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Review: The Impossible Baofeng HTs

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I bought my first ham radio handheld (“handied-talkie” or HT) back in 1977. The Standard Radio SR-C146 had five crystal-controlled channels and weighed two pounds. (No wonder they called it a “brick.”) No TT pad, no CTCSS. I don’t recall what I paid for it new, but I’m thinking $350–and that didn’t even include a charger. (I built a charger for it from scratch!) That would be about $1400 today. It was a really big deal, and I used it for almost ten years, until I bought an Icom HT at Dayton in 1986.

In truth, I never used HTs all that much except at hamfests. I’ve had 2M mobiles in various cars, and for the past 18 years or so have used an Alinco mobile rig as a base. I still have the Icom in a box somewhere, but the case is cracked and it’s been in the corner of my mind to get a new HT for almost ten years.

Then Bob Fegert mentioned the Baofeng dual-band UV-82 HT, which now sells on Amazon for $37 brand new. (I actually paid $35.) In 1977 dollars, that would have been…ten bucks. So I ordered one. While cruising the Web looking at reviews and commentary on the unit, I happened upon the Baofeng BF-888S. Amazon had those for $15. $3.85 in 1977 funds. So I bought one of those as well, just to see what a $15 HT could do.

Both radios put out 1W or 4W selectable. The UV-82 covers the 2M and 70cm bands. The BF-888S covers only the 70cm band. Well, actually not only the ham bands, which is an issue worth a little discussion here. Many commenters on the ham boards loathe these radios, for a simple reason: They claim the ham radio positioning is only a ruse, to get around FCC type acceptance.

The problem is that for use on the several business bands, the Family Radio Service (FRS), the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS), a transceiver must meet certain FCC requirements and pass tests to ensure that it meets those requirements. This is called type acceptance. A type-accepted radio will transmit only where its type acceptance allows. There are other requirements that aren’t about frequency. FRS radios, for example, may not have removable antennas. Ham radio gear, on the other hand, does not require FCC type acceptance at all.

These are software-defined radios. Within a broad band of frequencies dictated by the output power amp, they can receive or transmit anywhere you want them to. A free program called CHIRP allows you to create a special-purpose database of frequencies and other settings, save it as a file, and then squirt it into the radio through a USB cable. It’s nominally illegal to use a radio like the BF-888S on FRS or GMRS, but a quick Web scan shows that it’s evidently done quite a bit. The type acceptance process takes time and money, so a radio pitched for amateur use can cost less.

The flexibility of using CHIRP to set frequencies and settings allows these radios to also act as scanners and receive public safety and weather channels. It’s possible to disable transmit on any frequency, which I did for the weather channels. (One of the downsides of the display-less BF-888S is that it’s not always obvious what frequency you’re tuned to. Mistakes are possible, and in this case may be rule violations that may cause interference.)

As 2M and 70cm radios, they’re pretty good. I can hit all the repeaters I usually reach from here, just using the “rubber duckie” antennas. Audio is clean and strong. The UV-82 has a better receiver: Weak local signals will break squelch on the UV-82 when they won’t budge the BF-888S.

There are some downsides:

  • Neither radio has a squelch knob. Squelch levels are parameters that you set from the keypad (for the UV-82) or in CHIRP. This can be annoying if your noise level rises and falls for some reason, or if a weak signal is right on the edge of squelch. (The BF-888S has a button that turns squelch off while pressed, which is better than nothing.)
  • The chargers are flimsy and almost weightless. I’m not sanguine about how long they’ll last, and they certainly aren’t physically stable. Nor are the chargers or charge voltages the same for the two radios.
  • The antenna connectors are SMAs. I had to order some SMT-UHF adapters so that I could use my discone antenna up in the attic.
  • Both radios “speak” a channel number when you move up or down the channel set. With the BF-888S this is the only reliable way to know where you’re sitting, as the numbers on the channel select knob are almost invisible.
  • The UV-82 has a broadcast FM radio feature, which works fairly well but is not easy to use, especially if you switch stations a lot. (It is a little weird hearing classical music coming out of a ham radio HT.)
  • Although it would be very useful, I don’t think it’s possible to control (rather than simply program) either radio through the USB cable.

Both radios have white LED flashlights built-in, for what it’s worth.

So. I’m sure a Yaesu or an Icom HT would be better in a great many ways. However, Icom HTs don’t cost $35. Given how little I use HTs, the price was irresistable. How well they will serve over time is an open question. They seem rugged enough to withstand a certain amount of outdoor rough-and-tumble. If they break (or if anything weird happens) I’ll certainly tell you here.

So far, recommended.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Let There Be (Long-Lived) Light!

A recent story on the 113-year old light bulb reminded me that I needed to say something about light bulbs here, as they’ve been a long-running low-level project of mine that’s been so low-level that I keep forgetting to post a report. Money quote: LED bulbs are (finally) ready for prime time. It took awhile, but we’re there. Furthermore, there’s upside in LED technology that should make all things LED-ish even better in five or ten years.

Like a lot of people, I stocked up on incandescents when the Feds outlawed them. I did so because my experience with alternative lightning technologies has been hideous. I was curious about CFLs, and I tried them once they became commonplace. If there are light bulbs in Hell, man, they will be CFLs. Their light quality can only be described as sepulchral. They are never as bright as the package says they are. They don’t reach peak brightness immediately, and sometimes take several minutes to get there. (Good luck trying to pee in the middle of a cold night in a one-CFL powder room.) They have mercury in them (granted, not much) which is released into the environment when they break. Oh, and they remind me of spirochetes or intestinal worms.

Fortunately, they die quickly. I recently replaced a couple that were less than a year old. Some have died in a matter of months. I have incandescents in this house that were installed during construction in 2003 and are still in service. Why some bulbs last so much longer than others has always puzzled me. The Phoebus Cartel was real, and it’s not beyond imagination that keeping the tungsten thin for ostensible cost reasons could cover for deliberately limiting the bulb’s life. Still, this doesn’t explain why I have 11-year-old bulbs in some places, and bulbs that repeatedly die in a couple of months in others.

I have theories. One is that some sockets have center contacts that aren’t quite close enough to the bulb to make a firm connection when the bulb is screwed in. Nothing kills a bulb faster than rattly intermittents in the fixture, especially if thermal expansion and contraction of parts in the fixture cause the intermittents. (This is why bulbs shouldn’t be installed with the power on. The moment when the bulb touches the center contact during screw-in is not one moment, but several.) I have also observed that the bulbs that die quickly tend to be mounted either horizontally or at some odd angle, as in my great room ceiling fixtures that are fifteen feet off the floor. The long-lifers are nearly all mounted vertically, bulb-down. I can see how that might work: The filaments of vertical bulbs experience the same gravity load no matter how far they screw into the fixture. Horizontal or angled bulbs will place their filaments in different gravity load situations depending on the angular position of the bulb in the socket, which in turn depends on the manufacturing details of both the socket and the bulb.

Those atrocious CFLs made me cautious. I bought my first LED bulb only about six months ago, having watched them converge on incandescents in terms of spectral signature for some time. That first one was kind of blue, and it’s now in the pantry ceiling fixture where color doesn’t much matter. We’ve been buying Cree TW (True White) bulbs for a couple of months, and they are so close to 60W incandescents that I’ll be ready to install them in critical places (like the master bathroom over-the-sink fixtures) once the incandescents are gone. The Cree bulbs evidently use neodymium-doped glass to add a notch filter to get the spectral signature closer to incandescents. The sweet spot for color seems to be 2700K, and if you want a swap-in for those evil outlawed cheap light bulbs, 2700K is the number to look for. The lerss expensive Feit LED bulbs are bluer, even at the same Kelvin rating, and serve well in places like the laundry room ceiling.

I’ve just started replacing those angled 65W ceiling floods in our great room vault with 650-lumen Duracell Procell BR30s. They’re just a hair brighter, and at 3000K a hair whiter, than the generic incandescent floods we’ve used for ten years now. Replacing angled bulbs fifteen feet off the floor with a sucker pole is a royal nuisance, so even though the Duracells are $20 each, they use a fraction of the power and supposedly live forever.

Supposedly.

The clock’s ticking. I’m skeptical. Yes, Phoebus was real. But in the meantime, you really can get 65 watts’ worth of instant-on light with 10 watts’ worth of electricity, in a color that doesn’t resemble a zombie’s complexion. If any of them die on me, you’ll definitely hear about it.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Cranking Up the GRC-109 R-1004

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While everybody else yesterday was running around looking for foot bras and the world’s smallest volcano (more on which in the next Odd Lots) I was tidying up my shop/shack, and pulled down my AN/GRC-109 Special Forces radio system. I’ve had it since the mid-1990s, but hadn’t fired it up literally since we left Arizona in 2003. I don’t have the full list of accessories so I had to do a little lashing-up to get the R-1004 receiver connected. It didn’t disappoint me.

I have the CW-only T-784 transmitter as well. I don’t use it because I’ve largely lost my CW chops and the only guys still pounding brass are whistling along at 20+ WPM. Not having an antenna that won’t set off my security system is the other issue. (Shielding the heat sensor it triggers it is not an option due to insurance regs.) My outdoor dipole will go up as soon as we have a few leaves on the tress, whenever that actually happens.

So. What we have here is a vintage all-tube spy radio, where the spies either have stealth jeeps or very strong backs. The design came out of the CIA in the late 1940s, and was adapted for more general use in the 1950s. It was used until the end of the Vietnam War. The receiver weighs 8.75 pounds all by itself. The PP-2684 power supply will weigh you down another 25 pounds or so. (There’s a lighter, smaller power supply, the PP-2685, that I don’t have.) The receiver uses conventional 7-pin miniature battery-filament tubes in a fairly simple superhet circuit. The only glitch there is the 1L6 converter tube, which is hard to find and costs a small fortune when you find it. The 1L6 is scarce enough so that people have designed solid-state replacements for it.

The R-1004 tunes from 3 MHz to 24 MHz in three bands. Selectivity is good, hardly single-signal but a reasonable compromise for a set designed to receive both AM and CW. I had to grin at how spoiled I’ve gotten by modern digital rigs like my IC-736, which can tell you to a single cycle where you are. The dial is pretty accurate, reading bang-on for WWV at 5 and 10 MHz, but it’s a wide dial, and lacks a vernier. Sensitivity seems lower on the 12-24 MHz band. No matter; in the evenings all the action is at 12 MHz and down.

SSB was still pretty exotic when the R1004 was designed, and yet its BFO is solid enough that I didn’t have to “chase” sideband signals on 40 and 75 meters with either the tuner or the BFO knob. AM quality was good, considering that it has caps to roll off audio response past 3 KHz. I tuned the entire range from 12 MHz down to 3, stopping at the ham bands or anything else unusual. I used to do that a lot before I was licensed as WN9MQY in 1973. I was hoping to find a numbers station (are there still numbers stations?) or one of those long-extinct semi-musical beacons that I used to hear in 1965. SWBC hasn’t really changed much since 1970: Christian stations, national stations, some German and French, and a lot of things too far down in the noise to quite make out. Canadian time station CHU is no longer on 7335 KHz, but a quick Google check pointed me to its new location at 7850 KHz. I listened to an AM net on 7290, and was startled when K5MIL’s big signal came up and forced me to turn down the gain–he’s only 5 miles north of me, and running a fair bit of power.

Talk about old times, whew.

My R-1004 hasn’t seen much hard use; I’d almost call it pristine. Serial number 25. By contrast, the power supply has been around the block–or maybe the world–a few times, and when I bought it I had to do some fussy needle-file work to get the corrosion off the power connectors. It sounds goofy, but I love how this gear smells: bakelite and black rubber, with undercurrents of oil and perhaps solder flux. (Radio terroir!) If ever there were a canonical Dieselpunk radio, well, here it is. My only gripe is that my high-Z “cans” headset gave me a headache after squeezing my ears for an hour, and I really need to lash up an audio transformer to take the R-1004’s 4000 ohm output impedence down to whatever my cushy padded headset likes. I’ve done this before, but alas, the adapter unit (built into a 70s contacts case I got from Carol) is hiding somewhere.

No matter. You’ve seen my shop and my collection; it will be done. When we can manage a nerd party here sometime this summer, I’ll put it out on the deck and drop a wire over the edge if I haven’t done so already. Put the black thing up against your ear, young’un: That’s what the Internet was when I was mowing the lawn and not chasing you off of it!

New Photo of John T. Frye

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Reader George Cohn sent me a photo of John T. Frye that I had not seen before. It’s from the May, 1948 issue of Radio News, which contained the second installment of his very long-running “Mac’s Service Shop” column. Assuming the photo was recent when published, Frye would have been 38.

For those who don’t recognize his name, John T. Frye was the author of the Carl & Jerry educational stories from Popular Electronics, “Phone Phunnies” from QST, and a whole metric passel of other things in other places, including two books on tube-era radio servicing that from what I can tell have passed into the public domain. See my article on Frye and his creations Carl & Jerry. I republished all 119 stories in five books several years ago (plus one new storyI wrote myself, and another one from the late George Ewing WA8WTE) and they’re still selling. Frye was a paraplegic who never walked, and how he did what he did in his life is one of the great success stories of disabled people who just didn’t let anything get them down. Legs? We don’t need no steenking legs!

Wayne Green W2NSD, SK

It’s hard not to have an opinion about Wayne Green. Depending on whom you listen to, he was a visionary, a crank, delusional, eccentric, generous, lecherous, honest, optimistic, boundlessly energetic, or all of the above and maybe a few more. Someone wrote a bogglingly angry book once (I had it but have misplaced it) that spent its entire length trying to persuade us that he was a liar, a scoundrel, a thief, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of Byte Magazine. Anger that dense warps the fabric of truth. (Be careful with your anger. Let it get too dense and you will vanish into a black hole of lost credibility from which you may never emerge.) Don Lancaster put the lie to it without any trouble: When Don was writing for the extremely early Byte, Wayne was there, buying articles and signing checks.

That said, Wayne Green said a lot of peculiar things about a lot of things both mundane and peculiar. He said he was richer than (as best we know) he actually was. He said he was sexy and available. (One out of two ain’t bad.) He was constantly bitching and moaning about the FCC, the ARRL, and lord knows what else. He bragged about affairs he had had with his editorial staff. He published articles about homebrew radio gear that simply couldn’t work, or were such peculiar lashups of pipe fittings, power tubes, trash cans, glue, staples, beer bottles and copper tubing that nobody wanted to try. (I say this with some affection. Many of those articles were by the late Bill Hoisington K1CLL, who admitted…gasp!…that VHF/UHF circuits could be cranky. The crankiness of those circuits led him to try a lot of things that looked dicey, but to me their craziness indicated a certain honesty about how cranky VHF/UHF electronics actually are. Which is, of course…cranky.) There is a long list of things that Wayne Green did here. How many are true is hard to say. Did he really pilot a nuclear attack sub? Scary notion, if you’ve read his editorials. The truth, I suspect, is that he was a legend in both senses of the term.

Wayne Green, whether he was crazy or not, remains one of my heroes, for this reason: He bought the first piece of writing I ever sold, but not the first I ever had published. I guess I need to clarify: When the article appeared in the December 1974 issue of 73 Magazine, it was not my first publication. I had sold “Our Lady of the Endless Sky” to Harry Harrison for Nova 4 about a month later, but Wayne, as was his wont, paid me immediately and then sat on “All the World’s a Junkbox” for over a year before getting it into print. (“Our Lady” was in my hands in September.) And then he changed the title, to the inane “Zillions of Parts for Nothing.” (See page 36 of that issue.) Was I annoyed? A little. But heck, you only sell your first article once.

I subscribed to 73 for a lot of years, and have most of a full run of the mag on my shelves. Wayne was an editor of CQ for years before 73 appeared. Both magazines were lively and entertaining under his watch. The tech ran hot and cold, as it did almost everywhere but QST, which had paid techs on staff to build things and make sure that they were a) buildable and b) worked. But boy, when the late George Ewing WA8WTE and I got together on 40M, as often as not Wayne’s latest editorial was tops on our rag-chew agenda. Wayne published books, too, including George Ewing’s Living on a Shoestring, which George called “my scrounge book” and I consider a marvelous technical memoir. For a little while Wayne published a magazine called Cold Fusion Journal, which may have been the best fit of an editor with his niche that we will ever see.

Wayne died a few days ago, on the 13th. He was 91. His brief article on Wikipedia indicated that he was ready and eager to go off adventuring in the afterlife, an attitude I much admire. We speculate about what happens to good people after death, and what happens to bad people. What, then, happens to crazy people? Does God try to “fix” them, or do they just go on being crazy? “Crazy” is a debatable term, of course, but it seems to me that if Wayne Green weren’t his very particular brand of crazy, he wouldn’t be Wayne Green anymore. And that, my friends, would be a tragedy, whether here or in the afterlife.

TNX ES 73 OM DE K7JPD SK.

Ohm’s Law Is a Bitch

Jimi Henton, the local breeder from whom we got Aero, Jack, and Dash, brought me her dog grooming dryer some time back to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it. Carol has the exact same dryer, a Chris Christensen Kool Dry. It’s basically an SCR-controlled variable-speed fan in a box, putting out 114 CFM through a hose.

Jimi said it wasn’t blowing as much air as it used to, even after she cleaned the filter and made sure nothing else was gummed up with dog hair. It still blew, and the pot still varied the fan speed, but it wasn’t as loud and clearly didn’t have its out-of-the-box oomph. Worse, she’d had a new motor installed last year. The first one had gone for eleven years before dying; this seemed kind of premature.

I wanted to compare the two dryers to get a sense for how much air was being lost in Jimi’s. I have no way to measure airflow here, but sitting on the laundry room floor I noticed Jack’s little soccer ball, much reduced from its original size, but still round enough for my purposes. With only a little skill I managed to get the ball levitating over the nozzle, as any kid who’s bright enough to put a vacuum cleaner in reverse has done. On Carol’s dryer, the ball wobbled between 18″ and 24″ above the nozzle. On Jimi’s, it was maybe 4″.

So there was work to do, somewhere. Upon opening the dryer up, at least one problem was obvious: The 1,025 watt AC motor was wired to the speed control with #24 telephone wire, and too much of it. (You know, the stuff with the two-color, bands-on-solid insulation.) Close inspection showed two cold solder joints, coincidentally (heh) where the #24 wire hit the speed control pot. The plastic insulation on the phone wire was blackened with heat. The dryer slowly was cooking itself from the resistance of all that skinny wire. No need for a fork; it was done.

Jimi had ordered the motor from the manufacturer and then had somebody local put it into the dryer. She called him an amateur. No. I’m an amateur, with a callsign to prove it. I do electronics because I love it. Whoever installed this motor was…an idiot.

All fixed now, using some #14 stranded wire and soldering skills I learned when I was eleven. Both dryers now loft the soccer ball two feet hgh. Ohm’s Law is a bitch, dude. Please go back to sharpening scissors.