When I started listening to the Ham Radio Workbench podcast they were on quite a tear about DMR. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but as I listened, I got more and more into it. I have an ICOM 7100 that has D-Star but I’d not even played with that at all. The idea got stuck in my head that I should check it out and when they said that it was the most radio fun you can have for under $200, they had my undivided attention.
And that claim is pretty close to true.
Where to begin? Well, the odds were good that there would be a DMR repeater somewhere in the area and I was right. A quick stroll through the repeater book got me where I needed to go, so all I needed was a radio. Like most people, I have constraints and one of them is money. I decided to go all in on the cheapest radio I could buy that someone had said anything positive about and that was the TYT MD-380 that can easily be obtained from Amazon. At $99 for the radio and USB cable, it was quite a bargain. And if it turned out that I didn’t have fun with it or that I couldn’t get it running, I wasn’t out much if it went to sit in The Drawer Of Forgotten Projects. And if I really got into this whole DMR thing, well, upgrades are part of the fun, right?
I recommend that before you buy your radio, you go get a DMR ID. There is one required to configure your radio and uniquely identify it to the world. It’s a simple process and you can step through it here: https://radioid.net. All you have to have is a Technician Class ticket. After running through the form it takes about 48 hours for the ID to hit your email. I had mine before my radio arrived.
The thing that I had heard quite a bit about was code plugs. Now back when commercial radios like these were first in use, the configurations were burned to PROMs and plugged into the radios. So the code was plugged. Got it. It was recommended in blogs and other forums that one find an Elmer with an existing file and set it up. Well, I like to start from scratch so I can learn a thing or two and that’s just what I did. For all the talk of difficulty, what it really is is tedious. Very tedious. But the software I was using made copying and pasting my way to success less of a burden than I had anticipated.
We’ll digress here for a moment so that I can share a bit about the MD-380. The software for programming it is ridiculously simple to run, but for a Mac or Linux user, it’s an uphill battle. Or it was until I installed VirtualBox and made a Windows 10 VM. I got lucky and while I found a number of nits to pick with VirtualBox, the software for programming the MD-380 worked out of the box. The VM found the hardware first time and I was able to pull over the blank configuration and follow some very simple steps to get myself up and running.
The steps that I followed for configuring the MD-380, if you’re interested, can be found on the adafruit.com site here https://cdn-learn.adafruit.com/downloads/pdf/tytera-md-380-dmr.pdf. These instructions are really easy to follow and I was able to step through those and get exactly where I needed to be the first time through.
After some reading on how the DMR repeaters work and given that I really wanted to get on the TalkGroup for the Ham Radio Workbench out in the Bay Area, it was pretty clear that I needed my own hotspot. This was mainly so that I wouldn’t be messing around with a local repeater and all that jazz just to listen to a limited interest group. And, of course, I wanted to noodle with some D-Star stuff as well, so it seemed logical to grab one as they aren’t cost prohibitive. As for hotspots, there are a few out there and their manufacte seems to ebb and flow. I picked the Zumspot which right now (June of 2018) can only be acquired via Ham Radio Outlet. It’s a hat for a Raspberry Pi and there’s an inexpensive kit that contains a Raspberry Pi Zero along with the Zumspot hat. I also liked that it has an enclosure that you can either buy or 3D print yourself. Really all you need is the kit and a micro USB for power and it’s ready to go.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a software developer for about 25 years. That makes my dad really old. But it also skews my idea of “user friendly” more than a little. I’m also an old school GNU/Linux guy (Debian only, please) and I contributed device drivers for sound cards for a long time. This is a long way of saying that nothing has ever Just Worked(tm) for me EVER. And yet, I’m here to say that I followed these instructions verbatim http://papasys.com/dmr/resources/DATA/docs/ZumSpot_Pistar_KC6N_20180120.pdf and it worked THE. FIRST. TIME.
Yes. The first time.
I configured the hotspot, programmed the talk group and channel data into my radio, and got a QSO across the talk group with a lovely gentleman in England. I was so shocked and completely unprepared for it to work that I didn’t log his callsign. That’s my loss, I suppose. But there you have it. DMR out of the box and ready to go.
So now what? Now, I poke around and find talk groups to join. There’s a list of BrandMeister groups here courtesy of MW0MWZ. I’m also hoping to make some new friends who keep their radios on while they putter around the shack. Like all things Ham Radio, it’s another thing to tweak and poke at and explore while I’m waiting for the HF bands to open up a bit and for my CW chops to get where they need to be.
The moral of the story is that it really is that easy to get up and running on DMR for just about $200. And my total time sunk into the project was under 4 hours including time spent setting up the VM and all the other nonsense because I live in a Mac/Linux world at home.