mAT-705 Judged Too Soon?

The post I made about the mAT-705 antenna tuner was a bit rough on the unit in retrospect. I regretted the purchase because the mAT-705+ came out shortly thereafter and answered my issue of having to pull the thing apart in a rather perilous manner to replace the battery by adding in a USB-C rechargeable battery. But what they took away with this design is perhaps the most important piece of my personal puzzle.

They removed the power switch.

Sure, I’ve seen complaints online that people forget to turn it off and then the battery runs out and you have to change it in the field, which again, is perilous. But that power switch is its own kind of superpower. To quote from their product site:

When the frequency does not change, the user can directly turn off the power without affecting the use. In order to save power to the greatest extent, the tuner directly uses switching control power. Does not consume any power when shutting down.

http://www.mat-tuner.com/mAT-705.php

That means that the other day when I was messing around in the yard, that I was right. Once things are tuned, I can turn off the power and, well, it’s good! For digital field operations, this is pretty sweet as anything that reduces power consumption is by it’s very nature a good thing. It’s a little puzzling that they pulled the switch from the design when adding the rechargeable battery, but then again, there’s only so much real estate in that tiny box and the size is part of the attraction. I don’t have the plus model, but I think I might have deeper buyer’s remorse with that one. And this little revelation after reading a post over on OH8STN has me thinking that I might be happy with where I am. After all, the performance of the tuner is great and the size and weight are selling points for me.

This tuner is the essence of ham radio. It’s a compromise. It tunes perfectly and quickly. It works really well with the IC-705. But the compromises are all over the place and are obvious after a little time in the backyard, I think.

More updates as I get more time in the field soon.

IC-705 WLAN with WSJT-X

With the usual tip of the cap to OH8STN I dug in on the v1.24 firmware of the IC-705 to rid my field setup of yet another cable. I think I’m about as close to field nirvana as I’m going to get. So what did I do and what did I learn?

First off, I have to say that I totally gave up on some things. Being in Ham Radio as a hobbiest with limited time means that I had to re-examine the three legged stool principle. What’s that? Well, there are three legs: Time, Money, and Scope. In this case, my scope is QRP operation on primarily digital modes at the park or while I’m camping. My time is, as I’ve mentioned in the past, very valuable to me and is a fixed amount. I do keep a close eye on my hobby budget and I’m not made of money. That said, if I wanted to keep pushing for a Raspberry Pi based solution, I was going to need a lot more time for fiddling with computers and that leads to less time for operating because I don’t have blocks of time for both. So I followed the lead of the mighty OH8STN and got a Surface Go 2. I will say that the world of Ham Radio operators has embraced the Raspberry Pi and GNU/Linux, but at the end of the day, most of the software that works with minimal time investment lives on Windows. Maybe someday…when I have a bit more time?

So what were the ingredients?

  • IC-705 patched to v1.24 firmware
  • Microsoft Surface Go 2
  • ICOM RS-BA1 Version 2 at the latest version
  • WSJT-X

That’s it. Now, what did I do?

First, I turned on the WLAN feature of the IC-705 and set it to Access Point Mode. This broadcasts an SSID of my choice and has a password requirement for joining that network. I spent a lot of time playing with this feature alone as I was hopeful that I could use the IC-705 as an access point for more than one device. After all, it’s just handing out an address and maybe acting as a low-functioning router given that there is no internet capability in this mode. But sadly, only one device can be attached to the IC-705 at a time based on my experiments. This constraint is not anywhere I could find in the documentation and it might be so simple that it’s not worth noting. But I had some ideas…and they’ll have to wait.

With the Access Point mode engaged, I set up the Connections menu to have MOD as WLAN. This means that audio as well as rig control commands will come and go over Wi-Fi. Easy enough.

IC-705 Menu for setting MOD to WLAN

Then we go over to the computer. I connected the computer to the SSID of the IC-705 under the usual Wi-Fi networking panel. I don’t think that the docs for setting up the connection software are particularly cumbersome. Once the software is installed, the connection utililty is launched and the user is left to fill in the blanks on the device that is the server and in that respect it’s not any more difficult than attaching any other device to a basestation. If you leave all of the defaults alone, the connection should Just Work.

When setting up the connection utility, there is the option of selecting a name for the virtual COM port. I chose COM1 because that’s what the software picked for me and I’m not attached to these kinds of things. With that done, one can launch WSJT-X and set the rig to IC-705, the port to COM1 (or whatever you chose), and then set the audio to the ICOM Virtual Audio port. Not really a huge difference here when compared to setting it up for use over a USB connection, though you do need to change the COM port and the audio port depending on your connection.

BUT!

There’s always a “But”…

Deep in the undocumented bowels of the connection utility, there is a button. Actually, it’s right up front and, in my opinion, poorly defined. It says [MOD]. Push that button. In the resulting dialog box, there is an area called [MOD Select]. It defaults to “Mic – Default Device” when what I really needed was “V Audio – ICOM_VAUDIO-1”. Special thanks to SM0TGU on the IC-705 groups.io list for pointing me in the right direction.

Before I was gifted with this configuration information, I was running WSJT-X and receiving just fine but unable to send audio. That is to say, the rig went to TX but had no sound to send. In fact, the whole reason for this post was to highlight this for later when I inevitably have to rebuild my setup from scratch. Now, with that option selected, everything was a GO!

ICOM Remote Utility Dialog for MOD Select

I made a contact not minutes later with W1LEM on 40m using my attic dipole. Not bad!

WSJT-X QSO with W1LEM

This is all great, but isn’t it just chasing a weird little feature for digital modes?

No. This removes the USB cable from the equasion and with it a lot of potential noise. My Surface isn’t awful, but I’ve used laptops that seemed to be purpose built for throwing off RF and noise. It’s also a neater solution. At this point, the only cables I will have in play will be auxillary power to the IC-705 from my battery box, the ATU, and the ATU control cable. All of those things can sit in a pile (for the most part) or in/on my pack while I use any number of digital modes or even a bluetooth headset for phone contacts from almost anywhere at my operating point or campsite. It’s amazing.

I have another post I’m working up on my antenna setup (a wire in a tree vs. the MP1 Super Antenna). I will also be keeping a better log of work in the field (even if that’s just my backyard) with the IC-705 and this setup.

I hope this is helpful! 73!

mAT-705 – Accessory Detour

The mAT-705 next to the IC-705 (on a tripod)

Antenna tuners are a thing to have, right? If you’re going to use a less than adequate antenna or just a random piece of wire, a tuner is going to come in handy. At home, I have an attic dipole that’s strung from one side of the attic to the other. I usually use my LDG tuner for that with my IC-7100. I have the LDG Z-11 Pro II and it’s awesome. It’s got a battery clip inside that eats a pile of AAs, it runs off of rig power, and it’s not too cumbersome, but I was really looking for a more portable option. The mAT-705, made specifically for use with the IC-705, looked like a pretty good idea. These are my initial impressions of that piece of gear.

Pros. The box is small and rugged. It fits in an admin pouch on my backpack or can be dropped into any number of waterproof boxes that I have for use when I’m outdoors. It’s got BNC connectors and a single 1/8″ TRS cable to connect it to the IC-705. It tunes up FAST and works really, really well in my testing so far. That’s using both my attic dipole and the MP1 Super Antenna. It’s definitely the right size and it hits all the right notes when it comes to being a solid tuner.

Cons. Well, the bummer is in changing the battery. I honestly hope that I never have to do this in the field. It takes a 9v battery that is in a most unfortunate position. Take a look:

The guts of the mAT-705 tuner.

To replace the battery, that entire assembly has to come out. In the manual, it mentions removing the rear 4 screws and pulling it out. That’s great if it works. But the battery fits in very tightly. That means taking off the front panel to push a bit to get it out. It doesn’t feel good to do this. It’s not a simple sliding motion. On the one hand, it’s great that it doesn’t slide around in the case, but it does make changing the battery feel treacherous. I’ll also add that for someone who regularly breaks things because he forgets that not everything responds well to torque, I have to really think it through.

Another downer with this is that the panel one is supposed to tug on is attached only by the BNC solder joints. Again, not instilling confidence.

Solder joints connecting the panel to the PCB.

If it turns out that the battery lasts for a long time, this won’t be something that I sweat very often. But if I find myself doing this more than once a year, I might figure out a way to power it externally because snapping that PCB would be a bummer.

There are Pros and Cons. What are the things that just sap the joy out of opening a piece of gear? I don’t know what to call them, but I’ll list the two that hit me.

One of them is a dead battery. Yeah, the battery was dead out of the box. This is how I discovered the pain of opening the case so soon upon receiving it. The other killjoy was finding that the enclosed allen wrench didn’t work. It was slightly too small to turn the screws. That was frustrating. Almost frustrating enough to return it, if I’m completely honest.

What’s the net? It’s a solid tuner. I have confidence that it will be great for my particular purposes. Knowing what I know now, would I suggest it to another new IC-705 owner? Maybe.

My particular requirements are tied to my lifestyle. I’m a dad and husband living through a rather singular pandemic who doesn’t have a ton of time for his hobbies. When I do get a chance to get out and play with my radio, I have to be ready to go. It feels like emergency readiness, but it’s more relaxation readiness. If I have to pull any component out of my desktop chain to get out the door, that comes out of the minutes that I’m not on the air or heading to the field. So I feel like the mAT-705 is going to be very helpful on that front. It’s small, light, and can live in my backpack waiting patiently for me to get out the door.

I will continue to update my thoughts on this piece of gear as I get out more in the coming months. I want to give it a fair shake.

IC-705 – Part 3: GPS

Your IC-705 will NOT look like this when you’re getting GPS data.

I’m slowly stepping my way through all that the IC-705 has to offer. I still consider myself quite a new ham, so there are features that I know little about that I’m starting to have a lot of fun with. But for a moment, I’m going to indulge something that I’m really getting geared up for this winter: field operation.

In my part of the world, it gets quite cold in the winter. I’m not one to shy away from that and I do indeed love hiking and camping all winter long. Especially if it’s quiet and there is some degree of solitude. In these Strange Times, it’s sometimes nice to take a minute and step outside where we can enjoy the absence of certain things. But there’s no reason I can’t take my radio along, right? And there really shouldn’t be any reason that, given my recent acquisition, I shouldn’t take my radio hobby along for the hike.

There are a lot of operators out there who are far better at field operation than I. OH8STN is definitely one of them and I follow his work closely. The sentiment we share is that in 2020 a radio should do everything with one wire – if there has to be a cable at all. There’s no reason that a single USB cable shouldn’t carry with it all the power of the radio. And with the IC-705, it does.

I wrote before about syncing a laptop’s time using my Kenwood TH-D74 so that the clock is as accurate as it can be for modes like FT8. That still works and it can be done over bluetooth. But I’m not using the TH-D74 for FT8 and I’m already plugged into the IC-705 which has a GPS, so why not leverage that?

This whole entry is more of a way for me to remember what I did to get to the point where it worked and less about trying to teach anyone anything. There are many links to places that taught me what I know. But here are the high points.

The IC-705 really only needs one bit of configuration.

SET > Connectors > USB (B) Function -> GPS Out -> ON

Thanks to Ryan on the IC-705 groups.io list for reminding me of that. See also Painful Radio UI/UX.

With the GPS turned on and that setting in play, the unit will push data out via the USB as soon as it has acquired a lock. A trick? In my experience, it will come out as the port that does NOT do rig control. Every operating system does this differently and you can’t necessarily predict which device will show up where (even when you tell the OS to honor your setup) so it’s good to know that there’s a difference and not get frustrated and stare at a screen for an hour like someone I know.

Hmm…

Now on the computer side, it’s a question of finding some software that will listen to a GPS and go from there. I used GPS2Time on Windows and gpsd on my Raspberry Pi. You can get all the instruction you need from VK4ADC’s site for GPS2Time and THIS is a great tutorial on getting things going with the Raspberry Pi. Though I will caution you to double check the device that is configured for chrony. That tutorial names a device and you just need to confirm that the one you need is the one you configure. Or again, you’ll be staring at a screen like our friend.

So far, everything seems to be working exactly as I would like. It also gets me down to a single connection to the computer. In 2020 that is definitely as it should be.

More Bags

OK, OK, OK… My wife tells me that I have a “Bag Problem.” I like to think of it as having the right tool for the job. That said, I’ve been playing around with a million different configurations of my existing collection to find a good solution to the problem of how to carry the IC-705.

After looking at a ton of pictures of other portable operators’ load-outs, I saw that there was an item that kept showing up. It was a cylinder that was used by some for camera lenses and others for electronics. As it turns out, it’s a “Tactical Water Bottle Holder.”

Yeah. A “Tactical” water bottle holder. And it can hold a bottle of wine, too!

The point is, when I saw it, I knew that it was perfect for the IC-705. I ordered it up and it fit perfectly. There is enough padding to it to protect the radio. It also has enough room for the mic and some other cables. On the front of the bag, there’s a pouch that could hold an antenna tuner like the MAT-705 or a notebook or more cables. Also, it attaches to the side of my sling pack nicely using the molle system on the sling. It’s really a great solution!

One more time… Tactical Water Bottle Holder.

The IC-705 side by side with the bag.
The IC-705 in the bag with the hand mic.

I will definitely share more if I make changes to this. But for now, I’m going to let this solution of the water bottle bag with my Maxpedition Sitka Gearslinger.

Sling and Water Bottle Bag

Be Prepared

IC-705 with homebrew battery box

“Be Prepared” is the Scout Motto. It’s not the slogan. The slogan is, “Do A Good Turn Daily.” The difference is important. Both are important, but it’s hard to do a good turn if you aren’t prepared.

I’ve done the Jamboree On The Air with my kids for the last 2 years. We never really planned anything with a larger group because of my rig and the hassle factor of my shack at the old QTH. But with the addition of my new toy to my collection and my wife taking over my daughter’s Webelos Den and a very old friend of mine being the Cub Master, it seems that my time to shine has come. I’m going to toss the IC-705 and my homebrew battery box into the Jeep and get some kids on the air.

In talking with my buddy, the problems that they have had in the past included JOTA coinciding with a contest or simply being unable to get hold of anyone. There could be nothing worse than teaching a kid about radio and then not having anyone to talk to, so that risk needs to be pulled from the equasion.

Last night, I jumped on the air from my kitchen. Why the kitchen? So I’d know that I had everything I needed and didn’t have something propping me up that wouldn’t be in the field. In the even that I can’t get anyone on HF or for some reason can’t hit a repeater, I will have my Zumspot with me tethered to my iPhone. What does that do? It opens up the world of D-STAR.

We had a lot of fun with JOTA and D-STAR last year. My daughter talked to Scouts in New Mexico, Columbia, and Costa Rica. We’ve talked to Scouts all over the states and in Canada as well. The best part is that REF033A is dedicated to JOTA. So you can make a contact and slide over to another reflector to talk. It’s clear signal and you’re almost guaranteed a contact.

The test from the kitchen to my dad worked well. We’ll have him out at the PCARS club site on the day of the Jamboree to man the HF station (maybe we’ll get him on 40m!) or the repeater. And if that fails, off to D-STAR we go.

And we will be cautious. Masks for all Scouts per the guidelines. Gloves to operate the mic and a good alcohol swabbing between users just to be extra sure. Being outdoors is the key! Gotta keep that air flowing. Hopefully, we’ll have some fun, learn a few things, and make some new friends on the air.

IC-705 – Part 2: FT8

The adventures with the IC-705 continue!

This week, I installed the most recent release candidate for FT8. It contains a listing for the IC-705 so it doesn’t have to be spoofed. The application ran fine for me on my Windows 10 laptop. The radio did exactly what it should do and I got my first contact on 40m while set to 5 watts and running through my attic dipole antenna.

First FT8 contact with the IC-705. Thanks K9JLX!

No complications. No fiddling. It just worked. And yes, that is a pleasant surprise!

I also got the latest release candidate for FT8 running on my little (newly) Linux WinBook. There was a bit more fiddling to figure out what the IC-705 comes up as in the audio settings. Remember, kids: arecord -l will list all recording interfaces and you can fake it from there. Kind of. In any case, I didn’t make any contacts, but I heard stations and I was heard over on https://pskreporter.info which means I’m getting out! I’m hoping that this combination makes an excellent field setup for FT8. I plan to test that assertion this weekend.

I’m not quite a week in, so I’m trying to save my impressions until I’ve gotten through enough of my use cases for the rig. I will say that it’s a challenge having this unit before many have had any experience with it and posted about it. The manual lacks actual sample configurations for some things and that makes it difficult to validate issues that I’m experiencing (especially with fancy things like D-Star). There’s a great mailing list over on groups.io for the IC-705, but again, the posts only go back so far and there’s not a lot of practical operating advice just yet.

To recap, I now have the following use cases checked off:

  • Connect to D-Star HotSpot
  • Complete a contact via RF repeater
  • FT8 contact on HF

So what’s next?

  • Get out in the field with the Super Antenna MP1C and try to make a contact
  • Prepare for JOTA so that the Scouts can get on the air via UHF/VHF repeater, HF, or D-Star

That’s a lot of “experimenting” (read: playing) to do.

Computers: An Aside

Working closely with technology for an extended period of time has colored my views on computing. I’ve gone from full-on, build it all myself or die to using whatever works reliably and jettisoning anything that fails. I can trace the completion of that transition to the point where I had a little baby boy to care for and no more time in my day for compiling things or tweaking hardware.

That was 13 or so years ago. Since that time, I’ve kept myself mostly in the default use cases covered by MacOS and iOS. Why? Because it works for me 99.999% of the time. I don’t ever find myself having issues that other people hit. Part of this, I believe, is because I understand the use cases. The applications I use are good for what they do and I expect little else from them. That is to say, I have an application for my notetaking and journaling. I have one for music making and editing audio. I have one for browsing. I have one for mail…OK…that’s a lie. I go through mail clients like most people go through shows on Netflix. I hate all email clients for different reasons. They all suck. All of them. Even the one you love. It’s horrible and I can tell you why. At length. You will regret asking.

Anyway, I try to stick to applications that do what I need done and use them for their strengths. I do take the time to give them the respect of learning their primary use cases so that my expectations are in the right place. You won’t catch me keeping an address book in a spreasheet program, for instance. That said, if an addressbook app loses one piece of my data? It’s gone. And I won’t look back. To my mind, the app’s failure is complete and that I do not forgive.

When I started messing around with Ham Radio software, I learned quickly that the vast majority of it was built for Windows. I’ve made a lot of money in my lifetime developing software in Microsoft’s ecosystem, so it’s a stretch for me to complain too loudly. I will simply say that I don’t do Windows at home because of the poor driver support and the endless interventions required on my part to keep things running. This is no less true in the radio sphere as there is always a driver to install for any given cable or device. It’s a disappointment in 2020 that manufacturers can’t read a spec and provide a device that meets it without imposing on the user to add software to their systems. But I digress.

About 2 years ago, I purchased a WinBook TW110 at Microcenter. It has an Atom processor, a touch screen, and is a weird little multi-form-factor device. It also runs Windows 10 and weighs almost nothing with a pretty impressive battery life. I set it up with WSJT-X and some logging software and off I went. I used it primarily to program my radios as there is no Mac software for that outside of CHIRP and not every rig I have likes CHIRP. But then we hit that moment that I hit with every Windows tablet: I ran out of space to update Windows.

This hits me like clockwork. I’ve had some really cool tablets that did really well for my limited use cases that eventually hit this wall. My HP tablet for instance, had a single USB port that was also used to charge the unit. I needed to use a USB stick to hold the updates. The update took longer than the battery could survive. I tried a USB hub to no avail. Finally, it ended up in the parts drawer waiting for me to use the screen for something at a later date.

The real disappointment with the WinBook was that it is really, really lightweight and it charges off of a USB port with 5 volts in a pinch. It’s ideal for FT8 in the field. Having it fail like this made me sad. So my little WinBook was destined for a life as maybe a clock that showed timezones and the position of the sun or sattelites or something. But in the back of my head a voice said, “Just throw Linux on it. If it fails, the worst case is you reload Windows 10 and maybe have enough space.” So I grabbed a Mint image and it worked first shot.

Side note: I used Debian for YEARS. It was my OS of choice for everything and I was intimately familiar with every part of the system. I wrote device drivers for sound cards and had a lot of fun playing with it and learning how it worked. Note that all of that is past tense.

Naturally, the touchpad isn’t supported, but a Bluetooth mouse and a functional touchscreen mitigate that. The battery life is really good. And behold! The entire OS doesn’t really make a dent in the 32 GB of internal storage that this little beast has available. This might work!

Naturally, the current stable version of FT8 doesn’t have the IC-705 in it yet and thus requires spoofing as an IC-7300. The 705 is in the first release candidate for the next version. Which I’ll have to compile from source on this distro. Which will require some time to get dependencies in a row. Which…takes me back…to why I don’t do this anymore.

That said, maybe it’s time. My kids are fully functional and mostly self-sustaining on the weekends and after bedtime. Maybe I do have time a little time to wrestle with this and see if I remember anything from those long nights of compiling entire distributions from source so I could run a new soundcard. It could be that I might even have fun doing it. If I do get this WinBook working for FT8, I know that my back will thank me and my field operations will be easier and last longer.

This feeds my thesis that Ham Radio is the Old Magick and it will take its adherents back to the beginning of all things, in time.

IC-705 – Part 1: D-Star

It’s been over a year since my last post. There are reasons for that, not limited to a move to another state and a global pandemic. It certainly isn’t because I’m not active in the radio hobby! In fact, moving has made me more available to the club that I belong to and their activities on the air. And being locked down has made for more time experimenting with the radio. But that hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging about radio.

Until now!

At this point, I’m pretty sure everyone in the ham radio community heard something or other about the release of ICOM’s QRP rig the IC-705. It’s full of features and has an amazing footprint for all that it does. I remember reading the data sheet and thinking, “This is the rig I want for getting out in the field.” My 7100 is great, but I have to carry a battery box that weighs quite a bit or stick close to my Jeep. The sheer weight of the rig plus the battery just doesn’t make for a nice hike. But the 705 looked like it was going to be what I wanted it to be.

I pre-ordered one way back through DX Engineering. And then, well, the world ended. There were delays. Then more delays. Finally, we heard that November would be the earliest possible ship date. So imagine my surprise when there was a box from DXE on my porch on 02-Oct! I did the Happy Nerd Dance and opened it up so I could start charging it.

I’m familiar enough with ICOM’s approach to radio operating systems that I could get myself up and on the local repeater in no time, even with my cruddy mag-mount antenna that I keep around for emergencies. Programming it is about as easy as once could expect. That said, radio manufacturers could take a few lessons from modern UI/UX designers when they name things and decide what will go where. I’ll pick those nits later.

I have a Zumspot that I use for D-STAR and DMR. I wanted to get my 705 to hit it so that I can do a demo for Jamboree On The Air in a couple of weeks. I like to keep D-STAR up and ready as HF is unpredictable, sometimes no one is on a repeater, and no kid wants to hear about radio for 15 minutes and then not talk to anyone. D-STAR solves that nicely as there are Scouts on a couple of reflectors and it’s relatively foolproof.

It took a bit of fiddling. The manual, which covers details nicely, is still not great at walking someone from point A to point B in a straight line with some typical configurations. The fact that they don’t really address Hotspots directly is a gap. We all know that they are technically repeaters, but there are some fiddly bits there that make it less than clear. I would cover it all here, but I have a feeling it’s very specific to how the individual Hotspot is set up. More on that as I gain more experience.

I spent about an hour getting it working on D-STAR. That hour was spread over 2 days. That’s more a sign of where my life is than a ding on the rig. If I’d had more time to sit and fiddle with it, it probably would have gone more smoothly.

So far, so good. Next up will be FT8 and field tests. It’s going to be an exciting few weekends as I have some time in the field coming to me.