Starting with DX Lab Suite

It’s been a while since i last posted something on this blog. I’ve been busy with work, but i have not been silent on the radio.
In this article i want to talk about another beauty i have found on the Internet, the DX Lab Suite.

Basically it started all when i was in the shack of PA5MW where he had a software program running that alerted him whenever a wanted station was spotted on a cluster. I became interested in finding the same functionality in Ham Radio Deluxe, the software i was using at that moment.
Unfortunately HRD doesn’t have this possibility. On the HRD mailing list, Dave AA6YQ pointed me to a suite of programs that did have this possibility and much much more. Soon i found out that Dave is the author and maintainer of large portions of the suite, great work, Dave!

So i went to the DXLabSuite website and started reading.

What is the DX Lab Suite?
The suite consists of 8 applications, each with it’s own functionality, purpose and strengths. Once you install those individual programs together they start to interact.

Launcher is what the name suggests, it launches the suite. But not only that, it also launches any other software you want to run while running the suite, it takes care of the suites software and database installation and updates. Launcher makes maintaining a suite of 8 programs and 6 databases a piece of cake.

Commander is your rigs CAT control. Commander supports up to 4 transceivers of the most common brands. Commander is in no way as good looking as HRD, but it does what it needs to do. Furthermore, Commander is one of the key pieces of the suite and interacts as the interface between the other pieces of the suite and your radio.

What i use a lot is Commanders Bandspread. Bandspread takes the spots from Spotcollector and displays them in a vertical window as shown in the image. Like this you have a clear overview which station is where, the colors of the callsigns tell you if you already worked this station, if you have it confirmed, if he’s using eQSL, LotW, etc and a double-click in the callsign makes your radio tune in on the frequency, mode, split mode or not.
Bandspread follows your radios VFO’s whether you operate your radio manually or through the software.

Spotcollector is the software you use to send and receive spots. Spotcollector is able to follow up to 4 telnet clusters, one IRC cluster, one web cluster and one packet cluster. Spotcollector takes all the information from its spot sources and aggregates the information and stores it in its internal database. The data in the database can be filtered and displayed according to your needs.
What i like a lot is that you can filter spots by band, which most software can do, but because Spotcollector interacts with Commander, it can follow and display only the spots on which your radio is tuned.
Of course you can filter by mode and a click on a spot sets your radio up for that particular mode the station is working in and tunes your radio to that station, taking in account frequency, mode, offset, etc, etc.

 Now that we have found a spot we might want to work, we can check DXView for all the details of the spot. Two things i like about DXView: On the main view (image left) you can see if you already worked that DXCC and on which bands. Like this you know immediately if it’s an interesting one for you or not.
On World View you can see where you point your antenna, where the station is in greyline. You can pick the station you want to work and click it. Again, also from World View Commander picks up the frequency and mode and tunes your radio, turns your antenna and DXKeeper will filter your QSO display for this callsign so you can see if you worked this station before or not.

DXKeeper is your QSO logging program. DXKeeper keeps track of your awards progress, uploads your log to eQSL, ClubLog and/or LotW, keeps track of your electronic QSL confirmations.
When making QSO’s you typically want to collect all the stations details from different callbook resources and put this information in your log. DXKeeper supports all this and more.
DXKeeper can collect this information directly from the callbook source, or can use Pathfinder to collect that information.

Pathfinder can connect connects to various callbook sources like QRZ.COM, Buckmaster, DailyDX, etc. but also to Google, the FCC database or any other service you would like to use.
You can easily reconfigure the services already configured in Pathfinder although i never felt the need to do this.
After all, most of use use QRZ.COM although a new service called HamQTH.com is becoming more and more popular.
QRZ.COM is changing its policies for querying the callsign database regularly, driving operators to a subscription-based service.
HamQTH.com promises to be free forever. Let’s see if that is true when traffic picks up and the HamQTH.com hosting infrastructure start having problems coping with the traffic.

Then there is PropView. PropView uses VOACAP, ICEPAC, and IONCAP to predict your minimum and maximum usable frequencies between you and the station you want to work and presents that information in a graphical way.
Also you can analyse propagation by monitoring propagation beacons yourself. PropView will use Commander to tune your radio on certain time intervals to check propagation between you and the beacon.






Then, last but not least, there is WinWarbler. This program is used for digital operations like PSK and RTTY. WinWarbler also supports CW and Phone.
For me, WinWarbler is still a bit of a green field. Mainly because i don’t have any experience with digital modes and/or CW.
Talking to people on the DX Lab Suite mailing list i understand that the quality level of WinWarbler is as high as the rest of the suite. It does everything you want from a HAM Radio software program for digital modes. Some people even use it to send voice macros on Phone bands when in pile-ups. So no microphone anymore. This is completely new for me and i don’t know if i’m ready for this. I mean, i am learning CW using a paddle instead of sending with PC…
Ah, that reminds me, WinWarbler doesn’t decode CW. Dave says that it’s against HAM radio best practices. 😉

The DX Lab Suite is a suite you love or you hate. It’s not so good-looking as HRD, but it’s much more configurable and feature rich. Some say that DXLab is over-engineered and has a steep learning curve. My opinion is that this this only true if you want to use the complete suite on the first day. If you start step-by-step, read the manuals (which can be improved, btw), ask the mailing list (Dave is very dedicated to his software and has a lot of patience) you will get there.
For me, as a beginner HAM, DX Lab Suite has everything i need and more. Every time i think: “I wonder if it does this or that” it turns out that the software is able to do it.
This, the perfect support and unlimited possibilities, and the fact that HRD is now going commercial made me install the DX Lab Suite and never look back.

Using the PC in HAM Radio

There are many different views among the HAM Radio amateurs if you should use a PC along side the radio and if you should, what would you want to do with it and what not. I will give you my opinion on this:

 I use an old Dell laptop running Ham Radio DeLuxe. Why? Initially because I’m a geek and I want to try everything just to see if and how it works.

But I do like HRD and I use it whenever I use my radio, whether for listening or when I go on the air.
HRD is a very versatile program which consists of three separate modules that can be used in combination.

The first module is HAM Radio DeLuxe itself.

HRD is basically a very extensive rig control program. That means that you connect your radio using its CAT interface to your PC and then you can use the PC to control your rig.
Although it’s a nice gadget, I don’t really like to control my radio using software. I prefer to use the menus, buttons and controls of the radio itself, but HRD is different. HRD also serves as the server for any other piece of software that wants to communicate with the radio. HRD has a service running on a TCP port and any software can read and write to this port. One popular application of this is the ability to control the rig remotely using the Internet as transport medium. Like this you can work with your radio from anywhere in the world. I haven’t set this up myself, but I hear people are enjoying this a lot. Maybe I will to this at some point as well.

The I use most is HRD Logbook.

HRD logbook is an integrated solution for logging, following the DX Cluster, operating the radio (using HRD), following propagation progress, recoding audio, etc. HRD Logbook automatically looks up station info from callsign-lookup services among which QRZ.com, automatically (using HRD) pulls the frequency, mode, etc from the radio when entering a log, you can follow and feed (send spots) to the DX Cluster when operating the radio.
When you enter your contacts in the log, your log gets automatically backed up and published (if you configured this) to www.hrdlog.com.
A very handy feature is the alarm function that notifies you if a particular station comes on the air. I haven’t fully explored that function yet. I have seen in other logging programs the ability to notify if a certain DX comes on the air. I would like that in HRD Logbook as well. Maybe it’s there and I just don’t know it yet. Who knows.
There are a couple of features I don’t use in HRD Logbook. Examples are the ability to log to the Logbook of the World (LotW), I don’t use the Rotator Control because I don’t have a rotator and I don’t follow satellites. But the software lets you do all this with just HRD Logbook in combination with HRD.

Third module of the HRD suite is DM780.

DM stands for Digital Mode and what 780 stands for, I have no idea.
DM780, as the name already suggests, is used for working with digital modes. To be able to work with this program the PC needs to be connected to the rig’s audio in and audio out ports somehow. I have done it by just connecting the audio-in and -out of the 6-pin mini-DIN of the DATA port to the MIC and Headphones ports of the laptop.
People tell me that this is not an optimal solution and that i should use interfaces like the RigBlaster and all, but for what i want to do, basically listening and decoding, not sending, it works fine.

A very extensive list of digital modes are available and using DM780 is a great way of learning to recognize the different digital modes and decoding them.
What I don’t recommend is to try to decode CW using DM780. I tried it and it works, but you don’t learn anything from that. CW you should be able to decode yourself. In a later article I will get in to my experiences learning CW. I’m in the middle of learning it, but you just cannot write everything at the same day, can you?

So that’s what I use the PC for when I’m using my radio. There is a lot of software out there. Not only rig-control software, but basically everything you could what. Commercial as well as public domain software. If you take a look here, you will find more than you really need. Most of it is Windows or Linux software. Mac users have to search a bit more, but also for Macs there is some useful stuff out there.

I hope you liked this article. Please give me some feedback. Was it good? Was it bad? What is missing?

My “working conditions”

As i already explained in my previous post, I live in a small flat in a building block where I am not allowed to build large antennas. So let me describe my modest setup I have in my shack.
My “working conditions”.

The Radio

The radio is a standard Kenwood TS-480SAT. I’m a Kenwood fan, but for no particular reason. During the last cycle I owned a Kenwood TS-50 which I exchanged for a Kenwood TS-570D and I got to know these radios, I know more or less how they work and I like them. So the obvious choice for my next radio was the TS-480. It’s a fairly cheap radio and performs as good as many rigs that have a much higher price tag.

I never used Yaesus. I don’t like the audio of them when I tried one, but I assume that you can adjust the audio to your liking like any other rig.

I like the Icoms a lot because of the huge displays they provide. One of the things Kenwood could improve on is the fact that you cannot see any settings on the display. If you want to know what your filer settings are you have to go into menus. If you want to know your DSP settings, menus. If they show something at all it is if a function is switched on or off. NR is an example. You can see if NR is on or off, but you cannot see the level of NR you are applying.
The issue I have with Icoms is their price. They are way too expensive for what they provide as a radio.

If there will ever be a “next” radio it will probably be a Ten-Tec Orion. I hear good things about that radio. However, there are many things that have to improve on the rest of my setup before I can justify a better radio.

The antenna
I am using a Falcon Outback 2000 antenna. This antenna is meant to be for mobile use and covers all bands from 6 to 80m by connecting the base of the antenna to different predefined spots on the coil of the antena.

Now, this antenna has a maximum length of 1.85m. With an antenna this short in theory it is not easy to work the lower bands. However, although the antenna performs best on 10 and 12m (and on 11 which I still occasionally use, I do make contacts all over the world on 20m as well.

I cannot say that I’m the strongest station in pile-ups, but I can participate and by being just a little bit smarter than the majority of the other stations out there, and by tuning the audio of the radio so I produce a strong audio signal, i can get through pile-ups as well. Obviously, when big stations with a lot of power and good antennas are calling at the same time, I lose. But as I said, you don’t always have to be strong if you try to be smart. Sometimes I feel like David fighting the Goliaths of the air waves.

PC

For following the DX Cluster and for logging I use an old Dell laptop running Windows XP and Ham Radio DeLuxe.
I like HRD for it’s extensive range of features, it’s reasonably easy to use and it’s free. At least until now. Two weeks ago the developer of HRD sold the program so we will have to see what the future will bring regarding HRD. I ALWAYS use my PC when I am using the radio and at some point I will try to write an article what I use the PC for and why.