Archive for October, 2006

Those #@$%# Power Adapters

I was getting ready for a trip. Of course, I need to take along my electronic toys, I mean, necessities. There’s the mobile phone, the iPod, the ham radio gear, the digital camera and lots of other stuff. As I gathered up the toys, I surveyed the required support gear, which includes various forms of batteries and those dang power converters. You know the ones, the so-called “wall warts” that convert the AC line voltage to the required DC level. The only problem is that each little electronic gadget seems to require a different power level. Even if the voltage is the same, the plug size or polarity is sure to be different.

Not too long ago, I was writing about the virtues of the USB (Universal Serial Bus) standard. It has really simplified the plugging in of gadgets associated with computers. Not so with the DC power converter problem. It almost seems like the manufacturers make all of their profit off the power converter, so they are motivated to keep them non-standard and hard to find.

I try to explain where all of these power converters come from. I have (literally) piles of them from different pieces of equipment that have probably already been tossed onto the scrap heap. That’s another thing….why don’t they consistently label the power converters so you know what piece of equipment that are meant to serve? I’ve got power converters for rechargeable flashlights, for (radio) scanners, for handheld ham radios, for digital cameras, for MP3 players, for notebook computers, for computer scanners, for mobile phones, ….the list just seems to never end.

OK, let me say something positive here. I’ve noticed that some power converters have adopted switching regulators which let them handle a range of line voltages from 100 to 240 VAC. This is great for people that travel outside the U.S. You may still need an adapter to get the plug to fit the wall outlet but the power converter can handle virtually any line voltage around the world. Nice!

Back to complaining —- why can’t they just standardize on two or three power adapters, with a specified DC voltage and connector size? This could be the biggest ease-of-use breakthrough for the electronics consumer since the invention of the AA battery.

– 73, Bob K0NR

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Ham Radio Report on IEEE Spectrum Podcast

As an electrical engineer, I’ve always been a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The IEEE publishes Spectrum, which is an excellent magazine for technical topics relating to electrical engineering (EE). They recently added an audio podcast called Spectrum Radio to their program, covering topics interested to EEs.

This past week they published a audio clip concerning ham radio. This includes some on-the-air audio and an interview with Joyce Birmingham, KA2ANF. It is well done and worth listening to….maybe share it with some of your non-ham friends.

- 73, Bob K0NR

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FCC Releases Long-Awaited "Omnibus" Amateur Radio Report and Order

From the ARRL web site:

NEWINGTON, CT, Oct 11, 2006 — Ending a protracted waiting period, the FCC’s Report and Order (R&O) in the so-called “omnibus” Amateur Radio proceeding, WT Docket 04-140, was adopted October 4 and released October 10. In it, the FCC adopted nearly all of the changes it had put forth in its 2004 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the proceeding.

The complete FCC report and order is available online here.

One of the key rule changes for the VHF community is that auxiliary operation will soon be allowed on the 2-Meter band. Currently, auxiliary operation is limited to the 222 MHz band and higher.

Part 97.3 defines auxiliary operation in this manner:

(7) Auxiliary station. An amateur station, other than in a message forwarding system, that is transmitting communications point-to-point within a system of cooperating amateur stations.

In everyday language, we might call this a link, as in a control link for a repeater system or a link between two repeaters. Amateur radio stations that are connected to the Internet, using EchoLink or a similar system, are also auxiliary stations.

The existing FCC rules on Auxiliary Stations are:

§97.201 Auxiliary station.

(a) Any amateur station licensed to a holder of a Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced or Amateur Extra Class operator license may be an auxiliary station. A holder of a Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced or Amateur Extra Class operator license may be the control operator of an auxiliary station, subject to the privileges of the class of operator license held.

(b) An auxiliary station may transmit only on the 1.25 m and shorter wavelength bands, except the 219-220 MHz, 222.000-222.150 MHz, 431-433 MHz and 435-438 MHz segments.

(c) Where an auxiliary station causes harmful interference to another auxiliary station, the licensees are equally and fully responsible for resolving the interference unless one station’s operation is recommended by a frequency coordinator and the other station’s is not. In that case, the licensee of the non-coordinated auxiliary station has primary responsibility to resolve the interference.

(d) An auxiliary station may be automatically controlled.

(e) An auxiliary station may transmit one-way communications.

The FCC will be modifying paragraph (b) to be:

(b) An auxiliary station may transmit only on the 2 m and shorter wavelength bands, except the 144.0-144.5 MHz, 145.8-146.0 MHz, 219-220 MHz, 222.00-222.15 MHz, 431-433 MHz, and 435-438 MHz segments.

This means that auxiliary operation will be allowed on 2 Meters but the weak-signal portion below 144.5 MHz and the 145.8-146.0 MHz satellite subband are protected. This opens the way for EchoLink and other auxiliary stations to use the popular 2-Meter band.

Is this a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. This could be a positive change that allows for greater operating flexibility. If hams use good judgment on the frequencies they use, it will probably work just fine. On the other hand, it could result in a bunch of uncoordinated auxiliary stations causing interference to other radio uses. As usual in ham radio, the end result will be determined by the amateur radio community (and not FCC regulations).

73, Bob K0NR

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Results of The Free Software Experiment

Over one year ago, I decided to buy a new notebook computer for use with ham radio and other personal projects. In the past, I’ve been a typical user of Microsoft products, including Windows, MS Office, Internet Explorer, etc. The Open Source movement has been interesting to me and I often wondered about using some of these free software programs.

I bought an HP/Compaq Presario 2200 computer and proceeded to load it with “free” software. I was on a quest to determine how far I could go without paying a cent for software. My basic rules were:

  • Don’t pay anything for software
  • Avoid free braindead software that forces you to upgrade to the premium ver$ion
  • Don’t cheat the system by using hacked software

The first decision I encountered was whether to use Linux or Windows XP. The computer came loaded with Windows XP, so I considered that “free”. I have used technical computers with the Unix operating system at work, so I am still tempted to bring up a Linux system here at home. For now, I decided to stick with Windows since there is quite a bit of freeware available on that OS and it was already installed.

For the main software applications, I quickly zero’d in on OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird. These apps seem to be the real leaders in their respective areas.

OpenOffice

From the OpenOffice.org web page:
OpenOffice.org is a
multiplatform and multilingual office suite and an open-source project. Compatible with all other major office suites, the product is free to download, use, and distribute.

I had high hopes for OpenOffice and it is a reasonably good piece of software. I had used MS Word for many years (currently using Word 2003) and was pretty much a power user of that software. The word processor portion of OpenOffice (OpenOffice Writer) has enough features to compete with Word and even has a few advantages such as outputting in pdf format. I lived without Word on my new PC for about 7 months and only used OpenOffice. Ultimately, I had to give in and install Word. There were just too many places where OpenOffice was not quite compatible with the industry standard. Graphics inserted into documents would mysteriously get mangled or would print incorrectly when transferred to Word. Word is the defacto standard so OpenOffice is, by definition, incompatible. Frankly, my life got much simpler after installing Word. For users that don’t care about Word compatibility, I can highly recommend OpenOffice.

While the compatibility issues of the OpenOffice word processor are kind of a problem, the OpenOffice spreadsheet is a real mess. The feature set and user interface is quite different from Excel and is a distant second in terms of overall functionality. Fortunately, my spreadsheet usage is very basic, so I have been able to just live with OpenOffice.

Overall, I give OpenOffice a “B-” grade.

Firefox
My experience with Firefox, the web browser, has been excellent. I am very happy with version 1.5 and look forward to 2.0. The tabbed interface and the extensions that are available are a real plus. Also, there have been fewer security problems with Firefox compared to Internet Explorer.

Overall, I give Firefox an “A” grade.

Thunderbird
I am on version 1.5 of Thunderbird and continue to be very impressed. This email client is quite flexible in handling multiple pop accounts and supports extensions and themes. See Why You Should Use the Mozilla Thunderbird E-Mail Program. My only complaint on Thunderbird is that its spam filtering could be better. I don’t know that this is a ding on Thunderbird in that spam is a continuing challenge for everyone. Still, I’d say having a stronger spam filter is the best thing they could do to improve the email client.

Overall, I give Thunderbird an “A” grade.

Other Software
What other free software do I have on my PC? There are quite a few ham radio software packages out there, many of them free: EchoLink (ham radio voice-over-IP), Morse Runner (CW contest simulator), MorseGen (generate Morse code on your PC), WinMorse (converts text to Morse code audio file), SatScape (satellite tracking software) and UI-View (APRS software).

What are your favorite free software packages?

73, Bob K0NR

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