Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Using Fldigi on a Mac to Control an Icom 7200

Ray, W3PRR, asked me for help on configuring Fldigi running on a Mac with OS 10.9.4 so that it can control an Icom 7200 radio. Here’s how I did it:

1. Get yourself a plain USB-A to USB-B cable, as used with most recent computer printers. This one at Amazon will work fine. The IC7200 has a built in sound card, and the USB cable will provide both rig control and audio input/output through the one cable.

2. Make sure the OS is up to date by running OS X’s Software Update.

3. You need to install the driver for the Silicon Labs CP210 USB-to-UART bridge, which is what provides the brains for the USB-B port on the back of the radio. You can download that here.

Note: Do not connect the radio to your Mac when you install the driver. Connect the radio after you install and reboot the Mac.

4. Download and install the Hamlib radio control libraries.

5. Download and install the latest version of Fldigi.

6. Connect and power on the radio to your computer using the USB cable. Make sure that the radio is in Data mode, and make sure that Data mode is set to U, so that it accepts audio and CAT commands through the USB port. See page 43 of the Icom 7200 Instruction Manual for details.

7.In Fldigi, under Configuration > Audio > Devices, select PortAudio, then USB Audio CODEC for both Capture and Playback. Click Save before you move to the next step.

Note: If the radio is not connected and powered on, the USB Audio CODEC option will not be visible.

8. Under Configuration > Rig use these settings.

Click Initialize, then Save, then Close.

At this point you should be able to see activity in the Fldigi waterfall (ASSuming there is anyone on frequency), and you should be able to transmit from within the program. The 20M PSK31 calling frequncy, 14.070 MHz, is a good frequency to use for testing because it tends to be active.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

MacBook Pro SSD Upgrade

This morning I drove down to MicroCenter and bought a Crucial MX100 256 GB SSD (Amazon link), which I used to upgrade my mid-2009 MacBook Pro. The machine has 8 GB of RAM and a 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, so it was still useful, although before I replaced it with my current work MBP was starting to feel a bit pokey. My goal with the SSD was to improve performance, and especially battery life, for use with my ham radios while camping.

The SSD is smaller than the original Hitatchi disk (256 GB vs. 320 GB) but I don't plan on keeping multimedia files on the machine, so it should have enough space. While at MicroCenter I added a $5 USB 2.0 external enclosure to my cart, into which I put the old disk. I can bring it along for extra storage if need be.

The SSD went in easily and I did a clean install of OS 10.6 Snow Leopard onto it from a disc. I then had to update Snow Leopard to get the App Store, so I could then download and install OS 10.9.4 Mavericks. This all took a couple hours. After getting the OS configured like I wanted I installed the apps I need:

  • Fldigi
  • USB drivers for my Baofeng programming cable and for my Icom 7200's USB interface
  • LibreOffice
  • MS Office for Mac 2011
  • TextWrangler
  • Skype
  • Chrome and Firefox
  • Evernote
  • StatusClock (to display UTC time in my toolbar)
  • Various other utilities
The laptop is noticeably faster in both boot time and how quickly applications open. Excel 2011 in particular opens much more quickly.

Next weekend I'll be taking the MBP into the field, so I tested that CHIRP works with my Baofeng UV5RA and that Fldigi can send and receive PSK31 when connected to my Icom 7200.

As an aside, OWC sells a larger capacity battery to fit this old MacBook Pro. If I find myself getting significant use out of the machine I may invest in one.

I should note that I had considered upgrading the hard disk in my MSI Wind U100 netbook instead. It's certainly handier to pack into the field for use with ham radio ops, but I chose to upgrade the Mac because (a) it's way faster, and (b) the larger keyboard and screen and much easier to use.

Performance and battery life are already noticeably better with the SSD. If you have a laptop that's a few years old changing out the old spinning disk for an SSD is a quick way to give it a new lease on life.

The Baofeng UV5R 2M/70cm Ham Radio

The Baofeng UV5R and variants like the UV5RA have become popular with preppers because they are a very low cost way to get into ham radio. Back in June a friend who is a new ham and I both picked up UV5RAs, and for the money, we’re both impressed with them.

As handy talkies (HTs), the Baofengs allow you to have a small, light, and inexpensive two-way radio for communication on the 2 meter (144 MHz) and 70 centimeter (440 MHz) ham bands. They can be used in simplex mode or with repeaters, allowing you to communicate over longer distances.

The Baofengs will also receive FM broadcast band stations, NOAA Weather broadcasts, and can be programmed to operate on FRS, GMRS, and MURS frequencies.

Note that the Baofengs are not FCC type-accepted for FRS, GMRS, or MURS, so it is illegal to transmit on these freqs with them unless it’s an emergency.

There are a few accessories you should get with one of these little HTs in order to maximize their usefulness:

  • The stock antenna sucks. The Nagoya NA-701 offers improved reception and transmission without being too long.
  • For use in a vehicle you want an external antenna. The Tram 1185 is an inexpensive mag mount antenna that works well. You’ll also need this jumper to go between the HT’s antenna connection and the Tram’s SO-239 plug.
  • This Baofeng speaker-mic will improve audio for both transmission and reception. (I originally got a Pofung speaker-mic but it was DOA. I returned it to Amazon on their dime and got the Baofeng branded speaker-mic in its place.)
  • When I’m using the UV5RA in my truck I use this battery eliminator to power the radio. Note that this is not a charger, despite the Amazon product description. Rather, it replaces the battery with a regulator that powers the radio from your vehicle’s 12V outlet.
  • Finally, programming the Baofeng by hand is a tedious, frustrating job. Save yourself a lot of aggravation and use your computer and this USB cable. If you already have a programming cable for Icom radios it will be compatible. Check out Miklor.com for troubleshooting any issues related to driver installation. Don’t use Baofeng’s software, which sucks. Rather, use the open source, free software CHIRP, which supports both the UV5R and many other radios. CHIRP is available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and FreeBSD.

Everything linked above, including a radio, can be bought from Amazon for under $100.

Although my friend and I both got the UV5RA, were I purchasing again I’d probably go with the plain UV5R. The insides of the two radios are the same but there are extra capacity batteries that fit the UV5R that don’t fit the UV5RA.

This thread on Arfcom is a gold mine of information on how to get up and running with a Baofeng UV5R radio:


Despite their popularity, the Baofeng’s are low end radios. HTs from any of the Big Three – Icom, Kenwood, or Yaesu – will be sturdier and have better performance. But, they are a lot more expensive. E.g., even the relatively simple Yaesu FT-60R will run you more than three times the cost of a Baofeng UV5R. The Chinese radio is good if you’re on a tight budget or if you need to use a radio in an environment where it’s susceptible to loss or damage, and it’s cheap enough to keep extras on hand. If you have at least your Technician license or are looking to get it, the Baofeng UV5R is not a bad choice for an entry level radio.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

openSUSE 13.1 Linux

As you may remember, my primary computing platform for the past several years has been a Mac. I've also maintained Windows PCs at home -- one in my office and one out in my workshop. The office PC had been setup as a dual boot Windows 7 Professional / Debian Linux box for awhile, but I hardly ever booted into Debian.

A couple weeks ago I replaced Debian with openSUSE 13.1 and have been using it quite a bit after work. The install went smoothly with all of my hardware recognized. This included my Icom 7200 ham radio that is connected via a USB port, as well as the programming cable I use with my Baofeng UV5RA 2M/70cm ham radio.

The default openSUSE desktop environment is KDE, but Gnome is also available from the openSUSE repositories, as are several other desktops. After using KDE for a few days, then LXDE for a day, I settled on the XFCE desktop and have been pleased with it. It's lightweight but is a complete environment.

The primary applications I've been using:

  • Chromium for web browsing, including accessing Gmail via the web.
  • Firefox when a web page doesn't behave with Chromium.
  • Fldigi for digital mode ham radio operation on HF using the Icom 7200.
  • CHIRP for programming my Baofeng UV5RA.
  • Leafpad for text editing.

For system administration I've primarily been using YaST, openSUSE's GUI admin tool. I ran SUSE Linux as my home desktop for a few years in the early '00s and YaST is still a good tool.

Another program that I installed was VMware Player, so that I can run a Windows 7 virtual machine if I'm working from home. I'd built the VM at work on my VMware vSphere environment and brought it home on disk, and was using it on the Windows side, to keep my own stuff and my work stuff separate. I copied it to the Linux partition and it works just as well there. Now, if I'm working from home I can use the Windows VM to connect to work's VPN, while I my own stuff can access the Internet without going through the VPN.

Note: VMware Player is proprietary but free (as in beer) software, as opposed to VirtualBox, which is open source software and which would also let me run a VM. However, I've found VMware Player to give me better performance than VirtualBox.

Overall I'd say my experience so far with openSUSE 13.1 has been very positive.  I have my old MacBook Pro from work and I'm considering replacing the spinning hard disk with an SSD, then setting it up to dual boot OS X and openSUSE, for use as a portable ham radio laptop.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Backyard Small Pistol Penetration Tests

Over on The High Road, “marb4” posted a thread in which he tested the penetration and expansion of several different loads from small handguns.

The loads tested were:

  • 9mm Speer Gold Dot 115 grain JHP
  • Federal .380 ACP Hydrashock 90 grain JHP low-recoil
  • Winchester .380 95 grain FMJ flat nose
  • Remington .38 Special 148 grain wadcutter
  • CCI .22 LR 40 grain Mini Mag lead round nose.

The penetration of the two .380 loads and the CCI .22 LR Mini Mags is especially impressive. I load Federal 95 grain FMJ-RN in my Ruger LCP .380 because I’ve been concerned that .380 lacks penetration. It looks like some of the modern .380 JHPs may actually penetrate deeply enough.

I've always suggested Mini Mag solids for someone who must use a .22 for defense, because (1) solids penetrate better than hollowpoints, especially from a .22 rifle, (2) CCI rimfire ammunition has the most reliable priming in my experience, and (3) Mini Mags work reliably in every .22 autoloader that I’ve tried them in, something I cannot say for any other type of ammunition.

My Springfield XD9 is loaded with 9mm 124 grain Gold Dots.

With the popularity of the Kel-Tec P32, I’d like to see similar testing done with a few different .32 ACP loads. Many people, including myself, recommend a European-spec .32 FMJ load to get adequate penetration. It would be nice to see if any of the modern JHPs can penetrate at least 12”.

Kudos to marb4 for providing us with some additional data on with which to choose carry loads.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Hill People Gear Kit Bag Review

Yesterday I took a vacation day and went for a hike in French Creek State Park in SE PA. It was my first chance to try out my new Hill People Gear Kit Bag. It’s a great option for carrying a handgun plus some basic survival gear out in the woods. I posted a full review over on Survival & Emergency Preparedness.

Aside from the Kit Bag review, I’ve also posted some pics from the hike in my gallery at Flintlock.org. Linky.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Beretta M9 Pistol

One pistol that it’s taken me a long time to warm up to is the Beretta 92, AKA M9. Compared with more modern pistols like the Glock, Springfield XD, or S&W Military & Police, the traditional DA/SA trigger is obsolete. Further, the M9’s size is very large for the cartridge it fires. Many people with small hands have a difficult time comfortably gripping the piece due to the bulk of the grip. This last point had always soured me on the gun.

However, opinions chance over time. Back at the beginning of April I picked up a Beretta CX-4 Storm 9mm carbine which uses Beretta 92 magazines. I regard the CX-4 as a good choice for a defensive carbine and the idea of a pistol that would take the same magazines is something I find very attractive. So, I went over to my parents’ and took another look at my father’s M9. I wound up buying my own about a week later.

The pistol came in a blue plastic hard case with a manual, warranty card, lock, two 15 round magazines, and a Jello mold or shot glass.

(Actually, it’s there to help keep the case from getting crushed in transit.)

I’m a bit surprised that it doesn’t come with a basic magazine loader. Double column/single feed pistol mags are a bitch to fill to capacity without a loading tool. In any event, I highly recommend the Butler Creek LULA magazine loader. It makes loading double column pistol magazines a breeze.

Note that in the pics of the gun above, it has a Mec-Gar 20 round magazine in place. Mec-Gar has made mags for Beretta in the past and currently make a flush-fit 18 rounder. Their 20 rounder is the bod of an 18 round mag with a +2 extension on it. Were I carrying the gun in the military or as a police officer, the Mec-Gar 20 would be my preferred magazine, with the 18 rounder as my second choice.

I bought the M9 at Surplus City in Feasterville, PA for $599 + tax. I immediately took it to the range, field stripped, cleaned and lubed it, and fired it alongside my Springfield XD9.

On the initial outing I put 111 rounds through the M9, including some Brown Bear with lacquered steel cases, PMC, and Federal American Eagle. The Brown Bear and PMC were 115 grain FMJ, while the FAE was 147 grain FMJ-FP.

One of the things that impressed me was how easy it is to shoot the Beretta accurately in SA. In the picture below, the left hand target is 50 rounds through the M9 while the right target is 30 rounds through the XD9. Distance was 10 yards.

On the target I shot with the Beretta all the fliers were my fault.

The other thing that made a favorable impression upon me is how pleasant to shoot the M9 is. It’s not an especially heavy gun because the frame is made from aluminum, but it’s bulky and the grip spreads out the already mild 9mm recoil across your hand, rather than concentrating it in one spot.

The following weekend I brought it with me on a camping trip to Tioga County, PA, where my friends and I ran a couple hundred more rounds of CCI Blazer Brass 115 grain FMJ through it, shooting at steel plates.

As an aside, on this trip I also got the chance to do night firing for the first time. I used a Fenix LD20 flashlight held in my right hand while shooting the M9 with my left. The only ambient light was from a campfire. The hardest part about getting hits was acquiring the front sight, but when I was able to do so hitting a 10” gong at ~15 – 20 yards wasn’t too hard.

One of the valid criticisms (IMNSHO) of the M9 is the trigger pull. It’s flat-out heavy and long in DA. Combined with the weapon’s girth, this makes it hard for those of us with small hands to get off accurate DA shots. I’m not normally one to tinker with a gun until it’s got through a 500 round break-in period, but in this case there is an easy, cheap fix.

The factory hammer spring is rated for 20 lbs. This was specified so that the gun doesn’t have any problems firing ammo with even the hardest of primers, e.g., some SMG ammo. I don’t have to worry about that, so I replaced the OEM spring with a a Wolff hammer spring rated for 16 lbs. This drops the DA pull down several pounds and the SA pull a pound or two. The gun is now much easier to shoot, especially for the first shot in DA.

Last night I put another 110 rounds of CCI Blazer Brass through the gun. I’m now up to ~400 rounds down the pipe and it hasn’t had a single malfunction. My father shot his M9 last night, bringing the total in his gun up to 1100 rounds, and he has yet to experience any malfunctions.

Unfortunately, the M9 doesn’t have a rail under the dust cover, so for me to mount a light it will require an add-on. (If this is critical to you, the 92A1 or M9A1 come from the factory with a rail.) Brownell’s sells a rail section that can be affixed to the dust cover which I’m considering getting. Surefire also makes a no-gunsmithing rail that secures to the trigger guard.

The Beretta’s safety/decocker is mounted up on the slide and unless you have gorilla hands, it’s difficult to reach with your thumb, without radically changing your grip. There’s a simple solution to this: don’t use the safety. IMHO it’s superfluous on a DA autoloader anyway. If the gun is being carried in a proper holster the chances of an AD are pretty much zero. I use it strictly as a decocker.

I’ve done a total 180 on the Beretta M9. It’s a big, old fashioned DA/SA autoloader, but it’s accurate, pleasant to shoot, and reliable. If you’re in the market for a 9mm pistol it’s worth a serious look.