etc. Your home pc or laptop is able to beef up the speed and flexibility of it's half of the radio due to sheer processing power. 
  • Display and control of the radio is done on your computer screen. The bigger the screen (or screens) the bigger the interface and options.
  • Display modes, with a click of the mouse you have many different ways of viewing the signals and the entire band. 
  • Software is easily and quickly upgradeable. With every new version of the software new filters, better DSP, and improvements to the radio control interface can be released. Your SDR get's better and better with time as long a software development continues.
  • Digital, digital, digital. Even when integrating with other software applications for digital modes, CW, etc you can exchange audio back and forth in digital with little or no quality lost.
The Cons of SDR?
  • You need a PC or Laptop of decent performance to run your radio, it just won't work without it.
  • An unstable computer can result in an unstable radio. Nobody would of thought that their HF rig could suffer from a Blue Screen of Death (ha ha).
  • Power Consumption, a personal computer, monitors, SDR radio and power supply draw way more hydro then a traditional transceiver running off a 12v power supply.
  • In an emergency you have to keep the computer and radio running to have communications.

I've traded a Unimog for a New Roof and a Flex 5000

This is the last picture of me and my Unimog. My daughter Molly ran outside and took this as I was getting ready to deliver it to the new owner.

It was a tough decision to sell but I'm personally thrilled with the new owner and expect he will enjoy this truck as much as I did.

The proceeds from the sale will pay for a new roof on my house next spring, and a big new toy in the Ham Shack, a FlexRadio Systems 5000a transceiver.

 The 5000a with the ATU add-on (factory installed) has been ordered and is en-route. Fingers crossed it might even arrive today?