See the full PDF of the Presentation: Build a Digital Shack
See the Windows PowerPoint version: Build a Digital Shack (ppt)
I’m not sure of the percentage, but I suspect that most, if not almost all, ham radio stations of 2018 include a computer, usually connected to their transceiver. A computer is mainly used for:
This short article will discuss the computer / transceiver interface, including rig control and the audio interface.
For modern ham transceivers (1980s and later) with microprocessor control (frequency, modes, etc.), a protocol called CAT (for Computer Aided Tuning or Computer Aided Transceiver – it is unclear which is the real term) allows a computer to remotely control various aspects of a transceiver. CAT can control frequency, transmit, modes, and other controls found on typical transceivers.
Until fairly recently (perhaps 2010), the CAT connection to the computer was via an RS-232 serial interface cable. Sometimes a simple RS-232 cable will work, but not all radios have used standard RS-232 voltages, and level conversion hardware is often required.
There are a number of commercially available boxes that can connect computers to radios, often including the audio connection.
More recently it has become more and more difficult to find a Windows based PC that has an RS-232 port. There are also commercial boxes that will convert the RS-232 signals to a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection. These conversion boxes require a PC software driver so that the PC rig control software will think it is still talking to an RS-232 port.
There are quite a few transceiver to computer interface boxes available – make a Google search to find various models. Currently, I think one of the best price for features value is with the SignaLink USB box from tigertronics.com.
The most modern transceivers will skip the RS-232 connector completely, and provide a direct USB connection from transceiver to computer, along with appropriate drivers.
Rig control via CAT usually uses a different set of commands for each brand of radio. Modern software that uses rig control provide settings that can work with a very large number of radios. Some will even interface to the rig via software protocols with other software. For example, WSJT-X can communicate directly to a radio, or via the CAT interface of Ham Radio Deluxe or DXLab Suite.
If you also want to use digital modes such as PSK31 or FT8, you also need to connect your computer to the audio input and output of your transceiver. Formerly, the audio connections were made directly from the computer’s audio out and in jacks to the radio’s jacks. This works, but is touchy when setting audio levels, and can make it difficult to also get the normal audio output for computer sounds or music.
The current boxes such as the SignaLink and direct USB connection include independent audio pathways, and make the whole process easier.
Modern Ham Rigs can be controlled via a CAT interface. Connecting computer to the radio can be done directly via a computer USB cable, or via one of several interface boxes. The various ham apps that provide rig control provide settings to work with different models and brands of radios.
A PC has become an essential part of any Ham Shack. This article has some tips for selecting an excellent computer for your station.
I think that often ham radio stations end up with old, left-over computers. While that isn’t the worst thing in the world, that can mean you end up with an under-powered computer running obsolete versions of the operating system. Given the many choices for computers available today (early 2018), I think one should put as much thought into the computer your station uses as you put into the radios you have.
I’ve recently replaced the computer I use for my Icom IC-7300 based station. I had been using a 2010 era notebook with a faulty display to drive an old monitor. While it does seem that the notebook’s CPU was fast enough, it was not sleeping and waking up properly, and the narrow monitor was limiting. The disk drive was also a bit slow. So that setup was adequate, but limiting. So I decided the time had come for a new computer.
Just a note: I have degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science, and because that is my profession, I’ve always had cutting edge computer hardware. For my day to day professional use, I’ve preferred Apple Macs for many years. But since my recent return to amateur radio, I’ve concluded that a Windows machine is best for a digital ham shack – mostly based on the availability of more and better software for Windows computers.
So, what are my recommendations for a very good Windows computer for a ham radio station? I’ll start with some basic recommendations for different levels of functionality and performance.
I am going to recommend getting a certified refurbished desktop computer for your shack – details later. But this does mean that it will likely be a year or two old, maybe more. When selecting any computer, you still need to consider performance.
There are four critical parts of a computer that have the most effect on overall computer performance:
You also need to consider the connections supported by your computer.
And finally, consider physical attributes. If you’ve decided on a desktop, note that you don’t have to get a traditional giant case computer (unless you have lots of additional hardware boards to add). There are many slim and ultra-slim computers that are typically much smaller and quieter than a big desktop.
So, what did I end up with as my “new” station computer. It is an HP 8300 Elite Small Form Factor Desktop Computer (Intel Core i5-3570 3.4GHz Quad-Core, 8GB RAM, 2TB SATA,Windows 10 Pro 64-Bit) (Certified Refurbished) which I found on Amazon.com in late 2017 for about $230. I have been extremely pleased with this refurbished computer.
I stumbled on the whole realm of “Small Form Factor” refurbished PCs by accident. Turns out if you search Amazon for “Small Form Factor PC certified refurbished”, you will get a pretty big selection of slightly different configurations of mostly HP, Lenovo, and Dell computers. Certified refurbished generally means that they meet basic standards set by Microsoft, and have been upgraded to the latest version of Microsoft Windows 10. Amazon also monitors the standards of Certified Refurbished dealers.
In early 2018, the prices for these computers ranged from $100 (dual core PassMark 1634, 4Gb RAM, 250GB disk, only USB2, and it would perform okay) to $380 for a current year model (quad core PassMark 9305!, 8Gb RAM, 256Gb SSD). Many choices are available with more than adequate specs for less than $200. These easily outperform any notebook computer in that price range by a lot. All things considered, I find these small factor refurbished computers an amazing deal. Add a nice new HD monitor for around $100, and for well under $400, you can have a really high performance PC for your station.
These small form factor PCs are not really limited in performance or connectivity. They will have plenty of USB ports (hopefully with USB 3.0, but that is not critical for rig control, keyboards, etc.), audio in and out. Some of the models a bit older even have Serial Ports if you have any older rig control hardware.
Depending on your desk size, a Small Form Factor PC can be used horizontally on the desk, or vertically underneath. They generally run very quietly. The do have PCI slots, but are limited to small form factor cards.
Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) has been the gold standard for amateur radio software suites. It is a paid app – $99.95 for the app plus the first year of support. After that, the app still works, but costs $49.95 per year for support and updates.
There is a free version of an older version of HRD that many people still use, but it is not updated.
Apps included with HRD: